Peter Quinn pictured with fellow theatre-goers Maeve Price, left, and Mirna Cardona at the Chain Theatre in May. PHOTO BY PETER MCDERMOTT
By Peter McDermott
Peter Quinn has had a remarkable, arguably unique, career.
He’s been a professional speechwriter, including for New York Governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo, novelist, essayist, commentator, historian and community leader, as well as a mentor and friend to many in the arts.
Quinn’s first novel “Banished Children of Eve,” set in New York during the Draft Riots of 1863, was described by Thomas Flanagan as “one of the very, very best of modern historical novels.” The New York Times Book Review said it was “convincing and intriguing” and added, “Hardly a page of this book is without some revelation.”
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The Bronx native’s four other books were also published to acclaim. They are his crime fiction trilogy featuring Fintan Dunne, a private investigator who served with the American forces in World War I, and his collection of essays “Looking for Jimmy.” Additionally, Quinn has been involved, as co-writer or guest commentator, in the making of several PBS documentaries and he has written widely for a number of periodicals and daily newspapers.
With all of the above and more in mind, the Irish American Writers & Artists, an organization that he co-founded in 2008 and led as president in its first years, will present Quinn with the Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award on Monday evening, Oct. 21, at the Skylight Room at Manhattan Manor, upstairs at Rosie O’Grady’s, 800 7th Ave., New York City. (For tickets, click here.) In anticipation of that occasion, the Irish Echo asked some people who know the honoree to say a few words about him.
The IAW&A’s current president, Mary Pat Kelly, responded: “Peter Quinn is a man for all seasons. As an award-winning author and wonderful speaker he has shared his insights into Irish-American history and our community with grace and humor.”
John Lee, of the Irish Business Organization of New York, said: “Peter Quinn is a brilliant writer, an always entertaining speaker, the preeminent interpreter of the Irish-American experience, a community stalwart, but, most importantly, he’s a mensch.”
John Kearns, producer of the Irish American Writers & Artists Salon, wrote: “Peter Quinn’s work brings to life the struggles of characters whose names would not be recorded in conventional history books but have done much to shape the society in which we live. His work holds up a mirror to Irish-Americans, forcing us to look at parts of our past that we may prefer to forget: the ugliness of the Draft Riots, the shocking conditions of the Five Points, the reviled greenhorn Paddy. Yet he always depicts his characters with the sympathy of a novelist and a deep interest not only in the Irish-American but in the human experience.”
Doris Marie Meyer, President, American Irish Teachers Association and Co-Chair UFT ISC, wrote: “In 2016, the NYC United Federation of Teachers Irish Studies Committee recognized Peter Quinn, a great friend and supporter to educators everywhere, with a special ‘Inspiration in Education’ award. Peter’s stunningly brilliant scholarship as an historian, author and essayist reveals an expression of integrity and sense of social justice as well as the value of academic rigor. Whether it is for the tremendous contributions of a better understanding of the history of the Irish in New York through his book ‘Banished Children of Eve,’ or for his eloquence on various subjects in Commonweal magazine (that are truly, as the name suggests, for the welfare of the people), or for the many times he has spoken with such oratorical skill at public events, Peter’s words have a remarkable effect on our minds and hearts.”
Joseph Goodrich, playwright and author most recently of “People in a Magazine,” said: “Peter Quinn embodies the best qualities of the Irish American and the born-and-bred New Yorker. Deeply serious, possessed of strong belief, he is aware of the past – his own and Ireland’s – and carries with him the deep ache of history. At the same time he is infused with the vital, vibrant humor of his native Bronx. An extraordinary man whose life and work the O’Neill Award rightly celebrates. Dignum et iustum est.”
Writer Honor Molloy, whose credits include the play “Crackskull Row” and the novel “Smarty Girl: Dublin Savage,” said: “Peter Quinn’s ironic wit and warm heart have enriched my writing and my life, as well as a thousand others. His work quickens my pulse – Fintan Dunne makes me want to travel back in time to an earlier New York. Quinn has helped me to understand the complicated nature of what it is to be Irish in America. His advocacy for fellow writers is as generous and judicious as the man himself. Plus, on toppa that? He’s a true mensch.”
Author, national affairs correspondent with the Nation and political contributor for CNN Joan Walsh said: “Peter Quinn single-handedly awakened my interest in how my Irish Catholic family, on both sides, came to be the loving if fractured, politically and culturally variegated tribe that we are — and made me understand just how Irish I am, no matter where or how I tried to flee. ‘Looking for Jimmy’ literally changed my life, one of the few books I can say that about. And when I looked him up to tell him all of that, he bought me a meal and became my friend and turned my questions back on me.”
Co-founder of Artists Without Walls Charles Hale said: “In my view, one of the finest qualities a friend can possess is the uncanny ability to show up at just the right time, the time of need. Peter has that quality and unselfishly demonstrated that trait in my time of need. If we’re lucky, somewhere or sometime during our journey a person like that may enter our life. That alone would make Peter a man worthy of recognition, not to mention that he sets the standard for ‘Master of Ceremonies,’ is a brilliant historian and writer, and possesses one of the keenest wits imaginable. Other than that, he’s a bum. I stole that line from a great speechwriter – Peter Quinn – but don’t tell him.”
Replied Kevin Holohan, author of the novel “The Brothers’ Lot,” which is set in his native Dublin: “A few words about Peter Quinn? That friendly, funny, warm bloke from the IAW&A? That great writer, speechwriter and public speaker without par? That fellah always looking to support his fellow writers? The most beloved and highly thought of member of the Irish American arts community? The man who gently lights up any room he is in without sucking the air out of it?? That all-round mensch? Unselfish in his praise of others, generous with advice and help? That Peter Quinn? Nah! I got nuttin’!”
Irish Repertory Theatre’s co-founder Ciarán O’Reilly, a previous recipient of the O’Neill Award, will spend an uncomfortable evening at the Skylight Room on Oct. 21 watching Quinn’s name being etched onto the same roll of honor as he himself. He said: “Down in his grave, Eugene O’Neill must be scratching his head about Peter Quinn’s ‘nomination’ for this Lifetime Achievement Award. He need not be confused. Those of us who know Quinn can plainly see how a ‘nomination’ can be bought with a few well-placed coins. While the Irish community in New York remain deeply divided on Mr. Quinn’s character – one half sees him for the charlatan that he is whilst the other half marvels at his literary charade – his very few friends wish him well in his next post as President Trump’s Director of Communications.”
Journalist, historian and Irish Echo columnist Terry Golway attempted a push-back of sorts: “Peter Quinn is among the most generous, thoughtful and witty people I’ve ever met. Then again, I grew up in a cloister on Staten Island and currently live a semi-monastic life in in the wilds of New Jersey, so perhaps I need to get out more.”
It was left to the New York Times, in the form of reporter and columnist Dan Barry, to come to the rescue: “The truth about Peter Quinn is that he is THE New York Irish American – in his gifts as a storyteller; in his eloquence; and, most of all, in his generosity of spirit. He is the man, and I am so blessed to call him a friend. No one more deserving for the Eugene O’Neill Award.”