Fr Kieran O’Shea: parish priest and historian

Listowel native Fr Kieran O’Shea, parish priest of Knocknagoshel from 1990 until his death in 2006, has left lasting reminders of his ministry in Kerry.  His name appends to a number of publications including Knocknagoshel Parish (1991) and Castleisland Church and People (1981), the latter resulting from his curacy of Castleisland parish from 1977-1990.


Both publications are valuable parish histories and Michael O’Donohoe recognised this.  Michael conversed with Fr O’Shea on matters of history; indeed, a number of Fr O’Shea’s published articles, such as his study of the Seigniory of Castleisland, form part of Michael’s research material in the collection.


Fr Kieran O'Shea pictured 4 March 1993 launching campaign to replace roof on parish church of St Mary's Knocknagoshel. Photo by John Reidy
Fr Kieran O’Shea pictured 4 March 1993 launching campaign to replace roof on parish church of St Mary’s Knocknagoshel. Photo by John Reidy


Fr O’Shea was a tireless worker.  Shortly before his death, he was elected president of the Castleisland and District Culture and Heritage Society.  Just a few months earlier he had been interviewed by Maurice O’Keeffe at the Catherine McAuley Home in Balloonagh, Tralee where he was convalescing.


Birth and Education

The interview was revealing.  It recorded Fr O’Shea’s early years from his birth in Listowel in 1937, education in St Michael’s College, Listowel; St Brendan’s, Killarney and Maynooth where his classmate was John Hume.


Fr O’Shea discussed at length his friendship with John B Keane and opined on the playwright’s impact on the catholic church.  He also recollected John B’s part in the spoof political campaign of the Independent Coulogeous Party and its mysterious candidate, Thomas (‘Tom’) Xavier Doodle.  The event, which occurred in 1951, was reminiscent of a scene from Dickens’s Bleak House:


England has been in a dreadful state for some weeks. Lord Coodle would go out, Sir Thomas Doodle wouldn’t come in, and there being nobody in Great Britain (to speak of) except Coodle and Doodle, there has been no government … At last Sir Thomas Doodle has not only condescended to come in, but has done it handsomely, bringing in with him all his nephews, all his male cousins, and all his brothers-in-law … (Chapter XL, ‘National and Domestic’).1


Denny Street Ghost

Fr O’Shea mentioned the decline of ‘characters’ in the north Kerry area, ‘for what reason I just don’t know’ and recalled the Denny Street ghost.


His career in the priesthood was discussed, from his two year curacy in Margaret Thatcher’s home town of Grantham, Lincs (as well as his contribution to the Irish Immigrants Chaplaincy Scheme in Luton with Bishop Eamon Casey) to his return to Ireland and appointment to Eyeries and later Causeway where he taught history.


The GAA formed a large part of the interview and Fr O’Shea scoffed at the ‘stupid rule’ of not allowing priests to play football (‘some played under assumed names’). He discussed the Civil War and the GAA and his book, Face the Ball, ‘a book about club championships’.


Knocknagoshel and Stained Glass

He spoke with great affection of the parish of Knocknagoshel, where he lived and worked, and recounted favourite authors, including Helen Steiner Rice (whose poem ‘Friendship’ he recited) and Elie Wiesel, whose work Night (1960) he much admired.


He described his own and final book, The Diocese of Kerry formerly Ardfert Working in the Fields of God (2005) as ‘Hard going … I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for … it nearly killed me … I was often up to three in the morning trying to straighten things out’.


The book, its sub-title composed by Brendan Kennelly, includes notes on stained glass and on this subject Fr O’Shea spoke of his dream to produce a book on stained glass windows in Kerry.


This was not to be.  Fr O’Shea retired from priestly duties in July 2006 and died the following month, on 4 August. He was laid to rest in the grounds of St Mary’s Church, Knocknagoshel.


Grave of Fr O'Shea



1 The sudden appearance of Tom Doodle's campaign posters in Listowel in the General Election year generated huge interest.  The mystery culminated in 'the night Tom Doodle came to town ... attired in bowler hat, swallow-tail suit and beard'. The Coulogeous Party attracted 3,000 people to its first (and only) rally in Listowel.  Thirteen years later its foundation was recalled:

Nobody ever thought the Tom Doodle Club would survive the executive and members are about to celebrate its tenth anniversary ... in the year 1951 amidst the party bitterness and strife of election time in a pub of all places, a group of young  men who were seated there conceived the idea which took shape on the spot. Before they left that night, an Executive of five was formed and later came the election of President Tom Doodle who was forever to remain anonymous' (The Kerryman, 18 January 1964).

Tom Doodle (sometimes Doddle) pledged to erect a factory for shaving the hairs off gooseberries, to ensure a vote for leprechauns and to give every man more than the next .  Fr O'Shea recalled how Tom Doodle 'only appeared if his country needed him' and recited a number of 'Doodle' poems and the party's slogan, 'Doodle on the ball, next stop the Dail' and an account of Doodle's birth 'in a little white washed cottage in the Kerry hills'.


Reference: The Irish Life and Lore Kerry Collection (CD 49), 'The Life Story of a Priest' recorded by Maurice O'Keeffe in January 2006.  The recording runs for 45 minutes.