Peter Quinn is a Bronx-born and raised Irish American. He was a speechwriter for New York governors Mario Cuomo and Hugh Carey and, in recent years, has become a well-known essayist and novelist. He even has a new novel out, entitled The Man Who Never Returned, about the legendarily vanished New York judge Joseph Crater.
But this observation raises a larger question? Is there really an Irish variation on the world famous New York accent?
Another Irish American with roots in the Bronx named Heather Quinlan has embarked on a journey to answer just that question.
“I’ve always been interested in language and accents,” said Quinlan, in a recent interview with “Sidewalks.”
Quinlan was laid off from her job earlier this year. She decided, then, to devote herself full-time to what had been a part-time obsession -- making a documentary film about the “Noo Yawk” accent. The title is If These Knishes Could Talk: A New York Accent Film.
“The thing that fueled the idea,” Quinlan said, “was that my father died in 1996.”
She recalls her youth, listening to stories told by her father and grandparents in thick New York accents.
“It’s one of the things I miss about them,” Quinlan added. “It’s something good to celebrate.”
By now, of course, the New York accent has become something cartoonish. In fact, this was the case six or so decades ago, when that famous cartoon rabbit Bugs Bunny was causing mayhem on the streets of New York with an accent thicker than molasses, singing about Rosie O’Grady, that “regular old fashioned goil.”
In recent decades, however, something strange has happened. The New York accent -- or a wildly exaggerated version of it -- has become more and more popular in films. At the same time it has become less prominent on certain New York streets.
As Quinlan noted, Manhattan tends to be filled with migrants from across America as well as newly-arrived immigrants. This generally means that it is possible to spend a whole day in Manhattan without actually hearing the beloved New York accent. Unless, that is, you wander into an OTB or a Blarney Stone.
But there are also misguided folks who believe the New York accent is not only dead, but died roughly around the same time The Honeymooners left the airwaves.
This is generally the opinion of folks who fancy themselves New York experts, who, nevertheless, couldn’t find their way to ethnic enclaves in Brooklyn or the Bronx or Staten Island with a Metro Card, a map or a GPS app.
Indeed, Quinlan said the title of her New York accent film was inspired by a snack her dad bought for her during a youthful trip to the Staten Island zoo.
“A New York/Jewish food introduced to me by my Irish father in an Italian borough. That’s about as New York as it gets,” Quinlan notes on her website.
But how is the Irish New York accent different from, say, the Italian New York accent?
“The Irish New York accent is more like Jimmy Cagney. It’s very rat-tat-tat. Very Tommy Gun,” Quinlan says, noting that Quinn is a current expert practitioner.
The New York Irish accent is more subtle than, say, the Italian New York inflection which tends to be more broad -- what people tend to talk about, Quinlan notes, when they vaguely refer to a “typical Brooklyn accent.”
Quinlan’s own ancestors came to the Bronx from Tipperary and she spent her youth in several New York boroughs as well as New Jersey.
She did eventually make contact with cousins in Tipperary and made a trip to Ireland, where she saw the Quinlan homestead, which is still standing -- “barely.”
While shooting her film, Quinlan also came across the work of the late Irish language scholar Daniel Cassidy, who showed how the Irish language deeply influenced New York slang.
“It was mind-blowing,” Quinlan said.
Quinlan is continuing to shoot footage for If These Knishes Could Talk. She has already talked to the likes of Pete Hamill, and is aiming to have the film completed next year, in time to put it on the film festival circuit.
While raising money for this project, she has also seen an outpouring of generosity from many people.
“I think that speaks to New Yorkers love of the accent,” Quinlan says. “It’s as much a part of Americana as apple pie.”
(Contact Sidewalks at [email protected] or facebook.com/tomdeignan)