There’s a book about to be published with a chapter entitled “James Cassidy” – Artist, Visionary and Gentleman. – a chapter, incidentally that we were blessed enough to be able to read to him in that final time in hospital. Those words describe Dad beautifully – though there are many equally evocative words that could be added. Whatever hat Dad might have been wearing when you met him it was probably the last, in it’s true form – Gentle Man – that stuck with you. That’s not to say he couldn’ t be fierce, as Dublin City Council found out to their peril when he fought and won the battle to close the toxic dump in Finglas. But Dad had a way of touching everybody he met with his beautiful, gentle warmth and sincerity.
It was 1973, March 24th and everybody was in the kitchen celebrating Dad’s birthday. At five and a half years old – and the half was important in those days – I was devastated that I hadn’t anything to give him. I “slipped away”, as Dad would say, and rummaged around upstairs until I found a black faux leather belt. I wrapped it in a sheet of newspaper, brought it down and, with great ceremony, presented it to him. As soon as he unwrapped it I realised, with absolute horror, that it was way too small to go around his waist. Dad didn’t miss a beat. He fastened it around his forehead and started whooping around the kitchen like a red Indian. The rest of the family joined in – yes, as a direct result of Dad we are that eccentric – and it ended with Dad convincing me that it was the best present he’d ever got. That was Dad’s way – he genuinely cared so he could connect with anybody and put them at ease – the homeless guys drinking from cans in Finglas village, the Presidents of Ireland that he met due to the endless community work he did or, in those last days, the nurses who tended him – all of whom he knew by name despite the fight he was waging to stay with us as long as he could. Kipling could have been describing Dad when he said: “To talk with crowds and keep your virtue. To walk with kings – nor lose the common touch.”
There will be other times to talk of the visionary artist that he was – forever painting on often unorthodox objects like bread trays or, in one case, the ballcock from a broken toilet. His murals still decorate walls of his beloved Dublin City – Dad was the original Banksy. Dad used to create what he called decoraltic designs from plaster, paint and whatever else came to hand – in one case the broken glass of the local bus shelter. And when not painting or sculpting he’d write reams of poetry or belt out tunes on his whistle or mouth organ. He’ll be looking forward to some of that later on, no doubt.
There were three things that really drove my Dad, though. A love of Gods creation – when the realities of bringing up a family brought an end to the carefree days of hiking with the gang he led – The Pennine Rangers – over the mountains, he would find the time to immerse himself in nature by getting up at 5am and, as he put it, slipping away to the mountains before work.
The second thing that defined Dad was his unwavering faith that brought him and Mam safely through all the ups and downs that life held for them. He always made it clear that it was of the utmost important to him that we children embraced our spirituality – we said the rosary every night as Dad’s mantra was that the family who prayed together stayed together. As always in these things, Dad was right – as demonstrated by the solid rock of love that surrounded him and mam through these last years when his soul began to grow too powerful for a failing body. But Dad never forced religion onto us. Like Jesus, he led by example and, as always, gently had his way in the end.
The most important thing to him, however – as it embodied his faith – was his absolute love and devotion to my Mum, Jo. When he first laid eyes on her, he told a friend: That’s the girl I’m going to marry and, some years later, he did. That deep undying love was extended to each of their children as they arrived and on to the next generations. Dad knew – really knew – every one of their grandchildren and great grandchildren. That love that he offered and so inspired ensured that he was always surrounded by loved ones who wanted to spend time with him and Mam.
Like the Paschal candle at Easter Dad was like a flame that, as the prayer says, dispelled darkness and like that candle, so many flames were lit from coming into contact with him. At his funeral last Saturday there were just some of the people who through knowing dad were infected with that light that flowed from him – whether it was simply that he left them smiling or whether – like his family and so many other people we know of – he profoundly shaped their lives for the better. He was passionate about the idea that this country could look back into its history to a time when it was ‘The Land of Saints and Scholars” and he wrote to everyone – from politicians to the Pope – about what he called Athbeochan – the new Golden Age. What he didn’t realise is that he himself was the seed of that new Golden Age and that when his candle – having burned brightly to the last ‘modicum’, as he would say, of wick – fluttered out, the flame he has lit is spreading and is unstoppable. Your Golden Age is coming, Dad.
Nowadays the buzzwords are ‘living in the now’ and ‘mindfulness’. Dad was way ahead of the pack there. With his absolute trust in God he dealt with what was around him without dwelling on the past nor worrying about the future. So it was only in the last days when it became clear to him that his body was going to leave that huge spirit of his trapped in a bed that he planned his last big adventure.
When I was about 10 I found myself with my brother Chris on the wrong side of a river that had risen to flood levels while we had been climbing one of the Wicklow Mountains with Dad and a couple of others. Everyone managed to scramble across bar Dad, one other guy and ourselves. Dad crossed next to ensure that he felt we could make it safely. He decided it was too risky. The guy he’d left us with was somebody he felt he could trust to get us down river safely to where we could cross. It must have been heart wrenching for him to leave us on the other side of that river bank, unable to follow but he knew it had to be that way. He shouted across that we’d be alright and we separated into the darkness and fog that was all around us at that point. It was a scary descent along the river bank but Dad had left us in good safe hands. The absolute joy and relief when he popped out smiling from the mist was immense. He led us safely across the river to where, in a local cottage, he had a feast of hot tea and homemade jam and bread waiting and it was a magical reunion that I’ll never forget.
So, in the early minutes of November 10, after having had mass, communion, prayers and time with the whole family gathered round him, Dad waited until Mam had settled peacefully in the room with him and the clock had moved past midnight onto the birthday of his own mum and then, as was his style, he slipped quietly, peacefully away leaving us in safe hands and with the knowledge that he’ll come out of the fog with that gorgeous smile to show us the way when it’s our turn to cross that river.
Dad was fiercely proud of his Irishness so, to use the words that he said to each of us at night when we kissed each other and said we loved each other – oiche mhait agus codladh sámh, slan agus beannacht.