Those We Lost

T.K. Whitaker (1916 – 2017) was "the most influential public servant in the history of Ireland’s economic development," writes Olivia O'Mahony.

By Irish America Staff
February / March 2017

Recent passings in Ireland and America.


Elizabeth Flatley

1936 – 2017

Michael and Elizabeth Flatley.

Michael and Elizabeth Flatley.

Mother of celebrated Irish dancer Michael Flatley, Elizabeth “Eilish” Flatley died in January at in New Lenox, IL. She was 81. Her son has revealed that she herself was a “fantastic” Irish dancer who, he told the Chicago Sun-Times, supported him in a field often considered unmasculine by previous generations.

A Chicago-based immigrant who grew up Elizabeth Ryan in Dranagh, Co. Carlow, she met Michael Flatley Sr. (by whom she is predeceased) at an Irish dance in Detroit and married him in 1956, mothering five children in seven years while also working with the family’s plumbing business. “It was very difficult […] Nobody had money. After World War II that was just the way it was,” she said in her son’s 2006 autobiography, Lord of the Dance.

“She was just so loving,” her son has said, noting that despite his immense fortune, her tastes remained simple – her favorite meal was a tuna fish sandwich and chocolate milk. – O.O.

Therese MacGowan

1931 – 2017

Shane McGowan with his mother Therese.

Shane McGowan with his mother Therese.

Therese MacGowan, the 87-year-old mother of the Pogues’ frontman Shane MacGowan, died in a road accident in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, on New Year’s Day. MacGowan, who was a singer, traditional Irish dancer, and former Dublin model, was the was the first fatality on Irish roads in 2017.

Born in Silvermines, Co. Tipperary as Therese Cahill, she lived briefly in Kent with her husband, Dubliner Maurice MacGowan, where her first child, Shane, was born in 1957. After the family returned to Tipperary, she had a daughter, Siobhan, now a journalist, writer and songwriter.

“I used to learn a song a day from my mother’s family,” said Shane in a 2013 interview with the Irish Sun. “I owe my career entirely to my family and to the way I was brought up.”

“She was a lady,” a Silvermines local told the Irish Mirror. “It’s going to be tough for the family.” – O.O.

Steven McDonald

1957 – 2017

Steve McDonald and his wife Patricia Ann.

Steve McDonald and his wife Patricia Ann.

NYPD Detective Steven McDonald, who was inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame along with his wife, Patti, and son Conor in 2014, died in January at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, NY following complications from a heart attack. McDonald was paralyzed from the neck down in July 1986 after confronting potential bicycle thieves in Central Park, one of whom shot him three times. He remained on the police force as a first-grade detective and a year later gained notoriety for forgiving his assailant. In a letter written on the occasion of his son Conor’s christening in 1987, McDonald wrote of his attacker, “I forgive him and hope that he can find peace and purpose in his life.” Throughout his life, he sought to spread that message of forgiveness, including traveling to Northern Ireland to promote reconciliation efforts. His son Conor is now a sergeant in the NYPD and the fourth generation of his family to serve in the police force.

NYPD commissioner James O’Neill announced McDonald’s death Tuesday afternoon. “No one could have predicted that Steven would touch so many people, in New York and around the world,” O’Neill said. “Like so many cops, Steven joined the NYPD to make a difference in people’s lives. And he accomplished that every day. He is a model for each of us as we go about our daily lives. He will be greatly missed, and will always remain a part of our family.”

“New York City is heartbroken by the loss of NYPD Detective Steven McDonald, who for 30 years has been this city’s greatest example of heroism and grace,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “I will forever cherish my last conversation with Detective McDonald, late last year. His words encouraged all of us to continue to bring police and communities closer together.”

The McDonalds were the first entire family to be inducted to the Irish America Hall of Fame. – A.F.

John Montague

1929 – 2016

TWL.Montague.IrishTimesBrooklyn-born Irish writer John Montague died from surgical complications in Nice, France on December 10. He was 87. A well-known contemporary poet, Montague was the first occupant of the Ireland Chair of Poetry (Ireland’s equivalent to the U.S. Poet Laureate), inspired writers such as Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, Sean Dunne, and William Wall, and published over 30 books of poetry and short stories during his lifetime, one of which, “The Death of a Chieftain” (1964), is the namesake of traditional Irish band the Chieftains.

Born during the Great Depression, Montague was the son of emigrated Irish Catholics. Sent homeward by his ill mother at just four years old, was taken in by two aunts in Garvaghey, Co. Tyrone and raised as an Ulster farm child. He was granted a scholarship by St. Patrick’s College, Armagh, where he studied under Sean O’Boyle, a leading expert on Irish poetry. He proceeded to University College Dublin in 1947, befriending a young Thomas Kinsella (translator of the Táin) and writing frequently for The Dublin Magazine. In 1953 he moved to America, attending Yale and beginning a job with the Iowa Writer’s Workshop the following year.

In 1961, Montague completed his graduate studies at Berkeley, returned to Ireland with his first wife, Madeleine, and published his first poetry collection, Poisoned Lands. His critically-acclaimed long poem, The Rough Field, was published in 1972. The sequence, called poetry’s most significant attempt to understand Northern Ireland’s turbulent past was proclaimed by the New York Review to be “soundly crafted as the rosewood fiddle which seems to play with mourning sweetness in the margins.” Montague was also instrumental in funding Claddagh Records, the publisher of Irish musicians and writers including Na Mooneys and Cavan Bucks.

