Was Cassidy a racist? In a sense, the answer to this is no. He wasn’t a Klansman or a white supremacist. He would not have identified himself as a racist. Yet the behaviour of people like Cassidy (i.e. crazy people) is often problematic. They frequently act in ways that conflict with the principles they pretend to live by. For example, Cassidy claimed to be a socialist and a trade unionist, yet he took a job as an academic without having a degree. Nobody who believed in the principles of socialism, trade unionism or ordinary, basic fairness would do that. In a sense, he was also a racist, because he treated the Irish language and Irish culture not as a reality existing in its own right, but as a worthless dead language which he had a right to use as a plaything.
I recently mentioned Cassidy’s family tree. His brother has put a fairly comprehensive pedigree on Ancestry.com, which shows that there was a family tradition that the Cassidys had Cherokee blood. Cassidy’s grandmother Frances Stokes was the daughter of Frances Garrity, whose mother was Matilda May Byrnes, whose mother was Emma Pattison, whose mother was Margaret Abbott, who was rumoured to be part Cherokee, and her surname, Abbott, is found in records of the Cherokee at the time. In other words, Cassidy’s great-great-great-great-grandmother might have been partly of Cherokee descent.
Let’s just suppose that Cassidy, instead of getting a bee in his bonnet about Irish, decided to look at his Cherokee ancestry. Suppose he came up with a theory that millions of America’s urban poor had Cherokee descent and that they had remembered the Cherokee language without knowing it. And suppose that, instead of going off to the Cherokee nation and learning some of the language, he hit the dictionaries running and came up with ‘Cherokee’ phrases like guladale, the ‘obvious’ origin of English galoot. (Derived from gu-la = idiot + da-le = foolish! These are genuine Cherokee dictionary entries, but I have no idea whether adjectives come before nouns or after them in Cherokee or whether anyone would actually say ‘foolish idiot’ in that language – I mean, what other kind of idiot is there? And of course, this is exactly the kind of inept guesswork that Cassidy applied to the Irish language.)
And suppose that some Cherokee people thought that this theory would help to bring them support and money and give them kudos, so they backed him, in spite of the fact that they knew this was all rubbish, and allowed this pretentious, badly-educated white fool to stand on a platform with a highly inappropriate feathered head-dress and beaded vest sounding forth about the Cherokee roots of American popular culture. And meanwhile, imagine that other people who had a good knowledge of linguistics and Cherokee language were crying foul and pointing out that all of his claims were nonsense, and they were being accused of being time-servers and narrow-minded fools refusing to think out of the box by people who had never heard a word of Cherokee in their lives. Wouldn’t that be racism? Wouldn’t that be cultural appropriation? Wouldn’t that be treating a minority language as something with no value except as a source of unearned income for a liar and fantasist who was completely ignorant of that language?
Yes, it was all of those things. Because, although the Cherokee scenario never happened, this is exactly what happened in the case of Cassidy’s claims about Irish. People who know nothing at all about Irish are arguing with people who use the language every day of their lives, as if they have an equal right to decide what sounds like good Irish and what doesn’t. People who do that might think they are socialists, or radicals, or left-wing, or even Irish Republicans. But in the real world, Cassidy and his minions are simply ignorant bigots who refuse to accept the facts. They are as much a product of colonialism as men in bowler hats trying to force unwelcome marches through Catholic areas in Belfast.