If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?

If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? --Albert Einstein

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

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

Monday, February 27, 2012

Book Review: "Mildred Pierce"

I found the title Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity) on a list of classic mysteries, and chose it to fulfill that category of the “2012 Back to the Classics Challenge.” I waited for the murder, or physical attack, but it never came. Instead--as the back cover states--the story was rife with “devastating emotional violence.”

It is 1931, during the Great Depression. Mildred, an attractive woman in her late twenties, finds herself alone to raise two daughters after booting out her unemployed philanderer of a husband. Through hard work and determination, she makes use of her great legs and excellent kitchen skills to pull her and her girls out of poverty.

Her fatal flaw, however, is an unreasonable devotion to her older daughter, Veda, a strikingly cold, haughty, and manipulative child.

To say I was drawn into the 297-page story does not cut it. I read the book in a day and a half and that’s only because I had other obligations. The protagonist often got on my nerves. Her behavior was frustrating at times and her world view foolish. Yet, I was quickly hooked and cared deeply about her and the other characters.

The book was fast-paced and far more gritty than I thought books were in 1941, the year of its publication. James Cain’s storytelling skills are top-notch and I will seek out his other works. I recommend this to anyone who likes intense drama.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

I Finished "Moby Dick"!

I have mixed feelings about Moby Dick. I found the book funny, clever, thoughtful, gripping, tedious, verbose, tiresome, and obtuse.

Melville’s classic is about the chase of a mystical white whale named Moby Dick by Captain Ahab, a “monomaniac” (Melville’s favorite description) hell-bent on killing the creature that took his leg. The narrator, Ishmael, tells of the voyage of the Pequod, starting in Nantucket and traveling the world by sea.

Moby Dick is many books in one. To my mind, too many books. The compelling adventure of a madman chasing a mysterious white whale is interspersed with encyclopedic chapters explaining more features of the whale, the ship, and the whaling trade than I ever wanted to know. There are also many philosophic musings. Some I found interesting, such as the chapter on the color white, and Ahab’s musings on the mercy insanity provides.

Captain Ahab speaks to the blacksmith, who has lived through great tragedy:

“Well, well; no more. Thy shrunk voice sounds too calmly, sanely woeful to me. In no Paradise myself, I am impatient with all misery in others that is not mad. Thou should’st go mad, blacksmith; say, why dost thou not go mad? How can’st thou endure without being mad? Do the heavens hate thee, that thou can’st not go mad?”

I enjoyed the parts describing Ishmael’s unusual friendship with a “savage,” Queequeg. He goes through a fascinating thought process when Queequeg invites him to participate in prayer to his god, Yojo. Ishmael decides that as a good Christian, he must treat the Pagan as he would like to be treated, so, as he says, “I must turn idolator.” I was fascinated with this respect for other faiths in 1851 that we often see missing today.

While a good many aspects of the story had a great impact and will always stay with me, some parts were so slow and so dry that it took all I had to finish the book. In fact, I had trouble following much of the book and had to resort to reading Sparknotes summaries of each chapter just to understand what I had just read.

All in all, I am glad I read and finished the book, but I would only recommend it to those dedicated to the study of literature.

Monday, February 20, 2012

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.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

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.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

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

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

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.


Saturday, February 4, 2012

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.