Father Nicholas Sheehy

From An Illustrated History of Ireland by Margaret Anne Cusack

« start... Chapter XXXIV. ...continued

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But a time came when the priest was able to do more. Men had seen, in some measure, the absurdity, if not the wickedness, of persecuting the religion of a nation; and at this time priests were tolerated in Ireland. Still, though they risked their lives by it, they could not see their people treated unjustly without a protest. The priest was independent of the landlord; for, if he suffered from his vengeance, he suffered alone, and his own sufferings weighed lightly in the balance compared with the general good. The priest was a gentleman by education, and often by birth; and this gave him a social status which his uneducated people could not possess.[8]

Such was the position of Father Nicholas Sheehy, the parish priest of Clogheen. He had interfered in the vain hope of protecting his unfortunate parishioners from injustice; and, in return, he was himself made the victim of injustice. He was accused of encouraging a French invasion—a fear which was always present to the minds of the rulers, as they could not but know that the Irish had every reason to seek for foreign aid to free them from domestic wrongs. He was accused of encouraging the Whiteboys, because, while he denounced their crimes, he accused those who had driven them to these crimes as the real culprits. He was accused of treason, and a reward of £300 was offered for his apprehension. Conscious of his innocence, he gave himself up at once to justice, though he might easily have fled the country. He was tried in Dublin and acquitted. But his persecutors were not satisfied.

A charge of murder was got up against him; and although the body of the man could never be found, although it was sworn that he had left the country, although an alibi was proved for the priest, he was condemned and executed. A gentleman of property and position came forward at the trial to prove that Father Sheehy had slept in his house the very night on which he was accused of having committed the murder; but the moment he appeared in court, a clergyman who sat on the bench had him taken into custody, on pretence of having killed a corporal and a sergeant in a riot. The pretence answered the purpose. After Father Sheehy's execution Mr. Keating was tried; and, as there was not even a shadow of proof, he was acquitted. But it was too late to save the victim.

At the place of execution, Father Sheehy most solemnly declared, on the word of a dying man, that he was not guilty either of murder or of treason; that he never had any intercourse, either directly or indirectly, with the French; and that he had never known of any such intercourse being practised by others. Notwithstanding this solemn declaration of a dying man, a recent writer of Irish history says, "there can be no doubt" that he was deeply implicated in treasonable practices, and "he seems to have been" a principal in the plot to murder Lord Carrick. The "no doubt" and "seems to have been" of an individual are not proofs, but they tend to perpetuate false impressions, and do grievous injustice to the memory of the dead. The writer has also omitted all the facts which tended to prove Father Sheehy's innocence.

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[8] Possess.—While these pages were passing through the press, a circumstance has occurred which so clearly illustrates the position of the Irish priest, that I cannot avoid mentioning it. A gentleman has purchased some property, and his first act is to give his three tenants notice to quit. The unfortunate men have no resource but to obey the cruel mandate, and to turn out upon the world homeless and penniless. They cannot go to law, for the law would be against them. They are not in a position to appeal to public opinion, for they are only farmers. The parish priest is their only resource and their only friend. He appeals to the feelings of their new landlord in a most courteous letter, in which he represents the cruel sufferings these three families must endure. The landlord replies that he has bought the land as a "commercial speculation," and of course he has a right to do whatever he considers most for his advantage; but offers to allow the tenants to remain if they consent to pay double their former rent—a rent which would be double the real value of the land. Such cases are constantly occurring, and are constantly exposed by priests; and we have known more than one instance in which fear of such exposure has obtained justice. A few of them are mentioned from time to time in the Irish local papers. The majority of cases are entirely unknown, except to the persons concerned; but they are remembered by the poor sufferers and their friends. I believe, if the people of England were aware of one-half of these ejectments, and the sufferings they cause, they would rise up as a body and demand justice for Ireland and the Irish; they would marvel at the patience with which what to them would be so intolerable has been borne so long.


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