Journalist Michael Daly's long-awaited book on the life and death of Father Mychal Judge, the first reported fatality on 9/11, is in many respects the work of a lifetime. Part eulogy, part celebration, it's the most intimate portrait of the beloved fire chaplain and the Irish American community he loved yet written. CAHIR O'DOHERTY talks to Daly about the inspirational life of a man many already consider a saint.
THERE may be as many Father Mychal Judges as there are people who remember him. Try to assemble the strands of his life and you'll be amazed by how varied they are, yet one theme remains - Father Mike was known and loved in every borough of New York City, by rich and poor, firemen and clergy, parade organizers and protestors, macho men and drag queens, gay and straight, and all of them Irish.
Working as a top columnist at the New York Daily News for over two decades, Michael Daly knows all about the tribes of New York Irish, be they orthodox, dissenter or reformed, at least as well as Mychal Judge did, which makes him the ideal chronicler of Judge's life and work.
Daly's own father was born outside Dublin but originally hailed from Cork, and his mother was a Canadian of Irish extraction. It's a background that has allowed Daly to interpret between occasionally competing strands of Irish life in the metropolis, and this he does with a rare degree of clarity.
Reading Daly's new book The Book of Mychal: The Surprising Life and Heroic Death of Father Mychal Judge (St. Martin's Press) page after page, is to be caught off guard with unforgettable stories told so vividly they seem to recreate Judge's life before your eyes.
"I started out with the guy I knew," Daly told the Irish Voice during an interview. "I met Mychal in 1994. At the time there was a fireman called John Drennan who was terribly burned in what Judge called 'a big fire in a little house.'
"Drennan held on for 40 days before he died, and Mychal was there the whole time. That's where I first got to know him. He was a unique guy. A lot of people thought he was as close to Jesus as anyone they'd ever met. And if Jesus laughed a lot, well then yeah, maybe."
Judge had a wonderful habit of turning up when he was most needed, finding exactly the right words, and saying them with obvious feeling too, and people loved him for it.
"You always knew Mychal knew who was in the Burn Center because you could hear the laughter when he stepped off the elevator. That's a tough place to have people laughing," Daly says.
"If you had in your mind an ideal priest, the sort of person who really did bring God to people, and who really did comfort and steady people, and led by example, that was all Mychal."
One of Judge's greatest skills, that of being ubiquitous, was also one that infuriated his detractors - the most prominent of which was no less a figure than Cardinal John O'Connor himself. Free of all the pomp and ceremony of an exalted position in the church, Judge was a one-man first responder, able to come and go quickly, and whose first on the scene presence often maddened his superiors.
So displeased was O'Connor by Judge's obvious preeminence, Daly writes, that he pouted and sighed loudly through the friar's eulogy for Drennan, shocking Drennan's own daughters.
"I think Steven McDonald - the former police officer catastrophically injured in the line of duty and a close friend of Judge's - had it right. He said that the cardinal would have given anything to have been Father Mychal Judge," Daly says.
Much of Daly's book is given over to Judge's sure-handed witness as chaplain to the Fire Department of New York, a position he loved and increasingly excelled at. Seeing the FDNY first and foremost as a working family, Judge's faith and philosophy were perfectly suited to his role ministering to New York's bravest.
"They ask me to bless them," Judge said. "But the truth is I feel blessed by them."
Judge was, Daly writes, a shape shifter - simultaneously able to be one thing to conservative Catholic families like Steven McDonald's, and another thing to the many Irish gay people he knew. And all of these disparate groups were certain they knew him to the core.
But the fact is, Daly writes, Mychal Judge was gay and those who did not know included virtually all of the FDNY, as well as the McDonalds, parishioners in New Jersey and many who considered Judge to be one of their own.
"That they did not suspect (he was gay) suggested how determinedly they believed their shape shifting priest to be who they needed him to be," Daly writes.
In recent decades there's been a battle in Irish America over who writes the story of the race, and the St. Patrick's Day Parade on Fifth Avenue has been the testing ground, where year after hundreds of gay Irish men and women have essentially been asked to surrender their passports rather than march under their own banner.
Powerful interests behind the parade haven't been subtle in their work to silence gay Irish groups, and to date they have largely succeeded, but at some cost to the cohesion of the larger Irish American family they claim to protect.
Mychal Judge, more than most, understood no one benefited from the ugly facedown and so he led by example himself, marching up Fifth Avenue in March and then down Fifth Avenue in June at the Gay Pride parade.
Daly writes movingly of the discreet 10-year relationship between Judge and Al Alvarado, a Columbia educated Filipino nurse 30 years Judge's junior who worked at St. Barnabas hospital in the Bronx and who became the most significant romantic partner of Judge's life. Although it was from the start a heartfelt relationship, it was often fraught because of Judge's calling.
"My rival was God," Alvarado said.
Since his passing many have asked tearfully why Judge had not told them he was gay. But the question asked less frequently was how would they have responded if he had? Judge knew his tribe and feared their prejudices. "Some people were really upset by just the suggestion of it," says Daly. "And I think one of the reasons it was really hard for people was that they felt so close to him, they thought they had known him so well.
"As the Fireman Kevin Shea told me, 'If you tell me Mychal Judge is gay then I have to tell you I have my first gay friend.'"
Privately Judge struggled with conflicting impulses to reveal and conceal the truth, and the question lingered with him for years. "What if." he wrote in his private journal, challenging himself to take the final step.
But then the vertigo of uncertainty took its place. "I can't stop and wait for the answer," he wrote.
Says Daly, "When I was told Mychal was dead my knees gave out underneath me. I was shocked at that, to tell you the truth. I was surprised by how much it affected me."
Judge's death certificate bore the number one and in a real sense he came to embody how much was lost on September 11, losing his own life while ministering to New York's bravest. ?
"I almost walked away from the book at one point. A little bit of me still feels this way," says Daly.
"It was up to Mychal what he wanted to tell people when he was alive. When I started out with the book I didn't think there were any parts of his life that he wasn't completely open about. So I had two choices - do you walk away from it or do you try to write about it?
"I thought about it and I thought that Mychal would probably have wanted me to go ahead and write the book. Some good might even come out of it if you try to tell the whole story."
The Book of Mychal is due for release on September 2.