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The John Tuohy Files: Final Chapter

Saint Mary’s Church, Clogheen*

I stood outside St. Mary’s Church of Clogheen, studying the monument built to Father Sheehy’s memory in 1991. Each side had symbolic reliefs, which I was photographing when John Tuohy and Caspar strolled up.

This was John Tuohy’s church and his passion; he had already told me much about it and his diocese. It was built in 1864, nearly a hundred years following Father Sheehy’s execution, but the martyred priest’s church no longer exists.

Monument dedicated to
Father Nicholas Sheehy

On our way inside, Tuohy pointed to a young tree, still held up with cables to steady it. “We planted that tree in honor of the victims of 9-11,” he told me. I stopped and looked for a moment, stunned really. So caught up in the tragedy ourselves, I was reminded that the whole world was affected. The little tree touched my heart.

Inside, the sanctuary was larger and more ornate than I expected. It held a medieval beauty with its very high ceiling and statues atop each pillar. John Tuohy showed me images of Saint Patrick, of course, and Saint Cataldo, a monk native to the area who became shipwrecked in southern Italy following a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He settled there and became as beloved, they say, as Saint Patrick is to the Irish.

The view of the church from
the choir loft*

“Would you like to see the choir loft?” he asked after the sanctuary tour.

Of course, I would. He unlocked the door with an old skeleton key and up we climbed the narrow staircase to the balcony. This was an unexpected treat. The view of the church from there was gorgeous.

He brushed some papers from a stool beside the organ and invited me to sit. It was then I learned that my tour guide was none other than the church’s organist. He offered to play for me.

Monument panel:
Fr. Sheehy saying mass
3rd from bottom

Wow! He played “How Great Thou Art” and two other hymns. I was certainly taken aback and resolved never to forget it. “Reality check,” I remember thinking. “You are in Ireland, in a small town’s beautiful church, in the choir loft, while the organist plays music just for you.”

Life takes wonderfully unpredictable turns.

John Tuohy reminded me of one of my favorite people, my grandfather, Luke Pryor. Both seemed to live rich, full lives in very small towns. Each were somewhat absent-minded, funny, and brimming over with fascinating stories. Without a doubt, during my fantastic two-week stay in Ireland, my day with John Tuohy was my hands-down favorite.

*Photos with asterisks are from the parish website at

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The John Tuohy Files: Discovering Nicholas Sheehy

Shanrahan Cemetery

 John Tuohy spoke of many things, some of which related to Nicholas Sheehy, the subject of my interview. A man of many interests, his mind jumped from topic to topic. (A touch of ADD, perhaps?) I furiously scribbled notes, sometimes to discover he was telling a totally unrelated story.

Yet, once the side stories were weeded out, I learned many intriguing bits of information. He described some of the backbreaking Penal Laws of the eighteenth century:

  • Catholic farmers of substance were required to split their land among all children, creating smaller and smaller plots.
  • They could not own a horse worth more than five pounds Sterling.
  • Tithes had to be paid to the state church in addition to their own Catholic parish.
  • Curiously, Catholics could not erect tombstones to their dead.
  • Cornelius O’Callaghan mausoleum
  • But most devastating of all, common areas were fenced in by the gentry, eliminating grazing land for the poor.

According to Tuohy, these unbearable laws were designed to push the native Irish out to the mountains and bogs. As a push back, large gangs of men known as Levellers, or Whiteboys, rode at night in white tunics, knocking down (leveling) the offending fences put up by the landowners.

Father Sheehy said that everyone had a right to commonage. John Tuohy told me, “He believed that natural law overrode man’s law.” Nor did he object to the practice of leveling fences, although Tuohy said he did not direct Levellers to do so.

Adjacent farmhouse–the Griffiths?

For these reasons, Nicholas Sheehy was accused of treason. To avoid arrest, for an entire year, he hid out by day in the mausoleum of Cornelius O’Callaghan, a Catholic who converted to Protestantism to keep his land. Today, this mausoleum is only a few yards from Sheehy’s final resting place.

At night, he came out to be cared for by the Griffiths, a Protestant family living in a nearby farmhouse.

