Peter T. King
28 November 2005
2 Hours, 9 Minutes
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University
Peter Thomas King, a Republican Congressman from Long Island, New York since 1992 and one of the architects of the Northern Ireland peace process, was born in Manhattan, New York in 1944. His paternal grandparents, whose native language was Irish, both hailed from the small island of Inishbofin, off the coast of Co. Galway. After emigrating to New York City sometime in the 1920s, they married and settled in St. Teresa of Avila parish in Brooklyn’s 9th Ward. King’s maternal grandmother came from a Limerick City family with strong Irish republican sympathies: Margaret (Maggie) McNamara emigrated to New York City and worked as a domestic until she married a Welsh man named Ellis and settled in St. Agnes’ parish on the east side of midtown Manhattan.
The son of New York City police officer Peter E. King, a World War II Army veteran, Peter T. King grew up in Sunnyside, Queens. He had a Catholic education, beginning in local parochial schools (St. Teresa’s in Woodside and, from the age of eleven, St. Pascal Baylonin St. Alban’s), then Brooklyn Preparatory High School. He worked his way through St. Francis College on Remsen Street in Brooklyn, from which he graduated in 1965, with a job at the Railway Express Agency in Manhattan. King obtained a law degree in 1968 from the University of Notre Dame, working summers in Richard Nixon’s law firm alongside Rudolph Giuliani.
The King family, originally Democrats, voted Republican in national elections after the Korean War and supported American involvement in Vietnam. Following in his father’s footsteps, King served as a specialist with the New York National Guard (69th Infantry) from 1968–1973. For four years he worked for the Nassau County government on Long Island, first as a Deputy Nassau County Attorney and then as an Executive Assistant. In 1977 King was General Counsel for Nassau Off-Track Betting, the same year he was elected to his first public office on the Hempstead Town Council. Three years later, he was elected Nassau County Comptroller and made his first trip to Ireland.
During the 1980s, Peter King actively sought to use his position as an elected official in a strongly Irish-American constituency to influence the tense political situation in Northern Ireland. His work in this area, including often controversial support for Sinn Fein and the Irish Northern Aid Committee,(1) was recognized in 1985 when King was selected as the Grand Marshal of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade.(2) King’s perspective on the Troubles is encapsulated in his first novel Terrible Beauty (Roberts Rinehart, 1999), written from the point-of-view of a family with ties to the Irish Republican Army.
After a dozen years as Nassau County Comptroller, Peter King was elected from New York’s Third Congressional District to the United States House of Representatives in 1992. There his interest in Ireland continued and he served as a member of the Congressional Ad Hoc Committee for Irish Affairs. In 1994 King crossed party lines to support President Bill Clinton’s historic decision to grant Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, whom King had known since 1981, a visa to travel to the United States. Thereafter King served as an important liaison between the Irish republicans and the British government. Although he was Gerry Adams’ American host on several occasions and strongly supported Adams in the American press, King publicly advocated disarmament and denounced the IRA when it broke a 1994 ceasefire. King accompanied Clinton on his 1995 and 1998 trips to Northern Ireland during the peace process that culminated in the Good Friday Agreement (10 April 1998), fictionalizing his experiences in two semi-autobiographical novels, Deliver Us From Evil (Roberts Rinehart, 2002) and Vale of Tears (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2004).
King met his wife, Rosemary Wiedl, in 1965 while at the University of Notre Dame Law School. They raised two children, Sean and Erin, in Seaford, New York. At the time of this interview, King was a leading Republican Congressman, Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, “a strong supporter of the war against international terrorism, both at home and abroad,” and “co-author of the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 (H.R 4437)” which, according to King’s official website, “is the most comprehensive legislation against illegal immigration to pass the House in two decades.”(3)
Excerpt No. 1
“This is what I grew up listening to”Disc 1, 01:46–04:40
Transcription of Excerpt No. 1
MM: Do you remember your grandparents?
