FEATURE: A walk down Askeaton’s memory lane with Michael Sheahan

Councillor Michael Sheahan took a nostalgic walk through his native Askeaton with Limerick Post reporter Alan Jacques.

IN my memory, I will always see. The town that I have loved so well, where our school played ball by the gas yard wall, and we laughed through the smoke and the smell.”

The Town I Loved So Well is a much-loved folk tune passionately belted out by Luke Kelly. And though it may have been written by Phil Coulter about his childhood in Derry, when I met up with Fine Gael councillor Michael Sheahan in his native Askeaton, he quickly makes it his own, giving me a short rendition.

Michael talks as passionately about his West Limerick birthplace as Kelly choruses, waxing as lyrical as a bard.

He was first elected in 2009 as a Fine Gael representative in Limerick City East and was successful again in 2014 and in 2019. He sat as Mayor of Limerick in 2019-20, and is now, for the first time, seeking election in the upcoming local elections in the Adare-Rathkeale Municipal District — back to his roots.

‘This is where I was born’

The 72 year old is deeply passionate about Limerick, this is evident. He tells me as we set off up Church Street that he has developed a lasting and special affection for Limerick – a pride in his home county, after spending most of his student, adult, working, family, and political life here.

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“This is where I was born and grew up. I went to Mary I from and came back once again,” he puffs proudly.

“Now, I am going to stand on a spot here that is most unusual,” he says, posting up between two petrol pumps at the SuperValu supermarket in Askeaton. “Standing here now, I would say, here, this is where I was born.”

“There was little cottages along here. There was 12 of us here, 12 families, and we had a little open space out here,” he recalls as he points out the locations of the Church Street cottages.

“We were the young family, all the rest were older people. I was born here 72 years ago. We had a full house, we had a bedroom and a kitchen and a garden out the back. My brother, my sister, and myself were all born here. We lived in the same room with our parents.

“Across the road there was a cobbler living there, that house was owned by the council. And there is the house where my late brother lived, that became our family home. There’s an acre of ground going back there. We used to play out there. There was potatoes growing, we played soccer with my father, who taught us cricket in there – which I thought the kids in school. This was my street,” says Cllr Sheahan, miles down memory lane.

The former mayor’s enthusiasm and deep affection for this historic town on the banks of the River Deel is compelling. He recants memories and stories of old that transport us back through time as we make our way around Askeaton’s sleepy thoroughfares. I can almost hear the clip clop of horse’s hooves and the clatter of wooden cart wheels coming up the street.

“The secondary school was across there, it was a real old building. There was a bar up the road there and we used to be allowed into the lounge to watch all the old black and white shows on the television. I was there the night John F Kennedy die. My grandparents on my mother’s side lived up the top of the street and I ran up to tell them that he had died.”

‘This is where I was born and grew up’: Cllr Sheahan spoke with deep passion about his hometown. Photo: Alan Jacques.

Further watching the streets unfold in his memory, he says: “This was a TV shop and they had a big window there and at night he’d leave on the televisions and we would be up here outside the window. We then were the first ones to get a television in the street, a Pye television we got, and everyone used to come into watch The High Chaparral.”

“Next door here was a pub and shop, she sold everything in it. They were farmers so she sold milk, we got our milk and eggs and everything here. Up here on the right-hand side is the old Protestant rectory. We had the job to bring the milk up in the morning before school.”

‘It was a lovely life’

Michael confesses that he never really felt a desire to leave his native Limerick. This, he explains, is something fostered through long-lasting and wonderful childhood memories, as well as the most positive adult influences.

As we walk further up Church Street, Cllr Sheahan suddenly stops as another memory comes to him.

“See the pump?” he asks.

“Because my mother was such good cook, on a Saturday morning when the farmers were coming from the creamery, they would water the tankers here to bring away. They’d always have a tank or two of skimmed milk and she’d send me out, up on the cart with the bucket, into the tankard and take the skimmed milk in for baking.

“The men would load up and get their water to take away and water the horses, and we’d use that then as an opportunity to get the milk. That was my life.

“On a Sunday, we always had our dinner with my grandmother and afterwards, to give my mother a break, my grandfather would put us into the trap and we would head off down to Beagh Castle in Ballysteen, collecting apples on the way.

