Sheehan, (Canon) Patrick Augustine (1852–1913), catholic priest and novelist, was baptised at Mallow, Co. Cork, on 17 March 1852 (soon after his birth), the third in a family of five children of Patrick Sheehan, shopkeeper, and his wife, Joanna (née Regan). Sheehan's parents died within a few months of each other in 1863, leaving the guardianship of their four remaining children (one had died in infancy) to Father John McCarthy (1815–93) (later bishop of Cloyne, 1874–93). Sheehan's two sisters became nuns in the order of the Sisters of Mercy; his brother Denis became a customs clerk.
Sheehan was educated at Mallow national school (where he formed a lifelong friendship with William O'Brien (qv)), St Colman's College, Fermoy (1866–9), and St Patrick's College, Maynooth (1869–75). While studying for the priesthood Sheehan experienced what appears to have been a nervous breakdown precipitated by the early deaths of his sisters, and left the seminary for a period in 1872–3 to convalesce with his cousin Fr Daniel Keller (1839–1922) (later a prominent land campaigner). Much of Sheehan's later work reflects gloomy speculations about what would have become of him had he been unable to proceed to ordination – part of a distinctly morbid streak in his writings. Sheehan's seminary experience left him with a keen sense of the deficiencies of the current system of theological training in preparing its graduates to address the philosophical challenges of modernity and the problems they would encounter in their pastorate. Much of his spare time was devoted to the study of modern philosophy and literature; he developed a lasting fondness for the German Romantics, while his love of classical studies coexisted with suspicion of the pagan classics as a threat to Christian faith and morals.
Sheehan was ordained priest on 18 April 1875 for the Cloyne diocese and sent on mission to England, where he served in Plymouth and Exeter. His English experiences gave him a disturbed awe of the power and growing secularisation of England, and a tendency to idealise the unselfconscious catholicism of rural Ireland while sensing its possible fragility. In October 1877 he returned to Ireland as curate at Mallow, where he established a literary society. In 1881 he was transferred to Queenstown (Cobh) cathedral as a curate. He began to contribute articles on educational and artistic subjects to the Irish Ecclesiastical Record and other catholic journals, and also published a number of stories for children. After suffering health problems, in 1888 he was sent back to Mallow as senior curate; on 4 July 1895 he was installed as parish priest of Doneraile, the office he retained for the remainder of his life. In 1903 he was appointed to the Cloyne diocesan chapter; hence he is most often referred to as ‘Canon Sheehan’.
Sheehan's first novel, Geoffrey Austin, student (1895), appeared anonymously, soon after his appointment at Doneraile gave him a degree of independence. The book and its successor, The triumph of failure (1898), deal with the social and intellectual struggles of a young man who trains unsuccessfully for the civil service at a nominally catholic school, and then experiences poverty while working as a tutor; at times his resentment tempts him to utter the devil's defiance, ‘non serviam’ (Sheehan addressed the Marian sodality at UCD while James Joyce (qv) was a member), but he eventually finds fulfilment in the priesthood. The first novel met with little success and was censured for its criticism of catholic education as insufficiently catholic and excessively directed towards the secular curriculum dictated by state examinations. Sheehan's fame dates from the serialisation in 1898–9 of My new curate, his most popular work, in the American Ecclesiastical Review, published in Pennsylvania by the Paulist Fathers; the novel was published in book form in 1900. It describes the relationship between a tired old parish priest, ‘Daddy Dan’, and his enthusiastic curate, Fr Lethaby; its account of Lethaby's attempts to compose apologetic works and found local industries reflects Sheehan's ambivalent sense that while priests needed to take the lead in economic and intellectual development such innovations might encourage the materialism and scepticism they were intended to forestall. Sheehan had originally planned the novel as a riposte to anti-catholic accounts of the burning in 1895 of Bridget Cleary (qv) but, as his biographer Herman Heuser recalled, he was advised that this subject lacked interest for American readers and was persuaded to shape the work to his American audience. The two priests reflect different aspects of Sheehan's own personality, but their portrayal may have been influenced by the fact that, at the time he was writing, Sheehan had a curate – Fr T. M. O'Callaghan – who was an active land campaigner.
Luke Delmege (serialised 1900–02; book publication 1902), perhaps Sheehan's most ambitious work, is a semi-autobiographical study of the attempts of an academically brilliant but somewhat conceited young priest to come to terms with parochial life in England and Ireland and with his own limitations; a subplot concerns a pious young woman who voluntarily enters a Magdalen asylum as a sacrifice for the salvation of her brother's soul. By this time Sheehan had acquired international fame, which he was to enjoy for the rest of his life; his works were translated into several languages, including French and German, and numerous visitors came to Doneraile to see him. His presence was a source of interest to younger writers from Cork such as Terence MacSwiney (qv) and Daniel Corkery (qv) (d. 1964), but Sheehan was too shy and remote to establish more than intermittent contact with them. Corkery's story ‘The priest’ in The stormy hills (1929) is a moving depiction of a lonely priest modelled on Sheehan; it implicitly equates his efforts to minister to the spiritual needs of struggling mountainfolk with the efforts of the artist to inspire an unappreciative community.