PK: Oh yeah, I remember them very well. I was fortunate in that my father’s mother and father lived into their mid-90s, so I was in my, well into, my 30s before they died and my grandmother, I was – on my mother’s side, she lived also to her mid-90s – so I was almost 40 when she died. And my father’s mother – he was, my mother’s father, he died when he was about 75 and I was about 19 then. So I knew them all very well. My father’s mother was born in Galway, in Inishbofin, and she came over here, I guess, as a late teenager, early 20s. His father was also raised in Inishbofin but actually was born in the United States. He was born in Boston and then his parents sent him back to Ireland when he was 7 and he didn’t come back here until he was somewhere in his 20s. So he always considered himself to be, to have been raised in Ireland. He certainly had a very, eh, heavy Irish brogue. And then, and both my father’s mother and father, both of them spoke Irish, and they spoke English also, but I mean English was their main language but they could speak Irish fluently and, in fact, this is one of those things, you know, that you kick yourself later on but as a kid – my father’s parents, and when their brothers and sisters would come, they would all speak in Irish and I just, you know, didn’t pay any attention. But you wish now you could have picked up some of that. They spoke it very fluently. It was not the Aran Islands they’re from; Inishbofin is just north, I guess, of the Aran Islands but, in some ways, it was even more remote than the Aran Islands. And again, they spoke English and Irish. My mother’s mother was from Limerick, and her family was actually an IRA family. They had been in the IRA during the 1916 rebellion.(4) I think her uncle, my grandmother’s brother, was in jail. And so they were a very Irish republican family. My mother’s father, who was actually a Protestant from Wales – he said Wales, I think it was right on the English-Welsh border but he didn’t want to say he was English, didn’t want to say he was Irish, he was Welsh – so I don’t know exactly what he was. He, he was like the, the character of the family, in that he was always – not fighting, I shouldn’t say that – but he was always staking out a different position from everyone else. So, I do remember as a kid hearing a number of arguments between my grandmother and grandfather about the Irish and the British, but he would make a point of saying that he wasn’t English, so he was – and he claimed he was from Wales and [that] he was more of a Celt than she was, and so I heard all of these ramifications about all – this is what I grew up listening to.
Excerpt No. 2
On his maternal grandmother, Maggie McNamaraDisc 1, 16:13–19:45
Transcription of Excerpt No. 2
MM: And who would you say was your biggest influence when you were a child?
PK: Ah, I’d say it was sort of collective. I – actually, my mother’s mother had, as far as the Irish part, my mother’s mother had a big influence because she was always talking about Ireland. My father’s mother and father hardly ever spoke about Ireland. They really found it, in the way they – certainly my father’s mother – the way she described it – what was the movie? Men of Aran or people of –
MC: The Man of Aran.(5)
PK: Yeah, that was it. Which was just cold, desolate – that’s the way she described Ireland. She never said that, but to her it was poor, it was barren. She had moved – she never went back, never wanted to go back – she didn’t dislike it, just she had no feeling toward it at all. My father’s father was more of a romantic. I don’t know why; he just said it was great to be there. "I love being in Ireland." That type thing. I don’t know, he never got into details, it was just like a great place to be for him. But my mother’s mother was very descriptive. She knew about Irish history and she, again, big with the IRA, she loved de Valera,(6) hated Michael Collins,(7) all these – she was like, everything was black and white with her. But she was very opinionated. And she hated the British. Which used to be great on Christmas night – I don’t know if they still do it, the Queen used to give a speech on Christmas night, a worldwide speech, and my grandfather, who had no interest in it at all, would put it on just to annoy her. So you have all this – there’d be a fight on Christmas night between my grandmother and grandfather about the Queen going on, on radio. Anyway, but she was – I heard much more about Ireland from her, and she was also much more Catholic. She was very much into, you know, religion and, looking at it now, I think it was more of a nationalism than religion. I think she was Catholic because the British were Protestant, as much as anything else, but it was very – my father’s father was Catholic more in a devout way, and my father’s mother – really unusual for a woman of that age – was not really religious at all. I mean, she used to always be saying, "Ah, the priests want us to have kids, let them pay for them" and all that kind of stuff, which, you know – today, you know, most women would say that today, I guess – but in that generation it really struck me because my mother was, "Ah, we’re gonna get cursed. I hope God didn’t hear her say that" and all that, you know. Because my mother carried much more of the old time religion, even than my father’s mother did. My father’s mother never – she was not into any of that.
MC: So you are saying that your mother’s mother was one of the biggest influences. Let’s just –
PK: As far as the Irish aspect would be. Yeah.
MC: Let’s name her.
PK: Oh, I'm sorry. Margaret. Margaret McNamara. They called her Maggie.
MC: Margaret, Maggie. And how much of her – did she live near you, when you were growing up?
PK: Yeah, she –
MC: Did you see a lot of her?
PK: She lived four blocks away, yeah, so we saw her all the time, yeah.
MC: And what was your mother’s relationship with her? Did they get along?
