Canon Sheehan restored to the Pantheon of Irish literature

Revisiting Canon Sheehan of Doneraile 1852-1913: Author, Activist, Priest

ed. by Gabriel Doherty

(Smenos Publications, €25.00 + p&p)

J. Anthony Gaughan

This is a collection of papers presented to a conference at University College Cork to mark the centenary of the death of Canon Patrick A. Sheehan.  One of its chief promoters, James O’Brien, introduces the collection with an overview of Sheehan’s pastoral appointments and literary life and work.

O’Brien is followed by Ruth Fleischmann who provides an analysis of some of the themes underlying Sheehan’s novels and other writings. There was his dismay at Parnell’s policy of co-operation with the British Liberal Party, since the Liberals were opposed to one of the central aims of the Irish Catholic bishops, namely Catholic schools for Catholic children. 

Sheehan was uneasy about the power of the Land League organised by Michael Davitt, who was both a socialist and a Fenian. He was incensed by Sir Horace Plunkett’s charge that the Catholic Church impeded industrial development through channelling scarce capital into excessive church building. 

Outside Ireland he believed there were vast forces arrayed against the Catholic Church.  His bête noire were politicians who advocated separation of Church and State and the exclusion of religion from schools. 

In Miriam Lucas, there is a shadowed version of the 1913 strike/lock-out. As Fleischmann states, it shows how woefully ignorant Sheehan was about the social conditions obtaining in Dublin at that time. To her severe strictures in that regard and on Sheehan’s apparent ‘anti-feminism’ it could be replied that she does write with the advantage of hindsight.

Two fellow-priests had a significant role in the development of Sheehan as a writer. At the invitation of Fr Matthew Russell, SJ, editor of the Irish Monthly, he was a prolific contributor to that magazine from 1891 to 1907. 

Sheehan also submitted much of his other literary work to Russell for his critical appraisal. 

Fr Herman Heuser was a seminary professor in Philadelphia and life-long editor of the American Ecclesiastical Review.  He enabled Sheehan to win his international readership, most notably in the US and Germany.

Eda Sagarra presents an excellent account of the nature and complexities of German Catholic publishing in the early 20th Century and illustrates how it provided an unexpected congenial setting for Sheehan’s novels.

John O’Donovan traces the development in Sheehan’s political thinking and that of his life-long friend William O’Brien. Supportive of the idealism of the Fenians, they considered that it had been vitiated by the grubby conduct of members of the Irish Party. 


This prompted O’Brien to establish the All-for-Ireland League which Sheehan supported.  Not surprisingly, the equation made by Sheehan in the graves at Kilmorna between Fenian self-sacrifice before inevitable defeat and the Christian doctrine of redemption through sacrifice was subsequently seen as a prefiguration of the 1916 Rising.

Sheehan’s novels were widely read in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, yet they are scarcely ever referred to today. 

Like Leon Bloy, Paul Claudel, G. K. Chesterton, Graham Greene and Sigrid Undset, he was regarded as a ‘Catholic writer’, and even more so than any of those. 

This did not endear him to many of the literati nor would it conduce some of today’s Irish intellectuals to give him a fair hearing. Their anti-Catholicism is tantamount to a new form of anti-Semitism and it is just as irrational and ridiculous. 

The attempt by this excellent publication and the conference that prompted it to claim for Sheehan his rightful place in the pantheon of Irish writers is to be highly commended. 

It is also to be welcomed as a counter to today’s advancing secularisation and the gradual erosion of the nation’s Christian heritage.