An innocent in Cork


`When the Commissioners of National Education send me a peremptory order to construct at once lavatories in my mountain schools for the use of barelegged boys and girls, I cannot help smiling all over when I recollect that it would be just as easy for me to build the aqueducts of Solomon on that mighty ruin that spans the lonely spaces of the Roman Campagna."

Canon Patrick Augustine Sheehan of Doneraile must sometimes have winced at the realities of life in a rural parish. He was a man of such refinement that he compared the impact of Shakespeare's coarseness with stumbling into "some hidden cloaca, or sewer . . . At least, I never take up Shakespeare without looking far before me, and carefully picking my steps."

Such reflections in Parerga (1908) suggest a kind of innocence which is at variance with the confident authorial voice in his novels, but they read now like an innocence begging to be seduced by other creative intellects. Doneraile, with his church at one end of the village street and his house at the other, was not enough for the writer. And yet it was from here, between this grey house and this grey church, that he wrote some of the finest Irish novels of his time.

The first of these, Geoffrey Austin, Student, was published anonymously in 1895, the year in which he was moved from his native Mallow to Doneraile. The great success of My New Curate, however, allowed him to declare himself the author; its successors included Luke Delmege, Glenanaar, The Blindness of Dr Gray and The Queen's Fillet. His last and perhaps bleakest novel was The Graves of Kilmorna, echoing in its conclusion the earlier credo of Fr Dan in My New Curate - "Nothing on earth can cure the inertia of Ireland."

Writing in Ireland's Literature: Selected Essays (1988) Terence Brown identifies a note sounded through many of the novels as "a sense of the intense solitude of priestly life, particularly as experienced by those of intellectual and cultural distinction". Few of Sheehan's parishioners could relieve that isolation, but across the street in Doneraile Court lived Lord and Lady Castletown. Clare Castletown was the daughter of the fourth Viscount Doneraile, that fanatic horseman who died from rabies when bitten by his pet fox.

It was at Doneraile Court (now in the care of Duchas) that Clare entertained Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes; a side-effect of their adulterous love-affair was a friendship between the priest and the judge which continued from their meeting in 1903 until Sheehan's death 10 years later. In the Canon's last letter to Holmes, that sense of innocence appears again: he is encouraging the judge's visit to Doneraile Court as being of benefit to the Castletowns, who had recently fallen on hard times. Surely, when writing "if his [Lord Castletown's] solitude were broken by a visit from you it would help him much", he must have been unaware that Holmes had been cuckolding Bernard Castletown. And yet, how could he have been ignorant? One way or another there is the addendum: "Need I say what a ray of sunshine your visit will cast over a broken life like mine?"

Canon Sheehan died at home in Doneraile, Co Cork, on October 5th, 1913; his grave is marked by a Celtic cross in the churchyard. Clare, Lady Castletown died in Doneraile in 1927. Oliver Wendell Holmes died in Washington in 1935, two days before his 94th birthday.