Family Photo Album: The Autobiography of Patrick Cashin
Submitted by Patrick J. Cashin
February / March 2013
Patrick Cashin recorded his autobiography on March 8, 1971, his 60th birthday. In 13 minutes and 20 seconds of cassette tape, he tells his life story with pride and a humble directness. “March 8th, 1971,” he begins. “The Autobiography of Patrick Cashin. To my wife, Ellen, my daughter Theresa, and my sons, Patrick, Thomas, Michael and James.”
He goes from his birth on a farm in the townland of Rossmore, in the parish of Gortletteragh in County Leitrim, Ireland, to his 1930 voyage to New York on the S.S. Baltic; from his work as a train dispatcher with the New York City Transit Authority to his wedding to Galway girl Ellen Fallon, and concludes by reading the prayer of St. Therese of Lisieux, which he says he has recited every night before going to sleep since he was a small child. “I do wish that each of you would memorize this prayer and say it faithfully every day. If you do that, I know that it will bring you great consolation,” he concludes. “With all my love. From Dad.”
His story is best heard in his own voice – careful and considered, quiet but sure, an Irish accent mellowed by 40 years of living in America. And it is available, on YouTube, where Patrick, Jr. posted it in March 2011, brought beautifully to life with images from his father’s past.
Cashin, a photographer with the Metropolitan Transit Authority, discovered the autobiography after his father’s death on March 9, 2001, a day after he turned 91. Cleaning out his father’s old desk in the basement of their family home in Brooklyn, he found an unmarked audiocassette. Fortunately, he thought twice before throwing it out, and a few years later set the autobiography to music and added old family photographs.
The result is no mere slideshow. The camera zooms, documentary style, from face to face in each photo as the elder Patrick introduces his brothers and sisters. There’s video footage of subway tracks from 1930, the year he started working with the IRT as a ticket collector. There are shots of the bread lines his job helped him avoid in Depression-era New York. Later, flickering color video shows Ellen and three of their children walking happily down a tree-lined street in Brooklyn.
Here, Patrick Cashin, Jr. tells the story behind this labor of love:
“My father died in 2001, and like everyone who has to go through that, I was faced with going through his things, his belongings. I was down in our basement sorting through his desk when I found an unmarked cassette. I was just about to throw it out when I said ‘You know, let me just see if there’s anything on this.’ I put it in a cassette player and all of a sudden his voice started coming out. It was 30 years after he had recorded it, and it was just amazing.
“As I kept digging in the drawer I found the script. So this wasn’t just whatever came into his head, he actually sat down and wrote a script, and read it as he was recording. He had made some changes, but there’s no doubt that he wanted this to be found and passed on.
“I listened to it a couple of times and just knew that I had to do something with it, but I wasn’t sure how at the time, so it sat with me for about four years.
“At the time, Ken Burns had come out with his Civil War series, so it wasn’t hard to figure out that I could make something in the same kind of format. My father had written the script for me with the cassette, so the hard part was really done, and he had kept all his old pictures – of the family, of Ireland, of their old house and their new house, even of his old school master. He kept his old mass cards too, so I was able to copy photos off of those. He had hours and hours of Super 8 film, but all of it was bad – the cameras were new then and he had no idea how to shoot, so it was mostly people’s feet and the film was moving too fast. I got maybe 30 useable seconds out of hours and hours of film.
“My siblings and cousins got together some of the old pictures that they had lying around. I made calls and got as many old photos as I could from relatives on both sides of the family. If he mentioned it at all in the audio cassette, I tried to find it. It was very interesting to get out there and hunt them down, to find the exact right photo for a specific sentence.
“One of the things that I hope people will get from this is to save those old pictures, because they are so valuable to the next generation. You’ve got to be able to log them. My father, he wrote on the backs of each photo who it was of and when it was taken. He was very good about that. But there were still a lot of pictures where I couldn’t identify the people, and my mother didn’t know who they were, so I had to sit down with older relatives, go through the photos and write it down. Keep track of it, because once they’re gone it’s all ‘Who’s that?’ and you have no way of really knowing.
“For the score, I went to the public library and listened to The Chieftains and some flute music and picked two or three songs that I liked. There was a lot of staying up late until about 2:00 in the morning. It took me about 6 months to edit it, to get it all together.
“My brother has an annual event, which we call his Irish lunch. Everyone gets together and he serves food, and there’s singing and Irish dancing. Donnie Golden has attended, Joanie Madden from Cherish the Ladies, the lead dancer of Australian Riverdance and a couple of his friends, two guys from Albany who are phenomenal musicians, so there’s live music, and everyone just has a great time. It’s a chance for everyone in the family, friends and relatives, to get together – a good Irish reunion. The film was first shown there about 5 or 6 years ago, when I finished it. My mother was still alive at the time, so she got to see it. Some cousins took it back to Ireland, and I started getting emails from other cousins who had no idea about their relatives in the States. They learned a lot from it. It brought people together.
“When I first started working on it, my original idea was just to make something for my kids to remember their grandfather by. But as I was editing, I realized this was a lot bigger than that. I just think, like I said, that people should realize the treasures they have – photos that are lying at the bottom of drawers, in cabinets; the old pictures and the old photographs – and to keep track of them and save them, digitize them.
“It would be such a shame to have them fade away or to lose them, and to lose your heritage. And that applies to everybody, no matter where you’re from.”
Watch Patrick Cashin, an Irish-American Story: