Beyond the Waterfront

By Fisher, James T. | Commonweal, July 13, 2007 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Waterfront


Fisher, James T., Commonweal


Looking for Jimmy

A Search for Irish America

Peter Quinn

The Overlook Press, $26.95, 320 pp.

You don't have to be Irish or Irish-American to love this book," promises Frank McCourt in his above-the-title dust-jacket blurb for Peter Quinn's Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America. More than a decade has passed since the publication of McCourt's lugubriously enchanted memoir Angela's Ashes, whose astonishing popularity--think Irish near-equivalent of the Da Vinci Code phenomenon-remains a specter haunting the genre of Irish-American autobiography. There is a hint of self-effacing mischief in McCourt's paraphrase of the punch line ("You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's") from a ubiquitous 1960s ad campaign that punctured ethnic determinism while touting a Brooklyn bakery's legendary rye bread. The habit of non-Irish critics to "canonize" the famous opening lament from Angela's Ashes ("Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood") remains a subject of both mirth and some agitation among Irish-American writers.

As Peter Quinn assures readers of Looking for Jimmy: "contra the assertion" of his "good friend" McCourt, he was "blessed as well as burdened, graced more than cursed" by a decidedly nonmiserable upbringing in the comforting if "prosaic" postwar Bronx of "ethnic middle-class aspirants and arrivees," far from the poverty and perpetual damp of Limerick where Brooklyn-born McCourt spent his childhood. The son of college-educated, devoutly yet unfanatically Catholic parents who met at the 1928 St. Patrick's Day dance at Our Lady of Solace parish, Quinn, like his father--a former one-term Democratic congressman turned highly respected jurist--attended Manhattan College and Fordham University; stories he published in a well-known Jesuit weekly led to a successful career as a speechwriter "mining words for mouths not my own," including the mouths of politicians (New York governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo) and of CEOs at Time Warner, from which Quinn recently retired as editorial director.

Like those of his Irish-American contemporaries Tim Russert and Chris Matthews, who also enjoyed early stints working for Irish-American politicians (Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill respectively), Quinn's labors in service of a global media empire only heightened his passion for the localism of Irish political lore and legend. Unlike his celebrity counterparts, however, Quinn has a devotion to Irish and Irish-American history and literature that is rooted in a genuine calling: he surely reads more Irish history than most professional scholars and cares passionately about the fate of Irish America. This care is evident in his two historical novels, in his engaging on-camera presence in historical documentaries, and in the feisty, lively Looking for Jimmy, a thoughtfully arranged collection of new and reconfigured essays. A great champion of the distinctively Irish ingredient in the "Catholic imagination," Quinn blends a lyrically spiritual sensibility with the realism of an Irish politician.

For all Quinn's buoyant charm, a somber theme--the debilitating effects of silence in the Irish-American experience--winds through Looking for Jimmy. An Irish-American tendency toward self-forgetting is more than matched, he argues, by the disdain often shown by outsiders: "a recent history of New York City's intellectual life," as he notes, "doesn't even have a reference to Irish or Irish-American in its index." Quinn excavates some of the stories buried under layers of such neglect until he arrives at its foundation: the Famine, whose recovery in history and memory, he notes in quoting anthropologist Joan Vincent, "has to be based on the interpretation of silences, on what did not happen, and on what one does not know, but needs to know."

What needs to be known along with the horrible truths of the Famine, Quinn believes, is that the rural, peasant Irish of the post-Famine migration largely shaped urban America's richly varied, culturally democratic sensibilities. …

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