Remembering Danny Sheehy — And Máire

by Tom Moriarty

When Danny Sheehy died several months ago in an accident off the coast of Spain, the Irish Cultural Center of Western New England experienced a profound loss. Danny’s life and works reflected a deep appreciation of Irish culture, especially that of his west Kerry homeland, the very homeland he shared with the thousands of Irish who settled in the greater Springfield area.

Danny hailed from Corca Dhuibhne, the Irish speaking area of the Dingle Peninsula. From there he drew inspiration for his writings. He loved the people, their history, and their music. He traveled and explored the area’s mountains and hills as well as the islands off the coast. And he loved the Irish language which he had spoken since childhood and in which he wrote all his works. His subject as well often reflected the material culture of his west Kerry homeland. The naomhóg, the distinctly built vessels used by Kerry fishermen, is key to understanding the message of his first book, entitled in Irish Fan Inti. A long, rambling wall in his area is the inspiration for his work, Allagar na gCloch, a reflection on the generations who were its architects. One of his last works, recently translated as In the Wake of Saint Brendan From Dingle to Iceland, seems inspired by monks from western Ireland who centuries earlier had journeyed abroad on behalf of the Christianity that had taken root in Ireland.

Danny was a close friend and admirer of Father Pádraig Ó Fiannachta, the great Irish Language scholar who is widely recognized for his translation of the Old and New Testaments into Irish. Not surprisingly Sheehy was a regular and welcomed participant in the writing work-shops that Ó Fiannachta conducted at the Díseart in Dingle Town; several of Danny’s poems were products of those workshops. How ironic that these two great  Gaeilgeoiri should die within months of one another.

Since the founding of the Irish Cultural Center, Danny Sheehy had a keen interest in the organization’s work. During his visits to the Center he met and chatted with area residents from Ireland. He enthusiastically joined the Center’s participation in the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Parade. He represented the Center in a talk he gave at the annual communion breakfast of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Members of the Irish Center who took advantage of trips to Ireland were welcomed by Danny and benefited from his knowledge as their guide during mountain treks in the Dingle Peninsula.

I was among the members of the ICC who developed a warm friendship with Danny that I shall always treasure. A friend and I were fortunate to have had him as our guide during an extensive Irish tour. Clearly the man from Corca Dhuibhne was in no sense parochial in his knowledge of Ireland’s history and heritage. In our visit to Clonmacnoise, the great medieval monastic site on the banks of the Shannon River, for example, he helped us appreciate the magnificent medieval Irish crosses which are housed there. During our visit to Dublin, Danny, ever the advocate for the Irish Language, arranged a visit to a Gaelscoil in which Irish was the medium of instruction. We soon learned that Danny’s sister was the director of this particular school. Proponents of the Irish language see these schools as a hopeful sign of the continued vibrancy of the language. Another of our Dublin experiences was an excellent tour of Kilmainham Gaol where leaders of the 1916 Uprising were imprisoned and executed.

During our trip Danny didn’t fail to introduce us to Irish pub life. One of Danny’s favorite Dublin  establishments proved both crowded and cosmopolitan. We chatted with a Finnish mathematician returning quite satisfied to the continent after his experiences at an Irish university. At the same table was a well-dressed Irish businessman deploring over his third or fourth Guinness the economic downturn that Ireland was then undergoing: “We’re f__ked,” he lamented! We had a totally different pub experience on our return trip to Kerry. It was in County Offaly in the town of Moneygall. The town was the homeland of a great, great (or was it great, great, great?) grandfather of President Obama. Danny described the pub owner, one Ollie Hayes, with whom he chatted, as “the greatest.” The pub was filled with pictures and memorabilia of President Obama’s stop there during his visit to Ireland. And didn’t Ollie proudly say, “Sure isn’t my wife’s nephew Obama’s seventh cousin!” We nursed fond memories of that pub and other places we had visited all the way back to Kerry! With Danny as our guide we had clearly enhanced our appreciation of Irish culture and society.

