Canon Sheehan restored to prominence

This book would be important even if it were only the collection of a parish priest’s letters – a thing never before attempted, though we have the letters of higher clergy such as Cardinal Cullen in print. But because these are the letters of an interesting literary figure whose representations of the Ireland of his time are still far from receiving the recognition they deserve, it is even more important.

The letters have been collected by Msgr O’Brien from various sources, including some 15 archives here and in America.  As editor he has provided not only an introduction, but notes on the correspondents, a detailed chronology and even an account by Sheehan himself of his life. A very full budget then.

Among the most interesting of the letters are those written to the American writer Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the then famous author of the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, which delighted two generations of readers before the Great War. They first meet in 1903 and stayed in touch for a decade. In these the canon has a chance to rise above the day to day and the urgencies connected with publication.


It is a pity one feels that here one does not have Holmes own letters, for he remarked about the canon “I wish I could have offered him something beside affection and reverence for his lovely spirit.”

Also of interest are his letters to William O’Brien, the author of When We Were Boys, who he alludes to as “the Walter Scott of Ireland”, in the sense of a writer giving a country a wholly new image of itself, a term that might be applied to Sheehan too.

The greatest numbers of letters are to Fr Matthew Russell, the Jesuit editor of the Irish Monthly, and to his German friend and first biographer Fr Herman Heuser. Here literature mingles with both spiritualty and current affairs. It is curious to find Sheehan reading Zola’s Rome and Huysmans’ En Route, books which he found repellent, though En Route was the first of the series of books that brought Huysmans back to the Church.

Though there are remarks on Synge and Yeats, whose early poetry he admired, there is nothing about George Moore, a Catholic moving in the opposite direction to Huysmans. There are times when the annotation might have been fuller, but then that is perhaps a counsel of inhuman perfection.

Personal nature

Inevitably much of the correspondence is taken up with the writing and publishing of his books. One suspects as one often does with collections of letters that there are other unfound of a more personal nature. Nevertheless Canon Sheehan in his letters is a mild, kindly figure, always wishing well for everyone. It must have been a pleasure to meet him. He perhaps underestimates his own talents, but then that too is inevitable. He was also a man of great courage.

In September 1910 the canon was diagnosed as suffering from rectal cancer. The letters that follow are interspersed with remarks on his ill health and his pains, all borne with equanimity. They make for most moving reading in their simplicity.

Also very moving is a letter at the end from his brother, appalled at the fund raising that as going on for the Canon Sheehan memorial, which he said would have pained his brother. He had hoped for a small tablet in the church and a memory of the canon in the minds of those who loved him. An even better memorial would be restoration of his literary work in the memory of his people.

It was perhaps during Sheehan’s life time that the Irish image of the parish priest emerged. In these letters he gives glimpse of what was involved in living in a village, where one was one of the few educated men in a district. The strong interior nature of his faith represents an ideal lived out in life.

Of course, things have changed since then, changed radically – a change which one suspects the editor regrets. But his work will enable the present generation to understand more clearly how a priest of that period saw his vocation, an honourable profession of faith in a world that was even before his eyes going wrong.

A final point, Altogether this book is a fine production, well designed, well printed, and bound in traditional signatures for permanent reading. It matches the production standards of a university press and the author is to be applauded for that achievement as well. We look forward to his forthcoming biography of Canon Sheehan.