Canon Sheehan of Doneraile

A VERY unusual personage was Canon Sheehan of Doneraile, author of My New Curate, a novelist of clerical life, who was infinitely more than that. He was not of the type of Ferdinand Fabre, or of Anthony Trollope, or of Mrs. Oliphant, whose Chronicles of Carlingford ought to be read as pendants to The Warden or The Last Chronicle of Barset. He was more spiritual than any of these, though that was not difficult.

Irish of the Irish, though not Celtic of the Celts; thinking that he knew the United States because his countrymen helped to populate them, his only real bond with our country was his constantly deepening friendship for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Unconsciously, — and all his letters about Holmes are not given in this Life,1— he found everything that was good in America symbolized in his friend, and everything evil in his fears for the workings of a disorderly democracy.

What Canon Sheehan dreaded most was disorder or lack of discipline. This, perhaps, accounts for his admiration of German methods of life and education, and his rather pessimistic comparison between them and the Irish ‘ways.’ In the eighties he writes, ‘Germany is a huge barrack, where every adult must pass through the ordeal of a severe and rigid discipline, to form part of, eventually, a colossal and irresistible force that may crush the French on the one hand and the Slav on the other.’

He was born in 1852, in the town of Mallow. He seems to have been born ‘thinking’ — a more thoughtful human creature never existed. For an imaginative child of his type, who found it easy to believe that the Irish fairies respected the Church, being only little kind creatures too much in love with nature, the priesthood seemed to be a foregone conclusion. The Church sanctified all beauty; the Church answered all questions.

A great tall student came on his vacation from the seminary of Maynooth. ‘One summer night the seminarist took the sleepy boy on his shoulders and wrapped him round with the folds of his great Maynooth cloak that was clasped with brass chains running through lions’ heads, carrying him out under the stars, as the warm summer air played around them.’ — ‘A bit of a dreamer,’ he says he was; and then the fair-haired, delicate boy began to dream of the priesthood. He lived t hrough the Fenian outbreak; he was an ardent patriot; the fighters for Irish freedom were his heroes in his boyhood, which seems to have been a pleasant one, even after the death of his parents, when he was nearly eleven years of age.

At St. Colman’s College, preparatory to the Irish Ecclesiastical Seminary of Maynooth, the students were strong Fenians. It was in 1867 that a small rebel force was surrounded in the Kilcloony wood, within sight of the iceglistening Galtee mountains. Peter Crowley, the hero of these boys, kept at bay an English regiment by dodging from tree to tree and firing until his ammunition gave out. He was at last killed. ‘We caught another glimpse of the funeral cortege as it passed the sergeant’s lodge. Then we turned away with tears of sorrow and anger.’

It is curious enough to note that this youth, so full of sympathy with the movement of which the Church officially disapproved, could later see both sides of many Irish questions, admire the English character and methods of life, and rejoice to the day of his death in the fact that the intercourse between Protestants and Catholics was becoming more agreeable. Maynooth was in 1869 under the presidency of Dr. Russell, the man who had, Newman says, ‘perhaps more to do with my conversion than anyone else.’ But the point of view of education taken in this celebrated seminary, and the uncertainty of the discipline, chilled the mind of the enthusiastic young cleric, who was constantly discovering, and bravely bearing the discovery, that life was a very disappointing thing.

While there was at Maynooth no danger that dangerous books, such as Talleyrand read during his preparation at St. Sulpice, would affect the students, there was a danger, which the liberal-minded Madame de Sevignc considered greater, of his reading no books at all that is, no books coming under the name of ‘eclectic literature.’ Many of the teachers at Maynooth were French, and at one time the use of the French language at table gave rise to a league among the other professors to speak ‘ Irish ’ only. Owing to the disabilities forced on the Catholics before emancipation, the older Irish priests had been sent to France for their ecclesiastical education. When one recalls memories of some of these gentlemen, — sometimes a little Jansenistic in their point of view, — the f rench touch in their manners, in their ideals of life, and in their sympathies was a gain; but the spirit of the younger clergy was against it, and the differences with the Vatican and the school of Bonetty, Rosmini, and others intensified the determination of the elders to make the course of study at Maynooth as drastic as possible.

‘Far back in the sixties literature had to be studied surreptitiously and under the uncongenial shadow of Perrone or Receveur. It was a serious thing to be detected in such clandestine studies, and I dare say our superiors were quite right in insisting that we should rigidly adhere to the system of pure scholasticism, which was a college tradition.’

Young Sheehan, however, fastened on Carlyle, and this accounts for his leaning toward German literature, from which he singled out particularly Jean Paul Richter, whose formula, ‘I love God and little children,’ greatly appealed to him. Kant, Schelling, and Fichte interested him. A classmate afterwards described him as a man who scarcely uttered a word, but read the heavens and thought. His two sisters, whom he loved intensely, had died, after having entered religious congregations. Their loss seemed to add to his reticence; but, then, what he seemed to envy the English most was their ‘reserve’; he contrasted it sharply with the habit of the Irish of wearing their hearts upon their sleeves. Indeed, the quality which he disliked in all Americans, excepting always his friend Justice Holmes, whom he found perfect in every respect, was ‘effusiveness.’

