The Title is the Story

Aroon_poster

I am often asked about the title of my first published book, Aroon. Where did I get that name? What does it mean?

The answer seems, at first, mundane. But as you will see, the story takes a surprising turn. It’s not one of my plot twists. It’s—well, decide for yourself.

On my trip to Ireland in 2005, I visited a wonderful book store in Dublin. Chapters, I believe it was. In any event, it was vast and magnificent. I bought several books. It’s rare I visit anywhere that sells books and leave empty-handed, and this was that on steroids.

One was Irish Words & Phrases by Diarmaid O’Muirithe. Once I returned home, I was spending a lazy afternoon scanning the book and I came across ‘arun,’ which is Anglicized as ‘aroon.’ It stated the definition as ‘my secret’ or ‘secret love.’ While my story is not a romance, the word had significance to the plot. Plus, I liked the sound of it.

The more the word rolled around on my tongue, the more I liked it, until I locked it in as my book’s title. Ta da!

But that wasn’t the end of it. Three months ago, I contacted a local Tipperary historian who has helped me with my research, particularly for Book Two, Harps Upon the Willows. I’d bought Ed O’Riordan’s comprehensive book on Father Nicholas Sheehy, the basis of my novels, and received a signed copy. Which I treasure. My latest communication was to tell him I had finished my stories.

To my great pleasure, he responded, “I LOVE the titles and I am sure I will love the contents.”

Ed O’Riordan and his ancestors have made it their passion to honor and maintain Father Sheehy’s gravesite and keep his 250-year-old story alive. Just four years ago, eight years after my own visit to the sarcophagus, Mr. O’Riordan arranged for a new plaque for the tomb.

On it, he had etched ‘Sagart Arun.’

This couldn’t be true! I quickly clicked on Google and searched for a translation: Dear Priest.

No, Ed O’Riordan explained. That translation was too weak.

“I suggest Beloved Priest,” he wrote. “It’s a powerful title you have on your book!!”

This still raises the hair on the back of my neck. How did I scan a phrase book so long ago and come up with a title because I liked its sound, while the caretaker of the very man I was writing about used that same word on his tomb?

Coincidence? Maybe. Somehow, it feels like much more. What do you think?

conserved fr Sheehy Tombaroon

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Cruel and Unusual

A portion of F.W. Byrne’s “Execution of Robert Emmet in
Dublin in 1803″

In 1766, Father Nicholas Sheehy was hanged, drawn and quartered, then decapitated by the state. This was his penalty for a murder he clearly did not commit.

During my research, I recently found a book, The Case of Fr. Nicholas Sheehy, edited by Ed O’Riordon that compiles the known accounts of this tragedy. I immediately ordered this treasure trove.

While corresponding with Mr. O’Riordon, he forwarded me an article he recently wrote for the South Tipperary Nationalist newspaper. In it, he considered the horror we feel as ISIS beheads innocents before our very eyes. “It is,” he writes, “the stuff of nightmares.”

Even as I compose this post, the fates of a Japanese journalist and Jordanian pilot are teetering between freedom and a barbaric death. O’Riordon quotes the reactions of two British Prime Ministers. David Cameron called the actions “despicable and barbaric” while former PM John Major referred to “thirteenth century barbarism.” All true. It sickens every one of us. Many news outlets (thank God) refuse to show the videos and I, for one, will not watch.

Yet, nearly 250 years ago, Father Nicholas Sheehy, a parish priest of County Tipperary, dared to stand up for the poor and struggling against powerful landowners considered by one historian “lunatic fringe.” Convicted of a trumped-up murder charge, the priest’s execution was swift and brutal.

O’Riordon brings this home as we think of today’s news reports. “We should hold on to those feelings of terror and dread and use them to understand the feelings of the people of South Tipperary when Fr Nicholas Sheehy P.P. was hanged and beheaded in Clonmel, in front of his parishioners and family, in 1766.”

Not the thirteenth century. Only two and a half centuries ago. Under British law.

Unbelievably, that was not enough. The priest’s severed head was staked in front of the jail for TWENTY YEARS for all to see as they walked the streets—as a ghoulish warning.

This was not uncommon practice then for true or perceived criminals. About ten years earlier in Boston, a slave named Mark was hanged for murdering his master. His rotting body was placed on display for twenty years. It is said Paul Revere passed these remains on his famous ride.

While we are appropriately horrified by what is going on in Syria and Iraq, it would serve us to remember that, but for a handful of generations, go we.

And yes, it was every bit as horrific.

NOTE: The above picture is from the cover of Ed O’Riordon’s book “The Case of Fr. Nicholas Sheehy”. While it does not depict Sheehy’s execution, Robert Emmet’s was similar.

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.

Execution by the State

Because he had expressed sympathy for the peasantry of 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 and place of pilgrimage, and his death provided later generations of Whiteboys with a patron saint.
–“The Course of Irish History”, page 186

The above is the catalyst for my journey to discover Father Sheehy. That’s all that was written about the martyred priest in this history, but as I’ve told you before, my curiosity was piqued.

I had read the expression “drawn and quartered” before this, but to be honest, did not really know what that meant. What was the procedure for this form of state-sanctioned execution?

Well, if anyone tells you we are a more violent society now than the good old days, feel free to use the classic Joe Wilson line, “You lie!” We are justifiably squeamish about the electric chair (see The Green Mile) and unsettled over lethal injection. But a mere two hundred years ago, a more heinous method of legal extermination than many of us can imagine was performed before entertainment-hungry crowds.

If a person was convicted of high treason against the crown, he was first drawn by horse or sledge to the place of execution. He was hanged, but not until dead. Still alive, he was cut down so that his intestines could be pulled out and burned before his very eyes. I can only imagine the person became unconscious or dead at this point from pain and loss of blood.

But he then had his head cut off and his body ripped into four parts (quartered), usually with an arm or leg in each. Sometimes horses were tied to each limb and driven in different directions in order to tear the body apart. The heads were then spiked and left to rot in a prominent location–a grisly example to others.

Father Sheehy’s execution was held on March 15, 1766 (Beware!), the day after he was sentenced. According to an account by Jerry Griffin of Clogheen, he was brought out of the jail where he blessed the people and proclaimed his innocence. He also said of his persecutors and jury, “I forgive and pity them all, and would not change places with any of them.”

Since the hangman’s noose was directly across the street from the jail, it is doubtful he was drawn on a sledge. He was hanged until dead, so did not have to witness the burning of his entrails that followed. He was quartered and his head spiked before the jail for twenty years.

This horrifying death was typically reserved for treason. Yet, Father Sheehy had been charged, tried, and acquitted for treason. In evidence of the hatred toward this man, although the charge was murder, he suffered this most grievous punishment.

Below is a clip from the series, The Tudors, in which Catherine Howard’s “playmates”, Culpepper and Dereham, are executed. The first was fortunate enough to be decapitated, but the second endured the same terrifying execution of Father Sheehy. The clip portrays the horror of this death without showing the most gruesome parts.

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: 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

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

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