Sergeant Seamus O’Fianghusa was born patriotic. At a young age he knew serving his country was something that was a must.
He also realized learning the language of his Irish ancestors was a high priority.
Growing up bi-lingual, (his father, James, is Irish American and his mother, Helen, is Korean), the 33-year-old U.S. Army sergeant wasn’t content with just speaking English and Korean. He wanted to learn Irish.
“My father used to speak a lot about the Gaeilge and I knew someday that it would be my duty to learn this language, the language of my ancestors,” O’Fianghusa told the IrishCentral’s sister publication the Irish Voice.
Growing up in Brooklyn, O’Fianghusa (Fennessy) spent his youth hearing tales of wonderful times in Ireland from his grandfather, who hails from Co. Limerick. His grandmother comes from Co. Clare, but going back further into O’Fianghusa’s Irish history, it’s Co. Donegal where most of his roots lay.
After spending years learning about the wonders of Ireland and the uniqueness of the Irish language, O’Fianghusa felt a closeness to it. Learning the language was a must.
However, life got in the way of his plans.
“I was always aware that there was an Irish language and I always wanted to learn it, but I was always putting it off for a number of different reasons,” he said.
It was an encounter with a native Irish speaker from Donegal a few years ago that got O’Fianghusa’s skates on.
“I met a lady from the Gaeltacht in Donegal who was fluent in Irish and I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t speak her -- and my -- language,” he said.
“Right there and then I made a decision to learn Irish. I couldn’t delay it any longer.”
In a short few months, O’Fianghusa, who studied linguistics in college, was spouting the Irish language just like the natives in Donegal.
“I began learning Irish from a tape, the Donegal dialect one. In fact I learned most of my Irish from tapes,” recalls O’Fianghusa proudly.
In six months the sergeant was fluent. He was beside himself with delight.
“It’s like I was reborn in the Irish language when I turned 30,” he said. “When I speak Irish I love every word that comes out of my mouth.
“When I’m speaking English I feel it’s boring. I’m sick of it. I enjoy every single syllable when I speak Irish. And now the prospective of thinking in Irish is a tremendous gift that I’m grateful for.”
O’Fianghusa, who is currently in training for a deployment to Afghanistan in the New Year, joined the New York Donegal Association a few years ago.
“I joined the Donegal Association to get in touch with my roots in general and to meet native speakers in particular,” he said.
Now he asks himself why he didn’t get involved sooner. “Everyone has been so exceptional to me. The experience has been great. Everyone is just so nice and kind to me,” said O’Fianghusa.
Armed with a fluent tongue and 30-plus years of stories from the old country, O’Fianghusa couldn’t wait to visit Ireland. His first trip occurred early last year.
When word trickled across the Atlantic that there was a young Korean/Irish American gentleman learning the Irish language in New York and wanting to visit the country of his grandparents, Radio na Gaeltachta, the only Irish speaking radio station in Ireland, was interested in interviewing him.
O’Fianghusa was thrilled to have had airtime in Ireland.
“It was just great, me being interviewed in Irish on Irish radio. What an honor it was really,” laughs O’Fianghusa thinking back to his first, of many to come, interviews.
The head of Udaras na Gaeltachta (the Gaeltacht authority in Ireland), Liam O’Cuinneagain, heard the interview and offered the young American soldier a scholarship to study the language in its native environment and meet his long lost cousins.
O’Fianghusa was elated. He accepted the offer without hesitation.
“He (O’Cuinneagain) loved the interview so much and was struck that I’d never been to Ireland that he paid for me to come and gave me a scholarship to attend his Irish school,” he said.
O’Fianghusa spent three weeks in Donegal immersed in the culture he experienced second hand while growing up in New York.
“I can’t describe the time I had in Donegal. Although people were initially shocked by my appearance (Korean) and the fact that I can speak Irish fluently, they just welcomed me with open arms,” said O’Fianghusa.
O’Fianghusa, who is in the process of legalizing his name in Irish, has since made several television appearances in Ireland and on the radio.
After another stint in Ireland this past July, O’Fianghusa plans to return again in November to compete in sean nos competitions (old style of singing Irish songs), before his deployment to Afghanistan.
After mastering the Irish language, the next thing on this young soldier’s to do list “ was to delve deep into sean nos.”
“I learned sean nos from the old masters that were captured through the years on recordings,” he explained.
“I wouldn’t separate the language from the music at all. They go together hand in hand beautifully. If you know one it’s your duty to know the other.”
O’Fianghusa said he feels “electric” while singing sean nos.
“It’s hard to describe. It’s like I’m raised to a higher level with a mystic connection to past generations that gave us that tradition and passed it down though the centuries,” he describes.
O’Fianghusa’s favorite sean nos is called Ag a phobal De Domhnaigh.
“This one always gets my heart and my soul. It moves me so much. It’s a very haunting melody. When you hear it, it sends shivers up your spine,” he said.
O’Fianghusa, who is a regular at the Irish conversation circle at the Irish Arts Center in New York, joined the New Jersey National Guard when he was 18. He spent eight years with the U.S. Army.
After his retirement and a stint in college, the proud Irish American decided to rejoin. This time he pledged his allegiance to the Fighting 69th Irish Infantry, a unit of the New York National Guard.
“I knew if I was to sign up again it would have to be the Fighting 69th,” he said.
Thinking about his deployment to Afghanistan (this is his first time serving abroad) O’Fianghusa said, joking, that he plans to speak the gospel of Irish to the Afghan shepherds.
“I’ll have them all speaking Gaeilge before long,” he laughs.
On a more serious note, O’Fianghusa said while in Afghanistan he would like to continue to write in his new language. He will pray in Irish, and although none of his colleagues will be able to speak Irish with him, he promises to continue thinking in the language of his ancestors.
He said there may even be a few U.S. soldiers speaking the “cupla focal” by the end of his stint in Afghanistan.
O’Fianghusa, who is “slightly anxious yet excited” about his deployment, said he places his time there in God’s hands.
“What will be will be. I’m hoping to be safe. It’s all in God’s hands,” he added.
On his way to Afghanistan, O’Fianghusa said his stopover at Shannon Airport in Ireland will be ironic.
“There is a lot of political pressure in Ireland against the war. Now I’m as Irish as they come in terms of my heart and my soul, and my grandparents have a house in Limerick,” he said.
“In Shannon there is a lot of anti-American feeling, and it’s funny because I’ll be on my home ground in Limerick on my way to a war, and these people will be protesting one of their own heading over to willingly serve his country.”
Upon his return from Afghanistan and completion of his six year contract, O’Fianghusa hopes someday to live in Donegal.
“It is where I belong, “ said O’Fianghusa.
“I’ve always had an amazing time when in Ireland and it’s really where my heart lies now.”
And the natives of Donegal feel the same about their child. In keeping with the tradition of nicknaming Irish speakers, O’Fianghusa was given the name, “Seamus na Gaeilge.”
“They gave this name to me and it’s a very high honor. It kind of blew me away,” he added.
Seamus na Gaeilge will continue to show the world that the Irish diaspora is alive and well (and speaking Irish) around the world.
“It’s my other duty to spread the word,” smiles O’Fianghusa.