independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

One man's 30-year obsession to tell the story of the Casey brothers

VIDEOGRAPHER Christy Riordan knew he was onto something rather special as he wrapped up his interview with former NASA director George Abbey.

He had come a long way, from scenic Cahersiveen to the sizzling Texan heat, but in truth the odyssey had started almost 30 years ago as Christy filmed the local regattas of south west Kerry.

That's where the legendary Casey brothers of Sneem - once labelled the toughest family on Earth - first plied their trade back in the 1930s, collecting countless trophies that would be emulated by future Casey generations.

Thirty years ago this summer, the Sneem Regatta hosted a final reunion of what was arguably the greatest Irish sporting family - brothers Steve, Paddy, Jack, Jim, Mick, Tom, and Dan Casey.

Christy's fascination with the sport would lead to footage of these later generations and an all-important interview with Steve 'The Crusher' Casey in the early 1980s.

"That's really where it all began, with that very interview," Christy recalls

"Steve died just a few years later in 1987 so it's precious footage and I interviewed his brother Paddy and have filmed Paddy's sons, Patrick and Steve, and Steve's two sons John and James, who went on to win an All-Ireland Regatta in Skull in 2001."

From rowing to wrestling and tugowar, the Casey journey moved beyond the water and, indeed, beyond Ireland with professional wrestling bouts in the UK and US. There was ample coverage of the famous brothers and their offspring but as the years went by the story began to fade.

Christy continued to collect any piece of footage he could, he kept newspaper cuttings in a box at home and continued his active interest in the family but there was only so much he could get his hands on, as he explains.

"I had done all I could in Ireland so the project was put on the back burner for a number of years and it wasn't until Jim Casey's wife Myrtle came over to Kerry in 2006 that it all started up again," Christy continues.

"She came with her daughter Patricia and when we met she asked me to come over and to continue the story in the US, so I just had to go," he adds.

Indeed, Christy travelled to Dickinson, Texas, in 2008 and just two weeks before he travelled he decided he need a little help, calling on the services of Killarney broadcaster Weeshie Fogarty to carry out the interviews Stateside.

"Weeshie came on board straight away and did some great interviews. Myrtle gave me full access to all of her own footage and materials, as she didn't want the story to die and so we collected a huge archive of materials that really brought the story on."

It was there that Christy met Jim Hudson, since deceased, who had spent three years with Jim Casey during which he wrote a first book on the Casey brothers in 1991, a book that would only be published in the US and had since been out of print.

"Jim's accounts were fascinating, he gave us a great insight into Jim Casey and his time with the family," Christy reveals.

And it was on the seven-day trip that Christy got to film George Abbey, former director of the Johnson Space Centre, who in 1964 was assigned to NASA as an air force captain to work as the military liaison to the moon-bound Apollo programme. In other words, Abbey had to fully prepare the astronauts for their out of this world adventures and he turned to Jim Casey for assistance, as Christy explains.

"We did a beautiful interview about the moon landing and Jim Casey's involvement in preparing the astronauts. He taught them rowing and tugowar techniques and he even trained an astronaut team to win the All-American Tugowar Championships.

"We were allowed to film inside NASA and it really completes a great story," Christy adds.

The results are included in a special DVD The Casey Brothers of Sneem: A Unique Irish American Story to be launched alongside Jim's Hudson's book The Legendary Casey Brothers, which develops the original 1991 publication to include five generations of Caseys. It's a night Christy never thought would happen.

"It has certainly been a labour of love and I had given up three or four times but Myrtle kept at me to keep going," he says.

"To be honest, even after we had collected the footage in the US the recession hit and there just wasn't the funds to complete it but, thanks to Weeshie, he was able to sell the idea to The Collins Press who took it over and produced it after hearing the full extent of the Casey story.

"I have to admit it hasn't been easy and it has cost a lot of money and effort but it will all have been worth in the end. I'd also like to thank John O'Sullivan who carried out interviews too, and my son Anthony for his work on the DVD," he continues.

"It's a story that was fading in south Kerry and even some of the younger Casey generations hadn't realised all that had been achieved by their forefathers, so it's satisfying in that respect too," he adds.

Meanwhile, joining in with the celebrations this Friday will be a very special guest, 94-year-old Myrtle, the finishing touch to a very long journey indeed.

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