Connections

If you touched an item belonging to someone long deceased, would you sense his spirit? Could you experience her presence? My encounters tell me sometimes yes, sometimes no. I invite you to share your views on this subject.

The historical figure on whom I base my book, Aroon, is Father Nicholas Sheehy of Clogheen and Clonmel, who was executed on March 15, 1766 for treason. It’s not simple, but basically, like Martin Luther King, Jr., he urged the poor Irish to stand up for themselves as men.

I visited the tomb of Father Sheehy in 2005. Did I feel something? Yes. Was it overwhelming? No. Nevertheless, standing in the ancient graveyard on that misty day, while unseen ravens squawked from overhanging trees, I felt something. I was there for a reason, I believed, called to be in this place, and I would return.

Since then, I started this blog, which has put me, via the internet, in virtual contact with Father Sheehy. As I wrote in my last post, a descendant of Mr. Billy Griffiths confirmed that a cure Father Sheehy reputedly left to the Griffiths did indeed exist, even to this day. She could not confirm its effectiveness, but she assured me that, as late as the 1970s, folks still sought it out.

I have had other encounters with Father Sheehy’s footprint on this earth. A young Irish student from Clonmel, County Tipperary, the very town that held the priest’s trial and execution, contacted me seeking more information about the historical figure. I told Ciera what I knew, sent a few photos, and in return, she emailed pictures of the museum’s artifacts. Relics of which I was unaware.

These items included Father Sheehy’s signature, which once again, caused me to speculate on this legend as a flesh-and-blood man. In what ways was he just like us? How was he exceptional?

Ciera was permitted, by appointment, to view this and his purple stole. She sent me the photo she took. The symbol of his station among the common people whom he died to defend. Even gazing at the item on my computer screen, I was in awe of his courage and commitment.

On this very day, I’ve received more information from an historian from Clogheen, County Tipperary, the village to which Nicholas Sheehy ministered. I will share that in another post.

The man was real. His mission was righteous. And he paid the ultimate price.

Father Sheehy’s Secret Potion

The mausoleum that Father Sheehy hid in.

The Irish are known for their whimsical stories that some even believe are historical truth. While researching the martyred priest, Nicholas Sheehy, I found my share of questionable “facts”. For instance, the landowner I based much of Aroon on, Sir Thomas Maude, wore a donkey’s tail, they say, indicating his high level of jackass-iveness. (If Shakespeare can invent over 1000 words, surely I can conjure up one.)

Another interesting account, told to me by local Clogheen historian John Tuohy, pertained to the time Father Sheehy was a fugitive from the law. Considered treasonous for his associations with the Levellers, Sheehy went into hiding. By day, he huddled in a mausoleum found in the Shanrahan Cemetery where he now lies. By night, he emerged, then crawled through a small window in the adjacent farmhouse to be fed and pampered by a Protestant couple, Mr. and Mrs. William Griffiths. There, he was permitted to secretly perform his priestly duties.


The farmhouse is still there.

 When Father Sheehy finally decided to give himself up, with the provision that he be tried in Dublin rather than locally, he had little to give his gracious hosts. So, as the story has it, he bestowed upon them a secret cure for eczema and various other ailments, with the condition that it be shared freely with the common people in need. Father Sheehy’s other stipulation was that the recipe be handed down through Mrs. Griffiths, whose maiden name was Baylor, to the women in the family.


While this is a very kind account of Father Sheehy’s love for the poor and gratitude to a generous family of another faith, I was skeptical of its truth. It sounded like the exaggerations I’ve read too many times on this journey with Father Sheehy.

Then, a most unexpected communication arrived. An American woman who’d read my accounts on this blog contacted me, hoping I had more information about Father Sheehy. But she enlightened me far more than I had her.

The woman is the descendant of the Griffiths couple who hid Father Sheehy. I was stunned when she informed me that two members of her family still hold the recipe of which I’d read, known by them as “the cures.”
Father Sheehy’s grave–a double tomb
holding him and another priest.

While she did not own the recipe herself, she wrote that as late as the 70s, one relative was “actively concocting and distributing the cures. They were known throughout the region and … people were coming to the door all day and all night to request various things” which her relative mixed for them, refusing any payment. Just as Father Sheehy had specified two hundred years previously.

The hairs on my arm raised as I read her email. The story was true and, quite possibly, Father Sheehy’s gratitude is still helping the common people all these decades later, to this very day.

My new friend wrote, “I can’t speak to whether they actually could be scientifically proven to work, but I certainly can confirm that they are real and that people believed that they work.” She went on to say, “We were always told that they were given to the family by a priest who the family concealed, but we hadn’t realized what a famous and interesting priest it was until recently.”

For me, this new knowledge brought Father Nicholas Sheehy out of the realm of legend and into the real, flesh-and-blood world. I felt closer to him. And more curious. If this was true, what else actually happened? (Surely not the ass’s tail.)

Thanks to another reader, I was able to learn more of the tangible existence of this fascinating man. Look for that in next week’s post.

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 http://www.bcparish.com/?page_id=14&album=3

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.

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 thesaurus.com)

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.

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

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.

Unbelievable.