Earlier today we celebrated Mass in St Patrick’s Church, Gurteen for Seán Taheny, R.I.P. Seán’s house was like an extension of ours when we were growing up and his children remain some of the best friends I have to this day. Madge, his wife, has always been there for us and I was very pleased to be asked to celebrate Seán’s Funeral Mass today. It was a massive gathering of people and a fitting celebration of his life that took in many of his life’s choices and journeys, not least his emigration to the United States in the early 1950’s and conscription to the US Army and his deployment to Korea during the Korean War. It is that side of Seán’s life that remained largely unmentioned until recent years. (I include here some material from local and national press media that paints a fuller picture)
IT took almost 60 years, but Sean Taheny yesterday finally received his War Service Medal for valour during the Korean War.
The 79-year-old farmer from Gurteen, Co Sligo, was among 11 Irish veterans who served under the US flag, and were awarded the medal at a special ceremony at the American Embassy inDublin yesterday.
The veterans, who range from 79 to 87, all lived in the US when they joined up or were drafted when the war broke out in 1950.
And they were honoured yesterday by US Ambassador Dan Rooney and Korean Ambassador Kim Chang-Yeob.
The veterans and hundreds of other Irish immigrants who served in the war as members of the United Nations Commandwere entitled to receive the honour presented by Korea to the UN Commander-in-Chief in 1951.
Mr Taheny had emigrated to New York in 1949 and was working in a grocery shop in The Bronx when he was conscripted in 1951. The retired corporal fought with the 45th Infantry Division at the infamous battlefield known as ‘Heartbreak Ridge’ — the site at which more than 3,700 American and French troops and 25,000 North Koreans and Chinese were killed
Sean Taheny, a 79-year-old Sligo farmer, holds up some extraordinary mementos of his time fighting for the US army in the Korean War. A leaflet depicts the archetypal American sweetheart, fretting that her GI boyfriend will be killed. Another booklet offers Christmas greetings from the People’s Republic of China.
These items were airdropped from a Chinese plane over UN lines just before Christmas 1952.
That Christmas Eve, the Chinese attacked Hill 812, where Corporal Taheny was stationed with the 45 Infantry Division. After his platoon sergeant was killed, he telephoned in artillery support, and this action led to the US army successfully repelling the Chinese.
Taheny recalls another occasion: “There was one night we were out on a patrol and one lad got injured and I had to wait all night with him before I could bring him back. For that they gave me a bronze star,” he says.
Taheny was just one of hundreds from this island who fought in the conflict, which erupted 60 years ago this weekend. The early 1950s was a time of unemployment and mass emigration, and many Irishmen found that the price of American citizenship was a draft card and the boat to Korea.
At least 29 Irishmen who wore a US uniform did not return.
As I said, this was a part of Seán’s life we didn’t know much about until relatively recent times though, it’s certain, that it is reality he lived with for most of his adult life. He was honoured today for his part in this story with a Guard of Honour made up of members of the American Legion and the Officers of National Ex-Servicemen (Ballymote branch). We were told that Seán was the most decorated Irish Man who served with the US Army in Korea. It was a fitting and poignant tribute and a reminder that much of a man’s life can go un-noticed.
I share the few thoughts used in today’s Mass.
Today we stand on the doorstep of a New Year – filled with potential and the months that stretch out before us are not in our hands. We step into them, nonetheless and hope that it will be a good year for us all. Before stepping into this year, there is a need to acknowledge the year and years passed. It is here I want to start. I want to go back forty and more years to those childhood days when the path behind our homes took us over and back, across the fields, past McDonnell’s, Maggie and Tom’s and across the little style beside Taheny’s house where we spent so much time in games and being together. Seán was there. He was a quiet man. At least he was quiet with me:) He didn’t say much to us but what he did was allow us be children. We played around the house, popped Pea Pods in the garden behind the house before maybe they were ready to pop and made hay in the meadow at the front of the house. Making hay wasn’t part of my experience at home where we had the garage but we did make hay with Seán and played there too. Making little cars in the shaken out hay but there came a time when Seán knew that the cars wouldn’t feed the cattle in the winter and the work would continue until the cocks of hay were put in place. He was a hard worker but seemed okay with us moving at our own pace. They were good times. We enjoyed them and all these years later, very happy memories remain of Seán and Madge and the part they played in our lives. We crossed the other way too – to McKeons’ and O’Neills’ but most of the crossing was between our house and Tahenys’. I haven’t been on that path in years and feel certain it’s overgrown completely now but its memory is not overgrown and has been very clear in my mind over the past few days. So, as we step into this New Year – we recall and give thanks for the old too.
We had a gathering at the Crib in Kilmovee on Christmas Eve. It was intended as a bit of time to pull away from what can be the rush of Christmas Eve and an invitation to the young and their parents to spend a bit of time at the focal point of the Christmas Story. It went well with maybe fifty to sixty people turning up – mostly children with their parents and, in some cases grandparents. We placed the figures in the Crib and the children, without prompting, gathered around it. I began to tell them the story, the very well known story, of Joseph and Mary coming to Bethlehem. I said that Joseph came to the door of the Inn and knocked (as I did this I knocked on the wooden side of the Crib) and I said “The Inn-Keeper said ….” but before I got a chance to say anything a little boy said “There’s no room here”. I told him he was right and that’s exactly what the man said. The boy looked at me and said “I had that line in the play two years ago but the play was cancelled”!!! So it was – the weather came bad that year and the play never happened. He got his chance this year though and a line that had lain dormant for two years found its voice. He had his moment. I was happy for him and happier that the line, so important to him, was voiced – just at the right moment – without rehearsal or prompting.