Montague and his third wife, novelist Elizabeth Wassell, lived primarily in France, where he was made a Knight of the French Legion of Honor in 2010. He is survived by Wassell, three children, and two grandchildren. – O.O.

Al O’Hagan

1935 – 2016

O'Hagan marches as the Grand Marshal of the NYC St. Patrick's Day Parade in 1986. (Photo: NY Daily News)

O’Hagan marches as the Grand Marshal of the NYC St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1986. (Photo: NY Daily News)

Irish American community activist and Great Irish Fair founder Al O’Hagan died at his Brooklyn home in October. He was 81.

Born in Gerritsen Beach, O’Hagan was introduced as a boy to the Brooklyn Ancient Order of Hibernians and was quick to fall in love with his Irish heritage, eventually becoming Order chairman. Inspired by the deep South freedom marches of the ’60s, he led demonstrations in the New York area to promote peace and justice during the years of conflict in Northern Ireland, and was recognized by the White House under the Clinton administration for his contributions to the community. In 1974, he was appointed by Mayor Abraham Beame as the city-wide chairman for bicentennial celebrations, specifically to celebrate Irish contributions to the U.S.A.

O’Hagan founded the annual Great Irish Fair event on Coney Island in 1981, serving as its director for 23 years. He was credited with the rebirth of Coney Island, first by successfully campaigning to save the iconic parachute jump from demolition, and later for inspiring the installation of a professional baseball field.

“I fell in love with all things Irish,” O’Hagan told Dennis Hamill in 1996. “Irish music, Irish history, Irish politics. Irish people.” His dedication to those people was honored in 1986 when he served as the Grand Marshal of the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade, as his paternal grandfather had done before him in 1929.

He is survived by his wife, Catharine, daughter, Sheila, and son, Shaun. – O.O.

John O’Mahony

1953 – 2017

John O'MahonyJohn O’Mahony, formerly of Bantry, Co. Cork, died in New York on February 3 of an apparent heart attack. He will be remembered for his skill as a writer/journalist, his love of opera and a good glass of wine, and his unfailing good humor and interest in life.

John began his career in Ireland working for RTÉ, before moving to New York City in 1989. He worked as a writer for the Irish Echo newspaper in the early 1990s, before joining the New York Post.

He began at the Post in 1993, and “within a year he was back in his native Ireland covering the Northern Ireland peace process as a Post correspondent,” the Post reported.

“Genial, hardworking and possessed of a charming brogue, he was always amenable to a new idea and an after-work nightcap with colleagues.”

“He had a zest for life, was always coming up with imaginative ways to get ahead.”

Irish Echo editor, Ray O’Hanlon, a friend and colleague, said, “John’s view of the world, its glories and absurdities, was prescient, funny, pointed. The world didn’t get enough of him, but he sure drew the max from the world every day of his too short life. Those who knew him will hold cherished memories of a singular Corkman, Irishman, American.”

O’Mahony moved to Los Angeles in 2005, but he was happy to return to New York in 2014. He continued to work as a journalist, most recently for Bloomberg Businessweek. He will be sadly missed by his Aunt Ina Hayes (Waterford), Aunt Sheila Cronin (Dublin), Aunt Cathleen Fitzgerald (Cork) and by a large circle of relatives and friends. A celebration will be held in Bantry, Co. Cork, to coincide with the West Cork Literary Festival in July. – P.H.

T.K. Whitaker

1916 – 2017

The most influential public servant in the history of Ireland’s economic development, T.K. Whitaker, died in January. He was 100 years old. For his financial leadership, he was named Irishman of the Century in 2001 and the Greatest Living Irish Person in 2002.

“He was in every sense a national treasure,” Taoiseach Enda Kenny said in an official tribute. “In modern Irish history, T.K. Whitaker is both incomparable and irreplaceable.”

Appointed as the Irish Secretary of the Department of Finance in 1956, Whitaker’s influence on Ireland’s economic climate came during a period of intense depression: unemployment was rampant, and the country’s low standard of living saw the immigration and birth rate figures grow harrowingly close. Whitaker assembled a team of department officials to scrutinize the economy in order to plan for improvement. This plan, titled the First Program for Economic Expansion, proposed ideas of free trade and the end of protectionism. It was approved by the government and, in a rare occurrence, was published under Whitaker’s name in 1958. Subsequent foreign investment brought much stimulation to the Irish economy.

Between 1977 and 1982 Whitaker was nominated to serve as an independent senator on both the 14th and 15th Seanads, and also chaired a Parole Board in the penal system for several years. From 1976 until 1996, he served as Chancellor of the National University of Ireland. He was a lifelong lover of the Irish language, and the 1981 collection of Irish poetry, An Duanaire: Poems of the Dispossessed from 1600 – 1900, edited by poets Seán Ó Tuama and Thomas Kinsella, was published in his name.

Whitaker was born in Rostrevor, Co. Down as the son of a linen mill worker. Married twice, he outlived both of his wives and is survived by six children. – O.O. 

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