Mourners at the funeral of Sean McMahon have heard how the young County Armagh doctor had been building a home for himself and his fiancee Debbie, with whom he was “head over heels” in love.
The 31-year-old had been due to get married on Friday.
But in a cruel and heartbreaking blow, Sean – who was “loved and adored” by all – passed away after collapsing at South Lake Leisure Centre on Tuesday evening, three days before what should have been the happiest day of his all too short life.
Instead, tears of happiness were stopped up and replaced, with tears of sorrow, on a wet Sunday morning, as precious memories were recalled at his Requiem Mass today, of a talented young man who strived to make the world a better place, a man who was devoted to his healing profession, to his faith, his family and, of course, to his heartbroken fiancee, all plunged into unimaginable grief beyond compare.
Very Rev Canon Michael Toner celebrated Mass, assisted by Fr Malachy Conlon, who had travelled from County Louth, while Sean’s cousin, Barry Quinn, delivered a moving and fitting eulogy, during which he looked back with fondness on times growing up, recalled how Sean had met and “charmed” Debbie, his plans for the future and how two boyhood journeys, that of he and his cherished cousin, would realign in the world of work.
A number of items reflecting Sean’s life were brought forward to the sanctuary – his scrubs, stethoscope and research paper, reflecting his love and dedication to his profession; his car keys and passport, a reminder of his love of travel and adventure; a golf club cover and football, a testament to his love of sport; a poem and book; highlighting his love of reading, and, finally, his house plans and a Cullyhanna GAA kit, a display of his immense love of home and his local club.
Canon Toner told mourners that Sean was the youngest of seven children, born to Frances and Charles McMahon, having been predeceased by his sister Mary in March 1984.
“Sean Martin McMahon, to give Sean his full baptismal name, came into this world on the 24th of September 1991,” he said. “Having checked the register, 12 days later, Sean was brought to this very chapel, on the 6th of October, to be baptised by the late much-loved Parish Priest, Fr Kevin Moran, with his godparents Peter Quinn and Marie McKenna. On the 19th of February 2003, Sean received the Sacrament of Confirmation from the late Bishop Gerard Clifford.
“Sean received his elementary education in St Patrick’s Primary School, here in Cullyhanna, where there were the first stirrings of learning, which in time led to Sean pursuing second level education in the Irish Christian Brothers Abbey Grammar School in Newry, following which Sean pursued a degree in medicine at Queen’s University in Belfast, studies which eventually led to him studying anaesthetics.
“During this time Sean met and fell in love with Debbie, getting engaged on the 2nd of June, 2021, and as we all know arranged their wedding for two days ago, Friday, the 25th of August.
“They had their new marital home, a bungalow, half built, close to Sean’s mum and dad, Frances and Charles.”
Canon Toner said he had been told that Sean said his prayers every night and blessed himself every day when he started his shifts on the wards, in whatever hospital he was attached to.
He also said family and friends should be “consoled” by their memories of Sean, bringing to mind a number of anecdotes which spoke volumes of the fun-loving and fine young man Sean was.
“Frances was telling me over the wake that while Sean was no Luciano Pavarotti, when he was a child and accompanied his mum to Dublin to visit his ailing grandfather, Sean would sit in the back of the Jeep and sing his heart out, all the way to Dublin and all the way home,” said Canon Toner.
And he also told of the banter he enjoyed at football and his quick repartee, recalling on one occasion when Sean had been playing for Cullyhanna against Armagh Harps.
“When a Harps player tried to wind Sean up, commenting that he wasn’t moving swiftly, Sean replied that it was because of all the medals that he was carrying in his pockets,” said the celebrant.
And he urged all: “Hold on to those memories because the wonderful thing about the human memory is how you remember Sean is the way he now is, in the eternal present of God’s presence.
“It is true to say that for Sean McMahon time as we know it has now stopped, that his existence is on a new shore in closer Communion with God.
