Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Remembering Danny Cassidy

Daniel Cassidy, author of "How the Irish Invented Slang" Photo: Cassidy Family 

I was saddened to hear that after waging a fierce battle with pancreatic cancer, co-founder of New College Irish Studies, Daniel Cassidy, and author of “How the Irish Invented Slang,” is gone from us.

Brooklyn-born Cassidy was a man of many hats, he was both a tough street-wise dude, and a raging intellectual. He was a professor, a poet, a talented jazz reed musician, singer, composer, newshound, union organizer, merchant marine, scriptwriter, and author.

Daniel Cassidy founded, and co-directed the Irish Studies program at New College of California in 1995. He also was director of the college's Media and Film Studies program, teaching courses in storytelling, the American newspaper and broadcast history. I sat in on a few of his entertaining lectures and events.

Danny (he was always "Danny" to his friends, never Daniel—and he'd correct you too if you lapsed into the formal) developed his screenwriting chops while working for television producer David Susskind, actor Danny Glover, and director, Francis Ford Coppola. Danny's 1996 documentary "Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs" about the atrocities in Northern Ireland, was nominated for an Emmy. His other film, "Uncensored Voices," was broadcast on PBS in Canada Europe, and Japan.

Danny didn't forget his larger Irish-American community either—he was a co-founder of San Francisco's annual Crossroads Irish-American Festival, that showcases Irish and Irish-American playwrights, artists and authors every March.

Danny's controversial book of essays, "How the Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads" was a surprise sleeper hit that won the 2007 Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award for nonfiction.

“The whole project started with a hunch — hunch, from the Irish word ‘aithint,’ meaning recognition or perception,” said Cassidy in a New York Times interview.

Danny took some heat for his intuitive poetic, and phonetic approach to the etymological roots of Irish words in English (see links below). And he may have done more harm, than good, but he certainly opened up dialogue.

Some pedagogues groused that Danny was an amateur etymologist, and ever-so-eloquently stated that his linguistic claims were "a big heaping load of hooey"; that maybe the award should have been given for fiction instead. I'm sure that was the response Danny was expecting from that crowd. He was a great one to challenge the halls of academe.

But Danny never got a chance to refute his claims and prove some of his slang hunches, for a year after his book was published, he was dead. But he had a good track record for those 65 years on this earth.

I didn't always agree with Danny's interpretations of Irish and the development of street slang, as he sometimes played it a little too fast and loose with linguistics.

Danny didn't speak Irish and didn't know the grammatical rules of Irish, an ancient highly inflected Indo-European language. His family arrived during the Irish Potato Famine, and, like many Irish immigrants, their knowledge of the Irish was lost—save for those ubiquitous slang words, in places like Hell's Kitchen. I can hear Danny saying: Don't call it the famine. There was no famine in Ireland. It was The Great Hunger. An Gorta Mór. There was plenty of food in Ireland.

I rarely saw Danny without his well-thumbed Irish pocket dictionary in hand. (I had a Spanish one just like it—my mother's, when she was honeymooning in Acapulco). He was always hunting down possible slang equivalencies.

When Danny pronounced Irish words in tough Brooklynese, sometimes it was hard to get back to the word in question. But as co-director of Irish Studies at New College, he knew who to ask for help with spelling and pronunciation of Irish. 

I admired Danny's evangelical approach to this slang work and I think some of his connections have credence—as my grandmother, a self-taught Irish scholar, was forever translating English words into Irish. Sometimes she was in left field, sometimes she was in the ballpark. Same with Danny's work.

What I didn't know at the time was that Irish, one of the oldest, and therefore, highly inflected, Indo-European languages, shared many word origins with Sanskrit via Proto-Indo-European, for example. The continuum, and all that.

I was also glad Danny finally proved H.L. Mencken wrong that the Irish contributed so little to the English language. American writer and linguist, H.L. Mencken once observed that the Irish contributed few words to American English. "Perhaps speakeasy, shillelah and smithereens exhaust the list." He forgot hoolighan, and lynch.

I wanted to throw back to Mencken a variation of one of his own quotes: There is a solution to every definition—neat, plausible, and wrong.

In an interview, Danny said: "The English language does not often absorb other languages, especially the Celtic languages. Irish has the longest association with English of any language on the planet, yet in England all we've got are a handful of words such as whiskey."

