Noe Valley Voice March 2008

Daniel Cassidy--Discovering His Irish Voice

By Joshua Brandt

In explaining the lack of respect for Irish-American jargon, Daniel Cassidy, the author of the 2007 book How the Irish Invented Slang, is reverting to his native tongue--the language of Queens, New York.

Which is to say that the Noe Valley resident is speaking with his body, which is in a constant whir of kinetic energy. One minute he's fiddling with the lapels of his coat, the next he's tapping out a beat on his coffee cup. The thoughts come rapidfire, as if the magnitude of his words requires a physical exclamation point.

"Listen, I know Irish people who can talk the paint off walls, brother," Cassidy says, clutching at the wrist of his listener. "I mean they can talk the paint right off the walls," he repeats, pointing his finger for emphasis. "So how come the Irish have no influence on American vernacular?"

The question lingers in the air, long enough for the silver-domed ex-New Yorker to gulp down several swigs of coffee. Why, Cassidy wants to know, is there no trace of Irish slang in standard dictionaries?

Before his listener can formulate an answer, Cassidy, who is a featured participant in this month's Crossroads Irish-American Festival, hammers his point home.

"Do you think it's because the old Oxford English dictionaries are a product of British imperialism, and they just left us out?"

The former merchant marine raises his shoulders in an exaggerated shrug and gives his listener a knowing look as if to say, "You tell me...but I already know the answer."

The answer, according to Cassidy, is an emphatic "yes."

For Cassidy, the former director of the Irish Studies Program at New College of California, language is a direct conduit to one's heritage. Cassidy grew up with the "secret Irish" that was spoken in his relatives' kitchens, living rooms, and playgrounds.

But it wasn't until he was willed an Irish dictionary by his late friend Kevin O'Dowd that Cassidy's own Irish renaissance began in earnest. It was the first item that Cassidy, now 64, had ever inherited, and though he was loath to part with it, he thought he was "too old to learn Irish."

And then he began to read. As Cassidy discovered the origins of words like "jazz," "dude," and "holy-moly," he felt a renewed kinship to his Irish immigrant forebears.

The passion that now prompts Cassidy to pepper his speech with words such as "muckers," "rufflers," and "lags" compelled him to imbue other people with an appreciation for their native tongue and heritage.

"I have students come up to me all the time and tell me that they were just 'white kids' from the suburbs. These were kids with names like Lieberman, O'Reilly, and Dellessandro. So I asked the kids with names like Lieberman, would they be 'white' in 1939 Nazi Germany?' No, they wouldn't--they'd be Jewish, no question. The same thing is true with the Irish and Italians here in America at the turn of the last century. The Ku Klux Klan certainly didn't consider Irish and Italian immigrants 'white.'

"So it's no wonder all these kids from the suburbs are depressed--they're cut off from their roots. It's time we exploded this multicultural myth of whiteness," Cassidy says.

"Groups like the Irish, the Italians, and the Jews, they shouldn't be checking the box marked 'white.' They have totally distinct languages and cultures.

"Let me tell you something, brother," says Cassidy, tapping on the table to make a final point. "There just ain't no vitamins in being 'white.'"

Author Daniel Cassidy will be giving a musical performance and reading from his book How the Irish Invented Slang on Thursday, March 13, 7 p.m., at the Bookshop West Portal, 80 West Portal Avenue. The event is sponsored by the Crossroads Irish-American Festival.