On receiving holy orders, in 1875, he was sent to Plymouth — a part of the ‘English mission.’ This, and the fact that he had not taken a chance to study at Rome, were at first disappointments to him. The Plymouth parish meant hard work—there was little leisure for communing with his thoughts, for analyzing the ‘too human qualities of Shakespeare or the paganness of Goethe.’ He had not then acquired the English accent which his admirers in Doneraile tolerated as a ‘défaut de ses qualites.’ Dr. Heuser, who is such an admirable biographer that any discriminating man about to die might, saluting him, choose him in advance, insinuates that Canon Sheehan’s brogue gave an additional charm to one of his first sermons against Calvinism. Parts of the novel Luke Deimage are undoubtedly autobiographical.

Dr. Heuser quotes a passage appropriate to a first sermon. One young lady declared that, when the young preacher overcame the roughness of his Irish education, he would be ‘positively charming.’

One old apple-woman asked another, ‘What was it all about, Mary?

‘Yerra, how could I know! Shure it was all Latin. But I caught " the grace of God” sometimes.'

‘Well, the grace of God and a big loaf — shure, that’s all we want in this world.’

A rough man in his factory dress concluded that it was ‘a new hand they’d taken on at the works here.’ An enthusiastic friend declared that the sermon knocked them all into ’a cocked hat’; but the Vicar-General maintained silence. At last he said, ‘Have you any more of these sermons?

‘Yes, sir, I have a series in notes.’

‘Burn them!’

Luke Deimage is indicative of Sheehan’s manner of life in Exeter. His visit to Lourdes interested and repelled him; he liked piety, but he objected to the mixture of books of piety and the romances of George Sand and Dumas on the bookstalls; and an American tavern-keeper, of great religious fervor, declared that ‘Paris was a hell on earth.’ This made him sad — for France. Returning to Exeter, where he worked scrupulously, he began to study the difference between the Saxon and the Celtic temperaments; it puzzled him; he knew that his fellow countrymen did not seriously object to some cheerful lying in ordinary affairs; but, while the English were too contemptuous to stoop to lie in private life, in public, where a point was to be gained, ‘they will lie like Satan.’

He returned to Ireland, however, filled with admiration of the ‘straight, deliberate, and well-poised methods of the English.’

‘Where did you get that imperial accent?’ he was asked. He seemed ‘so solemn and grand ’ that an anxious nun wondered whether the poor would like him. The poor did like him, as the annals of the parish of Doneraile will show. Socially, his political creed might be summed up in his own words: ‘That injustice begets injustice; that fear has been the cause of the world’s greatest crimes.’ He was very frank as to the merits and demerits of his country; there is not space for the proofs of his insight; but to those who is not among them? — puzzled by the complexities of the present Irish situation, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile offers some light. To hope to understand Ireland, we must see it from the inside; and, even then, one feels as Marion Crawford felt about the fair sex — one sees clearly for only five minutes at a time!

With the intention of drawing the attention of the Irish to their own faults, and, at the same time, showing their virtues to the world, he began to write Geoffrey Austen; and in 1895 he became parish priest of Doneraile, in Ireland. One must read some of the delightful passages in My New Curate to discover how the young priest felt when he was installed in Doneraile — ‘ the place,’in the opinion of a slightly cynical bishop, for ‘a poet and a dreamer.’

In Geoffrey Austen Canon Sheehan’s attempt to show the faults in Irish education met with censure that almost frightened the young reformer. It might be summed up in the repartee to some of Sir Horace Plunkett’s wellmeant criticisms: ‘They may be true, but it is n’t for the like of you to say them!' However, Canon Sheehan’s fright wore off, and the success of My New Curate, in spite of some further objections from super-sensitive Celts, gave him confidence. It was due to the discriminating and energetic encouragement of the author of Canon Sheehan of Doneraile that Father Dan, in My New Curate, was created. He who knows this book, Geoffrey Austen, LukeDelmage, and The Triumph of Failure, will find the clue to many difficult meanings and receive light from a singularly fine mind.

In a literary sense, Canon Sheehan’s faults were in his lack of understanding of ‘the upper classes’ in the artificial social sense, and, when he wrote verse, in his inability to understand that poetry is not merely philosophy and theology loaded with rhymes.

This Story of an Irish Parish Priest as Told Chiefly by Himself in Books, Personal Memoirs and Letters is, to use the outworn phrase of the last century, a really precious ‘human document.’

  1. Canon Sheehan of Doneraile, By DR. HERMAN J. HEUSER. London: Longmans, Green & Co.