An hour into the interview, John Tuohy’s sister interrupted, insisting they go to the bank to sign important paperwork. Another person exasperated with poor John. I went alone to the cemetery at Shanrahan, a mile outside Clogheen.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I was overwhelmed to be at the actual grave of Father Sheehy. Only that day, however, did I discover that it was also the location of Sheehy’s grisly hiding place. The misty weather, the ruins of an ancient church, and the hacking of raspy crows created the ambiance of a Poe short story.

I felt a connection to the place. It was not déjà vu; it was a sense of being where I was supposed to be and one to which I would return.

Shanrahan Cemetery. Father Sheehy’s grave is at
the base of the tower.
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The John Tuohy Files: Caspar

John Tuohy & Caspar

One of my husband, Wendy’s, pet peeves is the overuse of the word “surreal” during any and nearly all celebrity interviews. So I’ll describe my interview with John Tuohy as phantasmagoric. (I DO love my

After my dubious introduction to John Tuohy, the local historian with expertise on Father Nicholas Sheehy, I followed him into his shop–a shabby, cluttered room with a counter to the left. Behind a rack of postcards was a copy machine covered by a bath towel. Those were the only clues that I may have been in a place of business.

In all other respects, this was someone’s home. In fact, there to the back was the irritated fellow who took me to Tuohy, still grumbling in the kitchen.

John Tuohy and I went through a doorway to the adjoining shop which was, actually, a sitting room. These places were row houses built in the shotgun style; that is, they were narrow, with each room directly behind the other. John Tuohy’s shops seemed to be two of these that had a door cut between them.

I sat on the sofa as invited and met Caspar, the friendly dog. The old, old friendly dog. He was as serene and placid as a Buddhist monk. Yet, John Tuohy went off like I was being smothered by an wild-and-woolly Saint Bernard.

“Down, Caspar! Get down! Caspar. Lie down. Lie down, I said!” The man was frantic.

“He’s fine. Really,” from me. I am not an animal person. I hate when dogs jump all over me, which they do once they sense that I’m not interested in them. But, believe me, it was fine.

Poor Caspar could not jump up on me if he wanted to. The geriatric pooch just sat there, peering at me with his wishful-thinking eyes, almost apologizing for not being able to mount a more enthusiastic welcome. Out of respect, I tried not to pity him.

Finally, he lifted his paw and placed it on my leg. The shin, not the knee. It could have been a giant Q-tip for all the impact it made.

John Tuohy freaked. “Get down, Caspar! Lie down!”

The dog removed his paw and lay down.

Phew! The flustered Tuohy could finally relax; the danger had passed.

Somehow, Monty Python’s Flying Circus came to mind.

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The John Tuohy Files: We Meet

The Truman Show: Is this for real?

Have you ever felt like you’ve stepped into some version of The Truman Show? By that, I mean you unknowingly became part of some crazy TV series. With the historian I interviewed, John Tuohy of Clogheen, I almost wanted to look for hidden cameras.

With “Main Street” being the only address I had, a guy in the grocery store directed me to two brown doors across the street. While they looked like residential-style doors to me, they were described as John Tuohy’s shop.

I knocked on the first. Nothing. I knocked again, and a third time, before I heard the shuffle of an approach. A small-boned, slightly disheveled man opened the door.

“John Tuohy?” I asked.

“No, he‘s not here,” he grumbled and stepped into the street. “He’s the hardest man to find. Always in and out,” he said, clearly annoyed at him or me or both.

I followed him two doors further down the sidewalk. Obviously agitated, he went on, “I’m trying to get some work done in the back and he’s not there…”

Clogheen, Co. Tipperary

I mumbled my apologies, but it was now clear that Tuohy was the target of his wrath. He pounded on the new door. “John!” A responding grunt from within. “You’re wanted out here.”

“Alright,” came the reply.

The frustrated man mumbled something sarcastic about Tuohy’s unreliability and wished me luck getting anywhere with him, then went back to his work.

A tall, white-haired man dressed in all black emerged. I introduced myself.

“What is your surname?” he asked.

“Gibson,” I repeated.
Main Street, Clogheen*
“I wrote down a G but I couldn’t read the rest of it. I looked at my calendar yesterday and saw it.”

