Twenty years ago this month, I published my first novel, “Banished Children of Eve.” When the idea for the book first came to me, I conceived of it as a work of nonfiction, not a novel. I had put on temporary hold (alas, it turned out to be permanent) my pursuit of a Ph.D. in history and was working in Albany as a gubernatorial speechwriter. Lapsed historian though I was, I hadn’t lost my interest in the past.
In the course of researching a speech on housing policy, I stumbled across the first report made by the state legislature on conditions in New York City. Dated 1855, it was a Dickensian catalogue of poverty, disease and appalling overcrowding in the immigrant wards on or near the city’s waterfront. As I dug deeper, it became obvious that the vast majority of those living amid these wretched and unsanitary conditions were Irish immigrants and their children who’d fled the Great Famine and its aftermath.
Though I was soon finished with the speech, I had just begun the exhaustive process of research into the epic effects that the Famine immigration had on American urban life in general and on the shaping of New York in particular. Overnight, New York went from being an important Atlantic entrepôt to what it remains to this day: an immensely energetic, sometimes conflicted, always dynamic immigrant city of global proportions.
The deeper I dug, the more I was struck by how every aspect of the city was changed by the sudden arrival of a tsunami of traumatized peasants fleeing the worst civilian catastrophe in Western Europe between the Thirty Years’ War and World War One. I was equally impressed by the amnesia that seemed to erase the scope and sweep of these changes not just from the minds of most New Yorkers but from the very consciousness of these immigrants’ descendants, myself included.
As I devoured newspaper accounts and historical records, I gave real thought for the first time to the fact that my own great grandparents, Michael and Margaret Manning, were buried among these words and statistics. Beyond that they arrived in or around 1847, I knew that they probably came from Kilkenny. It seems they might have been illiterate, and it’s even possible that the name Manning had been changed from Mangin due to an error in transcription.
I started out wanting to write a social history that described in exhaustive detail the flight of the Famine Irish to New York–a million of them entered the port between 1845 and 55–and what awaited them once they arrived and struggle to start new lives. The year of research that I allotted myself stretched into three and then four. The more I learned, the more I felt there was more to know.
The historical details were endlessly fascinating. And yet, I grew increasingly frustrated by what was beyond my learning and what I could never know. The unrecorded everyday experiences of these immigrants, their quotidian fears and expectations, their fondest memories and deepest hopes were lost. They were faceless and voiceless. The density and complexity of their passions and pain were reduced to a single line in a census or death certificate.
Eventually, I gave up on history. If I was going to reach these people in their individuality and particularity, if I was going to enter their vanished world, I could only do it through an act of the imagination. I decided to attempt a novel.
I started by imagining a story built around the catastrophic Draft Riots of 1863, the worst urban disturbance in American history. It took three years of writing before I finally got to the riots. The characters–African Americans as well as Irish and native Yankees–took control of the plot. They led me down the labyrinthine ways of their individual existences, each in his or her own way a banished child of eve, all of them moving through this vale of tears to the music of Stephen Foster, whose life and songs are the book’s leitmotiv.
In the twenty years that “Banished Children” has remained in print, it has opened more doors, taken me more places and introduced me to more people than I could have ever possibly imagined. I rapidly discovered that the great silence that followed the Great Famine wasn’t a unique part of my family’s legacy but woven into the fabric of the Irish-American experience.
As I traveled with the book, I met an amazing array of artists and writers–Irish and otherwise. They are involved in unearthing, exploring and celebrating the rich and hidden histories of immigrants, slaves and working people whose labor, sacrifices, songs, stories and aspirations, though often given scant attention in official accounts, have enriched our country beyond all measure.
The night before “Banished Children” came out, I met Tom Flanagan at the Madison Avenue Pub for a celebratory drink. As well as a master novelist–his “Year of the French” is, in my opinion, among the greatest historical novels ever written–Tom was a friend and mentor. Tom toasted the future. “Don’t be surprised, “ he said, “at how far your banished children will travel and, if you’re lucky, at all the friends they’ll bring home.”
Tom was a prophet as well as a teacher.
(This essay was published in the 3/14/14 edition of the Irish Voice)