Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition
The Dawn of the Century (Author: Patrick Augustine Sheehan)

Notes on Canon Sheehan's ‘The Dawn of the Century’

Many of the themes Canon Sheehan dwelt upon in this lecture at Maynooth in December 1903 recur again and again in his later novels. It is for this reason that this essay is of exceptional importance, as it provides us with the first clear cogent glimpse into his thought. This lecture was also reprinted in The Literary Life: Essays, Poems ed. Edward MacLysaght (Dublin 1923), pp. 121–150.

This lecture came at a time when Canon Sheehan had been under attack for his portrayal of the clergy in his novels, culminating in Luke Delmege, which received vitriolic criticism from some quarters, most notably Monsignor Hogan, then editor of the Irish Ecclestiastical Record. Canon Sheehan did not have a good relationship with Maynooth nor the staff there, with the possible exception of Robert Browne, who was later appointed Bishop of Cloyne. Sheehan's own time there as a student was unhappy: a combination of poor health, financial problems in the college as a result of Gladstone's Irish Church Act of 1869 (which removed the permanent endowment granted to the College, substituting for it a temporary subsidy), and upheavals in the syllabus taught there all combined to make the place, in his own words ‘dry and uninteresting’. 1 In Luke Delmege Sheehan has his title character immersed in theological controversies of the 16th century, without any thought as to their practical import for the current day. 2 In the words of another Sheehan biographer: ‘the author indulges in some wholesome criticism on the educational equipment of the Irish priesthood and the defects of old-time pastoral methods.’ 3

Sheehan focuses on the critical aspects of ‘the intellectual world to-day’, in particular on the critical stance which many intellectuals have taken towards religion, and in particular the Catholic Church. [p. 13] Many of these, of course, were Protestant. It is a feature of Canon Sheehan's writings in general that Catholic priests are presented as both spiritual and cultural guides. In an set of unpublished articles entitled 'Clerical Studies', Sheehan imparts his thoughts on the exclusivity of ecclesiastical training: ‘The general verdict on our Irish Ecclesiastical Colleges is that they impart learning, but not culture—that they send out learned men, but men devoid of the graces, the ‘sweetness and light’ of modern civilization.—It may be questioned whether, in view of their mission and calling, this is not for the best.’ 4

In another part of this manuscript he dwells on the question of learning: ‘The success of the Catholic collegiate institution, if it is to be measured by its adaptability to the end for which it is founded, consists in its implanting principles and habits of piety, which will be proof against the world's seductions; and principles of theology and philosophy, which will serve in the delicate and mysterious work of the salvation of souls. The principles of piety must be not only an armour of defence, but strong and keen weapons of zeal; and the principles of learning must not only serve in the pulpit and confessional, but be also the foundation of newer and higher studies which will always put the secular priest far in advance of his flock, even in worldly learning.’ 5

For Sheehan, then, ‘The priest must always lead the flock. And his spiritual instructions will carry all the more weight when it is understood that the pastor is a man of culture and refinement, and that his condemnation of new and fanciful theories comes from his belief founded on fair and exhaustive reading, that they are utterly untenable.’ 6

In the second half of the lecture Sheehan makes the attempt to bring some practical forecasting of the future of ‘modern fact and thought’. [p. 16] His forecast is for a world in constant flux, the ‘rushing together of thoughts, feelings, and principles, chaotic and confusing enough’. [p. 17] In this world, Ireland is, and continues to be, a beacon of light, of ‘pure minds ... keen intelligence, and ... personal love of God, that are the constituents of a religous vocation.’ [p. 18] Yet Ireland is alone in this. Modern priests must be aware of the challenges facing them inside and outside of Ireland. Sheehan exhorts his audience not to ‘hide our light under a bushel’ [p. 23] but engage with this new world: ‘Study that you may know, know that you may understand, understand that you may communicate your knowledge to others. ‘Let your light shine before men!’’ [p. 19]

Sheehan analyses the world facing these graduates as being divided into ‘the easily recognised classes of Transcendentalists and Empiricists—the mystic and the scientist, the vague dreamer of dreams, and the hard, unimaginative reasoner.’ [p. 20] He uses stories from America quite often in this section. America, to Sheehan, was the great unknown. Perhaps it was his experiences in Queenstown from 1881 to 1889 that conditioned him to think of the plight of the Catholic Irish multitudes that were crossing the Atlantic to this land where a Protestant ethic of ‘manifest destiny’ held sway. In his later novels Sheehan dwelt on the plight of these emigrants. In Miriam Lucas, for example, when Miriam travels to New York in search of her mother, she is enticed to a brothel-house. This would not have been unusual for emigrants arriving into the city and advertising in local papers for lost relatives; in 1890 Jacob Riis published a study of the slums of New York entitled How the Other Half Lives. It is quite probable that Canon Sheehan used this as a source for many of his later writings. 7

A final aspect touched upon by Sheehan in this lecture and worthy of comment is his linking of Empricism and Socialism. In his Whiggish analysis, the nineteenth century saw a progression away from the Church worldwide: first to Transcendentalism, then via ‘a momentus change [which] swept over human thought’, ‘it leaped to the opposite extreme’ i.e. Empiricism. [p. 10] Men such as Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson (whom Sheehan wrote about in an essay published in the Irish Ecclestiastical Record in October 18848) saw their worlds demolished in favour of a set of theories which proved that ‘all things are made for man; and that man alone is the Omnipotent and Divine.’ [p. 11] Technology advanced at breakneck speed. Empires disintegrated. The transhumance from the field to the factory floor swept millions into towns and cities under the force of the Industrial Revolution. Theology, philosophy and religion were all flung to one side. However, it was soon discovered that soulless buildings and ‘progress’ had killed off ‘every noble quality that distinguishes man’. [p. 12] Into this vaccuum rushed a ‘new belief in the terrible destructiveness of a Godless science ... the very offspring of the science they had worshipped—the spectre of socialism and anarchy.’ [p. 12] This brought into the world the spectre of murder and killing between those of inequal material wealth. This inequality, and the Church's attitude towards it, is a key feature of at least three of Sheehan's later novels: Glenanaar (1905), Lisheen: or, the Test of Spirits (1907), and Miriam Lucas (1912). In all three novels, Sheehan explores, in the style of the French novelists Charles Peguy and Rene Bazin, ‘those virtues which he regarded as the antidote to materialism and the social collapse which it promoted under various guises. The drama which he works out is one of redemption through suffering ... the protagonists embrace the reality which has to be raised up and, in so doing, always bear in mind that the deeper the degradation of that reality the higher the possibility of its resurrection.’9

John O'Donovan, January 2014