Oh boy. After that less-than-glowing recommendation from his housemate(?), I was beginning to worry a little about what would come of this. John Tuohy was my one big Nicholas Sheehy expert on this trip.
As we walked back to his place, he told me he had been watching the home where I found him for the lady who owned it. That’s a kind thing, I remember thinking. Only later in the interview did I discover she had been dead for two years.
Had I been dropped into some wacky British comedy? More to come.
*Photo from Wikicommons, padraigobrien
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A Tale of Two Cities

Before my trip to Ireland, Michelle Stafford of Clonmel’s Main Guard contacted John Tuohy, a local historian from Clogheen (the town near Sheehy’s grave), who would be a willing wealth of information. She emailed his address–simply Main Street–and his telephone number.

Before school one morning, I called and, as an older person, was astounded that he answered the phone without any operator involvement whatsoever. We made an appointment to meet at 10 A.M. on my third day in the country.

My sister, Barbara, bought two copies of Frommer’s Road Atlas, one for each car we rented. This is an outstanding resource in itself and I highly recommend it. What I particularly like is that each page contains a section of Ireland in minute detail. Every four centimeters represents five miles–in American, that’s a fraction over an inch and a half.

If you look on the page of the map I was using, you can see the road follows a loop around a mountain. I had previously driven to Clonmel to the east of the Comeraghs, so this was my first time going this way. Being a responsible person, I left early.

As I zeroed in on my destination, I found myself driving back and forth, back and forth between the blue lines I’ve marked on the map. Where Clogheen should have been, was a field and a small hut of some sort. That certainly was not right.

Therefore, I was no longer early–I was now late. I became frantic. I had looked forward to this interview most of all and was blowing it. Oh–and this was before I owned a cell phone.

Not knowing what else to do, I decided to go into Clonmel and get better directions. Before reaching that city, a road sign said, “Clonmel–4 km” pointing to the right and “Clogheen–21 km” pointing left.

Even though that did not jive with the map AT ALL, I chose to follow the signs. At long last and thirty minutes late, I drove into Clogheen, which was larger than I pictured. I got directions to John Tuohy’s place and, once meeting him, started apologizing profusely for my tardiness. Which he hardly seemed to notice.

I explained my confusion about the map, to which he replied, “Oh. You were going to the wrong Clogheen.”

“The wrong Clogheen?”

“Yes. The one you were looking for is no more than a field.” (No joke!)

Sure enough, when I spread open my map book, there sat the TRUE CLOGHEEN.


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Drinking In the Atmosphere

My mother and brother-in-law,
Tom Halligan, at Carrigeen Farm House.

 In Ireland, I wanted to inhale the air, crumble the dirt in my hands, and listen to the birds and whatever insects they may have. I mean, the internet offers a wealth of information about these places, but I wanted to know what it felt, smelled, and sounded like to actually be there.

Upon arrival in Dublin, we drove to the Carrigeen Farm House, our rental outside Kilmacthomas (about fifteen miles from the city of Waterford, of cut-crystal fame). The farm was in a most lovely rural setting tucked in the foothills of the Comeragh Mountains. Our landlady called it a “pet day,” meaning it was sunny with cottony clouds. This weather turned out to be fairly rare, as I later learned watching rain clouds roll in from the hills.

The drive to the farm house

While the others were napping from jet lag, I took my notebook and walked down a most picturesque two-rutted dirt road. I jotted down as many sensory images as I could. Here are a few:

TOUCH: “Briars lie hidden under the beauty of the wild flowers, patiently waiting for their prey; they then laugh while the victim sucks the blood from his throbbing finger. Mean-spirited vines.”
SMELL: “The rain splats into the dry, thirsty dust of the road. It smells like new life. It smells like hope.”
SOUND: “a donkey braying frantically with the heavy breathing of an asthmatic old man”
SIGHT: “a bird confidently shows off his masterful dance over a field of young grain”

Me and Tom on the footpath
to Mahon Falls

Apparently, I didn’t taste anything of note. These were written about six and a half years ago, and I now notice I have a tendency toward personification.

