Peter Costello profiles a forgotten novelist of Catholic Ireland
This month of October marks the centenary of the death of Patrick Augustine Sheehan, better known, if known at all, as ‘Canon Sheehan of Doneraile’.
When he died he was one of the best known and widest read of Irish novelists, with many admirers both here and in North America. Today, due to changes in literary tastes and social outlook, he has been plunged into an undeserved obscurity.
A new, deeply researched biography by Msgr James O’Brien of Cloyne is due for publication shortly, which will go a long way to righting this situation.
Msgr O’Brien has already published The Collected Letters of Canon Sheehan, but he found this an uphill task. It was not the research that presented the problem, for as an assiduous scholar he has sought out the letters in every likely place. No: the difficulty was getting any Irish publisher to take an interest in the book. “Once they heard the word priest,” he relates, “they were not interested.”
So who was Canon Sheehan, and why should we remember him?
Patrick Augustine Sheehan was born on St Patrick’s Day, 1852, at Mallow in Co. Cork, only a few years after the fatal effects of the Great Hunger. A clever boy, he was educated at St Colman’s College, Fermoy, where many of the strong farmers who had done well out of the reallocation of lands post-Famine, sent their sons to be educated in the 1860s – among them James Joyce’s father. John Joyce went on to the Queen’s College in Cork; Patrick Sheehan, destined for the priesthood, went to Maynooth.
He was ordained in 1875. He began his ministry not in Ireland, but as was so often the case in those days, when the Catholic hierarchy had just been re-established in Britain, in England. He worked first in Plymouth, and then at Exeter. But his time in England was only brief.
In 1877 he was moved back to Ireland, where he served in Mallow, his native place. In 1895, however, he was sent to Doneraile, where he remained as parish priest until the end of his life. He was made a Canon of Cork Cathedral in 1905.
He began writing for various Catholic periodicals, largely American, in 1881. It is something of a mystery to me how the literary priests of the Victorian era found the time to do all they did. Canon O’Hanlon, who created the celebrated multi-volume Lives of the Irish Saints, among a host of works, is another.
Sheehan’s first novel appeared in 1895, the year he came to live in Doneraile. This was Geofrey Austen, which drew on his experiences of student life over 20 years before. It was followed in 1899 by The Triumph of Failure, the title of which alone epitomises a particular kind of Irish outlook (it later provided the subtitle for a biography of Patrick Pearse).
However, his most famous book, published in 1898, was My New Curate. It was this more than the other books that established the literary fame of Canon Sheehan of Doneraile. It presented a series of scenes in the life of a very ordinary rural parish priest – and aside from its value as a novel, it is full of social interest for the historian. The Blindness of Dr Gray, which appeared in 1909, also had a religious theme.
However, there are those who prefer Glenanaar (1905), set in the Ballyhoura Hills above Fermoy, which has for its back ground the role of Daniel O’Connell, ‘The Liberator’, in defending the famous Doneraile conspirators back in the 1840s.
His historical treatment of the rise of Irish nationalism was continued in The Graves at Kilmorna (1915), a posthumous novel which drew on the days of the Fenians when Sheehan was in his teens – appositely enough it appeared just as a new wave of physical force nationalism, which O’Connell had rejected in the time of the Young Irelanders in 1848, inspired by the Fenians was sweeping the country.
Previously Sheehan had published two novels which reflected contemporary social themes, Lisheen in 1907 and Miriam Lucas in 1912, the year before he died.
But Sheehan also pondered, as many priests in those days failed to do, on intellectual and spiritual problems, thoughts reflected in his collections of essays Under the Cedars and the Stars and Parega. He also wrote a purely devotional book, Mariae Corona.
The reputation of Canon Sheehan has suffered during two reversals of national taste. The year after he died James Joyce’s Dubliners appeared – this provided a model of a new kind of Irish fiction, inspired to some extend by George Moore and the French realists, but with a particular new tone of its own. The fiction of the Irish Revival and later decades ran more in Joyce’s direction than it did to Canon Sheehan’s more gentle vision.
But when the academic explosion occurred in Ireland about the time of the anniversary of the Rising in 1966, another ‘new Ireland’ rejected him again in favour of Anglo-American models of modern writing.
So Canon Sheehan fell, as I say, into obscurity. His novels passed out of print and out of circulation; they disappeared from the libraries.
Having in his own day suffered the criticism of narrow-minded Catholics who disapproved of a priest writing fiction at all, and who were sometimes doubtful too about his religious views, he is now the victim of a society that seems to reject any kind of positive religious dimension to life.
It is to be hoped that his centenary, and the publication of the new biography, will reverse this. And that the modern generation can come to have a wider and deeper view of what constitutes
Irish culture, one in which Canon Sheehan, for all his supposed faults and failures, will have a place. This would indeed be again ‘a triumph