Obituary: John William Seoighe
Island-born seaman won four All-Ireland rowing titles prior to emigrating with his family to Boston. Later, he returned to Ireland, recalls Turtle Bunbury, where his children and grandchildren now sail the Atlantic waters he knew so well
There was something about John William Seoighe of Connemara, who died last month, that instantly connected him to the grizzle-cheeked fishermen who plied the Atlantic coast for so many centuries before his birth. Just to look at him brought to mind Paul Henry's painting of those agile, woolly-jumpered fishermen launching a currach.
When recounting his salty tales, he had a propensity to smile wider and wider as he brought you through the adventure, wave by wave. He relished stories of the Otherworld, and his baritone voice rumbled cheerily as he recalled spooky encounters with ghost ships and long dead ancestors whose spirits still prevailed upon the island waters where he was born and raised. "Sailing, sailing, sailing, that was everything to me," he once told me.
During his lifetime, he must have launched 10,000 currachs. Together with three cousins, he won a record four All-Ireland Rowing Titles; a three-in-a-row between 1956 and 1958 and a fourth in 1961. They also won numerous Galway Hooker regattas.
The Seoighe family has been rooted in the Irish- speaking traditions of Connemara's island life for centuries. The first named was Padraig Seoige, born in Carna in the mid-1700s, a boat- builder on the island of Inish Barra.
In 1902, Padraig's grandson William moved to Inse Gaine, or Sand Island, where his wife Peg gave birth to their eighth and youngest child, John William, born on a spring tide in 1919. He went to school on Lettermore Island, walking across at low tide in the mornings and then rowing home a mile across the sea afterwards.
By the age of 14, he was delivering turf to the Aran Islands with his cousin John Bhabín. "We were over every two or three days, 10 or 12 miles each time. It was a tricky journey and you couldn't make it every day. Maybe you'd be almost there and you'd see how the waves were breaking and you'd have to get away again," he said.
During the 1930s, like so many from Connemara, he made his way to England, working in Huddersfield, Manchester and London before sailing on to Jersey where he spent a summer digging potatoes.
In 1943, he married Bridget Conneely, the daughter of a Galway hooker sailor from Inish Barra, with whom he had eight children. As well as fishing for lobsters and scallops, he was again bringing turf to the Aran Islands, and on down to Kinvara, and sometimes to Ballyvaughan and New Quay, Co Clare.
However, Inish Barra became increasingly isolated and by 1964 only eight of the 40 houses were still occupied. One morning, John William put his wife and young children on his boat and by close of day they were on a flight to Boston. He spent the next six years working as a carpenter and rope splicer but, as he said, "you'd always be thinking of the old sod".
In 1970, he and Bridget returned to Galway City and built the house in Rossaveel where he lived out his latter years with son Padraig, daughter-in-law Cait and their two young children, Róisin and Colm, a talented pair, well known in the west for their singing, dancing and acting.
It pleased him greatly that his children and grandchildren still sail and fish upon the Atlantic waters he knew so well.