The Land League Priest - 2nd Nov. 1946


The Land League Priest: Text Version

Nov 2, 1946


In Irish history two Father Sheehys played parts as champions of their people. Father Nicholas Sheehy, a friend of the Whiteboys was hanged at Clonmel, after a mock trial one black and bitter day long ago. According to tradition there was a cloud over Clonmel ever afterwards on account of the great crime committed there. Long years after Father Nicholas Sheehy had died on the scaffold, the second Father Sheehy appeared. He was Eugene Sheehy, often called 'The Land League Priest'.

Eugene Sheehy was born at Broadford, Co. Limerick, on Christmas Day 1841. He grew up in terrible times and his earliest memories must have been bitter ones indeed. His child's eyes saw the horrors of the great Famine, saw the mud-walled cabins crumbling under the blows of the crowbar brigades, saw their hapless inmates flying hopeless and hungry to the ports where the coffin ships waited to waft them to strange shores and more often in watery graves. No wonder he was to prove himself in after years the moral enemy of the system that was responsible for such misery and suffering.


His father was a sound Irish scholar and from him he learned to speak Irish forcibly. He was educated at Mungret College, Limerick, and later studied for he priesthood at the Irish College Paris.

The Land War was at its height when he arrived in Kilmallock to take up his first curacy. In October 1879 he was present at a meeting held in the Imperial Hotel Dublin, which had been convened by Parnell for the purpose of forming a central body to carry on the land agitation. A resolution proposed at the meeting by Parnell was seconded by Father Sheehy and it was on Father Sheehy's motion, seconded by Michael Davitt that it was decided to send Parnell to America to seek financial aid for the cause.

Father Sheehy was President of the local branch of the Land League at Kilmallock, and his personality and his patriotism made him a tower of strength to the organization. There was in Kilmallock at that time a notorious removable magistrate named Clifford Lloyd. 'Clifford Lloyd, the spawn of hell, from Belfast town he came', as the ballad singer said of him. The magistrate urged the arrest of the rebel curate, and the Castle obligingly furnished the necessary troops.


At about 5.30 one May morning in 1881 the priest's house was surrounded. The police officers knocked at the door, but were not answered until one hour afterwards. At 7 o'clock Father Sheehy himself appeared and was taken into custody. He walked to the local barracks, escorted by an imposing force of military and police. Behind the escort came a great crowd of the townspeople, led by Father Downes, P.P.

Clifford Lloyd, describing the scene in his book 'Ireland under the Land League' says – 'I shall never forget the scene as he proceeded up the street. The people fell upon their knees as he passed and seized his hands and the skirts of his clothes, while begging his blessing before he left them.'

He was interned first in Naas Jail and later transferred to Kilmainham, where he joined Parnell, Davitt, Dillon and other 'suspects'. While in Kilmainham, he got into trouble with the authorities for, as stated, omitting the ritual prayer for the Queen one Sunday, and was not permitted to say Mass afterwards while in jail. Together with other 'suspects' he was released towards the end of September. On 28th September, 1881, strations were held in many parts of Ireland to celebrate his release.


A foreign writer, telling of those hectic days, says: 'At Naas the fiery priest was given a tremendous welcome, for which he responded with attacks on England, the Government and the Land Act. On Sunday, October 2nd, he shared honours with Parnell at a monster stration in Cork, where the procession was said to be the largest ever witnessed in the southern metropolis. His speeches breathed defiance and sedition, and showed that his four months in prison had neither lessened his zeal nor softened his hatreds, nor impaired his vocabulary. The League hailed his release as a sign that the Government was weakening in its policy of coercion.

The Irish Members raised the question of his arrest in the British Parliament. A lively debate followed and as a result Parnell and all the Irish Nationalist members were suspended.

Late in 1881 Father Sheehy, accompanied by Mr. T.M. Healy, Parnell's secretary, made a lightening tour of America on behalf of the Land League. In 1886 he replaced Father James Enraght as P.P. of Bruree. That same year he went in Galway to oppose the election of Captain O'Shea and supported the attitude of Parnell. When the Split came in 1890, however, he was opposed to Parnell's leadership.


