The life and thought of Canon Sheehan

Canon Sheehan of Doneraile 1852-1913: Outlines for a Literary Biography by James O’Brien (Smenos, €23.00 plus p+p / £19.50 plus p+p ; ISBN-13: 978-0957552166; )

With this book Msgr O’Brien continues his major effort to restore Canon Sheehan of Doneraile to the consciousness of his own people, if not to their understanding.

He calls the book an “outline” partly because there is a lack of papers recording the private life of Canon Sheehan, and partly because much more work needs to be done on what he learned, read, and thought before what Canon Sheehan wrote can be fully, let alone finally, assessed. And judging by the details bibliography which Msgr O’Brien has compiled there are some aspects of Sheehan’s work, such as his poetry, which would be interesting to see reprinted.

We have already in the pages of The Irish Catholic given attention both to Canon Sheehan himself and to Msgr O’Brien’s great and diligent labours. But this new books is full of apercus on the man and his thought that some more comments are justified.

Intellectual trends

One very interesting aspect of this book is the manner in which the author places Canon Sheehan in the context of European Catholicism and its intellectual trends as whole during the course of the late 19th Century, of aspects of thought varied between post-Risorgimento Italy, Republican France, and the newly created German Empire, of which largely Catholic Bavaria was a constituent, however independent minded its people were. As so many Irish Catholics live in an Anglo-American world of thought this is certainly very interesting, revealing as it does Sheenan’s standing as a major Irish and not just Catholic literary figure in the minds of many Europeans.

Russian literature

Most interesting too in this context, given the great influences which aspects of Russian literature, especially the short story as created by Chekov and Gorky had on modern Irish writing, is Canon Sheehan’s interest in and admiration for Leo Count Tolstoy.

To some he was the greatest writer of the day. He combined an imaginative historical vision, with broad social sympathies for the poor and the outcast, with aristocratic disdain for such servants of the Russian empire as government officials and the Orthodox clergy. Indeed the Orthodox Church regarded him as a heretic and excommunicated him. Indeed Rome placed his works on the Index.

Yet as a ‘progressive’ religious thinker his writings were widely influential. Sheehan’s admiration for Resurrection and for The Kreutzer Sonata, Tolstoy’s later ‘problem’ novels, which contrasts with his involvement with more traditional minded Catholics, indicates the complexity and breadth of the Canon’s own thought.

A thinker

Indeed this book is very much focused on Canon Sheehan as a thinker. Though the novels are discussed it is not so much for their literary qualities as for the philosophical outlook. But as this is only intended as an outline of a biographical approach to Canon Sheehan, this is perhaps as well. For it is to be hoped that these books, so handsomely produced, will stimulate many others to follow up the paths Msgr O’Brien has blazed. Indeed I know they will from comments that have reached me from those who have read the letters volume or our earlier articles.

Political views

The book closes with an indication of the trend of Canon Sheehan’s political views, how like so many other Irish nationalist he had moved away from the Irish Parliamentary Party and was by the end of his life a supporter of William O’Brien’s All for Ireland League.

But this movement too had its excesses – as in the anti-grazier campaign – and like the IPP was to suffer in the developing course of history as Ireland stumbled unprepared into an era of war, revolution, and civil strife in the very year that Canon Sheehan passed away. 

Only with the coming of the Free State would something approaching normality return to the life of rural Ireland which Canon Sheehan had known.