Robert J. Scally
20 November 2006
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University
Robert James Scally (b. 1937, Queens, New York) is the youngest of four children born to Anne and Patrick Scally, Irish immigrants from counties Roscommon and Sligo, respectively. Scally grew up in the Richmond Hill section of Queens, where he attended Holy Child Jesus School. There, he met lifelong friends Dave Von Ronk (1) and Richard Fox; together they became enamored with jazz and Scally began his first career as a musician.
In 1957, after playing trumpet professionally for several years, Scally made an impulsive decision to return to school and study physics. He spent one semester at Queens College, City University of New York, before accepting a scholarship to the University of Michigan. Scally quickly became discouraged with his work in physics, but became interested in studying classics. He returned to Queens College, where he completed a degree in classics and history.
Scally then accepted a scholarship at Princeton University, where he intended to continue to study classics. Upon his arrival, he took a seminar with Arno Mayer (2), which inspired him to change his focus to modern European history. Under Mayer’s supervision, Scally began a dissertation on the Lloyd George coalition (3), which sent him abroad for the first time in his life. In 1963, he and his wife Dena, a fellow musician whom he had met at Queens College and married earlier that year, spent eight months in England and Ireland while he worked on that project. In 1967 Scally received a Ph.D. in History from Princeton.
Bob Scally began his professional career in the History Department at New York University and became increasingly interested in Irish history. He happened upon the papers of the Quit Rent Office in Dublin while working on another project in 1981. These documents formed the basis of his book, The End of Hidden Ireland: Rebellion, Eviction and Emigration, 1832–1848 (1995), which describes emigration from the Irish townland of Ballykilcline in County Roscommon during those years.
Scally also served as the inaugural director of Glucksman Ireland House, which opened at New York University in 1993 (4). This program, established out of the initiative of NYU President L. Jay Oliva (5) and the philanthropy of Lewis L. Glucksman and Loretta Brennan Glucksman, developed into a vibrant academic and cultural program under Scally’s leadership. Since 1993, an Irish studies program has evolved with an enrollment of more than six hundred students annually, including a number who graduate with a Minor in Irish Studies. As Director of Ireland House and the Irish Studies program, Scally organized NYU’s 1995 International Conference on Hunger, which marked the 150th anniversary of the Irish Famine.
Professor Scally formally retired in 2006, although he continues to teach an undergraduate seminar for Ireland House. At the time of this interview, he and his wife lived in Sag Harbor, N.Y., where he was working on a novel based on the events he described in The End of Hidden Ireland.
Excerpt No. 1
Becoming an historian00:18–01:35
Transcription of Excerpt No. 1
RY: I’m going to start again by asking you why you became a historian.
RS: It really was an accident, really. I was a musician at the time, and I was coming back from a wedding with myself and a bass player by the name of Nick Romanelli. And he wanted me to drop him off at Queens College in Queens so he could take a course in counterpart and harmony. And I had a 1950 Ford at the time, and bass players and drummers never have their own car, so I drove him up to Queens College. I expected to wait for fifteen or twenty minutes when – well, a long time passed, forty-five minutes, so I decided to walk into Queens College. By the time I walked out, I had registered for three courses that night: calculus I, English composition I, which was required, and anthropology. By the next term, by the February following, I was at the University of Michigan, studying physics, which was my – this was 1957, the year of Sputnik (6), and they were handing out scholarships like the Russians were in New Jersey. So that’s what I started out intending to do, but things changed.
Excerpt No. 2
Anne Regan’s return to Ireland14:39’17:01
Transcription of Excerpt No. 2
RS: We had gone to Ireland to meet my mother, who was working for American Airlines at the time . She came back for the first time in forty years during that visit in Roscommon. Well, we picked her up in Shannon Airport. Everyone in the American Airlines knew her because she had been working the Sky Chef (7), the food department for American Airlines, for years. And, as she was getting off, she was being escorted off the plane by the pilot, referring to her as “Annie.” And she was all dolled up. She didn’t know what to expect after all that time. Well, we drove from Shannon to her – where she came from, near a town called Ballaghaderreen, in the western part of Roscommon, and Lisacul, a townland about four miles or so outside Ballaghaderreen, in a rented car. In fact, it was an Austin Mini, you know, old – Austin’s tiny car. Pouring rain. My wife is sitting in the passenger seat, and my mother behind me. And we had to stop because of cows coming down this – a lane that she had imagined, and told us, was a very broad lane – tree covered and so on. Well, she had to kind of reduce it down to a quite narrow – just enough for a car and one cow at a time. Don’t ask why. And as the cows were walking by – they seemed immense, sitting in this car – a man, driving the cows, came behind them in the rain, using a burlap bag to cover his head. Not the best rain cover you can – and, just to say hello, I opened the window and said hello. He stuck his head in the window with the burlap bag, and he completely soaked me. Completely. And he looked at my mother in the back seat and said, “Oh, Annie, how’ve you been?” Forty years. Stunned, she had no idea who he was, not at all. White hair, blue eyes. She was about seventy at the time, and he was about the same. Childhood friends, you know. But in his life, nothing had changed. Nothing. So he recognized – he would remember even at eighty years later. It was stunning. And everything was like that in the homecoming, you know.
