Farewell to Daniel Cassidy

Daniel Cassidy died over this last weekend in San Francisco, taken by cancer in his early sixties. We knew for a few months he was facing desperate odds, but the news still comes hard. Since 2005 he was a vivid presence in my life and in that of all of us here at CounterPunch. We’re very proud that one big legacy Danny left behind comes in the form of How The Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads, which CounterPunch Books/AK Press published two years ago. I look at the book here on my desk and think, Thank God he got that out of his head and on to the printed page and the world will have that part of him always.

Dan came out of Brooklyn. He was a city kid. Not for him the repose of nature’s temple. I’d ask him and his wife Clare up to Petrolia once in a while, mostly just to enjoy the tremor of alarm I’d catch down the phone that his feet might have to quit pavement. He was highly educated and well read, but also truly street smart. A jazz guitarist, screenwriter, union organizer, , teacher, historian, man of words, Irish Republican, he sometimes reminded one of those bustling, fiery dogs the lads would take to the rabbit warrens when I was growing up in outside Youghal in county Cork. In would fly the dog and after a commotion out would streak the rabbit. He’d mix it up. His bright blue eyes would shine as we’d argue sometimes. His manic energy would boil up and over, like the hound rushing into the thorns.

He was thin-skinned about all the right things: the assumption of privilege, the pretensions of the toffs, the bottomless wellsprings of English and Yankee arrogance that looks down its nose and misses everything that matters. Danny had the vivid, humorous, compassionate,  furious realism of someone who knew well what life looks like from the other side of the tracks, terrain intimately familiar to the millions of the  Irish diaspora.

It’s why he had the single, huge, pioneering perception that enabled him to revolutionize eymological history.  The other day, here on this site, I quoted one of Dan’s heroes, James Connolly, saying “the great appear great to us only because we are on our knees. Let us rise.” On the terrain of lexicography and etymology, the “great” were those like H.L. Mencken who wrote in 1937, “The Irish… gave American  very few new words; perhaps speakeasy, shillelah and smithereens exhaust the list.”

Dan writes in his book that the revelation that this was baloney came when, at Claire’s urging he was reading Focloir Póca, a little pocket Irish/English dictionary left him in his will by Kevin O’Dowd. Why did Danny suddenly see what no one had seen before, that those Irish words saturate the American language? He saw, because he felt in his bones and sinews  the nineteenth-century Irish emigrants’ world, of the slum, the railroad, the shipyard, the gambling hall, the carny circus tents, the gangs. So Cassidy rose up and threw this world in the face of the great lexicographers and etymologists. Language marches arm in arm with history, and when you read Dan’s dictionary, the history leaps from the page. Take the prodigious number of Gaelic contributions to the argot of gambling:

From the early 19th century to the mid-twentieth century, Irish-Americans played a key role in the development of professional gambling and casinos in the United States. With a potent political base made up of millions of Irish immigrants and their American-born children, in cities as geographically scattered as New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Boston, Hot Springs, Dallas, and San Francisco, Irish Americans built powerful urban political machines fueled by the huge cash flow generated by the gambling underworld.

There were sure-thing tricksters and professional gamblers of all nationalities from the earliest days of the American Republic. French, Scottish, English, and Creole gamblers and gambling syndicates were augmented in the late 19th century by waves of impoverished southern Italians and Sicilians, as well as Jews from the shetls of Eastern Europe and Russia. But from the early 1800s until the 1930s, Irish urban street gangs, and the political machines that grew out of them, controlled the tiger’s share of the profits from illegal gambling in the United States.

A few quotes from our earliest email exchanges will gave you a little flavor of the man. He was a daily reader of this site and suddenly tossed me an email, dropping it into an analysis we’d printed of the political situation in Iraq

November 26, 2005:

In the case of Iraq it may be a loaded Armalite and stuffed ballot box strategy. Here is the sanas [etymology, secret knowledge] of baloney, which will surely infuriate Anglophone, anglophile baloney artists like the baloney ballerina Juan Cole.

Béal ónna
Silly, inane loquacity

That was my first taste of Danny’s etymology.

A few month later, April 2006,  I wrote a piece about Elie Wiesel and the fact that Wiesel might have made up the scene in Night where a boy plays his violin amid a death march. Danny wrote,

a chara:

a variety of string instruments for 40 years, including “fiddle,” guitar, banjo, and mandolin, i immediately thought “how did the violin strings survive the severely cold temperatures and the long march?”

minor point perhaps, but very improbable, especially since it was 1945 and they are not modern strings. ask any fuckin fiddler in eureka.

