Local leader

An Irishwoman’s Diary: Celebrating Canon Sheehan’s centenary


Could this be the year for Doneraile to bask in the glow of the centenary of its most famous parish priest, novelist Canon Patrick Augustine Sheehan? As foretold in the biography written by Dr H J Heuser in 1917, “In sooth, the little town is likely to grow in celebrity when Ireland has found its normal status, and can remember the man, the priest and writer, who honoured the Irish name abroad, besides lavishing his generous services on his countrymen at home”.

Among the contributors to a recent conference on Canon Sheehan at University College Cork was Msgr James O’Brien of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Vatican City, editor of a collection of Sheehan’s letters. These reveal the priest’s intense commitment to Irish education, largely in the belief that only through a cultured Irish Catholic intelligentsia could national freedom and international respect be obtained. As he told a group of clerical students in 1903, “the Irish priest must be in advance of his people educationally, by at least 50 years. The priests have the lead, and they must keep it”.

As a leader, his service to his country centred on his parishioners whom, for example, he represented vigorously in the local Land Acts negotiations. Irish history provided many of the plots for his novels, and his work was fuelled by his belief in the apostolate of Catholic literature. While he regarded his experience in England as perhaps the happiest period of his life as a priest, at home he became committed to enlarging the Irish vision and strengthening the Irish appreciation of learning. This didn’t do him much good in Doneraile where, as he wrote to the American Supreme Court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The great want in my life is lack of intellectual intercourse”. His appointment to the small town in north county Cork coincided with the publication of his first book Geoffrey Austin, Student . This anonymous novel heralded an output of more than 14 titles, all under his own name and many of them written in the garden behind his house on the main street of Doneraile.

But oh for a voice on the fervent lunacies of his novels and essays! What did he hope for with, for example, his observation, in Luke Delmege on “the awful dread that the sight of soiled womanhood creates in the Catholic mind, so used to that sweet symbol of all womanly perfection – our Blessed Lady . . .” He states that the Good Shepherd order of nuns (although his two beloved sisters had chosen to enter the Mercy order) is the culmination of Christ’s atoning love, its costume having been “specially designed by Our Lord . . .” Elsewhere a fictional cleric denounces his devoted but strong-willed niece from the pulpit and in My New Curate a vain little girl suffers divine vengeance in the form of a horrible skin disease. So penitent does she become (and who could blame her) that when brought a bunch of lily of the valley she wonders if it is a sin to smell them. Healed at last she brings about the conversion of a central character although she remains marked by three peculiar wounds.

And so on. Like the Lord, Canon Sheehan is hard on women. Although according to Heuser the room fitted up as a library in Doneraile had only a meagre selection of books, his letters show Sheehan to have been well and widely read. However, his judgments suggest the want of argument with his peers: he dislikes Shakespeare – “I sometimes loath him”, and thinks the poet Aubrey de Vere the equal of Tennyson and Wordsworth. Although disquieted by Francis Thompson’s “applying to our Divine Lord the epithet ‘The Hound of Heaven’ ”, he defended Thompson with passion, believing that he had been critically ignored because he was a Catholic.

It is hard to align this priest, whose poignant glorification of “pure” womanhood might be one result of the loss of his mother early in life, with the career of his friend Clare, Lady Castletown. A renowned society hostess, the mistress of Doneraile Court across the road from the presbytery, she was also the lover of Oliver Wendell Holmes. With her husband Bernard, Second Baron Castletown, she introduced the visiting American jurist to the local celebrity in 1903, and priest and judge corresponded regularly until Sheehan’s death in Doneraile in 1913. It was the judge who noted that Sheehan “had only a partial taste of the life of modern society”. The priest was a wise man, but he was not worldly wise.

The Collected Letters of Canon Sheehan of Doneraile 1883-1913 , ed. Msgr James O’Brien (Smenos Publications) was launched earlier this month.