Excerpt No. 3
The smell of history26:02–28:09
Transcription of Excerpt No. 3
RS: They are the Quit Rent Office papers. The lands owned by the Crown in Ireland, not great estates necessarily – some of them very, very tiny little estates – where the rent was going, first going to local collectors of rent, sent to the Quit Rent Office, and sent from the Quit Rent Office to the royal family: Queen Victoria, in a sense, pocketing these rents that women were selling their hair for.
And I thought that was an interesting thing to follow up on, so I went to Dublin – we were going there anyway – we went to Dublin, and opened these papers that hadn’t been opened since they were wrapped. In heavy brown paper, you’ve seen those, tied in pink ribbons, which was standard British bureaucracy – they measured out the ribbon, then everyone had to keep account of how much it cost and all that. Anyway, beautifully wrapped, very well kept, in what was then the National Archives (8) before they moved them, like five or ten years ago. And so I had no idea what I was going to find, and opened the first one – they were about the size of a pillow – and untied the ribbons and the knots. You could tell by the knots that they may have been untied many years ago, but they hadn’t been loosened since then.
Opened it up, and then opened the paper. And there was three or four stacks of folded papers. And the thing that struck me about that, I may have told you this before – it was unmistakable: the aroma that came [out] of those wrapped papers was the smell of peat – the peat fires that had remained in that paper all those years. Because most of these – not most, but a lot – a lot of these papers were letters written by the tenants to the Quit Rent Office asking for relief from the rent, especially during the Famine. And those letters were the basis of the book [The End of Hidden Ireland].
- Rachel Yood [RY]
- Marion R. Casey [MC]
- Robert J. Scally. Courtesy of Glucksman Ireland House NYU.
- Bob Scally on the pennywhistle at his NYU retirement party, May 2006. Courtesy of Glucksman Ireland House NYU.
- “Gino Scalli” a.k.a. Bob Scally on trumpet, in his raincoat, with a pick-up jazz band on the “Riverboat Shuffle” plying New York City’s East River circa 1956. Courtesy of Robert J. Scally.
- An historian in the making, circa 1947, on the “My Buddy” (“The Doughboy”) WWI monument in Forest Park, Richmond Hill, Queens, NY. Courtesy of Robert J. Scally.
- Bob Scally with his father, Patrick Scally, outside the Masonic Temple in Richmond Hill, Queens, NY circa late 1940s. Courtesy of Robert J. Scally.
- Bob Scally with his mother, Anne Regan Scally, on Jamaica Avenue, Queens, NY circa late 1940s. Courtesy of Robert J. Scally.
- Eighth grade class photo from Holy Child Jesus school in Richmond Hill, Queens, NY, April 1950. Bob Scally is in the first row, right seat. Courtesy of Robert J. Scally.
- Patrick Scally, circa 1920s. Courtesy of Robert J. Scally.
- Anne Regan, circa 1920s. Courtesy of Robert J. Scally.
- Anne Regan and Patrick Scally on their wedding day in 1928, New York City. Courtesy of Robert J. Scally.
- Mary Regan Cooley, circa 1920s. Courtesy of Robert J. Scally.
- Elizabeth Regan, circa 1920s. Courtesy of Robert J. Scally.
- L. Jay Oliva (President of New York University) presents Mary Robinson (President of Ireland) with Robert J. Scally’s book The End of Hidden Ireland at the Ireland House International Conference on Hunger, 19 May 1995. Courtesy of Glucksman Ireland House NYU.
- Dave Van Ronk (1936–2002) later became a prominent figure in the Greenwich Village folk music revival of the 1960s. Bob Dylan recalls meeting Van Ronk, who worked at the Gaslight nightclub, and later living in his apartment in his memoir, Chronicles, Volume I (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004).
- Arno J. Mayer (1926– ) was a prominent historian of modern European history. He began teaching at Princeton in 1961, only a few years before Scally’s arrival.
- David Lloyd George (1863–1945) served as the Liberal Party Prime Minister of Britain from 1916–1922, during and after World War I. The coalition government he headed included members of the Liberal, Conservative, and Labour parties.
- Glucksman Ireland House, New York University.
- L. Jay Oliva (1933– ), an historian of eighteenth-century Russia and Europe, served as New York University’s fourteenth president from 1991’2002.
- The Soviet Union successfully launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, on 4 October 1957. This launch is commonly credited as the beginning of the beginning of the “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union.
- American Airlines created Sky Chefs, Inc. to cater its flights in 1942. In 1993, German airline caterer LSG acquired twenty-five percent of Sky Chefs’ stock, and the company began marketing under the name LSG Sky Chefs.
- At the time, these papers were actually housed in the Four Courts in Dublin. In 1988, these records were transferred to the new National Archives of Ireland, Bishop Street, Dublin where, at the time of this interview, they formed part of the collection called “Records of Other Government Offices and State Agencies.”