Sometimes in life a series of coincidences happens so quickly that one suspects a powerful yet kindly presence operating behind the scenes. I believe this is the case with Captain Felix Sheehy (1926-1999) a Belfast-born British Merchant Navy Captain and his nephew, retired fireman Ken McLoughlin.
On trips home, Captain Sheehy regaled his nephews with exotic tales of ocean ports he had seen, but his favorite was Suva in Fiji, especially the friendliness of the people! After Captain Sheehy’s death, Ken decided that he would bring a plaque reading “End of Sea Voyage, Finished with Engines, All Stop” (captains’ code for bringing a ship to dock) all the way to Fiji. He was unsure whether to leave it in a church, throw it in the ocean, or mount it on a wall. The task was especially daunting as he knew no one in Fiji. As he was praying about all this, who walked into the Suva Cathedral but Fr. Donal McIlraith, a Columban from Cork, Ireland, whom Ken approached immediately with his “tall tale.” Fr. Donal instructed Ken to come with him straight away to the Pacific Regional Seminary (overlooking the Pacific Ocean) where a Mass was about to be offered. Fr. Donal arranged for the plaque be mounted the following day. Ken had to leave Suva without seeing the task completed, but ten years later in 2010, he returned to Fiji, having found out in the meantime about Fr. Pat Colgan, a Columban and fellow Belfast-man, who was now teaching in the same seminary.
Coincidentally, Ken had met with the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Pat Convery, a few days before leaving for Suva. Convery also knew about Columban “sons of Belfast” working in the missions – Pat Colgan (Fiji), Tony Coney (Peru) and Paul McMahon (Pakistan) – and he presented a Belfast Lord Mayor’s plaque to be brought to Fr. Pat. So Ken arrived, and Fr. Pat immediately decided that this new plaque, although meant for himself, should be mounted on the wall beside that for Captain Sheehy. After all, for a poor Catholic boy who had joined the Merchant Navy at 14, worked his way up from mess boy, cabin boy, deck hand, boatswain to 1st Officer and Captain, and who had been seconded to the war effort during the Battle of the Atlantic in 1943, a recognition seemed appropriate.
That is why if you ever come to the Pacific Regional Seminary in Suva and see two plaques mounted together from far away Ireland, remember Captain Felix and indeed all merchant navy men, whose journeys have brought about the linking of peoples and nations. Give thanks and spare a thought for the many thousands lost at sea but whose spirits now roam as free as the oceans they loved.
Fr. Pat Colgan lives and works in Fiji.