PK: Oh, they got along fine. They, they, they were great. They were like, eh, you know, they got along. In fact, I couldn’t believe – like my mother was very opinionated and she would actually listen to my grandmother, as far as how hot the house should be, and what food you should give to us, and all that kind of stuff, which, you know, it was interesting. Interesting dynamic there. No, they were very close, and also she had a lot of sisters and they’d all be out at the house and, at the apartment, they’d be coming by, so we had much more contact. Of all the grandparents, much more contact with my mother’s mother’s family. Even just the other night I was at the wake of, actually, a cousin of mine, she was only 35, she died, but they were all there. I went there and said, "My God, they’re all still here," you know? They come from everywhere, these McNamaras. They show up at every event.
Excerpt No. 3
Maggie McNamara and educationDisc 1, 24:03–27:50
Transcription of Excerpt No. 3
MC: I want to come back again, I’m sorry.
PK: It’s alright.
MC: Just because it’s important, historically. Maggie McNamara. When she came to the United States from Limerick –
PK: Limerick City, yeah.
MC: Do you know what she did here in the city? Did she come –
PK: Oh, she was a domestic. She came here as a kid, I think she was 14, 15, 16? Something like that. And she had – a couple of older sisters were here and she just went with them. Well, she was – yeah, she was a domestic.
MC: A domestic, and –
PK: Yeah, I think she may have been a maid, a cleaning lady, nothing, you know.
MC: Until she got married and raised a family?
PK: Let’s see. Four kids.
MC: Because the – the reason I’m asking, your mother went through, had a lot of education. She went to Catholic school, you mentioned that earlier.
PK: Yeah, she had a scholarship to Hunter College but, because she was a girl, she didn’t take it.
MC: So your mother – her mother emphasized that her daughter should get it?
PK: Yeah, she was big on that. I don’t know if she knew why, but she was big for education, I mean she really, she really encouraged my mother to go through school. In fact, when my mother was going to high school, my mother was like – I think she graduated, and she got the excellence award from grammar school, and – but she also had a scholarship to a, I guess, to Girls Commercial.(8) I don’t even know if that’s still around, but anyway, it was called Girls Commercial then – oh, Julia Richmond, maybe (9) – anyway, whatever it was – anyway, I think it was Girls Commercial. Anyway, some commercial school. And my mother thought it made more sense to get a job. My grandmother insisted she go to academic, which was Cathedral, the scholarship school for girls.(10) They took like one or two kids from each school, I think it was. So she encouraged her. You know, she never used it. And my grandmother somehow thought it was, you know, she really pushed education and she was very well read, very well spoken, my grandmother. Again, she could be, she had some biases, and she could be narrow, and everything else, but she had a – she was very well spoken; she, I guess, only went to the 6th or 7th grade or something, but if you heard her speak, she was, she used big – and not intentionally – she used very big words, and perfect grammar, and all that stuff.
MC: Do you – and this is just speculation – but do you think her experiences as a domestic, working for wealthy people – wealthy, educated people – affected her, affected what she wanted for her own children in life?
PK: I don’t think so. Because I never heard her saying anyone should do anything. It was almost like education was the thing. I don’t know why. But she never really – I mean, she insisted my mother get an education but it was never thought my mother would get any high paying job. And my mother had three brothers. They all went to high school. You know, one of them actually died; he was young, he got sick, he was 25. But no, I just think, I don’t know if she ever thought it through. Somehow, maybe it was even just the whole Irish – like in school they yelled at you to learn, so therefore you should learn as much as you can. But I don’t think she ever thought it through, that this would do A and B and you’ll get to C.
MC: And what did her sons do, then, the two who survived?
PK: One is Jack, who ended up – actually he didn’t go to college but he ended up being like a, an economist. He wound up working for different companies:, American Iron and Steel; he worked for Monsanto; and he’s still like – almost late 70s now – and he’s still in like – he’s retired but he does some work at home. And he did very well for himself. And my other uncle was a salesman. He was not academically inclined. Actually he was wounded pretty badly in the war, I’ll give him credit for that. But he’s a nice guy. He and my mother are still fighting to this day. I mean my mother’s 88 and he’s 81, and they still argue over everything, so some things never change.
Excerpt No. 4
Views on ImmigrationDisc 1, 01:07:09 through Disc 2, 02:12
Transcription of Excerpt No. 4
MC: You’re involved in immigration reform, is that correct?
