Talking it out


IN CONVERSATION Old friends Caoimhín Ó Súilleabháin (right) and Niall McGrath.

Partry man tells his story of love, heartbreak and loss in TG4’s Turas Bóthair

Michael Gallagher

On a frosty night in 2008 Caoimhín Ó Súilleabháin was having a quiet smoke when his eyes fell upon the love of his life. That set in train an adventure that would take him on a mad mystery tour. Love, laughter, loss, sorrow, surprises, joy and almost paralysing grief would all be stations along the way.
The story of Caoimhín Ó Súilleabháin and Oonagh Ní Chéilleachair is the stuff of bestsellers. It’s joyous and jolly but also produces enough grief, frustration and sadness to power a rocket to Mars. It’s a story that needs to be told, and Caoimhín will do just that on TG4 in the coming weeks.
The Partry man features in the latest series of Turas Bóthair, alongside his long-time friend Niall McGrath. They’re filmed driving through Mayo chatting about anything that comes into their heads. Of course, Oonagh pops up regularly during the conversation.
The series allows us to eavesdrop on what people are really talking about, putting its finger on the pulse of the Irish psyche to give us a unique slice of life normally hidden behind closed doors.

‘It felt right’
Caoimhín and Niall will hit our screens in the third episode of the series, and it promises to be an entertaining, enthralling and evocative show.
“We just got in the car and talked. In reality, there’s a girl lying hidden in the back seat shouting out topics for us to talk about, but she didn’t have to do much persuading on us. We just rattled away for two days and they had hours of stuff to edit when we were finished,” Caoimhín told The Mayo News.
“Niall and myself go back a long way; we even had a band together in Galway after college. We were going to take over the world. It was the time of the Celtic Tiger when lads would collect their dole and go straight to the barbers for a hot-towel shave before going down the town to buy a house. It was completely mad and a great time to be in a band. There was a lad with us, Mike Chang, who had previously hung around with Nirvana – it was that type of atmosphere, anything was possible.”
However, life quickly moved on. Niall went to China, Caoimhín went back to college and of course there was an amazing woman on the scene who had captured the heart and soul of the Partry man.
“I met Oonagh on a frosty night in Máire Luke’s in December 2008. It was pure coincidence that I ended up there that night, but that’s the way life works sometimes. I was out in the smoking area on my own and she arrived out. We clicked immediately. It felt right. It was a bit frightening. I was trying to sound cool but only stupid stuff was coming out of my mouth. I had never met anyone like that before. I can’t really explain what it felt like.”

Oonagh was the Irish Language Officer with Mayo County Council and she too had been enamoured by the encounter in Maire Luke’s. It wasn’t long before they were central to one another’s lives and a lifetime of togetherness stretched in front of them.
“Not for a second did we think about dying. Who does? We were mad about our language, living in harmony with nature and experiencing other cultures. We were starting out and there were possibilities everywhere.”
Then cancer struck. It was just a bump in the road at first but at every turn the worst-case scenario occurred. They made the best of every single day; they lived every single moment, but time was slipping by.
Midway through 2017, Oonagh and Caoimhín were married in Ballintubber Abbey, but it wasn’t the usual ceremony experienced in the historical building.
Oonagh had to get a Garda escort from hospital in Galway. She had a palliative care nurse with her at all times and the sands of life were quickly running out. Six weeks later she passed away.
Caoimhín was devastated; cut adrift and sinking. Oonagh was gone and life would never be the same again.
“I was in a bad place, but a smart woman told me I had to get my feelings out or they would fester. I went to a counsellor and expected them to have a magic wand to take away the pain, but that’s not how it works. They give you the space and opportunity to release the feelings inside. A lot of people think speaking about feelings is a weakness, but it’s actually the opposite. I’d rather live ’til 90 with some people thinking I’m weak than die at 52 with a ball of frustration inside.”
“Of course, like everything else in life, you may not click with the first counsellor you meet, but I was lucky to find the right ones early in the process. One in particular, a woman in Sligo was amazing. I call her the ‘bean feasa – wise woman’, and I know if people are prepared to look for help, they too will find their own ‘bean feasa’ who will guide them through choppy waters.”
Caoimhín Ó Súilleabháin has experienced many choppy seas during a life where love of language and an amazing woman have written gripping chapters. He will carry the loss of Oonagh with him for eternity, but the ability to speak about his feelings makes things easier. Learn a little about his amazing journey on TG4 in the coming weeks.

The fourth series of Turas Bóthair (partly filmed in pre-Covid times) started on Thursday, April 15. The episode with Caoimhín Ó Súilleabháin and Niall McGrath will air on Thursday, April 29, at 8pm.