Canon Sheehan of
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Canon Sheehan's grave and statue in the
grounds of the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
Patrick Augustine Sheehan was born in 29,
New St. (now O,Brien St.) Mallow,Co. Cork on March 17th. 1852.Even
though he was born in Mallow he is invariably referred to as Canon
Sheehan of Doneraile, mainly because he wrote almost all of his major
works while he was there as Parish Priest. He was one of six children
of Patrick Sheehan and Johana Regan, whose family was widely
connected with the Mourne Abbey area.
Patrick received his early education in the
Long Room National School in Mallow, where one of his classmates was
William O'Brien, later to become a noted journalist and
When Patrick was growing up in Mallow the
Fenian movement was beginning to take shape with men secretly
drilling and marching in the woods round about. This period of
history remained ingraines in his mind culminating in the book he
completed shortly before he died,called The Graves at
Kilmorna. It wasn't published until 18 months after his death. He
once wrote of the Fenians of his youth as " strong silent men into
whose character some stern and terrible energy seemed to have been
infused. There were no braggarts among them. Their passion was too
deep for words and that passion was all consuming, fierce unswerving
love for Ireland".
His carefree youthful days took a severe
jolt when in 1863 his father died and in February the following year
his mother passed away.Because of this Rev John McCarthy, P.P. of
Mallow became guardian of the children with " an income from a modest
property ". At the age of 14 he was sent to St. Colmans College in
Fermoy. As well as being a secondary school it was also the Diocesan
Seminary for the Diocese of Cloyne.When he completed his secondary
education in St. Colmans he entered Maynooth, where the records throw
little light on the student,whose talents may have been overshadowed
by the academic greats of that era in the Seminary. He was a
brilliant student who,despite recurring illness, which caused him to
miss out a whole years study, still managed to complete his studies
in Maynooth a year before he was old enough to be ordained. He was
eventually ordained in St. Mary's Cathedral, Cork on Sunday April
18th. 1875 by Bishop Delany.
As there was no vacancy in Cloyne the young
priest began his ministry on the Cathedral staff in Plymouth. He
returned to Ireland and to Cloyne 1877 and took up duty as a Junior
curate in his home town of Mallow. His next move was to Cobh in March
1881, where his experience as a curate in Plymouth stood him in good
stead in a town with a large naval presence such as Cobh. Pastoral
work always took pride of place with Fr. Sheehan, but it was here
that he also began to realise the power of the pen, and used it by
contributing to local publications. Ill health again dogged him and
he was given the year off to recover his health, which he spent in
Youghal where the P.P was on old friend. In 1890 he returned as
senior curate to Mallow and this marked a new phase of his literary
work, where he considered the use of his pen as a means of spreading
the Christian message through short stories, poems and ultimately
novels. In 1895 he completed the manuscript of his first novel,
Geoffrey Austin Student, and this coincided with his promotion
to be Parish Priest of Doneraile.
Doneraile was a large country parish, much
different from the parishes he had served in up to then. I quote from
" By Pen and Pulpit:-
"Fr. Sheehan began to draw close to the
people of Doneraile. His great literacy would lead one to believe he
spent the greater part of his life in literary pursuits. This was not
so as writing was always secondary to his sacred duties.Slowly but
surely he began to get to grips with this historical parish and as
time went by, the people began to see clearly that here was a man who
was their friend, and to whom they could turn in times of trouble and
distress. They also saw a man who was eager to do what he could for
his people, both in a spiritual and temporal way and to improve the
Parish as a whole."
His early years in Doneraile coincided with
the last stages of the Land War and the introduction of the Land
Acts.He played a major part in the negotiations between the tenant
farmers and the landlords in the parish.He was the ideal man for this
because his integrity was never in question and he was respected by
all side, even those of different persuasions. He was instrumental in
bringing all the negotiations with the landlords to a successful
conclusion. The following is an excerpt from a record kept by a
J.O'Leary of Carrigeen about the part played by Canon Sheehan in the
acquisition of his land.