PK: Yeah, actually I am, primarily border security because the homeland security committee (11) only deals with security along the border. It doesn’t deal with overall immigration policy; that’s the judiciary committee. And I’m not saying that to draw a line. When the homeland security committee was formed, they actually have all these demarcations of what we can do and not do, so I have border security. So if a person makes it five miles across the border I have nothing to say about it. But I do security along the border. And I do have a bill on that right now, which is gonna tighten up security at the border. And I can actually, if you want, just discuss immigration. My views on it is that I have always been a strong supporter of immigration. I was never even that concerned about illegal immigration. But certainly my experience in New York is, with, [that] illegal immigrants for the most part, come in and they become good Americans. But also they take over some bad neighborhoods, they build them, restructure them and they bring in a real sense of dynamism. My views began to change somewhat after September 11th in that there’s a question of security. And that’s who’s getting in. I have no animosity toward an illegal alien, I have no – but there are social issues in the southwest, I have to say, which we don’t have in New York because we can absorb so many people. But you do have small communities along the border who, if I listen to the Congressmen and the Senators, are almost overwhelmed by having large numbers of immigrants – the local hospitals can’t take them, the schools. So, there is that issue, which we don’t have in New York. But my main concern now is that – having people come in the country who we don’t know who they are – and that’s the whole Al-Qaeda and terrorist thing. So, to that extent, my views have hardened a bit about immigration.
MM: And how does being the grandson of immigrants influence your thinking?
PK: Yeah, it’s a combination of being – I mean, I grew up, again – certainly in my mother’s family, and also some of my father’s family, so I knew immigrants all my life. Railway Express(12) was, again, as many, I think – it seemed like as many immigrants as non-immigrants. Certainly, it was close to being 50/50. Being involved with the whole Irish peace process, you’re dealing with immigrants. And, just being in New York, I mean you can’t – you know, anywhere you go, what is it? Forty percent of New York City is foreign born? I mean, so it’s not even – I’m not trying to say I’m this great liberal, but it never even meant that much to me, one way or the other. In fact, to me, if a guy or a woman is willing to pack up and leave, and come over here with no money, it takes a lot of nerve. And I’m a guy who didn’t leave New York until I was 21! I never left the state – actually, I went to New Jersey twice – but the thought of actually leaving everything and just coming over – if you have that much gumption, I mean, you’re gonna make a contribution. Again, I think it’s probably what happens in NY. It’s a little different in the southwest, where you have people coming across the border, and then it’s a back and forth thing; also you have the whole security issue, but immigration itself, I – I identify with immigrants, so, but not in any great philosophical way, it’s just almost reflexive. And also, politically, there was never any pressure in New York that you would feel to be anti-immigrant because if you did that half the people in the crowd would be immigrants themselves, or their mother and father were, or their grandparents were, or they had some illegal cousin living in their basement or something.
Excerpt No. 5
On being Grand Marshal of the 1985 New York St. Patrick’s Day ParadeDisc 2, 09:00–13:26
Transcription of Excerpt No. 5
MM: And what was being Grand Marshal like?
PK: It was, believe me, it did not mean much to me as a, as an honor because you realize that with luck anyone could get it, or not get it. To me, it was, the whole thing was about the North [of Ireland] and that’s what it became structured around. People who wanted me to get it were supporting me because they were very aggressive in the North, and people who were against me [it] was primarily because – like, for instance, the Irish government boycotted the parade. Garret FitzGerald(13) boycotted the parade. Cardinal O’Connor(14) didn’t know what he was going to do, and in, and I don’t mean that – he was pondering it, and he and I had a meeting (he actually was still Archbishop O’Connor then) and – because Cardinal Cook(15) had refused to meet Michael Flannery and everything.(16) So O’Connor agreed to shake hands with me on the steps of the cathedral. But the best thing that happened to me was [that] Cardinal O’Connor – and I say this in the best sense of the word – was a hater. And once he said he was going to review the parade, the British and Irish governments really attacked him. So now – since of course the enemy of my enemy is my friend, or something, the enemy, yeah – so anyway, since I was fighting with the Irish and British governments, I suddenly became Cardinal O’Connor’s best friend. We actually forged a very close relationship, and he would basically do anything for me after that. And it went from being very, really – I remember having a meeting in his office one night, and it was like dim lights, and this was when he was deciding to review the parade, and we were going back and forth, and so we were not overly friendly at all, but then once he got attacked, then he embraced me, we became great friends after that and, really, actually, very good friends. I found him to be [a] very, very interesting type guy. That was a case of, the British government and the Irish establishment were not used to being challenged at all. In fact, I’m just reading a book now, it came out, out in England by the guy who was the British ambassador in the late ‘90s to New York, and he was saying how the British government was so caught off-guard when Clinton started dealing with Sinn Fein, because the British government never had to deal with members of Congress before – they just would deal with the Secretary of State, or their own power group – so they were being totally out-flanked by people like myself and [Gerry] Adams and [Martin] McGuiness.(17) We really, we were running circles around the British Embassy. And as a result of that I got tons of free meals at the British Embassy because then they started inviting us down there, and wining and dining us. And it changed their whole attitude. So, I’m sort of going in circles, right?
