03 Oct 2022

Kathleen Sheerin - a remarkable Donegal woman who should be regarded as the first lady of the Diaspora

An Ardara native who made life a little easier for first time Donegal people in Dublin

Kathleen Sheerin - a remarkable Donegal woman who should be regarded as the first lady of the Diaspora

Dr. Tom McGinley, the 1991 Donegal Person of the Year, with Kathleen, President Donegal Association and Danny Breslin, Donegal Parian China, sponsors

As someone who went to Dublin in the early 1970’s with a number of friends from ‘In Through’, there was always a sense of being cast adrift from the familiar cocoon that was Donegal, and although we were in the Big Smoke, we may as well have been in the UK or US. However, being a ‘Donegal’ was a badge to wear with pride, and the informal support network was vital, whether it meant giving a friend or neighbour a couch or corner, or getting a ‘start’ from someone who was already ‘well got’ in the capital.

I recall an elderly lady, a committee member at Listowel Writers Week forty years ago, telling me how she and a Kerry friend had joined the Donegal Association the late 1930’s because it was the only ‘rural’ outlet in Dublin.

Kathleen Sheerin joined the Association in 1976, and is now synonymous with its activities and in particular the Donegal Person of the Year.

On the day I visited her, it was the 24th anniversary of the death of her late husband Brendan, a native of Carrigart who taught in Loughros Point and whom she met at a bazaar in The Saddlers Hall in Ardara.

“It was love at first sight”, she admits, and in time they would move to Carrigart and subsequently Dublin.

“I’ll always gravitate towards Ardara but the city has a pull too.” It was that pull that drew thousands of Donegal people to Dublin and who found a home from home with an Association that Kathleen would serve as President and first woman Chairperson, and alongside fellow Ardara man Paul Shovlin and her late husband established the Donegal Person of the Year Award.

In 2015 she was recognised by the Association for her 40 plus years of unbroken voluntary service to their Committee and her ongoing commitment and dedication to the organisation.

Home in Ardara is the beautiful Wooden Bridge, originally the home of her parents, Tom Gallagher and Molly Boyle.

“An island in Ardara” she calls it and there is a sense of an idyllic oasis only accessible by the aforementioned bridge. Her childhood memories are of innocence and happiness, in a household of four boys and three girls.

Dad was a fine singer and the Boyles were fiddle players so she grew up with music coursing in the DNA. Her brothers Jody, Paul and his wife Mary B need no introduction to music lovers and their son Rory will be forever associated with ‘Jimmy’s Winning Matches’.

When she moved to Carrigart, she joined the local drama circle. It was here that Mandy Gallagher gave her her first driving lesson, on Tramore Beach to be precise. Brendan didn’t drive so Many took them both to the beach one day, spotted two dung heaps at the entrance and said: “Now, Kathleen, if you can reverse between them without running over them, we’ll make a driver out of you yet!” She never looked back.

“Are Donegal people naturally clannish” I ask her. “No” she responds, “but we go a bit of the road with everybody”. I love that definition, and imagine Paul, Jody or Rory composing a Donegal anthem with that line as a refrain. The young girl who turned head forty years ago in Carrigart hasn’t changed a bit.

Whatever about music and football in the Gallagher DNA (her brother Frankie Tom, the football legend joins us as we sip tea) Kathleen most definitely has her mother’s people incredible longevity and ageless looks. Molly Gallagher passed away at the age of 105 some seven years ago. We reminisce about Gortnabrade school outside Carrigart where Brendan Sheerin and I both attended. Next door was Cullen’s shop.

Not only did they sell single cigarettes but single slices of pan bread!

In our living memory, there was abject poverty...hence the exodus which became the Donegal Diaspora.

Now, the lady who did so much for many of us adrift in the Big Smoke is home again.

What is it about her father’s house in Wooden Bridge?

“Ah, Frank, there’s something in the walls”.

As I depart and look back, I think…In Donegal, even bridges have been no barrier to those who went a bit of the road with everybody.

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