It’s fair to say that Seán had some lines – a huge part of his story – lying dormant for many years. It’s only in very recent times that his story rose to the surface and I believe he found peace in and through its rising. The lines were important to him and he needed to speak them. Finding his voice, he was able to re-visit some of those memories from a war and place, neither of his making or choosing, in which he played a significant part. There’s a reading in Scripture that talks about a time for gathering and a time for scattering, a time for collecting and a time for throwing away. I think sometimes in throwing away we can let go of things. It seems to me, that in being able to talk about this part of Seán’s life, he was able to throw away some difficult memories and in their throwing away, he found a new and deeper peace.
In stepping into this New Year then we need to decide what to bring with us. Ryanair is often criticised for some of its policies and maybe rightly so. One of the criticisms centres around its luggage restrictions but, a times, I think maybe they have it right. We can often bring with us things not needed for the journey. Shane came, at short notice, from his holidays and was glad to get the last seat available on the flight. I have no doubt his only concern was to get here – the bits and pieces he might ordinarily want with him, would have no place on this journey. The essential was that he’d get home and he did. So often, we weigh ourselves down with things unnecessary and it’s good to recognise that. So then, as Seán checked in for this, his final journey, what baggage did he bring? I suspect very little – only the essential truth that he was loved by Madge, his family and that he loved them. Not least his grandchildren who were truly his stepping stone into the future. The first twins I ever baptized – and I’ve not baptized many, were Donald and Letitia’s daughters – Laureen and Kirsty. I remember asking Seán the night before the baptism to remind me of their names. I could remember Kirsty so I said to him “What are the twins’ names – Kirsty and …….?” “HUNGRY” replied Seán – you can almost hear him say it. He was proud of you and remained proud of you and all the grandchildren. Yes, that’s what he checked in
We too need to check in a little today and I believe, like Seán, we check in the love we had for Seán as family and friends. Like all families I am sure there were moments of tension for you all – moments of uncertainty but today these take second place. What’s worthy of memory is that you did your best by Seán for as long as you could. That, at the end of the day, is what matters – all that matters.
In our second reading today we heard a call to and desire for happiness. We looked at these words in your house last night, Paula, and I believe they are truly words that one who has died would want spoken to those left behind. I believe they are Seán’s words to all of you: “I want you to be happy, always happy, in the Lord. I repeat, what I want is your happiness. Let your tolerance be evident to everyone, the Lord is very near. There is no need to worry. If there is anything you need, pray for it, asking God for it with prayer and thanksgiving and that peace of Christ, which is so much greater than we can ever understand, will guard your hearts and thoughts in Christ Jesus. Keep doing all the things you learnt from me, have been taught by me or have heard or seen me do. Then the God of peace will be with you”.
It has rightly been said that we cannot know a man until we walk a mile in his shoes. We never walked in Seán’s shoes but know something, in recent years, of some of the difficult steps he took – not so much in shoes as in the boots of a soldier. Boots, like the war and place, not of his choosing and to a destination not wanted but walk in them he did. He left them behind and other steps were taken more locally in the years since those Korean days. So it’s fair to say we don’t know the full depth of the story Seán lived with but we know he did his best and more than that, nobody could ask.
Finally, in your home last night I found myself going to that Gospel passage where the shepherds left their hill – their comfort zone – on the outskirts of Bethlehem because the Angels had told them about the birth of Jesus. “Let us go and see this thing we have been told about”, said one of them and they went. They went to the stable and found the newborn baby, with Mary and Joseph – everything “exactly as they had been told”. I thought to use that Gospel passage today but discovered at Morning Mass in Kilmovee that it has already been chosen and was, in fact, the Gospel intended for use at all Masses celebrated throughout the world today, on New Year’s Day. That remains my final prayer for Seán – as we bid him farewell, our prayer and our absolute belief is that he found everything “exactly as he had been told”. May he rest in peace. Amen.
Towards the end of Mass Keva spoke about her father and her words were well chosen and delivered. I’ve no doubt he would have been very proud of her. So also of Paula and all the family. I think he would have loved the song his granddaughter composed and sang and would have appreciated the words of Sergeant Hawko.
In the Cemetery, following the prayers, Madge was presented with the “Stars and Stripes” the flag of the United States of America. In concluding the prayers I remembered the road of our youth from Mullaghroe N.S. to home and those along that road, who were so much part of our journey and lives, who have now gone to their Eternal Reward – Pat Molloy, Bernard and Eileen McDonnell, Jimmy and Celia Downes, Frank O’Neill, Bill and Mary Sherlock, Maggie Grady, Jim and Nora McDonnell (Sr Maureen too and her brother Jimmy). Tom and Maggie Lennon and their sons Mickey and Tommy, Pake and Bea Flynn and now Seán. (Had I continued just a little further along the road, I’d have included – and now do – Jimmy and Josie Gaffney, Pat and Annie Regan, Leonard Lydon and Paddy Lennon). May they rest in peace.
A song from another battle but maybe it has its place today ….