Cagneys scaled

Enthusiasm, good cheer will be missed

Bridget and the late Jim Cagney at the Glucksman Ireland House holiday party in December.

By Peter McDermott

I called the Cagney household on Saturday afternoon, Feb. 1 — St. Brigid’s Day. Jim picked up as I was leaving a voice message.

So I asked him my question: how did he and Bridget meet? It was for a piece for St. Valentine’s Day 2020. Rather than say something like “Let me get back to you about that,” he launched into the story of the Sunday night hop at University College Cork restaurant.

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“I can still see myself dancing around the floor of the Rest,” Jim Cagney said. He remembered “The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee” was playing, and Johnny Cagney, his cousin, was on bass for Billy Browne and His Band of Renown.

One night, Jim’s best friend George, an electrical engineering student, brought his sister, Bridget, and Jim was instantaneously love-struck. “I can even remember what she was wearing,” he said. “A black dress with grey threads in it.”

I followed up the next weekend, on Sunday, Feb. 9, about some details. Jim was just in from a trip with Bridget to Macy’s and Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church and they had taken the 7 train back to Sunnyside. He recalled then that studying science was hard, but he always had fun thinking back on those years — so much better than the “drudgery of farming” back at Gibbings Grove in Milford.

It was a great romance and Jim, who died last month, was a fine storyteller. I’m very saddened that I won’t see the Cagneys together again, bringing their good cheer and enthusiasm to the proceedings, in addition to his stories and jokes and Bridget’s wisdom.

About an hour after hearing of his passing, I opened a handwritten letter from Jim. He wrote it, but Bridget signed it, too. His influence was seen in the feedback he liked to give. If I made some obscure reference in a column that sparked his interest, he’d file it away mentally and raise it with me the next time I ran into them at an event.

But Bridget’s influence was there, too, her being the more socially activist-minded, and the main point of the letter was an article about Clare Horgan, the sean-nós singer who had to go back to Ireland because of the pandemic. At home, she became an advocate for asylum seekers in her native South Kerry region. The letter praised the singer’s talent, courage, energy and commitment. I called Clare and she remembered meeting them last at the Butcher’s Block in Sunnyside. “They were lovely,” she said. “They were a happy couple, happy-go-lucky.”

All who knew him will be sorry Jim didn’t get to see his beloved adopted city of Cork again, but maybe we might find comfort in that image of the young man dancing around the floor of the Rest in UCC to the strains of “The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee,” as played by Billy Browne and His Band of Renown.