'A cruel blow' - President Higgins leads tributes to tragic Irish rower Ailish Sheehan (23) who passes away after fall during World University Championships
President Higgins has led tributes to one of Ireland's brightest hopes in world rowing, who died six days after sustaining critical head injuries in a fall in Poland.
Ailish Sheehan, (23), from Kildimo, Co Limerick, suffered catastrophic injuries after she slipped and fell only hours after winning a Bronze medal at the FISU World University Rowing Championships, in Poznan, Poland.
"It is with great sadness that I have learnt of the death of Ailish Sheehan," said President Higgins in a statement.
"A talented rower and student of design, her loss will be felt acutely by her team mates and colleagues. This is a cruel blow for all those who were so were impressed by her rowing success.
"As President of Ireland, I would like to extend my sympathy to her family, colleagues and friends."
Having secured dual citizenship, the rising sports star had rowed for both Ireland and England.
Irish Olympian Sinead Jennings, a former team mate of Sheehan's described the Limerick athlete as "one of the most talented I've ever met".
"It's absolutely awful. I rowed with Ailish in 2013 when we won the senior (pairs) together. She is an amazing girl. She was so bright and so full of life and energy," Jennings said.
"I think we are all in shock - we can't believe it has happened really, at all. She had such a future ahead of her. She was such a lovely girl," she added.
"To think she was just out celebrating, as anybody would be, after winning the bronze medal. It just shouldn't have happened."
Last Sunday Ailish and the rest of her team mates, Rebecca Edwards, Annie Withers, and Gillian Cooper, came third for Great Britain in the Women's Senior Coxed Fours.
They were out celebrating when the accident happened.
The British Universities & Colleges Sport (BUCS) confirmed the death in a statement on its website.
"We are deeply saddened to report the death of Ailish Sheehan... a postgraduate student at Goldsmiths, University of London, representing the University of London Boat Club.
"BUCS, British Rowing and Rowing Ireland are providing support to her family during this difficult time and ask for their privacy to be respected."
Vince Mayne, Chief Executive Officer, BUCS, added: "On behalf of everyone at BUCS, I wish to extend our condolences to the family and friends of Ailish and our thoughts are with them at this difficult time."
Breaking down in tears, a close friend of the Sheehan family said: "Ailish has passed away. It's just terrible news. Everyone is in shock."
"She was so bubbly, so full of life, so determined. I can't comprehend it," the friend added.
Ms Sheehan's heartbroken family, including her parents John and Catherine, and sisters Niamh and Aine, had been keeping a vigil for the last six days at her hospital bedside.
A BUCS source said Ms Sheehan was pronounced dead around lunchtime.
Minister of State for Tourism and Sport and TD for Co Limerick Patrick O'Donovan, expressed his condolences to Sheehan's family
Minister O'Donovan said: "The loss of any life is a time of great sadness but when a person of such great promise and so young passes it is a tragedy. My thoughts and prayers are with her family, friends and the rowing community during this difficult time."
Sheehan, who rowed for both Ireland and Britain had been a member of St Michael's Rowing a Club, Limerick; Dooneen Athletics Club, Co Limerick, and most recently with University of London Rowing Club.
Phil Roche, President of Dooneen, described her as "an all rounder" who excelled across all codes. Prior to concentrating on her rowing career, Sheehan had established herself as a record-setting shot put and javelin thrower, and represented Ireland at International Schools level, and later at the Celtic Games in Scotland.
In 2011, she accepted an athletic scholarship to Notre Dame - one of the leading universities in the USA – home of the ‘Fighting Irish’.
Her father John, a native of Bandon, Co Cork, is well known in both athletic and GAA circles, having played minor hurling with Cork and St Mary’s in London in the 1970s. He previously trained the Limerick senior hurling squad, and was a PE teacher at St Clement's secondary school, Limerick. He is also a trainer with Kildimo GAA Club.
Ailish's mother Catherine is a nurse, and her sister Niamh recently qualified as a speech therapist.
It is the second major tragedy to strike the Sheehan family. John's brother Jim was left paralysed following a crash about 20 years ago, which claimed the life of his wife, who was a sister of Catherine.
Family friends and neighbours in Bruff - where the Sheehan's raised their three daughters and their nephew, Conor, said they were "devastated" as news of rower's passing filtered through from Poland.
The grief stricken community had earlier in the week held a prayer and meditation service in the local park for Ailish's recovery, and on Wednesday, prayers were offered for her at the local church of St Peter and Paul.
"It's so sad. She had packed so much into her 23 years. She achieved so much. Most of us wouldn't reach the heights she did in our lifetime," a family friend said.
Another former neighbour described Ailish as: "full of life, and full of go and full of craic".
"She was a live wire, full of fun. She was always very competitive - she had to be, to get on the rowing team and to win her bronze medal," the friend added.
Ailish's devastated family are preparing arrangements to repatriate her body back home where she will be laid to rest in the coming days.