We arrived back in Kerry late of a Saturday evening, but Danny, the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeilgeor, was in great form the following evening. He was the star actor in a short Irish language play performed in the west Cork Gaeltacht. We didn’t understand all the Irish, but the audience loved Danny’s performance. He was clearly in his element.

No tribute to Danny Sheehy can fail to say a word about the role of his wife Máire in his life and work. She was his conscientious and invaluable partner in the raising of their three children in an Irish-speaking home in rural Ireland. In her role as Director of Oidhreacht Choirca Dhuibhne her mission was to preserve and strengthen the rich heritage of the area.

Her work therefore both encouraged and complemented that of her husband. Máire no doubt had her uneasy moments in their relationship such as when her husband traveled in a naomhóg exploring the waters off the Irish coast! Yet, for her, he was an embodiment and spokesman for the culture and heritage she too loved. Through her own leadership of Oidhreacht Choirca Dhuibhne, she provided opportunities for individuals to study the Irish language. The language courses included guided tours of important historical and archeological sites in the peninsula and, sometimes, hill climbing expeditions conducted by Danny.

At a time when Máire was near her retirement from a leadership position in Oidhreacht Choirca Dhuibhne and shortly before Danny’s death, an important step had been taken to recognize and nurture the heritage and language for which they had both so lovingly labored. At a cost of 3.5 million euros a center for the development of the Irish language and the Kerry Gaeltacht generally was established. The project involved a partnership between the Irish state, the Kerry County Council, and relevant local organizations in Corca Dhuibhne. The new center, located in Ballyferriter, will provide services and facilities for the study of the Irish Language.

Perhaps one of the seeds of this new center in Ballyferriter was sown some twenty years earlier on the campus of Elms College in Chicopee, Massachusetts. With the support of the Irish government, the audience in Veritas Auditorium was introduced to director Breandàn Feiritèar’s film “Blasket Roots, American Dreams” which traces the lives of Blasket islanders who settled in Corca Dhuibhne. Who were they, and what were their families like? Some nine hundred individuals, many with Kerry roots, attended the event that miserable winter evening. Sr. Kathleen Keating, Elms College President, herself with Kerry roots, warmly welcomed the visitors to the campus and introduced the film’s director who explained his goals in making the film.

Sr. Kathleen clearly recognized the enthusiastic response and appeal that the evening’s events had generated. Thus, under her leadership, with strong support of myself, Sean Cahillane, and other advocates of an Irish center at the college, the Irish Cultural Center was born. The establishment of this center signaled to the people of Kerry that a new center in the Dingle peninsula would be an asset for the area that would encourage interaction between Kerry and Western Massachusetts and beyond.

From its outset the Center was very broad in its understanding of the term Irish culture as reflected by the programs offered. Yet the circumstances of the Center’s birth served to keep alive a special interest in the history, language and culture of County Kerry. The writings and works of Danny and Máire Sheehy have helped to satisfy that interest. The Irish Cultural Center is off to a good start but faces many challenges: increasing membership, building its endowment, and strengthening its resources in Irish culture. Members of our organization warmly welcome the establishment of the new Irish language and cultural center in Ballyferrter. Let us hope that a warm relationship will flourish in the years to come. Fortunately the dedication of the new Irish center in Kerry had occurred before Máire’s retirement and Danny’s tragic death.

Some question the long-range viability of the culture and language of Corca Dhuibhne. Will they survive in twenty-first century Ireland? However, the lives and work of Danny and Máire Sheehy bolster our confidence in the future. Undoubtedly the Irish Cultural Center of Western New England will continue to recognize its connection to that culture. No, we won’t all learn to speak Irish, or even have an inclination to do so! We will, however, maintain and strengthen the admittedly fragile culture of which the Irish Ianguage is an important ingredient. In so doing we will be recognizing and honoring Danny and Máire’s lives and work. May they be confident that their labor has born fruit.

And of Danny we say: Ar dheis Dé go raibh sé: May he be at God’s right hand.