Saturday 24 September 2016

Family pay tribute to 'beautiful, strong, and courageous' rower Ailish

David Raleigh

Published 17/09/2016 | 17:05

The wicker coffin bearing the remains of Ailish Sheehan is carried by friends for funeral mass in St. Josheph's Church Kildimo, Co Limerick. Photograph: Press 22
The wicker coffin bearing the remains of Ailish Sheehan is carried by friends for funeral mass in St. Josheph's Church Kildimo, Co Limerick. Photograph: Press 22

THE family of world university rowing bronze medalist, Ailish Sheehan, have paid tribute to the "ultimate warrior", at her funeral mass in Kildimo, Co Limerick.

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Ailish's dreams of qualifying for the Olympics were cruelly snatched from her, just as she was emerging as one of Ireland's great future hopes in world rowing, mourners heard.

On September 4th last, Ailish stood on the winners podium in Poznan, Poland, proudly holding aloft her world championship bronze medal as part of the Great Britain team. Hours later she was on a life-support machine in hospital, after falling and hitting her head while out celebrating her victory. On September 9th, she passed away in the loving bosom of her heartbroken family.

Despite the darkness which overwhelmed their joy at witnessing Ailish blossom in Poland, her family proudly led a bright soundscape vision of her life, through the stratospheric orchestrations of the John Bowker Earthsong camp choir.

Ailish Sheehan
Ailish Sheehan

"At Ailish's hospital bed in Poznan, we only saw her beautiful face and the tanned body of the ultimate warrior," John Sheehan, Ailish's father, and "number one fan" said.

Laughter spilled out of the hushed church as John smiled and recalled the important little milestones his daughter conquered along the way.

"While still a baby, around 18 months of age, and unable to move freely in a liquid filled nappy, (Ailish) ripped it off and flung it high into a bush, and ran laughing towards her Kerry cousins...Helping Catherine bake a cake with her arm in a cast, Ailish was told to wash her hands, and she duly stuck the cast between her knees and pulled the plaster off for good...Snorkelling in Australia, she cut her hand, and was poisoned by a fish while feeding sausages to hundreds of fishes in a corrib," he said.

Paying tribute to his daughter's talents in sport, music, art, and of her love of nature, he said: "She created many waves in many ways...when she danced, waves were sent to the earth's core. It was who Ailish was, that made us her greatest fans."

The mass heard Ailish had cut a magical imprint in the memories of everyone she met, and that had achieved more in her short life than most would in a lifetime. Last year the 6ft 1inch rising star was named an All American Athlete, a status reserved for the most outstanding amateur athletes in the US.

Early on in her career at Dooneen Athletics Club, Ailish won national titles in sliothar throwing, shot put and javelin. She rowed for Ireland after joining St Michael's Rowing Club, Limerick. Excelling in sport she won a scholarship to Notre Dame, Indiana - the home of the Fighting Irish, where she fulfilled her dream of rowing four US NCAA Finals with her "shamrock sisters".

In her memory, abguard of honour was performed on the main street by representatives from Dooneen AC and Kildimo GAA Club as well as students from Ailish's former school, Salesians Secondary College, Pallaskenry. Former team mates from University of London Boat Club; Notre Dame, Indiana; St Michael's, Limerick, held up rowing oars over her wicker coffin buttered with wild flowers as it was shouldered high into the church.

Ailish's sister Niamh, described her as "beautiful, strong, and courageous". In a touching tribute from the altar she added: "When Ailish Sheehan hit South Bend, Indiana, a whirlwind came to town, and their world was rocked for the better."

Ailish's mother Catherine thanked their neighbours and friends, and the medics in Poland who treated her daughter with "expert care".

She also paid a special tribute to one of Ailish's friends who performed first aid on her after her fall.

"Thank you to Jacob, who resuscitated Ailish at the scene of the accident. Although her injuries were not compatible with life, he got her breathing until the paramedics came. That gave us time to be with her in hospital, and a time to be with each other."

"We cried, we laughed, we remembered for five precious days," Catherine said.

Chief celebrant, Fr Joe Foley, said she had "a presence so potent, it's rememberance will long remain as a living thing".

Ailish, "gentle-hearted and iron-willed" is to be cremated following a private family ceremony, in Ringaskiddy, Co Cork, Monday.

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