Glenanaar (1904–5), often regarded as Sheehan's best novel, depicts the Doneraile conspiracy trial of 1829 and explores the stigma felt by descendants of an informer. Tolstoy is alleged to have praised Lisheen (1907), a stiff novel about a landlord who lives incognito among the peasantry; presumably the praise was for the subject rather than its treatment. The blindness of Dr. Gray (1909) is a study of a rigorist old priest and his remoteness from his people, reflecting some of Sheehan's own fears and self-criticisms; The queen's fillet (1911) is a historical novel about the French revolution, and Miriam Lucas (1912) combines a melodramatic plot with a hysterical treatment of Dublin syndicalism. The posthumously published The graves at Kilmorna (1915) combines nostalgic memories of the Fenians, whom Sheehan admired in his childhood, with apprehension at the current political situation; there are critical portraits of Michael Davitt (qv), depicted as sincere but warped by resentment, and Charles Parnell (qv), seen as an arrogant dictator (another ambivalent sketch of Parnell by Sheehan may be found in the Irish Weekly Independent, 1 Nov. 1941). Sheehan was always in two minds about land agitation, seeing it both as the inevitable consequence of misgovernment and as materialistic score-settling. His novels betray a persistent hankering after a hierarchical society whose elites will be guided in righteousness by priests. While encouraging elementary and vocational education he thought it cruel to give the poor ambitions above their station; his denunciations of emigrants for seeking higher standards of living is at times astonishingly patronising. The equation made in The graves at Kilmorna between Fenian self-sacrifice before inevitable defeat and the Christian doctrine of redemption through sacrifice was subsequently seen as a prefiguration of the 1916 rising.
Sheehan's other works include several collections of essays, sermons, and meditations, a play, and some poetry; his royalties were devoted to private and diocesan charities. He was in the habit of starting several novels at once and working on them as inspiration struck him; one such fragment, Tristram Lloyd, was posthumously completed by his literary executor, Father M. H. Gaffney. In 1908 Pope Pius X awarded Sheehan an honorary doctorate of divinity in recognition of his work. In the following year Sheehan refused to accept possible nomination as bishop of Lismore in New South Wales.
As a parish priest Sheehan advised his parishioners on negotiations with their landlords, culminating in the implementation of land purchase under the Wyndham Act (1903), and on improved methods of agriculture. He founded the local St Vincent de Paul Society and oversaw the installation of electricity and piped water in the village. In these endeavours, and in support for the Gaelic League locally, Sheehan worked with Lord Castletown (qv), who lived in Doneraile with his wife, the heir of Viscount Doneraile. The Castletowns introduced Sheehan to the American Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. The two men corresponded on intellectual matters with mutual respect. (Sheehan remained blissfully unaware that the jurist was conducting an affair with Lady Castletown.) Like Castletown, Sheehan supported William O'Brien's All-for-Ireland League (AFIL); he wrote the first editorial of the Cork Free Press in 1910 and endorsed a (protestant) AFIL candidate in a local election, but was deterred from further involvement by his bishop's displeasure.
In his last years Sheehan was in delicate health; he was diagnosed as suffering from cancer in 1910 and after a lengthy residence in the South Infirmary, Cork, died 5 October 1913 at Doneraile and was buried at the entrance to his church. Shortly before his death he destroyed a manuscript memoir of his life and literary career, apparently believing that its account of harsh criticisms and maltreatment received from fellow priests might become a cause of scandal. During his lifetime Sheehan encountered criticism from Irish catholic critics, who thought him snobbish (his tendency to give his heroes high-flown names such as Delmege and Lethaby was particularly remarked), too inclined to display his learning, and too prone to acknowledge the existence of personal and institutional deficiencies in Irish catholicism. Several of the novels of Canon Joseph Guinan (qv) can be read as attempts to rewrite Sheehan's stories while glossing over these embarrassing admissions. Sheehan's later admirers have tended to read him through an interpretative grid which sees him as embodying an uncritical celebration of traditional values, while some critics (notably those associated with the Aubane Historical Society) have seen his discontents as representing a liberalism more secular than Sheehan is likely to have favoured. For a long time he was valued as giving a unique glimpse of the Irish catholic priesthood from within and, despite later upheavals and declining influence, he retains value as a window into the concerns of Edwardian Irish catholicism and for his record of a sensitive soul struggling with doubts and despondencies. There are Sheehan papers in the NLI, and Heuser's papers at St Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, contain material related to him.