8 November 2006
3 hours, 16 minutes
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University
Bridget M. Cagney (b. Cork City, Ireland, 1937) is the daughter of William Osborne, originally from Galbally, Co. Limerick, and Nancy Moloney from Aherlow, Co. Tipperary. Bridget’s mother had traveled to America in 1930 and worked for a hair product company on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, New York, with her two sisters; she returned to Ireland in 1935. In 1936, William Osborne and Nancy Moloney eloped and moved to the city of Cork; Bridget is the eldest of their six children. Her father worked in the Ford Motor Company factory in both Cork and Dagenham, East London, England until after World War II, when he found employment as a bus driver in Cork City.
Bridget Osborne attended primary school from 1942-1949 at Christ the King Convent, which was run by Presentation Sisters, in Turner’s Cross, Cork City. She went to secondary school at the Presentation Convent on Douglas Street from 1949-1953. At the age of 16, Bridget left school in order to help out her family by working at Gill and Company, a bakery on Princes Street, Cork. In 1957, she started employment at Woodford Bourne, a gourmet shop on Patrick Street, Cork. From 1958-1963 she went to work for Irish Steel Holdings in Haulbowline, Co. Cork as a secretary. In addition to her employment, Bridget went to night school, from 1953-1958, to learn short-hand, business typing, and accounting. In 1959, Bridget met Jim Cagney at a University College Cork [UCC] dance; they were married in 1963 and moved to Foynes, Co. Limerick, to be near Jim’s employment. He had obtained degrees in Chemistry and Experimental Physics from UCC in 1960, then found work at Southern Chemicals, located in Askeaton, Co. Limerick, from 1961-1966.
Bridget and Jim Cagney left Ireland in the summer of 1967, on one of the last voyages of the RMS Queen Elizabeth, arriving in New York City on July 4th, 1967 and soon settling in Sunnyside, Queens. From 1967-1969, Bridget worked for the Coca-Cola Bottling Company on 34th Street in Manhattan, as a secretary to the production manager Alfred Luciani. In 1969, she obtained a position at the Institute of International Education [IEE], located at United Nations Plaza in Manhattan. Bridget first worked in its Fulbright Program as a secretarial assistant; then in 1971 she moved to the Arts Program to work as a program analyst. She retired in August 2000 after thirty-one years. Jim Cagney pursued a career as a chemist working with adhesives for various companies in the New York metropolitan area.
After a successful recovery from cancer in the 1980s, Bridget Cagney went back to school. In 1987, while keeping her job at IEE, she enrolled in Marymount Manhattan College. She double majored in English and Arts Management and in 1993 earned a B.A. in English. In 1994 she received a certificate in drug and alcohol abuse counseling and also began her graduate education at New York University, from which she received an M.A in Education and Theatre in 1998.
Following the events of September 11th, 2001, Bridget and Jim Cagney joined volunteers at “Point Thank You”, in a spontaneous effort by civilians to stand by Ground Zero and thank recovery workers. She stood at the site, located on Christopher Street and the West Side Highway, every night until recovery efforts at the World Trade Center site formally ended on May 30th, 2002.
At the time of this interview, Bridget and her husband were both retired and involved as volunteers with September Space and the World Cares Center, as well as helping out various causes for the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross, and parishes around their Sunnyside, Queens home.
Excerpt No. 1
The Excitement of the Foreign and ExoticDisc 1, 4:58–6:3
Transcription of Excerpt No. 1
BC: Well, I come from a very small country, a little island. Is it the size of New York State? Very far – isolated, I suppose – really, in a sense. And I can’t remember anybody in our family ever coming from anywhere else, for hundreds of years. It would be, it would be exciting – because of that, I think, growing up, we loved people from other places ’cause we never saw them. We would have a visitor now and again. The nuns would be all excited telling us we were having a visit from Africa. And one of the priests serving in the African missions would come and maybe bring an African priest with him or a student and that was the excitement. Somebody from someplace else. It was like – it was the most exciting thing, ’cause your island was looking out on the horizon, wondering what’s out there, and always finding – to see somebody from another country. When the circus would come to town and bring performers from other places, oh that was so exciting! Or when the theater would come and have maybe somebody from England, or Scotland, or France, or Germany – that was excitement! So I can’t remember, ever, being related to anybody who wasn’t born in Ireland.
Excerpt No. 2
Childhood impressions of AmericansDisc 1, 30:41–31:56
Transcription of Excerpt No. 2
BC: My mother – then they would all come home, I mean, the boys and everything would come home, it was amazing. And the excitement, the clothes – no one had ever seen anything like this, you know? Beautiful high-heeled shoes, everything matching. I mean, they were – their look – and everybody was so beautiful. And they had so much money; I mean, that’s what we thought because it was such a different world and because they were so generous. And we didn’t realize, I suppose, that they saved up and saved up for these special trips. And – but they all lived in New York, so they did dress beautifully. And, I said, they were very, very generous and they would just bring home the most beautiful things. So, from a very early age, [to] my mother (and she passed it on to me) America was just the promised land. I mean, if there was any problem, anywhere, America could solve it. If there was anything wrong with the world, America could solve it – this was the idea. Because it was like magic, you know, it had everything that we didn’t have. And the people there were warm and generous and kind. That’s – that was the waves that we were getting, you know.
