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Author Peter Quinn Discusses His Book, Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America

By Kate McAvey, '11

The Irish Studies Program welcomed historian and novelist Peter Quinn to the Falvey Lounge on April 2. Quinn shared an excerpt from his acclaimed book, Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America. Quinn captured the attention of the audience with stories from his past, his revealing findings through his extensive research, and finally, the reading of excerpts from his novel.

James Murphy, Ph.D., the director of Irish Studies, introduced Quinn, explaining the lasting impression that Looking for Jimmy made with him and how most Irish-American children growing up in New York can relate to Quinn’s writing.

Quinn then took the stage, describing his background and how he came to write the novel. He was a graduate student at Fordham University studying Irish History and was astonished by the statistics about the Irish Potato Famine. In a 10-year period, nearly a third of Ireland fled the country; 2.3 million people vanished from their land. Out of these 2.3 million, one-million people found their homes in New York City.

Initially, Quinn wanted to write a history about Irish immigration, but after further thought, he decided to write a novel about the lives of the people who made their new homes in America.

“These people were primitive agricultural farmers, most had never been more than three miles from their home, and they had no education” Quinn said. When the Irish arrived, they had to construct everything themselves. Urban politics shifted, new schools were created, different theatres were opened; the Irish started an epic that many of them were unaware that they were creating.

Quinn compared the Irish culture to that of African-American culture, explaining how nothing was written down in books. The Irish had a lifestyle that they had brought with them. Even through the slang that they used, these immigrants created their world across the ocean in the city of New York.

The novel, Looking for Jimmy, comes from the idea that, as Quinn put it, “The Irish are the poster children for inferiority.” The book focuses on going from a Patty, which in the Irish culture is a derogatory term, to a Jimmy, which is taken as a compliment. Quinn shared how throughout his writing, while looking for inspiration, he often looked at a famous Iron Workers photo of a group of men taking a lunch break during the construction of the RCA building in New York City. To Quinn, this photograph “represents everything about a city” and became the cover of his book.

Quinn ended his talk with a short reading from the novel, joking, “I only read until people start to fall asleep.” The passage that he read comes from the beginning of the book; it describes the way in which the main character's Irish background was a mystery to him because of the way his mother tried to erase her past. Quinn blended a sea of metaphors, describing the power of memories and the importance of knowing the past so that one is prepared to move into the future. The audience applauded with passion, inspired by the words Quinn read.

Kate McAvey, ‘11, is a first-year student from Mahwah, N.J. She plans to major in Communication. Kate is working as an intern in the Office of Communications in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Villanova University. Kate’s professional ambitions include broadcasting, public relations, and journalism.

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Director of Communications, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

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