Tánaiste Micheál Martin took time out on his visit to Western Massachusetts last week to honor the last living woman from the Great Blasket Island in County Kerry in what was also a celebration of the centennial of her life.
Surrounded by her loving and large family, Mairead Kearney Shea, now 100, was the beneficiary of many exemplary words and a plaque with photographs of her today, when she came to the United States at age 26, and as a young girl on the remote island that was evacuated in 1953.
Speaking at Irish Cultural Center of Western New England, Martin said: “It is a great privilege and honor for me to be here with Mairead. This is a lovely, lovely moment that symbolizes the extraordinary connection between this part of the world and a wonderful part of Ireland, which is the Dingle Peninsula and the Blasket Island itself.”
Martin addressed the crowd at first speaking in Irish, giving credit to the Dingle Peninsula in West Kerry as the place where he learned the language fluently as a young man. The island, nearly three miles off that coastline, was home to a close-knit community, many who wrote books about their lives and culture, until isolation and a dwindling population triggered its exodus.
Martin was the guest of Congressman Richard Neal of Springfield, who has been instrumental in both the Good Friday agreement and ongoing political negotiations between the United States and Ireland, most recently with regards to Northern Ireland and Brexit.
The pair, along with U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, Claire Cronin, marched in the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 19. Kearney Shea’s presentation followed the parade at the ICC in West Springfield.
Neal said Springfield was influenced positively by the Blasket islanders who came over in the mid 20th Century.
“Millions of Irish nationals immigrated across the Atlantic to take part in the American Dream and make their mark on our nation’s history,” Neal said. “As one of the two remaining Great Blasket Islanders, Mairead Kearney Shea represents thousands of native Irish speakers who settled in the Greater Springfield community to make a better life for themselves and their families.
"Their stories speak not only to a great cultural achievement by the people of the Great Blasket Islands, but also to the profound connection between our region and the island of Ireland.
“You can’t imagine America without the Irish, and you can’t imagine Springfield without the Blasket Islanders."
For her part, Kearney Shea was pleased for the recognition of her long life and of the importance of the island where she grew up.
“We had a great day,” she said. “Just to have an honor like that is really something. At my age, it’s not the end, and I know that now.”
Born on December 28, 1922, Kearney Shea was the youngest of seven children of Peats Tom and Nellie Shea Kearney. She came to Springfield in the 1940s and worked as a seamstress at the former Berkshire Maid, owned by the Joseph family.
She married Springfield firefighter Patrick Shea in 1960, and together they had four children – Patrick, John, Thomas and Theresa. The senior Patrick Shea died in 2007. She is now the grandmother of seven.
Theresa Shea called the event “an incredible, incredible day. She was so beyond excited. The recognition of her lineage means so much to her. The skills the island gave her – the tenacity, the fortitude and resilience – gave her the courage to come over here and start a new life. My mother is the history of the island.”
ICC President Sean F. Cahillane is the nephew of Kearney Shea. Together with her elder sister, Eileen Kearney Cahillane and many other islanders, Mairead forged a new life in Springfield and kept close ties with hundreds who came over from the Dingle Peninsula.
“Having grown up in the culture of the Blasket Island here in Springfield, surrounded by so many islanders, I feel I have a unique view of the world. I’ve had a rare and cherished Gaelic experience,” Cahillane said.
Among many relatives at the ceremony, including children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins, was retired Springfield Police Officer Michael Carney.
Carney noted that his father, the late Michael Carney, grew up with his first cousin Mairead on the Blasket Island and remained close with her after they both immigrated to Springfield. Young Michael knows her as a loving elder with a wry sense of humor.
“It was an honor to be there for her centennial celebration,” he said. “To see her recognized reminds me of her and her friendship with my Dad, and her true spirit to the Irish community. Mairead has always been bubbly and very funny, always cracking her Irish wit.”
The Great Blasket Island is one of six islands in the archipelago that is the westernmost outpost in Ireland. It is today reachable by boat, and is a favorite spot for locals as well as tourists, campers and hikers.