"...........In 1904 a few of us (tenants)
put our heads together and decided to ask Canon Sheehan to come with
us to meet our agent (A.G. Creagh of Mallow) in order to put before
him our demands to purchase our farms............. I shall never
forget that hour, 12 noon of 17th. Sept. 1904 when Canon Sheehan cut
the first link of that chain which had bound generations of tenants
on the Creagh estate to the chariot of landlordism." He went on to
describe the negotiations and the calm dignity of Canon Sheehan in
the face of surly and insulting remarks made by the agent's son. On
Canon Sheehan's advice the tenants refused to pay rent and after two
and a half years the landlord was forced to re-open negotiations and,
with a bit of face saving give and take, a deal was concluded and the
tenants purchased their farms "at twenty and a half years purchase or
6shillings 9d in the pound on the existing rents" All the
considerable arrears were wiped out. This agreement was finalised and
signed on 14th. July 1907, and the record concludes "The wisdom of
his counsel I shall ever treasure and it was ready at all times, any
hour night or day. May his saintly spirit ever watch over the parish
where his remains lie, is the prayer of J. O'Leary."
Following the satisfactory conclusion of the
land purchase, he used his influence in getting as many improvements
as possible for Doneraile. he was instrumental in getting an electric
plant to provide light for the town and Doneraile Court.The power
plant also supplied electricity to pump water to the houses which was
an enormous benefit. Lord and Lady Casrletown were very much his
supporters in all this.
Lord and Lady Castletown were very friendly
with Canon Sheehanand held him in the highest regard. Lady Castletown
was formerly Ursula Clare Emily St. Leger of Doneraile Court and Lord
Castletown "married in there". Canon Sheehan's success as a writer
had turned him into a celebrity, and whenever the Castletowns had a
guest of note, they were invariably brought to meet the man of
letters.It was through them the Canon met a very famous American for
the first time in 1903. He was Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes, the
great lawyer,and it was a meeting of two intellectual minds. They
became firm friends and engaged in a ten year correspondece which
only ended on the Canon's death.
In June 1909 Bishop Doyle of the Diocese of
Lismore in New South Wales died and Canon Sheehan was nominated as
his replacement. It came as a complete surprise to him but it was out
of the question for him to accept owing to the poor state of his
His pastoral work in Doneraile cannot be
overestimated. He was a great believer in education, and he was a
great friend to the Presentation Convent schools and to the Christian
Brother's schools in Doneraile.The C.B.S was located in what once had
been part of the P.P's garden, Many a poor child who showed academic
promise was quietly helped by the Canon.
In 1910 he consulted an emiment surgeon in
Dublin, Sir Charles Ball, who diagnosed cancer. He continued to
write, during his last illness and his last book The Graves at
Kilmorna was published after his death. On November 12 th. 1912
he returned home from hospital and he said to his housekeeper "I am
home at last, thank God, and nothing shall ever make me leave it
again until I am in my coffin" A short time before he died he was in
his study with his brother Denis. He took from his desk a bundle of
papers -- they were part of his autobiography. In a feeble voice he
said " these might do harm to others, let us destroy them" The papers
were then thrown into the fire and reduced to ashes. How valuable to
students of the period those papers would be today.
He died on Rosary Sunday Oct. 5th.
This was just a short biographical account
of Canon Sheehan's life and was taken mostly from By Pen
And Pulpit by Michael Barry of Fermoy by whose kind permission I
used the information. Any student or indeed anyone interested in the
life of Canon Sheehan would do well to read Michael Barry's book as
well as Canon Sheehan of Doneraile by M.P. Linehan (1952) and
A History of Doneraile by Fr. A. Gaughan.
- Geoffrey Austin,Student.
- The Triumph of Failure.
- My New Curate.
- Mariae Corona,
- Collection of Sermons and
- Luke Delmege. (1901)
- Under the Cedars and the Stars.
- Lost Angel of a Ruined Paradise. A Play
- Glenanaar. (1904)
- A Spoiled Priest and Other Stories.
- Early Essays and Lectures.
- Lisheen. (1907)
- Parerga. (1908)
- The Blindness of Dr. Gray.
- The Intellectuals. An Experiment in
Irish High Club-Life (1911)
- The Queen's Fillet. (1911)
- Miriam Lucas. (1912)
- The Graves at Kilmorna. (1915) Published
after his death.
- Cithara Mea. Poems.
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