An Epic Story of the Famine Irish
Peter Quinn, the acclaimed author, talks to Mary Pat Kelly about the new edition of his groundbreaking book, "Banished Children of Eve."
"I began to research that, looking at housing reports, police reports, and came upon the Draft Riots, this great explosion, which I immediately connected with the Famine immigration. Then at one point I realized that I didn't want to talk about the great social forces - I wanted to talk about individuals. So then it was on to try to write fiction."
Was there any individual or story that moved you to write this book?
"I discovered that Stephen Foster, the progenitor of the American song industry, committed suicide, I'm sure, on the Bowery in January of 1864. And I realized the man who wrote 'Oh Susanna,' 'Gentle Annie,' 'Hard Times' - some really great first American songs - was down there during the Draft Riots.
"I stood outside the hotel on Broadway and Bayard, where he had died. I thought, 'I know who he is and I can hear his voice.' I had the idea for the book in 1982, then I researched until 1988. I started writing on Columbus Day, 1988 - twenty years ago today. I remember because I finished three and a half years later on the Feast of the Epiphany."
What was that process of writing the novel like?
"I never start with an outline. 'Banished Children,' 'Hour of the Cat,' and the book I'm working on now all started out in my mind with two people having a conversation. I have the setting, I know what year it is, and they start talking. The plot comes out of that. There were moments I had to wait. I would write and realize I don't know what they're going to do next, but two novels later they've never let me down. They'll tell you what they're going to do.
"My experience of writing is that there is no one way. What I think you have to do is make the time, a time when you show up. You don't know if you're going to get one page or two or nothing, but you're there for them. The rest is mystery."
How did this mystery affect you?
"The deeper I got into 'Banished Children of Eve,' the more I saw that the Irish Famine immigration was an epic story of the movement of agrarian people who moved into cities - which is still going on all around the world. My family had been part of this. And I said if I get everything wrong, but people come away with a sense of this epic dimension to Irish-American history, then I'll feel I have succeeded.
"We take so much for granted: Our ancestors came over and built all these schools, churches, hospitals, the unions, the Democratic party - a whole world. But they had to build it all from nothing. There were a lot of reasons why they should have fallen apart or just disappeared. You know, if it were just a matter of skin complexion they could have become Protestants, but something deeper and more complex was going on."
Could you talk about the complexity?
"Once the immigrants stepped off the boat in America, they were no longer just Irish. They had to deal with a whole different society. The culture of the diaspora is not the same as the culture in Ireland. It's rooted in that but it becomes something else when it comes here. An urban culture is created.
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