MM: No, not really
PK: Anyway, being Grand Marshal, it didn’t – I mean, it was great for the day, and all that, but really that was not the reason I – I was like 41 years old and most of these guys are like 70 years old when they become Grand Marshal, so it was really done for making the most out of the event, and I had to make sure I was never co-opted, because from the moment I got elected, they were trying to make me more respectable. And there used to be like an official Irish Grand Marshal breakfast somewhere, I don’t know where it was, some hotel, but Michael Flannery had his at O’Lunney’s restaurant, so I had mine at O’Lunney’s.(18) Again, these reasons sound small but the idea was to show that I was not going to be co-opted into that because I didn’t want anything to affect the message I was trying to send. And that was to really focus attention on Northern Ireland.
MC: Do you feel it did?
PK: Yeah, I do, I mean, I got – I saved all the press clippings, so I could see, and it did, especially over there it got a lot of coverage. It got national coverage here, and it – it did. It was not – it’s not a turning point at all but it was very significant, yeah. Especially – Flannery got it two years before but it was easy to caricature Mike – and it was unfair but it was easy to do – as this old Irish romantic, 85 years old, what did he know, he still thought he was back in Tipperary, and back in 1921, and all that kind of stuff. But to actually have someone who is 41 years old, an elected official, a Republican, a graduate of Notre Dame, like [with] all these things I should be the type of educated – even though you two can tell I’m not that educated – I can be that type of educated, second-generation Irish-American who has transcended all of this. And instead, I was making the same argument in ’85 that Flannery had made two years before and that made it hard for the British to really counter. And then they were sending guys over to debate me on television, guys from the British Parliament and everything else, and the fact that I was able to hold my own, I think it had an impact, too.
- Meaghan McKeown [MM]
- Marion R. Casey [MC]
- Congressman Peter T. King, 28 November 2005. Photo by Marion R. Casey.
- Gerry Adams, Peter King, and Danny Morrison in Belfast, Northern Ireland, January 1984. King was Comptroller of Nassau County (Long Island, New York) at the time. Photo by Pacemaker Press, Belfast; courtesy of Congressman Peter T. King.
- December 2005 constituent newsletter from the office of Congressman Peter T. King. Courtesy of Marion R. Casey.
- Sinn Fein is the political party for the Irish republican movement in Ireland and the Irish Northern Aid Committee is an American support group for Irish republican families.
- King’s selection also ended Dorothy Hayden Cudahy’s bid that same year to be the first woman Grand Marshal of the historic New York City parade.
- See Biography at United States Congressman Pete King (http://peteking.house.gov/), accessed 16 April 2007.
- The Easter Rising in Ireland occurred 24-30 April 1916.
- Man of Aran (dir. Robert Flaherty, 1934).
- Eamon de Valera (1882-1975), a major figure in modern Irish politics, who served as both prime minister and president of Ireland.
- Michael Collins (1890-1922), a colleague and political rival of de Valera, assassinated during the Irish Civil War.
- Girls Commercial High School, now Prospect Heights High School, located on Classon Avenue and Union Street in Brooklyn, New York.
- Julia Richmond High School located on 2nd Avenue and 67th Street in Manhattan, New York.
- Cathedral High School, an all girl Catholic college preparatory high school, located on East 56th Street in Manhattan, New York.
- Peter T. King was Chairman of the United States House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security (http://homeland.house.gov/) for the 109th Congress.
- The Railway Express Agency was “Yesterday’s Federal Express.” Trains Magazine, 5 June 2006.
- Garret FitzGerald (b. 1926) was Taoiseach of Ireland 1982-1987.
- John Cardinal O’Connor (1920-2000) was the eighth Archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York.
- Terence Cardinal Cooke (1920-1983) was Cardinal O’Connor’s predecessor.
- Michael Flannery (1902-1994) had helped to found the Irish Northern Aid Committee in 1970. His election as Grand Marshal was controversial because Flannery was an open supporter of the Irish Republican Army. Cooke did in fact meet with Flannery but not on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral as is traditional when the St. Patrick’s Day Parade passes it. See Martin Gottlieb, “Politics and Tradition Mix as Irish March,” New York Times, 18 March 1983, p. B2
- Gerry Adams (b. 1948) and Martin McGuinness (b. 1950) are both Irish republican politicians. Adams is President of Sinn Fein and McGuinness is the Sinn Fein MP for Mid-Ulster.
- O’Lunney’s is an Irish pub restaurant on West 45th Street in Manhattan. In 1985 it was on West 46th Street.