11 November 2009
2 hours, 30 minutes, 54 seconds
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University
Peter Quinn (b. 1947) is a second-generation Irish-American writer and historian. He grew up in the Bronx and attended Manhattan College and Fordham University for history. From 1979 to 1982 he worked as a speechwriter for New York Governor Hugh Carey, and from 1982 to 1985, he was a speechwriter for New York Governor Mario Cuomo. During this time, he began researching and for a novel based on the 1863 Civil War Draft Riots in New York and meeting with other aspiring writers such as William Kennedy and Frank McCourt as part of the First Friday Club. In 1985 he became Editorial Director for Time, Inc. His first novel, Banished Children of Eve, was published in 1994 and won an American Book Award (1995). He is also the author of Hour of the Cat (2005), a novel about the eugenics movement, and Looking For Jimmy (2007), a non-fiction study of Irish-American identity.
Excerpt No. 1
Writing Banished Children of EveDisc 1, 60:53–62:54
Transcription of Excerpt No. 1
PQ: So I started writing this book on October 12, 1988. I got up early, I started getting up early and going in at five – I’d get up at five-thirty and go in to Time, Inc., you know, I’d be at my desk by seven and work for two hours. And I did it for three and a half years, and after three and a half years, on the Feast of the Epiphany, 1992, I had a manuscript, Banished Children of Eve. And I never talked to an agent, I never talked to a publisher, but I was friends with Tom Flanagan, who was a wonderful, wonderful… the most learned man I ever met, a tremendous writer. And I’d gotten to know him through the Irish-American Historical Society, we’d become friends.
LA: The Year of the French, right?
PQ: Yeah, he won the National Book Award for The Year of the French, and then Tenants of Time. He wrote a trilogy… incredibly learned, and knew Irish history better than anybody – not just the facts, but the nuances, you know, a good friend of Seamus Heaney. And I kind of had to debate myself, can I subject somebody to an 800-page manuscript? And he took it, and he read it, and he wrote me a letter that I have to this day, and I treasure, and he gave it to his agent, and she accepted.
LA: I didn’t know that was the path.
PQ: So that was the – yeah, Tom Flanagan. I’d probably still be walking up and down Fifth Avenue, trying to get people to [inaudible] if it wasn’t for Tom Flanagan. And that book to me was – the one thing I felt writing it was, I was raised with no sense of the epic that my ancestors had been part of, the sense of Irish Americans as part of the transformation of Western society, the cultural dislocation that went on, and the attempt to reorganize. That this was an epic experience, and it was not there. So that if I could just give people the sense of, “You’re part of an epic,” you know, that they would wake up to that to take the thing seriously.
Excerpt No. 2
The Post-Famine ExperienceDisc 2, 12:22–15:15
Transcription of Excerpt No. 2
PQ: The Catholic Church was so important to this post-famine experience – which is one of the marks to me that it’s – the post-famine experience is over. You know, whatever had to be done was done; it wasn’t all done perfectly, but the group survived, they built schools, they pushed their children… you know, it’s unimaginable, the heights that they reached, if you look at where they started.
LA: Certain observers – scholars – say that the whole political and religious hierarchy kept the Irish down. In Rainbow’s End, Steven P. Erie talks about the machines, the organizations, really didn’t propel the Irish into the middle class, it really kept them longer at the blue-collar, white-collar, lower-income – ?
PQ: I would disagree. I would feel that given the trauma of the 1840s and what had happened in Ireland, and then this transfer, that what was most necessary to Irish-American experience was reorganization, was regaining their footing, being in charge of their destinies. I mean, they could all scatter and then be proselytized, but… when I debated Noel Ignatiev(1) on the radio about how the Irish became white, I said, “You have the story on its head. It’s how the Irish stayed Irish.” They were white in a sense, you know, if they were interested in blending in, they could convert, do all sorts of things. But they were besieged, there was not a fiction in their minds, and the important thing was reorganization. There’s a book, won the Pulitzer Prize, Nation Beneath Their Feet,(2) about the post-slavery experience in blacks, and I was really taken by it, because he has to – he has to guess a lot about, you know… of course these people had organizations, and then they were freed, and the important thing in their post-experience is organization. He said that’s the really key – because the Church –
LA: For blacks?
PQ: For blacks.
PQ: And I said that’s so interesting to me because the word I grew up with was “the organization”, “stay organized.” And then, you know, how could the Irish have done better than they’ve done?
LA: Yeah. The Irish stayed in the cities longer than other ethnic groups, they stayed married to one another longer than other ethnic groups, they just – that clan – that clannishness, for lack of a better word – organization – kept them whole until they…
PQ: Right, until they don’t need it anymore, and that you know… I have the feeling, what really keeps ethnic groups together, I think, is not self-love, it’s not like people love… like people talk about, oh, the Jews, they hang together. Well, I have a lot of Jewish friends; they fight like nuts, the way everybody’s fighting with each other. But there’s the enemy. As long as somebody out there – that’s what keeps a group together: we have somebody who’s trying to keep us down. So I think with the Kennedys’ election, everybody kind of looked around and said that, “They’re gone.”
- Sara Bradshaw (SB)
- Linda Dowling Almeida (LA)
- Author of How the Irish Became White (1995).
- A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggle in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (2003), Steven Hahn