Our voices carry; and though
Some few half awake…
Give tongue, proclaim their hidden name…
- W.B. Yeats
At one point in Quinn’s Book, the fourth novel in William Kennedy’s masterful “Albany Cycle,” a trainload of Famine immigrants passes through Albany. Witnessing this sad procession, narrator Daniel Quinn is told by a companion, “Pay heed to these people and remember what you see.” Yet it’s quickly apparent that listening is as important as seeing:
“A man of middle years, his shirt in tatters, a half-eaten chicken leg in his hand, stood alone on the steps of the train and began a song in Gaelic, that strange tongue rendered brilliant by the man’s plaintive voice. Silence came onto the crowd and we listened to the minstrel, I with a growing wonder in my heart at all the joy and misery that simultaneously commanded so many lives. The train whistle interrupted the sound of the song but not the singer, and as the cars moved out, his voice reached us in fragments, audible between the whistle blasts, a fervent melody struggling to be heard. And then it was gone.”
On the evening of St. Patrick’s Day 2008, at the State Museum in Albany, Danny Cassidy, author of How the Irish Invented Slang, began his presentation by reading that scene. It took the imaginative genius of a novelist like Kennedy, Cassidy said, to perceive what historians had so often overlooked: the intimate relationship between large numbers of the rural masses who fled the Famine and their language. (The same point might be made about two brilliant recent novels, Star of the Sea, by Joseph O’Connor, and Law of Dreams, by Peter Behrens.)
Whether they congregated in crossroad cities like New York, Albany, Boston, St. Louis, etc. or spread through the country laying track and digging canals, these immigrants took their music and language with them. For many, Irish was their primary or only tongue; many more had both Irish and English. In their struggle to survive and adjust to a frequently punishing, often hostile environment, they were quick to make English their priority. Yet the Irish didn’t simply discard their language. Instead, they changed its clothes, slipping it into everyday American work duds.
In fact, Cassidy maintained, if you listened carefully to American slang, if you twigged to the sounds of Irish, you’d hear what Kennedy’s character in Quinn’s Book heard, a “voice reach[ing] us in fragments, audible between the whistle blasts, a fervent melody struggling to be heard.”
A professional musician who’d played Carnegie Hall and worked as the opening act for George Carlin, Cassidy was a consummate performer. All his skills were on display that evening. He played the guitar, sang, lectured, read, mixed schtick and scholarship, intimate details of his own family’s immigrant saga and the broad narratives of academic history, transforming what could have been a dry, if enlightening, discourse on an erudite topic into a riveting exploration of the dynamics of slang and its importance to the hybrid soul of our syncretic, kinetic nation.
I was lucky to hear Cassidy on several occasions. Each time he put everything he had into his talk—hard-won insights, artistic craftsmanship, long years of research and teaching, an innate comfort on stage, a Brooklyn-bred contempt for snobbery and pedantry, a love of mongrels, rebels and heretics. As he poured himself into explaining his fascination with the Irish-American experience and what led him to write How the Irish Invented Slang, speaker and subject, like dancer and dance, became one: Cassidy was the Irish-American experience.
His presentation at the State Museum brought him a standing ovation, which was not unusual—I’d seen it happen before—but the special intensity and vehemence of his eloquence suggested to me that Danny Cassidy felt a new urgency in what he was doing. Unfortunately, that urgency wasn’t misplaced. His performance in Albany proved his nunc dimittis. Within three weeks, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died at home, in San Francisco, on October 11, 2008, with his beloved wife Clare at his bedside.
After his talk, Cassidy inadvertently left behind the notes he spoke from. When I offered to mail them, he said not to bother. He’d used the plane ride back to the West Coast to distill what he’d said in Albany and was happy with what he had. I not only kept his notes, I studied them, especially the finale, in which Cassidy analyzed the American folk song “Paddy Works the Railway.”
Cassidy devotes several pages in How the Irish Invented Slang to a discussion of the song. The longer he’d thought about the song and the more he’d performed it, he told me, the more crucial he believed it was to grasping the subtlety with which Irish, in what was really a centuries long process, had seeped into English and stayed on the tongues of people who no longer spoke it.