Lives Lost to Covid-19: Sheamus Heneghan, fisherman and accordion player

‘Covid was a blessing for Sheamus,’ says wife Catherine, of her beloved husband who had dementia

Mayoman  Sheamus Heneghan: Nursing home staff played his  own CD, Caught in the Surf: Sheamus Heneghan and Family, as he slipped away.

Mayoman Sheamus Heneghan: Nursing home staff played his own CD, Caught in the Surf: Sheamus Heneghan and Family, as he slipped away.

 

This article is one of a series about people who have died with coronavirus in Ireland and among the diaspora. You can read more of them here. If you would like a friend or family member included in the series, please email liveslost@irishtimes.com

Sheamus Heneghan

1944-2021

Sheamus Heneghan was a fisherman and an accordion player. He built himself a house where the northwestern slope of Mweelrea mountain slips into the Atlantic, at Tallabawn near Louisburgh in Co Mayo. From the picture window overlooking fields, an epic stretch of golden sand and a big, big sky, he could tell the time of year through knowing the precise point where the sun went down over the horizon.

“We never missed a sunset,” says his wife Catherine. “Our souls definitely united in nature. To be able to look at that sunset was our religion and then, on a clear moonlit, starry night. . . well, who would be anywhere else?”

Sheamus was a very happy man – a quiet man, an uncomplicated man at ease with life and with his surroundings.

He was born in his parents’ home at Bundorragha, where the river of the same name enters Killary Harbour on the fjord’s north shore. His father, Jimmy, was a gillie and chauffeur at nearby Delphi Lodge salmon fishery, where his mother, Annie, was a cook. Sheamus, he was christened Eric James but preferred the Irish Sheamus, was one of six children and from an early age, he took to music, liking classical, jazz, country and western but, above all, traditional Irish. He began by learning on Jimmy’s melodeon and was good enough to play the fair in Leenane and cycle around Connemara gathering tunes.

After school, Sheamus worked in forestry, locally as well as in Galway and Roscommon, and he did some drift netting on the Killary. In his 20s, he spent time in Scotland and London before heading to New York where his carpentry skills got him work in construction, including building the World Trade Centre twin towers.

In November 1970 at an Irish club, where there was jiving, waltzing and the slow foxtrot, he met Catherine Conneely from Renvyle who insists, to this day, that she was not the marrying type. Ensconced as a childminder for a wealthy family in Manhattan, Catherine nonetheless fell for him and they married two years later.

Their first two children, Brendan and Eric, were born in New York but when Brendan was 5½, the urge to come home took hold and so they did. Their third child, Christina, was born in Ireland in 1980.

Sheamus provided for his family by running a small fishing boat from Old Head pier, and catching salmon, mackerel, pollock and lobster. And he pursued his music with zest.

In New York, he played for a time in a loose-knit group named The Hillsiders and worked with Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. Back home, he played the accordion weekly in Matt Molloy’s bar in Westport as well as in Keane’s, O Dufaigh’s and the Bhun Abhainn bars in Louisburgh. He was a founding member of the town’s Féile Chois Cuan committee and became known and respected in traditional music circles throughout the country.

He had a real passion for music, says Catherine but was otherwise taciturn.

“He said it all in a few words,” says Catherine, “and yet he was full of devilment. He was also a teetotaller and he never smoked.”

In 2012, he was diagnosed with vascular dementia. For four years, he was cared for by Catherine and the family as his faculties diminished but, inevitably, full-time help was necessary. In 2016, he went to live at the Cuan Chaitriona Nursing Home in Castlebar.

Unable to talk in his latter years, he nonetheless wore his decline with grace, smiling and flirting with the staff, and responding to music played on the piano, often in the company of his children, their partners and his nine grandchildren. The end, when it came, was something of a release.

“Covid was a blessing for Sheamus,” says Catherine. “We as a family believe that. He had no quality. There was no suffering. Covid was his friend; there was no distress.”

He had tested positive but was stable after a number of days until, in the early hours of February 12th when his oxygen level plunged suddenly and Catherine got the call.

“I had just two requests,” she says of her conversation with the nursing staff, whose care she praises as exceptional, “play him music and let me have a video call.”

And so, to the sound of playing on his own CD, Caught in the Surf: Sheamus Heneghan and Family, Catherine spoke to her husband for the last time.

“I just talked and named all the kids and said they are doing well and don’t you worry about them. He was very peaceful. He was out like a light, like a baby. He just stopped breathing at 10 to six. . .

“It was a great life. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Peter Murtagh