Then he swerved into a swipe at some PC outrage:

The left in US has been paralyzed since 1980s by its middle class “race” and “gender” obsessions. “Marxists” who ignore class struggle fill our lecture halls. I know. At New College our activism program is more focused on transgender issues and “whiteness” baloney than Falluja, immigration, and worker’s rights.

This is what happens when the middle class leads any struggle.

Next came an email from Dan giving me the origin of stool pigeon.

Stool pigeon: Steall béideán, pron. stoll beejaan, to spout gossip, lies, slander, aspersions, scandal; a spouting snitch; a spouter of scandal, calumny, lies.
Stoolie: Steall éithigh, pron. stall eehih, spouting lies, fig. a snitch; stooler: steallaire, a tattler.

All dictionaries claim the slang term “stool pigeon” is derived from the faux-hunting practice of “fastening a pigeon on a stool to lure other pigeons,” which are then shot by the (usually inebriated) gentleman-hunter.

The real stool pigeon is “doing the veil” (dún dó bhéil, keep your mouth shut). (See story on Patrick Fitzgerald by Patricia Harty’s husband — whose name I forget.)

Kerry-born Mike Quill’s first language was Irish. The TWU founder and president was hauled in front of the pre-McCarthy McCarthyite  Dies committee in 1940, who Mike called publicly: “a few finks, stool pigeons, cranks, and crackpots..”

The Dies’ Committee staff member J.B. Matthews questioned Mike Quill.

Matthews: Who was your predecessor as president of the TWU?
Quill: There was no predecessor.
Matthews: There was a president.
Quill: Yes, there was a president by name. He was never elected.
Matthews: What was his name?
Quill: He was your stool pigeon, O’Shea. You brought him in here a week ago.
Mr. Thomas (Member of the Committee): Before we proceed, I think that statement of Quill’s should be stricken from the reco4rd…that we had a stool pigeon. There is no place for that.

Quill later revealed to the press that Congressman Parnell Thomas’ real name was Feeney and that he was an Irish-American.  Feeney/Parnell knew a stool pigeon when he heard one. In the 1950s Congressman Parnell Thomas (nee Feeney) would go to the US Federal Penitentiary for bribery. A stoolie had squealed (scaoileadh) on him.

Now he had me nibbling at the hook. On Apr 2, 2006, at 10:50 PM, DanCas1@aol.com wrote:

A Chara:

I have completed a book project on the massive hidden influence of Irish (and Scots Gaelic) on American speech.

Eamonn McCann published Sanas of Jazz in Hot Press, March 2005. Of course he appreciated that Jazz as teas, pronounced, jass, is Ulster dialect, as opposed to the teas (chass, heat) of Connaught.

He had me on the line now and it was time for him to set the hook.  The same day I wrote back, asking him who was publishing his book.

Alex:  That’s why I have been writing you. I got screwed blue and tatooed by Univ. of Limerick and Farmar (Dublin) 2 weeks before the Ms. was to go to press, when some hooded revisionist anonymous irish academic put the eighty-six (éiteachas aíochta, a refusal or denial of hospitality, to be barred or expelled) on it. Of course, he/ she remains anonymous as P-2 Mason.

So I have no publisher after 5 years of work, finally cracking the code and refuting the baloney that the Irish (and Scots) had no influence on American and English Vernacular. I prove it in a long essay called Sanas of the Volgar Tongue that traces the influence all the way back to the Tudor era through the use of so-called Vagabounde Dictionaries of Awdsley, Dekker, and Harman through Grose and right up to the present day.

Datz it. It would make a doozy of a small book and I think it would sell because people and esp. young people love slang.

We had the rewritten book published within the year.

There’s a taste of the man. As I wrote on the back of his book, Imagine old, sunken roads re-surfaced on our maps. Imagine an x-ray of the American language, its sinews and its muscles. This is what Dan Cassidy gave us. He laid out what the Irish in their revels, their loves and hates, their exuberant, often desperate battle with the New World, have given America in the way we all speak and read and write.

Our deep sympathy to Clare. As Danny often used to sign off his emails.

Pax, dc

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Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.