A Family Thing

In this blog, I would like to introduce you to my great grandfather’s brother, the writer, political activist and priest, Patrick Augustine Sheehan (1852 ā€“ 1913) – also known as Canon Sheehan.

He was born in Mallow, County Cork, and became Parish Priest of Doneraile in 1895.

So why am I talking about this distant relative who has been underground for over 105 years? It’s not because I ever chose to set out in his footsteps, as being a writer is something I stumbled on almost by accident. I’ve always loved reading, but everything I read (Asimov, Le Guin, Burgess, Donaldson, Herbert, Carmody etc) over-awed me. By that I mean their work was so good that I was almost scared of writing anything myself, because I knew it would never be on their level.

What happened was my nephew – a country boy through and through, obsessed with fishing, bikes and football – was so inspired by my own stories that he has started writing his own. He has always had a great imagination, but never before had he been able to put his ideas down on paper. Here is a line from his story ‘A Snowy Day’.
“After school, people’s skin was peeling off and the blood was dark red like blackcurrant. And if that was not enough, you could break off ligaments and limbs like it was not funny.”
You can see he has a vivid imagination, and some descriptive flair. I guess it’s struck me that my stories have had this effect on my nephew, that it’s encouraged him to do something he’d never done before.

Then I got to wondering whether just knowing that there was a writer in the family subconsciously pushed me down this path. It’s funny how the world works sometimes. A friend at work always tells this joke: Three conspiracy theorists walk into a bar. You can’t tell me that’s a coincidence. And speaking of coincidences, Canon Sheehan and I share a quirk which – one would not be considered shitted – I only discovered as I wrote this. We have the same d. I’m no handwriting expert, but in my 35-odd years I’ve never seen anyone else write the lowercase ‘d’ the way I do. Note the words ‘should’ and ‘reduction’.

At some point during High School, somewhere between Bright and Wangaratta, I decided I could not be arsed bringing the line down and doing the tail after reaching the top. And tonight, I clicked on a link to one of my great uncle’s letters, and he did the exact same thing. I almost choked on my curry when I saw it.

But anyway, Since taking up writing myself, I have become more and more interested in my ancestor, out of curiosity, reverence, and, well, fear of letting the name down. Michael Barry wrote “Canon Sheehan was a household name throughout Ireland and very widely known abroad. There were few homes where some if not all of his many books such as My New curate, The Blindness of Dr. Gray, Genanaar etc. were not to be found. Today he is almost forgotten, except perhaps in his native Mallow and in Doneraile.” (By Pen and Pulpit: The Life and Times of the Author Canon Sheehan, 1990). Almost forgotten. I guess it’s the fate of us all. Anyway, I have brought several of his books (some first editions) including ‘My New Curate’ ‘The Queen’s Fillet’ ‘The Triumph of Failure’ ‘Luke Delmege’ ‘The Graves at Kilmora’ and ‘Glenanaar’ – though I’ve been too busy to read any yet.

Speaking of books to read – my TBR pile for the coming months includes ‘The End of the World News’ (Burgess, 1982), ‘The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet’ (Chambers, 2014). ‘Children of Blood and Bone’ (Adeyemi, 2018), ‘We Call it Monster’ (Walter, 2019). I’ll try sneak one of P. A. Sheehan’s in too, maybe ‘The Triumph of Failure’ (Sheehan, 1901). So, what’s on your TBR list?

Before I go, I want to leave you with some words of Patrick Augustine Sheehan, This is from a reflection of his childhood: “Strange I never felt the proximity of father and mother. But of my sisters, one in particular, the only dark-haired in the family, has haunted me through life. I no more doubt of her presence and her light touch on the issues of my life, than I doubt of the breath of wind that flutters the tassel of the biretta on my head. Yet what is strange is not her nearness but her farness” (Under the Cedars and the Stars, 1903). This one particularly strikes me.

But one more relevant to 2019. “Myles went down from the mountain; yet he lingered long, here and there, with all his passionate love for Ireland kindled and inflamed by the magnificent scenes that lay before him. The vast plain that stretched downwards and onwards to where the cloud-like and faintly-pencilled Galtees rose into the skies, was bathed in sunshine, which glittered here and there on the surface of some stream or river. White flakes of cirrus clouds, infinitely diversified in form and colouring, filled the sky from horizon to horizon. And looking back he saw the summits of Glenmorna touched more faintly by the sun, and purple shadows filling all her valleys. ‘Yes! God made our land for heroes,’ he said. ‘But alas! Where are they?'” (The Graves at Kilmorna, 1915). Where are our heroes indeed?

  • Originally published June 2019

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