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Canon Sheehan

30 November, 1999

Here Christopher Moriarty introduces us to one of Ireland’s forgotten greats of the late 19th & early 20th century, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile, Co Cork.

One of Ireland’s most popular and prolific writers in his time, the renown of Patrick Augustine Sheehan has faded. Between 1895 and his death in 1913, Canon Sheehan published novels and many religious tracts and theological papers which would be translated into at least six different European languages.

Happily, many of the problems of poverty and land hunger, that are the subject of his novels, are things of the long-forgotten past. This may explain their current neglect – but they remain good stories and, in common with the works of Charles Dickens, need to be read as a purgative by all those who look back to ‘good’ old days.

Sheehan was born in Mallow on St. Patrick’s Day 1852. Literature attracted him at an early stage and he is remembered as a somewhat solitary child who would drift away from his school friends to sit beneath the trees with a book.

Tragedy struck when he was eleven years old and both of his parents died. With his brother and sisters he became the ward of the Parish Priest of Mallow, Dr John McCarthy, who would later become Bishop of Cloyne. This clerical background may have had some influence on the future vocations of the family: Patrick would enter the priesthood and both his sisters become nuns.

His formal education began at the National School in Mallow and continued in St. Colman’s College, Fermoy. This was the Diocesan Seminary for Cloyne, and Sheehan went from it directly to Maynooth to study for the priesthood.

In spite of a year’s absence due to illness, he graduated in 1874 at the early age of 22, too young for ordination for which he had to wait until the following year. By and large he was less than impressed by the nature and quality of the courses in Maynooth and equally scathing about the majority of his teachers.

He found the essentials of mid-nineteenth academia to be less than inspiring: ‘Relentless logic, with its formidable chevaux-de-frise of syllogisms, propositions, scholia; metaphysics, sublime, but hardened into slabs of theories, congealed in medieval Latin; Physics, embracing a course that would have appalled a young Newton or Kepler; and then the vast shadow of four years’ Divinity towering above and overshadowing all!’

Fortunately, in 1870 a new, young lecturer broke the pattern and opened the minds of the students to the wealth of European and English literature. From that, Sheehan never looked back.

After his ordination in 1875, he went to England and began his ministry in Exeter, in the diocese of Plymouth – the home, at the time, of a great many Irish emigrants. There he established a formidable reputation as a preacher which remained with him throughout his life. He was also fully exposed to the downtrodden, since part of his duties were to minister to the inmates of the grim and isolated prison of Dartmoor.

Among them were a number of Fenians, imprisoned there for their part in the rising of 1867. As a boy, Sheehan had been well aware of the activities of the young Fenians drilling in the woods near his home and he would in time write a novel, Glenanaar, about the movement.

He returned to Ireland after two years and served as a curate first in Mallow, then in Cobh and again in Mallow. In 1895 came the promotion that established him as Parish Priest of Doneraile, a country parish in Co. Cork where his church and home were on the main street of the village planned and developed by the owners of the great house nearby, Doneraile Court.

He was appointed a Canon of the Chapter of Cloyne in 1904. Even though his reputation as a writer was well established by that time, he would become known to his large following of readers and admirers as Canon Sheehan rather than by his first name.

He wrote his most successful novel, My New Curate, in Doneraile in the last years of the 19th century and it was published in 1899. Told with a gentle humour and evidence of a great love both of his church and of his parishioners, the story is set in a seaside village on the west coast, a village of poor people and poor dwellings overlooked by the affluent home of the landlord. There is a substantial element of autobiography in which the narrator, the old parish priest Father Dan, recounts his own thoughts and his encounters with his somewhat brash new curate. The curate sets to work to raise the social, as well as the spiritual, profile of the parishioners – in much the same way as Father Dan remembers his own youthful efforts. In contrast to the author’s grateful acceptance of promotion, Father Dan turns down the offer when it comes.

Like both of the priests in his story – and perhaps with more success – Canon Sheehan led the peasants of his parish in their negotiations with the landlord which ultimately established the tenants as freeholders. Sheehan, while championing his poor, also enjoyed a cordial relationship with his Protestant landlord, Lord Castletown.

In his late 50s, Patrick Sheehan was stricken with cancer. He died amongst his friends in his beloved Doneraile on Rosary Sunday 1913. One of his last acts was to hand his brother Denis an uncompleted manuscript autobiography, with the words, ‘These might do harm to others, let us destroy them’. They were burned a few days before Canon Sheehan died. 

This article first appeared in The Messenger (June 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.