Another day, we went to Mahon Falls, not too far from our home base. It was not a pet day. Although it was June, I wore a flannel-lined raincoat as we trekked through a brisk, foggy drizzle. The craggy landscape was dotted with bleating sheep and goats. Gorgeous. It was like waking up in Jane Eyre, or any other gothic romance for that matter.

My mom and sister, Barbara
Halligan, at Mahon Falls

For my writer self, this was a godsend. While my primary purpose was to learn as much as possible about Nicholas Sheehy’s story, soaking up the countryside with all of my senses was priceless.

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Witnessing 900 Years of History

Site of Father Sheehy’s trial
Main Guard, Clonmel

I did not want to waste one minute of my trip to Ireland. Through the internet, I found contact information for the building where Father Sheehy was tried and convicted, the Main Guard in Clonmel, County Tipperary. A lovely curator, Michelle Stafford, responded to my email with background information, suggestions, and further contacts. I made an appointment to meet with her the day after we arrived.

The Main Guard was built in the 1600s as a courthouse and a thosel, where tolls, duties, and customs were paid. As if 400 years old is not ancient enough, Michelle told me that some of the stones were taken from a dismantled abbey built by Cisterian monks in the 1100s. She pointed out the mason’s mark chiseled into one block 900 years earlier.

Michelle Stafford, a
wonderful help to me.

It is humbling to see and touch something another human worked on so very long ago.

Inside, she took me to the main room on the second floor where trials had been held. There was a display with Father Sheehy’s story and picture. We looked out the window to see, about a block away, a large yellow hotel where the gaol (as they spelled it then) had been located.

It was a relatively new place then, built in the 1700s, with six dungeons. It was there Father Sheehy had been held awaiting trial. I stared at the street Sheehy was forced to parade on his way to the courthouse.

The road Sheehy took to
his trial. Taken from
the Main Guard.

One account by a man named Curry states that “[o]n the day of the trial, a party of horse surrounded the court, admitting and excluding whom they thought proper…” As I looked where he had walked, I imagined the terror of being dragged through the jeers of enemies, no friends in sight.

After leaving Michelle, I walked that route in reverse to see the location of Sheehy’s hanging, where he was drawn and quartered, and where his head remained on a spike for two decades.

It was said, that out of respect, no birds ever pecked his remains in all those twenty years.

Okay. Enough drama. Sheehy’s likeness is part of the Fennessy Hotel sign where the gaol once stood. But he looked different in the sketch at the Main Guard. Very curious.
 So you decide. Was he a balding red-haired man with glasses or a handsome dark-haired fellow with more regular features? Hmmm. 
Father Sheehy at the Main Guard


Father Sheehy on hotel sign
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Road Trip!

I caught a leprechaun!

Do you believe in synchronicity? Like when you’re thinking of someone you haven’t seen in ages, and out of the blue, they call you.

Well, with all the online research I was doing on Nicholas Sheehy for my book, Aroon, it came to pass that my sister and her family were taking a two-week vacation in Ireland. When I asked my mom (who was also going) what the chances were they would stop by any of the places I was investigating, she said, “Why don’t you come?”

What’s the likelihood a timely opportunity like that would arise?

I won’t go into the many reasons I had no business taking such a trip at that time. Let’s just say that at my family’s urging, I went.

My sister planned an amazing trip. We did not take a pre-packaged tour since she and her husband had already done that. She rented two houses–a farmhouse for one week in Kilmacthomas of County Waterford and, for the second week, a cottage by the sea in Donegal.

Kilmacthomas is a pretty short drive from Clonmel, the largest town of County Tipperary. That’s where Father Sheehy was tried and hanged. While they toured the area, I went off on my own to interview the museum curator and a local historian. Very, very cool.

The most poignant moment of the fortnight for me was in a cemetery outside the small town of Clogheen. After discovering Father Nicholas Sheehy in a few lines of a book, and weeks of researching and studying him, I stood alone on a windy, overcast day with my hand resting on his tomb. Someone I had not even heard of months before.

The tomb of Father Nicholas Sheehy

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A Tipperary Martyr

“Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”
–William Butler Yeats

I find Irish history overwhelming. Our entire United States history is around five hundred years long (if you start with Columbus). That’s a drop in the Irish bucket. Using The Course of Irish History as my starting point, I scanned and examined the pages discussing the 1760s, when my characters would flee the country.