Excerpt No. 3
On the broadening of her mindDisc 2, 21:56–24:33
Transcription of Excerpt No. 3
BC: And here I was now in the Institute of International Education and that I’d have to see the bigger picture. So it taught me to look at the world and to see the world for what it is, and this [Ireland] is just one small little country, and that we were all sharing this planet. And that understanding, an education, was the way to peace – opening doors to people and their minds. And here I was learning this, and doing this everyday. So here I was, and the thing was, it was just the most wonderful thing of my whole life. I can honestly say, without exaggeration, I woke up every morning wanting to get to work and I never wanted to leave. And the sense of joy and satisfaction that I had out of dealing with people from every country and learning about other people and realizing how much we all had in common. You know? That it was such a beautiful thing, and that the key was education. And that the key was education! It was just the joy of my life, it really was. And, peace, I mean, I really felt that there wasn’t anything that we couldn’t solve by sitting and talking to somebody. Diplomacy was the way to go. And if you could get young people here who had never been – America is a vast continent, not like a little island, and therefore a lot of people didn’t go abroad. You didn’t have to. You had everything right here. But if more young people could be sent abroad and be given the experience of meeting and experiencing and talking to people from other countries, it wouldn’t be us versus them. We wouldn’t be talking about the unknown, scary person that’s out there. You’d go and you’d see that basically everyone is the same, every mother and father is the same. They want a better job for their child, a safer world, they want them to be happy, they want them to be well, and they’d like to have children. It’s the same everywhere. And, it was the joy in sending young people abroad so that they could experience this for the first time and they’d say, “Oh, I really had a totally different idea about [what] the people in France were like, or what the people in wherever” –
Excerpt No. 4
“Point Thank You”Disc 2, 59:20–62:44
Transcription of Excerpt No. 4
SG: Bridget, you characterize yourself as a pacifist and that you want everyone to live together happily, and you mentioned that they taught you a lot of charity and humanitarianism in primary school; how does that connect with you helping the 9/11 workers?
BC: So I took to coming during the day for a couple of hours, and then coming down in the evening and meeting Jim [Cagney]. And the weather was good, beautiful September; if you remember, it was absolutely gorgeous. And we would stay until the shift workers came out, maybe at 4 a.m., or if some other people were coming and going, and you never wanted the place where we stood to be vacant. So always somebody was there – if somebody came at 1 a.m. we left, if somebody came at 12:30 a.m. we left, if they didn’t we would just stay. And then we did this for eight and a half months, but it developed into something totally different because the highway was closed to all but rescue and recovery, motor lorries and trucks, and the sanitation people who were bringing the dust out. And that – and also the remains that would be recovered would come up the Westside Highway and turn there [Christopher Street]. And then it was just police and firefighters. And by now they all knew us, and every night the Red Cross, when they were passing by, would slow down between 11:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m., and would throw us out all the food that they had. You know – and then the police – in fact, the police would come and bring us coffee and tea and all of that. And then, the recovery workers on the way down, they would – the thing – what happened to us most was they would stop for one moment and just look and cry. And they couldn’t say anything. They would just stop – it was – they just couldn’t say anything. And I remember the one particular man who would have his dogs in the back, he would look at us and he wouldn’t say anything, but then he would – the back window would open and the dogs would put their heads out, and we’d just go over and then they’d lick us all over and then he’d say, “Fine.” And then he took to doing that all the time. And they actually couldn’t speak to us or anything like that, and they were like in a daze, they were totally – and then after a few months, when they would – they would just come and say, you know, “You’re the only human beings that we ever saw because we never went home and, when we did, we didn’t speak to anybody.” Because they were totally devastated. What they had to do – I mean, that’s what drove us down there. When we saw that these people were going in with their bare hands and searching for remains and dust and bringing it out – because they had all lost buddies and some of these older firemen had lost their sons and they just didn’t want to leave until they found something, some little piece of them, you know? We were giving so little and they were giving so much and then they began to think so much of us for the little tiny piece that we were doing, that it was like – it was even too much for us. You know, we said, “We’re doing nothing” and he said, “Oh no, you don’t know! You’re the only human beings that we see, and just the encouragement, and the day that you’re not there – I mean, the day that we come by and you’re not there, we’ll just say, ‘It’s all over.’” And we said, “No, when you give up, we’ll give up.”
- Samuel Golpanian (SG)
- Marion R. Casey (MC)
- Jim and Bridget Cagney, 8 November 2006. Photo by Marion R. Casey.
- Passport photo of Bridget Cagney, circa 1970s. Courtesy of Bridget Cagney.
- At “Point Thank You” in December 2001. Photo by Judith Sapountzakis, courtesy of Bridget Cagney.
- >At “Point Thank You” in December 2001. Photo by Ting-Li Wang for The New York Times, December 26, 2001. Clipping courtesy of Bridget Cagney.
- The 2002 St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City. Jim Cagney holds the “Point Thank You” sign on the left while Bridget Cagney holds the large “Thank You” sign center. Photo by Scott Spencer, courtesy of Glucksman Ireland House, New York University.
- At “Point Thank You” on May 30, 2002. Photo by Charlotte O’Donnell for The Villager, June 5, 2002. Clipping courtesy of Bridget Cagney.