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From Island shores to soaring oratory: Memoir of a writing life

“I sensed Westmoreland before I recognized it,” Peter Quinn wrote, savoring memories of a place his family enjoyed for the Shelter Island summers of his youth.

His new memoir, “Cross Bronx,” captures the character of an Irish-American family living in Parkchester, a Bronx middle-class neighborhood for families just a generation or two removed from immigrant forebears.

The Quinns, having discovered the Island through a friend, began renting a cottage in Westmoreland in the summers before Peter and his twin Tom made their appearance in 1947. He recalls firerworks, clambakes and baseball games organized by the Westmoreland patriarch, James Roe. The games were a Saturday tradition, the twins serving as team mascots in their miniature Westmoreland uniforms.

They and their sisters grew up enjoying barefoot summers, sensing even in the grownups a relaxed rhythm of life on the Island, one that is familiar to everyone who’s ever set foot on the ferry and felt a change in the air, a softening of each breath.

The Quinn twins, Tom, left and Peter, right, with Col. James Roe, were the mascots of Westmoreland’s baseball team in the 1950s. (Courtesy photo)

The boys roamed freely about the farm, later moving to a house in the Heights after several summers in Westmoreland, making friendships that would last a lifetime.

“My earliest memories were of Parkchester,” he wrote, “my sweetest of Shelter Island.”

These warm memories are nestled amid Mr. Quinn’s recollections of his career as a speechwriter, for Gov. Hugh L. Carey, an Island resident and relative of this writer, and his successor, Mario Cuomo. Mr. Quinn had an up-close view of the challenge of articulating government policies in speeches meant to capture hearts and votes.

Marching in New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1980 are Gov. Hugh L. Carey, center, and Peter Quinn, in beret at right. (Courtesy photo)

He recalls the preparations for Gov. Cuomo’s well-known speech on religion and government at Notre Dame, as well as the governor’s mystifying decision, despite signaling he was about to run for president, to leave the plane on the Albany tarmac and cancel the trip to New Hampshire.

Mr. Quinn offers his take on some of the well-known figures of the time, both in government and the private sector, where he wrote speeches for corporate leaders at Time Inc. He also focuses on the complex politics of Northern Ireland, where he was tasked with helping to be part of a solution that had eluded communities riven by hatred for centuries.

He became friends with other leading Irish-American writers in New York, convening with brothers Frank and Malachy McCourt and others who formed the First Friday club that met at Eamonn Doran’s restaurant.

In a variation on the Catholic tradition that attending Mass on the first Friday of each month would ensure the presence of a priest at the time of death, the group was comforted by the belief that none of them would die without a bartender close at hand.

His book shares the experience of studying at Catholic schools throughout his educational career; the strong Irish-American culture in which he was steeped; and the frustratingly inscrutable father whose presence and distance dominated his life.

In a very Irish way, he buries the fact of a malady that struck in mid-life among the details of his family’s genealogy. He doesn’t spare himself a candid appraisal of the years it took him to settle into a career.

The evidence that he was no slacker would come later, in abundance, when he produced his 600-page novel, “Banished Children of Eve,” by rising at dawn to work before his day job for the years it took him to complete it.

New York Times columnist Dan Barry, in a foreword to Mr. Quinn’s memoir, calls him “the poet laureate of the New York Irish-American experience.”

There is so much to enjoy in this book, from the incisive portraits of public figures to the tender appreciation of the woman who was the subject of a 14-year courtship — still by his side, at the center of their family, after 40 years of marriage.

Among the choruses that resonate through his look back through the years, the gentle notes that only Islanders can hear, will ring most sweetly.