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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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‘Irish Writers In America’ Has Tales To Tell

Professor John Phelan, one of my favorite teachers when I was at Fordham University, foreshadowed my future as a newspaper pundit.

In critiquing one of my papers, Phelan wrote at its conclusion that I sounded “like Jimmy Breslin sounding off at the bar.” I was thrilled. Breslin, a Daily News columnist at the time, was an idol of mine. Alas, I recall the grade I received on that assignment tempered my initial enthusiasm.

The reason I’m sharing his anecdote is because the City University of New York’s (CUNY) television station interviewed Breslin and 22 others for its Irish Writers in America series. All of them are archived at www.cuny.tv. Sitting through a few of these critically-acclaimed conversations is a fitting way to mark St. Patrick’s Day.

“Irish Writers in America features 23 cultural icons most people would give anything to sit down and have a chat with,” wrote Sheila Langan, of Irish America magazine. “Watching these unusually quiet and intimate portrayals, mostly free of narration or any bells and whistles, it’s almost as if the viewer has been invited to do just that.”

Besides watching Breslin’s segment, I would also recommend the one with novelist Alice McDermott, who grew up in Elmont, and the conversation with Pete Hamill, another legendary Daily News columnist, and the author of more than 20 books.

Breslin wrote Can’t Anyone Here Play This Game?, a look at the 1962 New York Mets, and The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, a novel adapted into a 1971 film. Yet Breslin is perhaps best known for having Son of Sam write letters to him while Breslin was covering Son of Sam’s murderous rampage for the Daily News in 1977. Those parts of his life are covered in the interview, along with his 1969 bid for New York City Council president. Breslin’s mayoral running mate in that year’s Democratic primary? Norman Mailer.

McDermott’s Charming Billy won the 1998 National Book Award for Fiction, and in her CUNY sit-down she talks about attending St. Boniface elementary school in Elmont, Sacred Heart Academy in Hempstead and the State University of New York at Oswego.

Her big break, she explains, came when a friend who personally knew literary agent Harriet Wasserman recommended that Wasserman review 100-plus pages McDermott had written. McDermott said she was stunned when Wasserman, who represented best-selling authors such as Saul Bellow, called her after reading the initial material, and asked if McDermott could send her more pages. McDermott’s That Night, a novel about a doomed teenaged romance on Long Island in the 1960s, became a major motion picture in 1992, and soon thereafter its author said she received offers to write about teenaged angst. Following the publication of At Weddings and Wakes, McDermott adds, multiple requests for stories about the dynamics of Irish-American families came her way.

Hamill, in his interview, talks about how he was the oldest of seven children born to a mother and father who were Belfast natives but did not meet until they were in the United States. He touches briefly on his decision to stop drinking, and how it enabled him to become a better father and a more productive, and perceptive, writer. Two must-reads: Hamill’s 1994 memoir, A Drinking Life, and 2004’s Downtown: My Manhattan, which memorably chronicles the city’s storied past.

Hamill is today a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University. Amid the changes in the media business, he says he’s impressed with the students who want to pursue a journalism career.

“I think the news will always be a part of our lives in this country,” Hamill said, adding later, “No matter what the means of delivery of the news, there’s going to be talent in the room, and passion among those with the talent.”

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net