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Irish Eyes Smile on U.S. Soldiers 
Local Catholics celebrate a special Mass in Ireland

By Michael Curet

“May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields, and,
Until we meet again, May God hold you in the palm of his hand!”

Perhaps that old Irish Blessing means more today than ever for Irish-born

U.S. soldiers John Leahy and Martin McDonagh, who did meet again - 58 years later on their native soil.

The two men had not seen each other since reporting in 1950 for basic training at Fort Devens, Mass. with dozens of other Irish soldiers who joined the Untied States military during the “Korean Conflict.”

Leahy, a longtime St. Augustine resident and member of St. Anastasia Parish, was a decorated soldier with the rank of sergeat. He remained in the United States and became a U.S. citizen.

McDonagh’s life took a different road, as Leahy learned. After reporting to Korea in 1951, McDonagh was captured and held prisoner for 10 months. He, too, received his U.S. citizenship, but returned to Ireland to run the family farm.

With such different paths in life taken, how did the roads of these compatriots finally intertwine again?

In September 2008, Leahy returned to his homeland with his wife Eileen on a tour with a group of St. Anastasia parishioners accompanied by retired pastor Father Seamus O’Flynn. One of the stops included a visit to Knock Shrine in County Mayo to honor the Irish servicemen killed in Korea while serving for the United States. There were 28 members from St. Anastasia in the group - ironically the precise number of Irish-born U.S. soldiers that were killed in Korea.

Meanwhile, McDonagh lives some two and half hours away from Knock and 25 miles northwest of Dublin in County Meath. Leahy, who grew up in Kerry some 200 miles from McDonagh, knew this and contacted a cousin to tell McDonagh about the Mass. Still, Leahy wasn’t sure if McDonagh, now 82 and assisted by a wheelchair, would be there.

As Father O’Flynn conducted the Mass, there was a glimpse of a man in a wheelchair in the back of the church. Leahy slowly made his way over, consumed with emotions and preoccupied with one thought - the 28 fellow countrymen that gave their lives instead of being able to live like he and McDonagh did.

“It was funny the way he walked up to me,” said McDonagh. “And, I had been looking for him. He told me to identify myself and I did.”

Leahy was elated to see his fellow soldier. “It’s been a spell of time,” he said, “So this was like a dream - so, so many memories!”

Dominican Sister Anne Halpin of St. Augustine was in attendance and recalls the joyful meeting: “It was a great spiritual and reminiscent moment that you’ll never forget. We were so honored to be there!”

On a smaller more personal scale, this was another history-making event at Knock, the small Irish town in County Mayo that received international fame in 1879 when about 15 people reported a vision of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and St. John the Evangelist. The sighting would be declared by the Catholic Church as trustworthy 100 years later.

It was a classic setting and seeing McDonagh tells only part of the story of Leahy’s devotion to faith and country - in this case both countries (his native Ireland and his adopted United States).

It’s Leahy’s relentless pursuit that has always brought him success. During active duty, in receiving the rank of sergeant, he was awarded two battlefield citations - one for delivering mail under fire and another for capturing a North Korean spy posing as a South Korean interpreter.

For more than 30 years since his military service, Leahy has aggressively campaigned to preserve the respect and honor of his fellow Irish U.S. soldiers. Much of his work in this regard was rewarded in 2003. That’s the year that President George W. Bush on September 1 signed a Special Act of Congress to grant American citizenship posthumously to the 28 Irish-born U.S. soldiers killed in Korea. Most of the 28 soldiers were under the age of 23 and killed in hand-to-hand fighting in Korea’s notorious “Iron Triangle.”

Although Leahy’s tour through his country lasted another eight days, the reunion with McDonagh, as brief as it was, was timeless. The two departed that day, but now reconnect a bit more often by telephone and insist they won’t wait another 58 years to see each other.

  Irish-born U.S. veterans met in County Mayo, Ireland last fall after serving in the Korean Conflict 58 years ago. From left, Bridie Cox, Eileen and John Leahy and Martin McDonagh.

Leahy’s work as a soldier may have slowed down, but his work as a Catholic is never-ending. “He’s a great Catholic - he and his wife,” adds Sister Halpin. “He’s very giving and is always trying to help people in the community whether they need food or other things. They are both perfect examples of what the Lord has asked us to do in the Gospel.”

Now as Leahy sits back in his home on Anastasia Island in St. Augustine and reflects on his visit, he realizes that although his friend is more than 4,000 miles away, in more ways than one, the two are now much closer to home.

(For more information on the Irish soldiers that served in Korea, visit