By Don Cassidy
My father’s grandfather’s name was Frank. He had several sons, and by tradition, they all named one of their sons Frank after their grandfather. Because there were so many Frank Cassidys around Donegal, they all had nicknames like Big Frank and Little Frank. One of them was known as Young Frank and the Young Fella. He was about ten or fifteen years younger than my father.
In 1965, when I was a freshman in college, where my favorite course was Sociology, I came home a day early for Thanksgiving. This was a fortunate surprise for my father and Uncle Michael because they needed a ride to New York to attend the Young Fella’s funeral. I was happy to drive them. And, after studying the rituals of the Greeks, the Puerto Ricans, and the Hopi Indians in my Sociology course, I welcomed the chance to participate in the most Irish of rituals–the wake and funeral.
The funeral home was on Morningside Drive in Manhattan somewhere near Columbia University, where what was still left of Irish New York overlooked Harlem. This was sort of a New York version of a scene from The Last Hurrah. The Young Fella had not done well in America. He never had a good job. He never got married or had kids. His close relatives seemed to have tolerated him but not exactly cherished him. He had no burial insurance. My father and Uncle Michael were aware of this on the way to New York. They quietly agreed that they would offer to help to pay for the funeral so the burden would not be all on the Gorman girls. The Gormans were apparently the relatives that tolerated the Young Fella the most, and they had arranged the funeral.
After I had dropped my father and Uncle Michael off at the funeral home, I drove off for a parking place and then walked back. When I ran into Big Frank, I said hello but he hadn’t seen me since I was about eight years old, and he didn’t recognize me even when I told him my first name. So I had to explain who I was. This was awkward because I couldn’t just say I’m Frank’s son or Frank Cassidy’s son. I had to name just about all of my close relatives and give him our old Bronx address before he placed me. And then he was delighted to see me.
When I went into the funeral parlor I saw the Young Fella, who at 63, didn’t look very young. My father introduced me to some of my cousins that I didn’t know and they were very friendly. I met the Young Fella’s brother and his daughter (my cousin- Mary Margaret) who had come down from Boston by bus. I think his name was Tommy. My father told Michael that Tommy looked good. He said this in a sort of surprised way.
I don’t remember the name of the church but when the funeral Mass was over, my father and Uncle Michael and Big Frank and Willy Bradley sort of huddled around, and my father said something about not putting the entire burden on the Gorman girls and then they all ponied up some money and went over to one of the Gorman girls and gave her the money. I think she seemed a little surprised by this since all of them were basically living on Social Security and pensions.
I was taking this all in with great pride in being Irish. I was thinking “We’re good people- we take care of our own.” Even the ones we don’t like that much and who die without insurance. And we don’t put the entire burden on some single women who happen to have gotten stuck with the arrangements just because they lived near him. I was also impressed that this seemed like very respectable funeral, with several pall bearers, a nice funeral home, a beautiful church. And the mourners, although small in number, were all dressed pretty respectably in suits and ties or nice coats and dresses.
After church we headed for Gate of Heaven Cemetery which was way up past the Bronx in some small New York town. I had a hard time keeping up with the funeral car on the West Side Drive because it zipped across all the traffic and into the high speed lane.
After the prayers at the cemetery, Willie Bradley cornered the priest to make sure he was aware that his son was Father Bill Bradley of such and such a parish in New York and the priest then made some remark about how he was so glad that he had told him that.
When we got back into the car my father said to Uncle Michael, “Well, that’s the last of the Young Fella.”
We were invited to Bradley’s house in Riverdale. Before he retired, Bradley had been a successful business man–he ran his own store (saloon) on Amsterdam Ave. Bradley was a tea totaler but he served my father and Uncle Michael whiskey, which they drank straight with no ice. Since I wasn’t used to seeing them drink whiskey this way I assumed that this was a ritual reserved for special occasions like funerals. Then Mary Bradley called us into the kitchen for a wee bite–stew and Irish bread.
My father and Uncle Michael said we should visit their cousin Aggie Furey who lived near Dykeman Street in Manhattan because her husband Dan had died suddenly fairly recently. You could tell Aggie was having a hard time; she said that she didn’t care any more. She hadn’t gone to the Young Fella’s funeral and she said that the beer gardens got all his money. Her daughter Ann, who was very pretty and was about twenty-two, came home and served my father and Uncle Michael some more whiskey which they again took straight and without ice.
By now it was pretty late in the day and we headed back to Freewood Acres and got home around supper time. Uncle Michael was extremely grateful and complimentary about my driving them all over New York.
I was proud of my father and Uncle Michael and the Irish people in general for our great culture where cousins take care of each other and chip in for decent funerals for relatives who don’t do so well in America and die without life insurance. And I was happy that we Irish have cool customs and rituals like the Greeks and the Puerto Ricans and the Hopi Indians.
Post Script 1- This event took place in November 1965. About thirty-five years later we put the story on the web site. Within a few years we received an-email from the Young Fella’s niece, Mary Margaret, who joined us for a St. Patrick’s Day Cassidy gathering in 2006- just 40 years after our first meeting.
Post Script 2- In 2005 we received an e-mail from Sally Gallagher Campbell, who told us that Young Fella lived with her father just before he died and is buried next to her parents, Frank and Margaret Bradley Gallagher. –In another example of generosity, Frank Gallagher had provided the gravesite for his needy cousin.