The Sheehy Family

Sheehy Family crest

(Crest No. 116. Plate 58.)

THE MacSheehy, O’Sheehy or Sheehy family is descended from Milesius, King of Spain, through the line of Heremon, eighth son of that monarch, and first King of all Ireland. The MacSheehys belonged to the Hy Many tribe, so called from Maine More, or Main the Great, king in the fifth century. They are of the Clan-Colla race, the founder of the family being Colla da Crioch, son of Eocha Dubhlein, brother of Fiacha Straivetine, first King of Connaught, of the race of Heremon. The ancient name was Shiehy—Irish, MacShaoghaidh—and signifies “A General.”

The chiefs of the MacSheehys held possessions in various parts of Ireland. They were a martial sept, and appear to be of Ulster origin. The MacSheehys of Antrim were famous throughout Ireland as chieftains of gallowglasses, heavy-armed infantry soldiers, and accordingly obtained possessions in several localities as sword lands from the powerful toparchs into whose service they entered. A branch of them was brought from Connaught in the fifteenth century by the Fitzgeralds, Earls of Desmond, who appointed them their body-guards. Several descendants of the sept have changed their name to “Joy,” and of this family was the Irish Judge, Baron Joy. They are considered to be originally the same as the Joyces of Connemara—a race of men of rare and manly stature.

Commander Sheehy, of the Irish Gallowglasses

of the Irish Gallowglasses.

The MacSheehys and O’Hallinans were chiefs of Ballyhallinan, in the parish of Poblebrien, County Limerick, and the former also possessed lands in the present Counties of Clare and Tipperary. After the overthrow of James the Second, many of the MacSheehys went to France, and the family continued to furnish officers to the various regiments of the Irish Brigade in that country, from its formation after the fall of Limerick until its disbandment on the outbreak of the French Revolution. Of these, Patrick MacSheehy, Lieutenant in Dillon’s Regiment, deserves special mention. He was present, with his regiment, at the capture of the Isle of Grenada, in the West Indies, July, 1779, where the French (mostly composed of Irish troops) inflicted a crushing and disastrous defeat on the English, capturing the entire garrison, three standards, a hundred and two cannon, sixteen mortars, besides thirty vessels in the harbor, ten of which were privateers. In the assault on the Morne, the stronghold of the place, whither the English had retired in their last desperate resistance, Lieutenant MacSheehy was mortally wounded by a cannon shot. In this state, writes a historian of the expedition, he could merely speak, with much pain, a few words worthy of the great days of Sparta and Athens: “Is the Morne taken?” he inquired. “Yes,” they replied. “Well, then,” he rejoined, “I die content,” and he at once expired.

A nephew of this hero, Bernard MacSheehy, born 1744, was Adjutant General under the Emperor Napoleon the First at the bloody battle of Eylau, February, 1807, where he was killed by a cannon shot, greatly regretted, “as uniting with bravery and military talent of the first order, a vast erudition and capability of speaking and writing several languages.”

Another member of this family, John Bernard Louis MacSheehy, born in Paris, 1783, was attached, while yet a boy, to Dillon’s Regiment as a gentleman cadet, and subsequently attained high honors in the service of the great Emperor. He went through twelve campaigns, was wounded six times, had two horses killed under him, and was honored with the rank of Chevalier of several military orders.

Perhaps the best known name of this family, however, is that of the Rev. Nicolas Sheehy, who owes his sad celebrity to the fact of his having been the last Catholic priest who was put to death under the operation of the infamous Penal Laws in Ireland. The Cromwellian and Orange ascendancy party, wishing to get rid of him, owing to his sympathies with the oppressed and plundered people, had him indicted for the “high crimes” of being educated abroad, while the “law” denied him the right of being educated at home; and of being a “Popish priest,” who celebrated mass without being duly registered, and so forth. As this process was tedious, they hastened matters by accusing him of being accessory to the murder of a man who had not been murdered at all. For this purpose they released from jail three criminals, and bribed them and gave them their freedom to testify against the priest. One of these was a strolling blackguard beggar; another a notorious horse thief, and the third a disreputable woman. On their “evidence” Father Sheehy was convicted, hanged, drawn and quartered, and his head was spiked on Clonmel Jail, where it remained twenty years. This was as late as 1766. The grave of this “last of the Irish martyrs” is held in veneration by the people to the present day.

It may be worthy of note to advert to the remarkable fact that scarce one of Father Sheehy’s persecutors, or the jury that tried him, died a natural death, while a curse seemed to blight even their descendants. Sir Thomas Maude died a raving maniac, yelling that Father Sheehy was pulling him into hell. Bagwell became a gibbering idiot, and his son committed suicide, thus rendering that branch of the family extinct. Jacob died in fits, in which he barked like a dog, and had to be restrained from eating the flesh off himself. Cook was drowned. Parson Hewitson dropped dead. Barker also died in fits, and left no heir. Tuthill cut his throat. Hoops was drowned. Ferris died mad. Dumvill was killed by his horse. Another dropped dead at his own door. Another died suddenly. Minchen died in beggary. Moll Dunlea, the low, perjured woman, fell into a cellar while drunk, and broke her neck. Lonergan, the vagabond beggar, died in Dublin of a loathsome disease, and Toohey, the convicted horse stealer, went inch-meal to the grave with leprosy.

To still further glut their vengeance, the magistrates and landlords had Edward Sheehy, a respectable farmer, and cousin of Father Sheehy, arrested the following month, and convicted of murdering the same man, who was at the time living in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Sheehy was offered his liberty before going to the scaffold, if he would declare that Father Sheehy had been guilty, and that Bishop Creagh and some of his priests were engaged in a conspiracy with the French Government, a proposition which he, of course, scornfully rejected. This Edward Sheehy, it may be noted, was the grandfather of the celebrated Countess of Blessington.

This family is still numerous in Ireland, where they command the respect and confidence of their fellow-countrymen, as also in the United States and Canada, where many of them occupy responsible and honorable positions. We may mention in this connection Commissioner Edward Sheehy of New York City, a splendid type of that ancient Irish family, and the late Rev. Daniel J. Sheehy, pastor of St. Ambrose’s Church, Brooklyn, also a fitting and worthy representative of the Irish soggarths of old.