I remember my earliest trips to Ireland to visit my grandma, aunts, uncles and cousins. Thoughts of cabbage and mashed potatoes, the creamiest butter and milk, Flake chocolate bars in a soft cone and running wild in the green hills come to mind. Uncle Sean was a fixture on these visits. I will never forget his laugh and his stories.
When he was sixteen, he left Ireland to go to work in England. The first farm he landed at had employed his older brother Paddy but Paddy had since moved on to a new job. So Sean was a teenager there on his own. He said he wasn’t allowed to stay in the house on the farm so he had to sleep in the barn. It was cold and there were mice and the thunder and lightning storms were vicious. He said he would read the Western People newspaper his mother would send him when the barn lit up with claps of lightning and he could see the pages. He didn’t want to waste the small candle he had in case he needed it.
He, like his other brothers, would send money home to my grandma in Ireland which she would use to send my mom to the convent for high school. This led to my mom studying nursing in England and midwifery in Scotland and eventually travelling to Canada to work in a hospital as a nurse. That’s where she met my dad and that’s why my brother and I are here today.
Sean was very good to my grandma. He would always bring her a coat and brooch and scarf from Marks and Spencer when he came home to visit. She loved dressing up for Sunday mass in her new outfits.
When Sean was young, he would often do his brother Paddy’s homework and then put it back in his school bag so that Paddy wouldn’t get in trouble at school if his work wasn’t done. The brothers were very close. Once they ran into someone home from America in the fields as young boys. The lady asked if they were twins and Uncle Sean said yes they were. The American asked how old they were and Sean replied, “I’m four and Paddy is five.”
I remember a story that Sean told about our American cousins. One of our cousins, a bachelor, was travelling out from New York to see Sean and was staying with him. Sean had left to pick him up at the train station. In the meantime, another cousin from America who didn’t know about the first cousin’s visit, decided to come to Ireland for her honeymoon as she had won a trip. They didn’t tell anyone they were coming. They stopped in the village shop and asked about Sean. Thinking this was the visitor Sean had been talking about the shopkeeper said, “Oh yes! Sean is expecting you!” And told them how to find Sean’s house. They drove to Sean’s but found that no one was home. In the meantime, Sean was driving back to his house from the train station with his American visitor. And as he drove along the grass-lined one-car-width road, he thought he noticed one of his cows missing from the field. So he stopped in the middle of the road, leaving his American cousin who could not drive in the car to wait for him and Sean climbed up the hill. Just at that moment, the other American cousins returning to town from Sean’s empty house came upon Sean’s car and couldn’t pass. So they got out of the car to talk to the people in the stopped car and realized they were all cousins from New York. Talk about a family reunion.
Years ago, a Slovenian friend of mine from my first job told me he was travelling to Ireland for a week. I was getting married a few days later and was very busy so I couldn’t organize any visits for him. I didn’t think he would leave Dublin but I told him if he did rent a car and decided to visit the west of Ireland, to stop and ask for Uncle Sean. He ended up doing just that. He pulled into the town square and saw a car parked there. He had seen pictures of my uncles around my computer at work so he thought he recognized someone. He walked up to the parked car and knocked on the window. The man rolled down the window and my friend asked, “Are you Uncle Sean?” My uncle replied, “I’m somebody’s Uncle Sean.” Sean and my other uncles brought my friend into the pub and they had a meal. Then they kept him for the night. My friend thought he had never met such friendly folks.
I feel very blessed that our Irish dance journey brought my children back to Ireland where they had a chance to get to know our Irish relatives including Uncle Sean. The kids danced on a wood board at Uncle Sean’s house at a gathering to celebrate our first trip when we travelled over to compete in Glasgow. We visited Uncle Sean at the day program at the hospital on our next trip where the kids did some Irish dancing and sang. And then on our most recent trip to the World Irish Dance Championships we visited Sean in the hospital where he had been since falling last year.
He ended his journey on the morning of October 27th and I believe he is having a wonderful conversation in heaven with my grandma.
The poet Mary Oliver said, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” Sean didn’t just visit. He laughed and he loved. He listened to music and he cheered on his nephews as they boxed their way to win the All-Irelands. He found jobs and made friends in England and Scotland. He worked the farm in Ireland and he enjoyed a good meal. He left many people with a smile on their face. He was a lovely son, brother and uncle.
We will never forget you Uncle Sean.