“The traditional Irish wake, Requiem Mass and burial over what is usually a three-day period are all part of a process that helps us move from tears of pity and anger to tears of loving thankfulness.
“And that is our hope and prayer for Sean’s parents, Frances and Charles, for his fiancee Debbie, and for his siblings Edel, Aideen, Seárlait, Terence and Sarah-Louise, and for all the members of Sean’s extended family and friends, especially all his nephews and nieces, and also friends from the local community and the medical community, that your tears have become – or will become in time – tears of gratitude.
“And yes, there is much to be thankful for. Thankfulness for a hard-working, faithful son, who was loyal and quietly devoted to his parents, siblings, nephews and nieces. Thankfulness for a life well-lived at home and in the medical world.
“Thankfulness for a fiance who was head over heels in love with Debbie. A thankfulness for a son and a brother who lived a decent and good life working diligently in his chosen profession. A thankfulness for the many friends and acquaintances Sean had, not just locally but further afield in various hospitals across the North.
“A thankfulness for Sean’s 31 years of good health, a big strong fellow who looked after himself. A thankfulness that Sean was so loved and adored by his nieces and nephews, one of whom, a wee fella who took the time to thank me yesterday as I was leaving the wake house. I went over to him and I said, ‘I’m guessing Sean was your uncle?’. ‘He was more than that. He was my godfather.'”
And concluding that element of fond reflections and reasons to celebrate all that Sean was, he told of one final reason to be thankful: “That Sean went to God, that he departed this life on Tuesday past in the surroundings he loved, in the South Lake Health and Wellbeing Suite.”
Sean’s cousin Barry delivered a very personal eulogy, which brought home the extent of the loss within the close-knit circle of family and friends.
But he summed up beautifully what it meant to know Sean and what a privilege, such a source of pride, to watch him grow and develop, from a boy to a man, one who gave so much to so many but will now never know just how much.
Describing him as a “fantastic young man”, he admitted bringing his eulogy was “the hardest thing I’ve done in my life”.
“We have all cried so many tears for Sean since we heard the awful news on Tuesday,” said Barry, before he recounted how their two families grew up metres from one another in Oldtown, with Sean “the baby of his family”.
Over the years he would make many friends, he was just that type of person, and that was surely evident in those who attended his Requiem Mass.
“There are so many, many people here from different backgrounds,” said Barry. “There are so many people knew Sean, because there are so many parts to him that touched so many lives.
“Sean didn’t really care what walk of life you came from. He treated everyone the same, always with a warm smile and a familiar friendliness and always with a cheeky giggle that Sean had. There was the family man Sean. There was the great craic Sean. In fact, Frances just told me a couple of days ago Sean referred to himself as ‘great craic Sean’. He sort of had notions of himself!
“Then when he settled down and was getting married to Debbie and then later in life there was what Sean matured into, the fantastic doctor.”
Sean was, he said, “into everything”. He did indeed enjoy the craic and loved banter – a “good man for the socialising!”. He had played football for Cullyhanna and was “dedicated to the club”.
And he was a charmer too, as Barry related wonderfully and with an inherent humour somehow appropriate and welcome despite the occasion, how Debbie and Sean had met.
“He wasn’t afraid to have a pint or two. He wasn’t really afraid to be the last man standing at the bar,” he explained.
“Despite all those good nights out he somehow got great grades and went on to university to study medicine. His party skills really took off and that’s where he found Debbie. Sean and Debbie, they were together for nine years.
“They met in a very romantic place in Belfast. It was a chip shop! Debbie told me she walked into the chip shop at the end of a night out and who was holding audience at the front but Sean, holding up the queue. No doubt giving somebody a bit of bad manners, because he was quite good at that, always sort of treading that line between clean banter and a bit of bad manners, about to get himself into a bit of a handling probably.
“I can just sort of see typical Sean, centre stage, and then Debbie, who would have been able to put him back in his box. I’m sure she didn’t really take any of his shenanigans for the nine years that followed. That was typical of Sean, always having fun.
