Canon Patrick Augustine Sheehan was involved in many of the great national movements in Ireland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like many priests at the time, he was committed to improving the living and working conditions of the people, locally and nationally. He is fondly remembered in his native Cork and beyond as a political activist, and social and economic reformer. In Doneraile, where he was Parish Priest, he championed the rights of the working poor, introduced schemes for employment, and negotiated with landlords on behalf of tenant farmers who wanted to purchase their lands. It is for his work in the cultural sphere however that he is best known, as the most widely-read Catholic writer in the Ireland of his time.
As a young priest, Sheehan was committed to using his talent for writing to promote Christian values. He wrote prolifically – poems, short stories, plays, and children’s books, articles for literary and religious magazines on education, society, philosophy and theology. Following the publication of his first novels, Sheehan became convinced that the novel as a literary form was the best means of evangelization, allowing an author to present Catholic ideas, ideals and virtues to the masses. His subject matter was familiar to his readers, typically set in rural Ireland, and in the recent past. His novels at times featured events from recent history such as the Doneraile Conspiracy of 1829 (when Daniel O’Connell’s dramatic intervention in the show trial of the same name exposed a shocking miscarriage of justice), the Great Famine of the 1840s, and the Fenian movement of the 1860s.
Sheehan’s name will most likely be familiar to older readers of TOTUS TUUS as will titles such as Glenanaar (1905), Lisheen (1907), Miriam Lucas (1912), and The Graves of Kilmorna (published posthumously in 1915). Sheehan’s novels had a wide circulation abroad as well as at home, in particular, among the Irish diaspora in America and on the European continent. His novels were translated into Czech, Dutch, Flemish, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Irish, Polish, Spanish, Slovenian and Ukrainian.
Sheehan wanted to use the novel to counter negative representations of Catholicism, which were commonplace in Victorian literature. Irish Catholics were typically caricatured as improvident, indolent, untrustworthy, schemers all, or paradoxically were sentimentalized as innocent, gullible and childlike – a type of noble savage. Sheehan rejected such crude stereotypes and sought to represent the lives and experiences of Irish Catholics authentically, illustrating how faith illuminated their lives: informing views, shaping consciences, sustaining through trials, edifying and inspiring. Sheehan did not romanticize the Irish Catholic population he so eloquently and perceptively wrote about but rather did justice to their piety and integrity. In this task, he helped to redress a historic injustice and did a great service to Irish Catholics, who had, for centuries, either been ignored in the literary canon or had been stereotyped in a simplistic and negative fashion. One innovative aspect of Sheehan’s work was his depiction of priestly life, which he wrote about with insight and sensitivity in My New Curate (1901), Luke Delmege (1901) and The Blindness of Dr Gray (1909). This was new in Irish literature.
Canon Sheehan’s works were hugely popular in Ireland and abroad in the first half of the 20th century because they depicted the myriad of experiences of Catholics – priests and people – with nuance and empathy, elevating such lives by the dignity of their representation. He was pivotal in shaping a Catholic literature in Ireland in the late 19th and early 20th century, which contributed to the revival of national consciousness. Sadly, modern readers will have difficulty finding Canon Sheehan’s novels in local bookshops or libraries, not because they are irrelevant or unappealing to contemporary tastes, but because of the ideological agenda and prejudices of publishers. Sheehan’s works challenge the national narrative being consciously fashioned by the Irish intelligentsia where Irish Catholicism is represented as authoritarian, repressive and oppressive. It strikes me that there is a great need for reprints of Sheehan’s works to introduce them to a new audience. There is an equally pressing need for new authors to give literary expression to the lived experiences of Catholics in Ireland today as Canon Sheehan did so beautifully more than a century ago.
Written by Dr. Gillian Doherty