One of those who used to serve Father Sheehy's Mass in Bruree was the boy Eamon de Valera. The fiery priest was still a fervent Land Leaguer, and when John Gubbins evicted a number of tenants in Garoose he called on the people to boycott him. He collected the local hurling team and they with hurleys, lined the ditches and prevented Gubbins and his friends from hunting over the district. During his ministry by the Maigueside he visited the U.S.A. and Canada to collect funds for the building of a new church in Bruree. On one occasion, while driving to a funeral his horse shied, and his curate Father Madden, who was traveling with him, was thrown from the car and killed. He himself sustained severe injuries and never fully recovered from the effects of the accident.

One who knew him in Bruree describes him as a wonderful preacher, fond of rhetoric and fine language. He was very keen on good pronunciation and when he visited the schools he made the pupils repeat their words over and over again until they pronounced them properly. He could be very cutting and sarcastic when the occasion required. It seems he didn't altogether favour the idea of the cookery classes which used be held for a few weeks in a place. Technical schools he had no objection to, but he considered the hours spent learning fancy cooking at the short term classes a waste of time.

'Blancmange for Clash,' he used to say. 'The idea of it, ha! Ha!' Some ladies with whose conduct he didn't see eye to eye, he described as having 'Paris fashions and Zulu manners.'


He was a great fighter, determined and fearless. He espoused the cause of his people and threw himself heart and soul into it. 'The success of the Land War owes much to his great zeal and untiring efforts. At times he may have appeared a little headstrong and hasty but there, was no doubting his terrific sincerity. 'A great favourite with the lower classes and the poor people to whom, I believe he was kind and sympathetic.' – that was how Clifford Lloyd, R.M., described him. In ' The Fall of Feudalism' Michael Davitt mentions him as one of the staunchest friends of the Land League.

He was a fervid and passionate orator and delivered a famous speech in New York on 'The men and principles of '48.' It is preserved in A.M. Sullivan's 'Penny Readings'. Speaking of Mitchel, he said;

' Never had Ireland a truer lover, never tyranny a more inexorable foe.' To Ireland he clung fast through weal and woe to her his thoughts were given and all his labours and they were labours of love.'


He took a great interest in Gaelic games. He was present at the historic meeting in Thurles when the Gaelic Athletic Association was founded. A photo taken on that day shows him in the group which contained, Davitt, Cusack, Power and MacKay. In Bruree he built a famous hurling team, and he was a familiar figure wherever the Maiguesiders wielded their camans, as he ran up and down shouting words of encouragement or hurling cries of criticism at the players:-

'Come on Bruree, 'Back it up Bruree'. Once when he saw a player reluctant to contest too keenly with his rivals, he stood and called disgustedly, 'Cowardice!' a saying that is yet remembered in the district. He organized many fine concerts in Bruree, and among those whom he brought to contribute were Mrs. Sheehy Skeffington and Mrs. Tom Kettle, his nieces, daughters of the late David Sheehy, M.P., his brother.

Fathe Sheehy had a great devotion to the Mother of God, and his beautiful May devotions and sermons are still spoken of.


He was a close friend of Patrick Ford of 'The Irish World' and John Devoy of 'The Gaelic American'. He was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and for a time on its executive, it is said. According to his niece, Mrs. Sheehy Skeffington, the famous phrase attributed to Parnell and engraved on his statue was first spoken by Father Sheehy at a banquet in Cork (where Parnell and himself were photographed together). During the evening Father Sheehy said; 'No man has a right to set bounds to the onward march of a nation', and Parnell was so struck by the phrase that he made his own of it.

His health declined and he resigned his charge in Bruree in 1900 and went to live in Dublin. There he formed a close friendship with Tom Clarke and Sean MacDermott and was often taken into their counsels. When Easter Week came the great old priest made his way to the G.P.O. to his friend Tom Clarke to administer spiritual consolation. Through these terrible, glorious days he remained at his post and only left it when the building was crashing in flames and the order to evacuate had been given. And the last leader to surrender that historic week was the man who as a boy had served his Mass in Bruree.

In July of the following year he died at the age of 76. One of his last utterances was: - 'I am sorry that I did not die with Tom Clarke.' He was buried in Glasnevin. A great priest, a sincere patriot, there was no aspect of the nation's life that he did not love and cherish. Few realized better than he what the great fight for the land meant. In this year when we are commemorating those who made that fight, it is well that we should remember Eugene Sheehy, The Land League Priest.


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