“Sean was full of banter. He could talk to a wall. Debbie, when she saw him in the chip shop, said to herself, he has to be a medical student. Crisp shirt, tan chino trousers. Sean always liked to look the part.
“Given an audience for some of his cheeky banter, because he was never really short of confidence, then turning his charm on to Debbie. After a lot of talking he convinced her to go for a coffee and then, when he got to meet Debbie, he declared that he didn’t even like coffee.
“But his biggest charm worked and that chip shop romance blossomed.
“Sean and Debbie should have been married two days ago in the Lough Erne. It was to have been a celebration of their love for each other. Today, without doubt, he would have been nursing a hangover and looking forward to his new life as part of a happily married couple.”
Barry told how he and Sean became “really good friends” in the past number of years, as their paths “sort of realigned from when we were younger as we both worked in medicine”.
He said they enjoyed working together when the opportunity arose and was proud of his cousin, telling how one of his colleagues described Sean as the “best first year doctor I’ve ever worked with”; he was “always learning, he was always modest, he loved teaching”.
“I’ve had so many doctors contact me praising his character and his ability to stay calm under pressure. He really, really was that good,” added Barry.
Of course, he had his feet firmly on the ground and knew what he wanted in life and that was Sean. He had plans, exciting plans, which also included taking his medical expertise and putting it to good use miles from home.
“Sean had big plans with Debbie after finishing training which would have been in about three years time,” said Barry. “He just recently wanted to do some helicopter retrieval work in Australia. It was only last weekend he was showing me his application.
“I think he was dithering on going for a year but I think Debbie obviously knows Sean and knew how much of a home bird he was and how much he’d be missing his family so in the end he compromised going for maybe six months. He just really loved being at home that much.”
Indeed, that much is true and Sean and Debbie were delighted day-by-day to watch their new home take shape.
“Even before every shift started at eight o’clock in the morning, Sean would get his phone out. He’d put the live camera which was showing the progress of his house and he would be counting the blocks that were going up, what wall was moving where,” said Barry.
“He was always tweaking his plans. He really loved to see that house rising out of that field.
“He was so proud to be moving home to Oldtown. He mentioned this to me all the time and no doubt if he mentioned to me he probably mentioned it to all the patients he saw too, how he was looking forward to being in Cullyhanna with Debbie and being there for his parents, Charles and Frances, who he really wanted to be there for.”
With all that has been said about Dr Sean McMahon, there is a gratitude for his life, his inspiration, his friendship and his love.
And the values which he owned and talents he displayed in his 31 years are lessons in themselves.
“It’s really so sad,” said Barry, but adding: “While Sean is not with us, what Sean has taught me with his passing is to be happy with what you have, as he always was, to be patient and kind to others, to love your family and friends.
“And that’s really all that’s important in life.”
Before this morning’s beautiful Mass, the funeral had left the family home at Oldtown Road and made its way to St Patrick’s Church, where Sean’s coffin was borne in to a haunting rendition of Ronan Keating’s ‘This I Promise You’.
The words were so fitting as they rang out around the church and brought home the harsh reality of a couple devoted, their lives stretched out before them, tragically parted:
“And when I look in your eyes
All of my life is before me, oh
And I’m not running anymore
‘Cause I already know I’m home
With every beat of my heart
I’ll give you my love completely
My darling, this I promise you.”
And then, as he was taken to his final resting place within the adjoining cemetery, it was an anthemic Alan Jackson song which accompanied Sean outside.
The words speak of hope, of reunion, one day, when this world has passed, a place where tears no longer fall and the shackles of grief and sorrow fall away.
“So many places of beauty we long to see here belowBut time and treasures have kept us from making plans as you know But come the morning of the rapture together we’ll stand anew While I stroll over Heaven with you.
I want to stroll over Heaven with you some glad dayWhen all our troubles and heartaches are vanished away Then we’ll enjoy the beauty where all things are new I want to stroll over Heaven with you.”