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Monday 18 November 2019

Teacher and historian Billy taught generations of young men

The late Billy Sweetman
The late Billy Sweetman

There has been widespread sadness following the death of the well-known Wexford teacher, historian and author Billy Sweetman.

Billy, aged 87, of New Line Road, died on July 27 in St. Vincent's Private Hospital, following a short illness.

A native of Killurin, he grew up on the family farm in Lambstown, an experience that inspired his lifelong love of land, nature and making things grow.

Likewise, being taught by Mícheál Kehoe in Glynn national school, and having the late Canon Patrick Murphy as parish priest meant it would have been difficult for him not to have been aware of the history of 1798.

Billy attended secondary school in St Peter's College Wexford, where he received a Gold medal for outstanding academic achievement.

On completing a Bachelor of Arts in University College Cork, he spent a couple of years teaching at Cork Grammar School, before returning to Wexford.

From the late 1950s to the mid-1990s, Billy taught in the Christian Brothers secondary school in Wexford town , where he educated thousands of young men, spanning several generations.

His subjects included Latin, Greek, and in latter years, mathematics, geography, religion and English.

He was the first teacher to bring honours Leaving Certificate maths to the pupils of Loreto Wexford, attending the school on a part-time basis until the Loreto recruited its own full-time Leaving Certificate honours maths teacher.

In October 2013, Billy published a book on the County Wexford Trials of 1798, a major research work launched by New Ross native Louis Cullen, Professor of Modern History at Trinity College Dublin.

An impressively detailed account of over 65 court marshals, most of which were never before readily available to the public, the book was the product of over 30 years research.

During his extensive research, Billy located and transcribed the trials from national and local archives and private collections.

His second book on 1978, titled Brothers Divided, tells the remarkable story of the sons of Harvey Hay of Ballinkeele, County Wexford, whose lives were utterly changed in the wake of 1798.

Brothers Divided illustrates how, compared to the vast majority of Catholics - or for that matter, Protestants - of the time, Harvey Hay was a very wealthy man, enjoying the benefits of an estate of over a thousand acres.

His sons, like their contemporary, Daniel O'Connell, were educated in St Omer in France. Three served with the French Army, and two of these (James and Philip) subsequently served in the British Army.

A third son, John Hay was first Insurgent Leader to be executed on Wexford Bridge, without the benefit of either a proper trial or sentence.

The main subject of the book is Harvey's oldest son, Edward.

In today's language, Edward might be described as a human rights activist. He was sympathetic to the aspirations of the United Irishmen, but never took their oath and did not support the violence of the 1798.

Despite this, and the fact that his pleas for calm during the uprising undoubtedly saved the lives of several Wexford protestants from 'popular fury and exasperation', he was subsequently jailed for 13 months as a Rebel.

Edward devoted his life to Catholic emancipation and served for many years as Secretary to the Catholic Committee, a role previously fulfilled by Theobald Wolfe Tone and later by Daniel O'Connell.

Brothers Divided recounts how Edward's entire public career from 1792 to 1822 was one of unselfish service to the Irish nation. Edward's enduring legacy is The History of 1798, his contemporaneous account of the rebellion in County Wexford.

Brothers Divided was launched in Enniscorthy Library on 11 April 2019, just weeks before Billy became ill.

Neither book might ever have been published was it not for the persistent encouragement of Bernard Browne, a friend of Billy's who was involved in the 1798 commemorations, and the late Reverend Monsignor Lory Kehoe, Billy's lifelong friend, going back to their schooldays in Glynn.

Until very recently, Billy could be found in Wexford Library on Friday mornings, with friends and fellow historians, sharing their recent finds from the archives and engaging in friendly banter and debate.

He always kept a dabbling interest in farming, on land he had bought in Killmannon and then Castlesow, Crossabeg.

On retirement, he commenced over two decades of work, hand planting thousands of trees in Castlesow, and he loved to spend time walking there, along the Sow River, admiring his trees and watching nature.

He was also an avid bridge player - an interest he shared with his wife, Philomena, a native of Johnstown, Duncormick.

The couple first met at a dance in the 1950s in Ballwinstown Hall. They marked their 55th wedding anniversary just days before Billy died.

Billy is survived by his loving and much-loved wife Phil; sons Michael, Billy and Roger; daughters Marguerite, Cathy and Mary; son-in-law Richard; daughters-in-law Caroline and Ceara; grandchildren Tara; Mikey; Max; Lucy; Mena;Jack and Laurence;brother Mikey and sister Mary (Curtis).

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