It was both sad and fitting that Jim Dwyer’s May 26 piece for the New York Times was to be the last of his career.
ad, because there should have been many more entries to his stellar bank of stories; he was only 63 last Thursday, when he died of complications arising from his lung cancer.
Fitting, because that piece served as a hat-tip to a remarkable Kerry woman – his great-grandmother – and the place from which the paternal side of his family came, a place that never left his thoughts for long.
The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner wrote about ‘Nan the Point’, Julia Neill Sullivan, who lived near Reenroe in the Sneem area during the Spanish Flu of over 100 years ago. She was not unlike those who’ve kept New Yorkers fed and watered throughout our own pandemic, Jim observed; she delivered food to her youngest child, Mary, when she, her husband, and her young children had the flu. Thanks to ‘Nan the Point’, the couple and their seven children survived, and Mary and her husband, Paddy Dwyer, would go on to have five more children.
“I am one of the 45 great-grandchildren who came from the house that did not die out because Nan the Point left pots of food on a rock, upwind,” Jim wrote in May.
At the end of his final piece, Jim thanked three more of Nan the Point’s great-grandchildren for helping with the piece. One of those was Marian Dwyer, who herself came from Kerry but moved to the United States when she was just nine.
And after crossing the Atlantic, Jim would become more of a brother than a first-cousin to her.
“I was born in Kerry, west of Sneem,” she tells The Kerryman, “and Jim’s father and my father were brothers.
“The legacy behind him in Ireland was extremely important to him – his father, Philip, came from Kerry and his mother, Mary, came from Galway – and I think he’d be so proud that The Kerryman would even think to write a piece about him.
“He would have been a regular visitor to Kerry in his youth, but again in recent years particularly. He was in Kerry last summer, 2019, and he was due to go there again this year. I think he’s been there at least five times in the last 10 years or so. He even walked a lot of the Kerry Way, which I know he was very proud of.
“We remember family talking about Nan the Point and how she fed our grandparents and their children. We got talking about it again at the start of COVID, in around March, and then Jim, in his inimitable way, was able to tie that in with the workers here in New York.”
Jim started out with the New York Times in 2001, by which time he had already won two Pulitzers. He won his first in 1992, as part of the New York Newsday team, for reportage on a subway derailment in Manhattan; his second, for commentary, arrived three years later as a reward for columns he penned while at Newsday. He was also a columnist for six years at The Daily News.
His early days at the Times coincided with the September 11 attacks, and he combined with Kevin Flynn four years on from the disaster to publish ‘102 Minutes’, ‘The untold story of the fight to survive inside the Twin Towers’. It was one of six books he authored or co-authored.
His achievements may have had a greater impact on the US than on anywhere else, but family ties ensured that these feats did not go unnoticed here. Jim has many relatives scattered around the country, including Sneem native and Causeway resident Tim O’Sullivan – his first cousin.
“I had some of his books,” Tim says, “and we had an aunt in New York who kept us all up to date. She gathered information from everyone in the family, and there’d be a phone call once a month with a big list of things to read out.
“It would have been a source of pride, of course, to have someone of that calibre as a first cousin.
“I wouldn’t have had much access to him over the last 20 or 30 years, but he was a regular visitor in his youth, and we would have the occasional social-media message. I was aware that he was sick because I’ve a sister in New York and in New Jersey, and we’d be in contact during the week.
“We did know that he had gone beyond the point of no return, but it’s still a shock and very sad when it does come.”
It would have hit Marian even harder, having had a sibling-like relationship with Jim. A small, private Funeral will take place Stateside this week, and the days leading up to his farewell have prompted understandable reminiscence by those nearest to him.
Marian recalls that Jim gave the eulogy at her own father’s Funeral some 20 years ago; it’s not many who have access to a two-time Pulitzer-winner to perform that role, so it’s unsurprising that it’s one of her first recollections of Jim to come to mind at this time of grief.
More than anything, though, she’ll remember him as a great listener; you’d imagine it’s something that many of those subject to his prize-winning prose will remember too.
“I think that’s what made him a great journalist,” Marian says. “He was a fantastic listener, and no matter where you were or what the circumstances were, you had his undivided attention. His empathy gene was so much stronger than anyone else’s.”
“I am one of the 45 great-grandchildren who came from the house that did not die out because Nan the Point left pots of food on a rock, upwind,” said Jim at the end of his career.
“In times to come, when we are all gone, people not yet born will walk in the sunshine of their own days because of what women and men did at this hour to feed the sick, to heal and to comfort.
“Listen once more for that footfall, nearby.”
Nan the Point gave Jim his chance at life, and after starting out as a ‘cub’ reporter in his late teens, he seized that opportunity.
Jim Dwyer is mourned by his wife, Cathy; daughters, Maura and Catherine; brothers, Patrick, Philip, and John; extended family and relatives at home in the US and further afield.