Note the spelling, with an "e" from uisce, or huisce. That's because the Irish monks invented it long before the Scots took up the habit.

For example, Danny said the word buckaroo came from the Irish bocaí rua, "wild playboys" or "bloody bucks." But bó is cow, buachaill is a cowherder (or cowboy, if you will), and ruadh, is, well, red (or red-haired)—so the meaning is close enough. Even if he came at it all wrong.

When Danny began to point out words "of uncertain origin" is often code for Irish, it struck a chord with me. I knew there were many more Irish words buried within the English language, despite what the Oxford English Dictionary claimed—aside from the usual suspects: smithereens, hoolighan (a surname), and shanty. 

There's also shebeen, shebang, shindig, Sheila, slew, slogan, lollapalooza, colleen, clan, keen, kabosh, banshee, brogue, brogan, bar, ben, glamour, gombeen, leprechaun, whiskey, etc., to name a few.

And it is certainly clear to the Irish speaker, both the Oxford English Dictionary (consider the source) and its American cousin, the Webster's, were rabidly anti-Irish biased ca. the inception of the OED in 1857-84, and there was a general ascribing of Gaelic words as Scottish in origin, or "of uncertain origin" rather than giving the Irish their linguistic due (this was post-famine Ireland). Where did the British think Scots Gaelic came from? Donegal Irish in another lexicon.

The gobshytes and amadáns who compiled dictionaries didn't know that slogan, gob, moniker, and Boycott were also Irish words. Danny claimed glom as Irish, as well. To glom onto something, wasn't even in the dictionary. Danny took it on with panache. And then some.

Danny was from the two Irishmen-three opinions school of conversation—unbridled wild horses of thought running rampant through the halls of academe. It was always a joy ride to have a conversation with the man, himself—even if you didn't agree. Especially if you didn't agree. There was always a hug at the end of it all. 

Danny tried on several occasions to get me to join his program at New College, but it came down to tuition, I just couldn't afford New College. He kept insisting I could make it so, but I didn't have that much faith in raising the tuition and going to school at the same time.

As it was, in 1999, I was straddling San Francisco State and UC Berkeley campuses at the same time, I was carrying 21 units a semester. And that wasn't even counting the Old Irish class with Dr. Gary Holland I was auditing. That's where I unraveled slogan from Old Irish—sluaghan, an army, multitudes.

Danny Cassidy's tenacity and wit will be missed—and though I never went to New College, it was Danny who initially got me back into school, at San Francisco State, while also attending Celtic Studies classes at UC Berkeley. His passion and enthusiasm kept me in the game when I thought I couldn't hack it during bouts of translating manuscripts from Old Irish. Stay the distance, he said.

But we kept in touch. And at the 2006 Crossroads Irish American Festival, Danny remembered me, and invited me to read with Jack Foley and Chad Sweeney at Bird & Beckett Books. It was a grand night. Ah, but the craic was good.

This blogeen is in honor to the man himself, not the (de)merits of his book. Material for another bloggybit. The world is a better place for having Danny riding crazily at the helm, for a while. I'll stop my blatherin' now.


Plan to issue Irish famine stamp praised—this was a pet project of Danny's.

Postal Service balks at famine stamps
Kathleen Sullivan, The Examiner Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 17, 1998

Swell duds—English words with Irish roots
Kathleen Sullivan, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, December 19, 2003 

2006 CROSSROADS: Irish-American Festival—I'm one of the featured readers, along with SFSU classmate Chad Sweeney, Jack Foley, and Katherine Hastings.

2006 CROSSROADS: Irish-American Festival—I posted in my blog following this post—I tried to copy and paste it, with limited success.

Out Loud: Daniel Cassidy says the Irish invented slang
Reyhan Harmanci, Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Al Young to speak at book awards  The Before Columbus Foundation will present the 27th annual American Book Awards at a free public ceremony and reception from 4-6:30 p.m. on Dec. 2 at Laney College Theatre, 900 Fallon St., in Oakland. The 2007 winner: Daniel Cassidy for "How the Irish Invented Slang,"

Irish American Daniel Cassidy dead at 65
Jim Doyle, Chronicle Staff Writer
Published 4:00 am, Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Daniel Cassidy Wiki page

FWIW: I extensively revised this July 19, 2013.

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