A Tradition of Traditions

We have an unusually long break between readings, and since the next stop on our journey is as meaningful to us as any location in the Port, it feels like time for a brief reflection on the road that leads us back to Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City on Thurs. evening November 12.

The last time we spoke at Saint Peter’s the occasion was in celebration of the release of a new edition of Peter Quinn’s magnificent Civil War-era novel The Banished Children of Eve. I sported a very scratchy-hoarse voice that evening and about the best I could do in my commentary was note that all great Irish-American novels come equipped with maps; I then held up the map adorning Peter’s book for all to see and admire. At the time I had no sense of belonging to the rich literary tradition Peter embodies, champions and honors so nobly, but I sure as hell made a mental note to include a map of the Port district in the fledgling (non-fiction) manuscript that would become On the Irish Waterfront.

Peter would later invite me to fancy myself an apprentice member of the New York Irish-American literary community; no bolder dream have I ever entertained. At our Tenement Museum reading on October 22 I had the wonderful opportunity to laud Peter’s exemplary role in this community; I also had the unanticipated pleasure of thanking in the author’s presence T. J. English, whose The Westies—crisply gridded map and all—is perhaps the single most notable model on which the Irish Waterfront was built (I believe I referred to ours as ‘Son of Westies’ on that lovely evening at this treasured locale down on Orchard Street).

So dub it–if you please–the ‘tradition of Irish-American literature mapping vital New York City (and please don’t forget Jersey) places, and the memorable characters inhabiting the spaces that make those places.’ By any handle it’s quite a glorious tradition to emulate.

On that Peter Quinn night at Saint Peter’s I was introduced by my wondrously gifted wife Kristina J. Chew: if my voice was scratchy hers was altogether AWOL; we made for quite a pair as per custom; and as per custom we both managed to say something about Charles Vincent (aka ‘Charlie the Gent’) Fisher, our very special, most uniquely challenging and big-hearted boy, whose very special needs—far from making for burden—mysteriously freed me over a decade of research and writing on this book, precisely by finally lending my life an order, a discipline, a purpose it had previously lacked. I once assumed all those attributes were fully expended on caring for Charlie, only to discover that the daily regimen opened up a new frontier that made covering the waterfront—and writing this book–infinitely more doable than my prior manner of living would have allowed.

It was the late James N. Loughran, S.J. who made the unexpected phone call to us in December 2000, inviting me to return to North Jersey to serve as the Will and Ariel Durant chair at Saint Peter’s College, alma mater of numerous departed relatives and enduring friends. If only for a lone semester, Fr. Loughran’s invitation felt like a lifeline as we sought so desperately to secure more appropriate services for Charlie than were available in our erstwhile heartland location. It’s been a struggle ever since to be sure, but it’s also been a wonderful gift to be living and working in and around the Port district and its Irish and Italian and African-American waterfronts; and to spend hours upon hours covering these sites with Kristina and Charlie, the Irish and Chinese-American young gentleman who packs all the mystery and intrigue of a dozen waterfront novels, and whose presence is discerned—if only by the author—on every page of On the Irish Waterfront.

Should you, dear reader, find yourself anywhere near Jersey City on Nov. 12 please do come by Pope Lecture Hall and say hello. Dr. Chew now graces the faculty at Saint Peter’s; if ever we have had a school to call ours, and home, Saint Peter’s College it is.


2 thoughts on “A Tradition of Traditions

  1. Peter Conolly-Smith November 6, 2009 — 5:37 pm

    When a history book reads like a novel; when it traverses the disciplinary boundaries of ethnic, film, and religious studies with elegance and ease; when you find yourself, towards the end, flipping ahead to check how many more pages, not because you’re weary of it, but because you don’t want it to end … that’s a damn fine read!

    Thanks, Jim.

    From your devoted student and friend, PCS

  2. Peter, we’ll always warmly remember Jersey Shore August 09 as Connolly-Smith literary festival; in that spirit Irish Waterfront book club hereby issues its first (and ardent) recommendation:
    Translating America: An Immigrant Press Visualizes American Popular Culture, 1890-1918.

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