In an American military base in southeastern Afghanistan, a sub-machine gun is mounted above a makeshift timber door frame, and out of its barrel pokes an Irish Tricolor. A strange marriage some may imagine, but not for one member of this Vermont battalion.
Sergeant Seamus O’Fianghusa recently returned from his first overseas deployment to Afghanistan and told the “Irish Voice” how his Irish heritage, faith and the Gaelic language helped him every step of the way.
Born to Irish American and Korean parents and growing up in Brooklyn, New York, the 34-year-old was constantly exposed to his Irish roots. His grandfather hailed from Co. Limerick and his grandmother’s roots were from Co. Clare, so when he decided to learn the Irish language in his early thirties, his friends and family were not surprised.
One of O’Fianghusa’s earliest memories is of his father teaching him how to bless himself in Gaelic.
“I had to have been about three or four years old, and coming from a good Catholic family you get taught your prayers. The first time I ever learned the sign of the cross was in Irish, I remember it so clearly. My dad saying the syllables and me, repeating them after him,” he remembers.
“That must have struck some kind of chord in me. I thought to myself, if that’s the Irish way, and I’m Irish then I’m going to do it that way and so I have ever since.”
O’Fianghusa was inspired to learn the Gaelic language later in life when he met a native Irish speaker from Donegal. Embarrassed he couldn’t converse in Irish, he became committed to learning his native tongue.
Already bi-lingual, he picked up the language in matter of months and decided to take a trip to Gweedore, a Gaeltacht region in Co. Donegal, in the summer of 2008. This would mark the first of many journeys to the rural Irish parish.
After being interviewed on Radio na Gaeltachta, the only Irish speaking radio station in Ireland, O’Fianghusa was offered a scholarship to study Gaelic by Liam O’Cuinneagain, the head of Udaras na Gaeltachta (the Gaeltacht authority in Ireland), who was so impressed by the U.S. soldier.
As a result O’Fianghusa has made several trips to Ireland in recent years which has helped him develop his language skills and affinity for the Emerald Isle.
It is this connection to his Irish roots that helped him prepare for his deployment to Afghanistan.
“The main thing I used mentally, besides a good amount of prayer and faith, was Irish history and my Irish heritage,” he says.
“The Irish military tradition is very deep, and for much of European history there were no better fighters than the Irish. They were renowned for the heartiness, their exceptional bravery and courage and intelligence.”
Even during his down time in Afghanistan, O’Fianghusa turned to his Irish heritage to unwind. A talented singer, the sergeant enjoyed singing Clancy Brothers, Dubliners and Wolfe Tones songs during his brief moments of respite.
“When other guys were off in the down time playing cards and video games, I would be singing Irish songs,” he recalls.
It was occasions like that this that helped him stay connected to his heritage during his deployment.
“The music keeps me close to that seriously mystical part of our heritage that is deep in the soul.
So I never lost the language, it got better. I had my books and I was just able to use it,” he said.
When O’Fianghusa was granted two weeks leave during his year-long deployment last October, instead of heading back to the U.S. to see his parents he boarded a flight bound for Ireland. He traveled to Gweedore where he has become a frequent visitor in recent years.
“I’ve got a lot of friends there,” says O’Fianghusa.
He also made the trip to Belfast where he took part in the Oireachtas, a traditional Irish singing competition. It was all a far cry from the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan.
“It’s really funny, I had to laugh. One minute I’m in central Asia covered in dirt and grime with a machine gun in my hand, next second I’m in the Gaeltacht in a small farming parish in Co. Donegal, and then next thing I’m on the stage singing Irish language songs in Belfast and then I’m back to Afghanistan. It was a great experience,” he reflected.
O’Fianghusa recalls one occasion during his deployment where he sang the national anthem of Donegal’s Torry Island for a group of Afghan soldiers.
“I am proud to say that I sang in Irish to the Afghans and they enjoyed it very much,” he recalls.
“We were working in partnership with the Afghan army, so they thought it would be a good idea if I did it. There was one instance where we went to the Afghanistan battalion commander’s headquarters, and this was building bridges between them and us. My platoon leader asked me to sing and the Afghans loved it and clapped.”
Since completing his deployment at the end of 2010, O’Fianghusa is enjoying spending precious time with his friends and family. He will more than likely be deployed at the end of this year with the famous New York Irish infantry, the Fighting 69th, a division he is very proud to be a part of.
When asked if a trip to Irish shores was on the horizon before then, grinning he said, “Between now and the end of the year I am most certainly going back to Ireland.”