The more I read, the more I wandered back into such a complex cause-and-effect maze, I quickly got lost in the millennia of events. It seemed in the number of clear-thinking years I have left, I could never fully grasp the times or what they meant.

Then on page 186, as though fated, two sentences caught my eye and attention.

“Because he had expressed sympathy with the peasantry in their distress, Father Nicholas Sheehy was convicted on a trumped-up charge of murder, in the town of Clonmel in 1766, and was hanged, drawn and quartered. His grave in Shandraghan soon became a place of pilgrimage, and his death provided later generations of Whiteboys with a patron saint.”

I had never heard of Nicholas Sheehy, the Whiteboys, or even the town of Clonmel at that point, but their story would soon weave its way into my heart and mind and take me on a journey of over four thousand miles and nearly two hundred fifty years.

My Father Sheehy research binder
I started with numerous internet searches and the wealth of information–from the tragic to the mysterious to the ridiculous–could keep me writing forever. This was where I learned the love and excitement of research.

A few teasers for future posts on this topic:

  • Father Nicholas Sheehy was either the virtuous, innocent victim of class hatred and religious fanaticism OR in cahoots with “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” the Pretender to the English throne.
  • After being hung, drawn and quartered, and decapitated, Father Sheehy’s head was posted on a spike for twenty years.
  • The man Father Sheehy was convicted of murdering was reportedly seen in Newfoundland, Canada, two years later.
  • Legend says all the corrupt jurors and the hangman met unusual or humiliating deaths.
  • The main perpetrator of the injustice against the priest, Sir Thomas Maude, was said to have grown a tail.
Hey, you can’t fault the Irish for lack of imagination. The question is: Where does imagination stop and truth begin?

RESEARCH TIP: To find the distance from my home to Clonmel, Ireland, I used a very cool site called Google Maps Distance Calculator. ( You merely type in your starting point, then manipulate the map to find and click on your destination. The site calculates the distance in the measurement you want–miles, kilometers, even nautical miles. Great fun!

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A Shameless Desire

A sampling of my books bought for research

When plotting the original version of Aroon, my main characters were coming to South Carolina as indentured servants. But why? What would provoke two teenagers to leave their homeland, family, and friends–basically all they had ever known–to make the perilous voyage to America?

For that, I needed to know what was going on in Ireland in the 1760s. I did what I normally do in such circumstances. I bought a book.

That’s right. I bought it: The Course of Irish History by Moody and Martin. Hey, it was the paperback version.

I might as well make a confession right here and now. I have an addiction. Um, that’s too harsh a word. Let’s call it a proclivity. Yeah, I like that better. (My husband says the word addiction is not harsh enough.)

I tend to be a practical sort. I wear my shoes until it is a humiliation to be seen with me in public. The same with my clothes. I have one pair of pants that actually got caught up in the axle of an airline’s luggage cart on a rainy tarmac in Providence, Rhode Island. I still wear them today. (Land’s End knows how to put together a pair of pants!) Virtually all my jewelry are gifts.

So perhaps I should be forgiven for my need and greed for books. The only stores I like are book stores. I relish the earthy smell of a paperback as much as the slick, almost chemical, scent of a textbook. When I treat myself to a trip to Barnes and Noble or Books-a-Million, I roam the store snatching interesting titles from the shelves. Then I find the comfiest chair available and eagerly pore over my choices. Rarely–maybe never–have I left without buying at least one book.

I love online bookstores, too. Ah, Amazon! One of my daughters asked why we kept getting so many Amazon boxes in the mail. “Shut up,” I told her, and ripped open my latest treasure.

I know there are free libraries; we have a lovely one in my town. But I like to own the book. You never know when you’ll want to re-check the information you find. I gave some away, but then decided I needed those books and bought new copies.

Academic books cost too much, so I have taken advantage of the university libraries in our state. But if the book comes in paperback and is under $25, I order it. Come on! It would cost that much to drive at least one hundred miles round trip to the University of South Carolina in Columbia. That’s how I see it, anyway.

There. I’ve confessed. I guess all I can say is thank God for used books!