When I got the message from Margaret McDonald on Friday January 16th to say that Fr. Sean Breen had died the previous night my overwhelming feeling was one of relief that he was out of pain. Sean had been very ill since October and seemed to be getting worse week by week.
I met his brothers, Fr. Dan & Kieran later that afternoon and they were definite that they wanted Sean’s funeral to have as big a local dimension as possible. It was against this background that the Parish Board of Management set out give him a send-off that goes down in village history as one of the best days it has seen.
Sean Macarius Breen was born in Cavan on March 9th 1937. His father John M. Breen was a redoubtable character. He was ordained by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid in 1962 and served in various postings throughout the diocese.
Ballymun, Kilternan and Templeogue all featured before he was appointed Parish priest of Eadestown in 1995 before moving, somewhat reluctantly to Ballymore in 2004. Indeed his move to Ballymore got off to the worst possible start when he was mugged outside the parochial house not long after his arrival.
As I said previously he was bit like an oyster with his shell clamped tight shut, however, Ballymore people are like grains of sand and they will get in on you no matter what. He went on to do great work in the parish. He set up the parish board of management, a disparate group, to help in the running of the parish, both spiritually and practically. He had a great way with people, often you found yourself working twice as hard as you first envisaged but enjoying in nonetheless. He brought the best out of everyone he met. He established the Children’s Mass and was never slow to move the church to the people.
But it was his racing career that he will be best known for. He was an owner supporter and (un) official chaplain to many racecourses. Cheltenham, Long Champ, Galway, The Curragh, Naas and of course, Punchestown. In Punchestown he held court with King and commoner alike. At one festival we were walking from the parade ring to the bar, a distance of fifty yards and it took us all of three quarters of an hour, the amount of people that stopped to talk to him. He had considerable success as an owner, with great loyalty to Joanna Morgan, with One Won One, Raise your Heart and Show Blessed probably the most notable. He even had a horse named after his alter (sorry about the pun) ego, “The Breener.” The stories of his Cheltenham Masses, his forays to Paris and his delight in talking to people at every track take second place to his love of Galway and Punchestown.
And so it was that we came to help the parish in his last homecoming. We got together with Fr. Prenderville to help organize things and involve as many as possible in the ceremony.
The Archbishop, Diarmuid Martin received his remains on Sunday night. He was joined by many priests from all parts of the diocese and beyond. Dr. Martin delivered a touching homily saying that he had Googled Fr. Sean Breen and found lots of articles describing his exploits but that a common theme of his priestly ethos came through all of them. Ailish Massey read the lesson, Martina Byrne gave the Invocation and Clare Doyle recited the Rosary. Larry Burke Hayes concluded the ceremony with a speech of thanks to those involved. Sean lay in state in front of the altar for an hour so that many people got the opportunity to pay their respects.
On Monday morning Bishop Eamonn Walsh led the celebration of Sean’s life and work at his funeral mass. He was joined by many many priests, some who concelebrated and some who joined the congregation. The service was a curious mix of local, racing religious and showbiz, but it worked. Bishop Eamonn told of time after Confirmation in Eadestown that the meal was held in Naas Racecourse. He also paid great tribute to the people of the Parish for their care during the last number of years during Sean’s illness. The parish played a large part in the Mass. The altar servers, Anne Marie, Mairead, Fionnuala, Harry Josh and Jennifer. The readers, Clare, Martina, Kay, Oonagh, Julie and Michael. The choir, whose leader Liam Lawler had a big part in the preparation of the service and Aine who sang a beautiful solo on “Amazing Grace”. The Offertory group of John Charles, Eve, Ciara, Jack, Natasha and Mary Healy Dooley who together with Bill McCormack and Greg Lawler and of course big Niall Quinn offered mementos of Sean’s many interests. The Ministers of the Eucharist, Gemma, Dora Noel and Colette. There are too many to name of the catering crew, everyone lent a hand.
One of the first people I met on the morning was Red Hurley, Red sang “How great thou art” so powerfully that it nearly lifted the roof as well as the congregation. Following a personal memory from Donal McAodh on behalf of the family, his Grace, Brendan Grace took to the lectern. The only way of describing it is that he regaled the entire assembly. The warmth for Fr. Sean or “sky” (for sky pilot) was tangible. He told how when Sean was unable to christen one of his children, around the second week in March, that he should “give the gig to Darcy.” He had the voices off to a tee when telling of an encounter between the Breener, Frank Sinatra and himself in Las Vegas when Sean made free with the smoked salmon and wine from Sinatra’s own vineyard. I had the privilege of speaking on behalf of the parish and I can only say that most people had tears (of laughter) in their eyes.
I spoke of Sean’s grit and determination. In spite of his ill health he carried out a very onerous schedule at Christmas. His dedication to all aspects of his ministry. His attitude to his work. His love of racing and for all that went with it.
Sean Breen was known as the racing priest, he loved the title as it sat so well on him. He wasn’t a big punter, indeed a “score” that he took off me over the result of a parish vote gave him more satisfaction than anything he got from Richard Power. He was mourned by a huge turnout from the racing world, trainers, track management and ordinary punters, by his showbiz mates and by his parishioners in Ballymore. Our sympathies to his brothers, Fr. Dan & Kieran, his relatives, good friends, Brendan & Eileen, Paddy & Maura, Greg, Bill, the many people he met along life’s path and all the parishioners of Ballymore.
We will not see his like again.
Go n-eiri an bothar leat a mhic agus codladh samh