Seán Mac an tSíthigh opening window into Irish identity in Boston

Seán Mac an tSíthigh: ‘We used history to dip into their stories and there’s an emphasis on people from the Gaeltachts.’
Seán Mac an tSíthigh: ‘We used history to dip into their stories and there’s an emphasis on people from the Gaeltachts.’

Seán Mac an tSíthigh is explaining his new documentary, which airs tomorrow night on TG4.

“It’s a window on Irish identity in the city of Boston and what that means to the second and third generation Irish there.

“We used history to dip into their stories and there’s an emphasis on people from the Gaeltachts — from Donegal, Galway, all the way down to west Kerry.”

With that kind of constituency, it’s no surprise sport, and Gaelic football in particular, plays a role in maintaining what Mac an tSíthigh calls the “fibre-optic link to home”, as shown in one encounter with an old neighbour.

“We spoke to Seáinín Ó Muircheartaigh, who grew up in a neighbouring townland to me, and he was a member of the An Gaeltacht team which won a West Kerry championship for the first time in over 20 years back in the 90s.

“For the club that was a huge victory, everything led on from that in terms of the club’s later success, and Seáinín was a fine footballer. But within a few days of winning that game he had emigrated to the States. The work just wasn’t there.

“He’s done well in the States, but it’s funny to see the difference in sports now. His son Conor is a very good baseball player and plays on his college team, which shows the breeding breaking out.”

Ó Muircheartaigh ended up heading to Springfield in western Massachusetts, a traditional destination for west Kerry people.

“And especially the Blasket Islanders. Why, I’m not that sure — people can be like sheep following each other I suppose, but going back to the 20s, when Springfield became a destination for Irish people, there was a big textile industry there, munitions factories, so there was plenty of work.

“So once people went there they started pulling others out. While I was there I met the last living Blasket Islander, Mairead Phats Tom Kearney.

She left the Blaskets when she was 19 and never went back. And if you were expecting a romantic view, when I asked her if she missed the island, she was adamant: No.

“Which was refreshing, but she was a young woman, she was interested in getting out to see the world, and she felt confined on the island. She loved the people but she wanted to get going.”

She’s a good age, surely?

“She’s in her 90s now, but when I asked what age she was she just told me I’d been doing well up to that point.”

In Irish, of course. The language wasn’t all they had in their suitcases. While in Springfield Mac an tSíthigh was admiring the photographs in the Irish Center when he saw a football team: “Going through it I think there were 12 of them on the team from west of Dingle, the Springfield football team. So that shows you the numbers that were going out there.”

It’s not all O’Neill’s footballs, either.

“Tom ‘The Tank’ Egan was another man we came across out there — a Dubliner with fluent Irish, but he was the first MMA (mixed martial arts) guy from Ireland to really head to the States, before Conor McGregor, even.

“Now he has his own gym there in Quincy, a spot many Irish people will know south of Boston, and he trains people there in that sport, it’s doing very well. That was a different twist to what you’d probably expect when it comes to the Irish and sport there.”

Old habits die hard, though. While the documentary was filmed Dublin and Kerry clashed in the (drawn) All-Ireland football final last year, and Mac saw it in the traditional setting.

“A pal of mine from back home — when we were kids he was the first to show us how to take a banana shot with a football — emigrated when he was 19, Noelie Bowler, and he has his own pub now in Quincy, the Irish Pub.

“I went down to watch the game there, because I knew there’d be a crowd in for it. And it was unusual — a bit lonesome in one way, though once the game got going the atmosphere was great. It was very special to be so far from home and yet so close to it.

“What struck me was that the people there would have been able to access the game on GAAGo and so on, but they wanted the connection with other people, to share that energy, so they were all there for that.

“And of course I ended up meeting a few lads from my own parish in the middle of it, which was great.”

A chance meeting pals from home while watching the All-Ireland final in a bar. What could be more Boston than that?

- Gaeil Boston, Thursdays on TG4 at 8pm.

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