Boat-builder with poet’s eye and stories of great sea journeys

Obituary: Dómhnall Mac a tSíthigh, born March 21, 1951; died June 9th, 2017

Dómhnall Mac a tSíthigh, who died off the Iberian coast after his naomhóg capsized last month, was an award-winning storyteller and poet, broadcaster, boatbuilder, adventurer and father of three.

He was born into a family of west Kerry scholars, storytellers and artists who were so appreciative of the spoken word that they were known to down tools to hear a tale, and then debate the meaning of words late on into the night.

A “cornerstone of a man” is how his close friend and fellow crewman, musician Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich, has described him.

Tributes to him have come from far and wide – extending from President Michael D Higgins to Spanish academic and Irish literature expert José Miguel Alonzo-Giráldez, writing in El Correo Gallego. President Michael D Higgins noted that he would be remembered "not only for his boat building", but also for "the stories of his extraordinary sea journeys, infused with his skill in conveying his experiences and his eye for detail".


Such was the Kerryman’s enthusiasm for the smallest detail that every voyage was recorded in a leatherbound notebook, which he carried in his chest pocket.

Mac a tSíthigh, or Danny Sheehy as he was also known, was one of six children reared in Baile Eaglaise near Baile an Fheartéaraigh in west Kerry. He credited two teachers in his national school – Máirín Ní Bhriain and Donncha Ó Conchúir – with nurturing his love of history and his sense of place. His experience was not a happy one at second level, spending three years at boarding school in St Brendan's College in Killarney before moving to the Christian Brothers in Dingle.

He studied to be a woodwork teacher in Cork, along with his close friend, artist Tomáisín Ó Cíobháin. He then secured a job in Drogheda, Co Louth, but he and his wife Máire moved back south, where they reared three children, Cormac, Róisín and Orla. Here Mac a tSíthigh was in his element – farming, fishing, working with stone, running a small café with Máire and teaching Irish.

In the summer of 1975, he had rowed around Ireland in a naomhóg, a west Kerry currach, with neighbour Ger Ó Ciobháin. It was while he was still in Drogheda that he met sailor Paddy Barry, owner of the Galway hooker Saint Patrick. In 1981 they sailed to northern Spain, and in 1986 voyaged across the Atlantic to Boston and New York.

For years, he fished around his home waters, sailed in and around Ireland and Scotland, and in 2003 he voyaged to the Mediterranean with Barry, visiting the cathedral in Mola di Bari where Saint Brendan in a currach is depicted in floor mosaics.

He also sailed with Paddy Barry on his yacht Ar Seachrán to Iceland, in the wake of Irish monks – anchoring where there was either literary reference or physical signs, and recording same for a book entitled Iomramh Bhréanainn MMXI. In one candid section, he described his fear while caught in a storm, but noted that nothing tested one more on a boat than the snoring of one's fellow crew.

“None was more able or experienced” than Mac a tSíthigh, Barry recalls, and “in the roughest of seas and the quietest of nights he was my companion and friend.”

Kerry-based poet Paddy Bushe says that his literary work was " first and last an expression of himself and the life he lived".

Mac a tSíthigh's collection Súil Seilge includes a CD of his poems which were, as Bushe notes, "recited in his own rich reading voice" with "wonderful music by Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and his leathbhádóir, Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich".

In 2014, Mac a tSíthigh set out from St James Gate on the Liffey with Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich, Breanndán Páid Ó Mhuircheartaigh and Liam Holden on the first leg of a three-year Camino Na Sáile in Naomh Gobnait, a naomhóg he built with Holden. Nicknamed "Naomhóig Na Tinte", or naomhóg of the tents, the initial crossing of the Irish Sea from Wexford to Wales took 23 hours of non-stop rowing. Over three summers, the crew made it to La Coruna in Spain and were feted in Santiago da Compostella last year. The voyage was filmed by Dónal Ó Céilleachair for TG4.

This year's trip from Galicia to Portugal was via Finisterre and, as always, he started each trip with a fisherman's prayer in Irish. It was on the Spanish- Portuguese border that the naomhóg capsized in heavy surf, but the upturned boat washed all four holding on to it towards shore, and Mac a tSíthigh only took ill when close to the beach.

Mac a tSíthigh was known for his quick wit, and his three commandments for the "Naomhóg na Tinte" crew were "no captain, no complaining, no anger". Ó Beaglaoich, who has been climbing Brandon mountain daily in memory of his friend, believes the poet's life reflected a saying in west Kerry – "Faightar gach laoch in aisce", as in "our heroes are gifted to us".

He is survived by his wife Máire, children Cormac, Róisín and Orla, and siblings Siobhan, Aine, John Joe, Pat and Gearoid.