“We’d come back the wrong way up into town and everyone looked at us in the pony and trap. It was a lovely life. They are great memories.”

Now in full flow, Michael is like a man in a trance, every step a step back in time through fond childhood memories that he can almost touch.

“This was Hogan’s shop. There was no bypass in those days so everybody going to Kerry or Ballybunion had to go this way. On a Sunday evening, Kerry people coming from Croke Park would be below because there was a man living there with Kerry connections and he always had a Kerry flag out.

“They would pull into Collin’s Bar in the bottom of the street, it was a great Kerry pub, so you had this constant movement of traffic and people down the town.”

‘My father was a fierce Michael Collins man’

It was during the Fine Gael man’s students years in Mary Immaculate College, he tells me, that he began to explore and connect with Limerick City – mostly through his involvement with community and sporting organisations. After college Michael started working in Monaleen National School as a primary teacher.

“I got my first teaching job in Monaleen in 1972 and I taught there for 35 years. I reared a family out there. I have four children and they are all in Limerick, which is wonderful, and I have four grandchildren and a fifth on the way,” he beams.

“I am back home now to my roots. I am here now three years and I love being back. I would have always come out on Sundays to see my mother up until she died.

Turning his mind to the upcoming elections, he says that “people are delighted to see me running now in the Adare-Rathkeale area in the local elections”.

“Especially with a councillor retiring, because there has always been a councillor, and even a TD, in this town. My family would have great connections here. I am getting a good response. People are welcoming me.

“This will be my first time running back in the homestead, which has huge significance for me. Not only that, when I got my papers to vote in the referendum, it was my first time voting back in Askeaton since my twenties.”

According to Michael, his late parents Eileen and John Joe always had an open door policy at their home on Church Street to anyone that needed a helping hand.

He still marvels at how his late father found the time to run local numerous schoolboy soccer leagues, boxing, and handball clubs, promote the fledgling swimming club, as well as being a fierce local political activist.

Michael Sheahan says he’s “back home now to my roots” in Askeaton. Photo: Alan Jacques.

“My father was a fierce Michael Collins man. He was big into the blueshirts and since I was 14 years of age I was involved with Fine Gael.

“He used to take me to conventions in Ballingarry – that’s where Fine Gael Limerick County meetings used to take place – and he’d have me marking registers for Fine Gael.

“When elections came and I had bought my first car – a little orange Mini Estate when I was 22 – he had me behind here at the school going for people to bring them to polling stations who he knew would vote Fine Gael.”

His 6ft5 hulk of a father, a larger than life presence in his time, seems very much in Michael’s thoughts as we stroll around this ancient town. He walks beside him still as he recalls trying to keep apace with his doting dad on the way to Sunday mass.

“He was a big strong man but he succumbed to motor neurone disease at 60 years of age. He was dead at 62. A man that was so strong and so involved with the community, he never got the chance to retire. It was very sad.”

Michael described his father as “a most active trades union officer at Southern Chemicals in Askeaton, where he worked a three-cycle shift”.

“He was imbued with a non-judgemental attitude to people, commitment to their needs, love of family, and only his trusted the bicycle to take him around Askeaton and beyond. He was a huge presence in my life.

“He was a mighty man, a big strong man. In actual fact, there was a butcher shop at the bottom of the street and when he had killed a beast – he was a smallish man – he would wait for my father to come out and he’d say ‘John Joe, I want you a minute’.

“He’d have the rail and the hook in the beast and he’d say ‘I need you to haul up a beast’. He tells me, when he was 14, when he left school, he was working below in the creamery in Askeaton and the job was to lift the big heavy tankards of milk.”

I have to confess have seen Askeaton in a whole new light after my ramble around with the former Limerick Mayor.

“No matter where I was, again I was only in Limerick, only half an hour’s drive out the road, but when I came out to visit my mother on a Sunday, she’d always say ‘before you go a neighbour up the road needs to talk to you’. I would ask why they didn’t ask one of the local councillors and she’d say, ‘they are not the same colour’. She made plenty of work for me out here even though there was no votes in it for me.”

As I watch Michael head back up Church Street towards his childhood home, The Dubliners are in my ear once again.

And what’s lost is lost and gone forever. I can only pray for a bright, brand new day in the town I loved so well.”