St. Paddy’s Day is a fine time for a tale of serendipity. This one comes courtesy of Joe Hassett, Buffalo’s gift to Ireland, aka the Land of Saints and Scholars.
For clarity’s sake: Patrick is a saint, Joe is a scholar.
Our story begins at Memorial Auditorium in the late 1950s, when Ray McGuire played basketball for Canisius College. It ends at a recent dinner gala in New York City, where Joe happened to spot Ray sitting next to the novelist Alice McDermott.
Joe was delighted to see them together. They were delighted, too, when Joe told them about a mutual connection.
First, though, let’s meet our cast of characters.
Joseph M. Hassett, 79, is a Buffalo-born trial attorney in Washington who also serves as outside counsel for the Embassy of Ireland. He is a graduate of Canisius and Harvard Law School and holds a doctorate in Anglo-Irish literature from University College Dublin.
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Alice McDermott, 69, the author of eight novels, is a retired professor in the humanities at Johns Hopkins University. Among her many honors, she won the American Book Award for fiction 25 years ago for her novel “Charming Billy.”
Raymond G. McGuire, 84, is a labor attorney in New York. He, too, is a graduate of Canisius and Harvard Law. His wife, Judith McGuire, is president emerita of the Glucksman Ireland House, New York University’s center for Irish and Irish-American studies.
The Ireland House presented Alice with the Seamus Heaney Award for Arts and Letters in 2019. Three weeks ago, at the 2023 gala, Ray and Alice happened to be seated next to each other. That’s when Joe realized he knew each of them from Canisius connections: Ray from playing hoops there, and Alice from speaking there.
Joe and Ray first met in person only a few years ago, at the Ireland House, where Joe gave a lecture on the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Ah, but Joe had known of Ray since Joe was a teenager in North Buffalo who took the bus downtown on winter Saturdays to see college basketball doubleheaders at the Aud.
“I recognized Ray right away from his basketball days,” Joe says of their meeting a lifetime later.
Joe met Alice when he invited her to speak at Canisius as a part of the Hassett Family Reading. Over the years, Joe has brought to campus such Irish literary luminaries as Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and Michael Longley. (Sally Rooney was set to speak in 2020, but Covid-19 canceled her appearance; it was to have come just as Hulu was airing a 12-episode adaptation of her novel “Normal People.”)
When Alice spoke at Canisius, Joe told her that a character in one of her novels reminded him greatly of his great-aunt Sarah Kelly. Alice answered, “It’s all the same family.”
This brings us back to that night in late February when Joe spotted Ray and Alice side by side and hastened to tell them something before the evening’s speeches began.
“I said, ‘Ray, did you know that Alice sent Charming Billy up to Canisius to go to college?’ And Ray was startled by that.”
Billy Lynch, the alcoholic New Yorker at the center of “Charming Billy,” goes to college at Canisius for a time. When Alice herself came to Canisius to speak, Joe asked how she had come to send her title character to school there.
“She told me that she picked Canisius,” Joe says, “because she was looking for a place where it was plausible for an Irish Catholic boy from New York to go away to college.”
No wonder Ray was startled: He is living proof of that plausibility. He grew up in the Bronx — and came to Canisius to play college basketball. The Jesuits who taught Ray at Regis High School in New York always steered their students to Catholic colleges. “They wouldn’t let us go to secular schools,” Ray says, “unless it was one of the service academies.”
Ray and Alice got a good laugh from their small moment of serendipity. The whole thing makes Joe think of Virginia Woolf, the British modernist writer.
“She wrote that behind what she called the ‘cotton wool’ of daily life there is hidden a pattern, and that we are all connected with this,” Joe says. “That the whole world is a work of art, and that we are all parts of it.”
Of course we are.
It’s all the same family.