Daniel T. Sheehan: a university friend
The Dublin medical student Daniel T. Sheehan is referred to twice in Joyce’s Letters (and once in the Dublin Diary of his brother Stanislaus) and yet very little is known about him.
In the Letters we hear how Sheehan speaks in a debate put on by the Abbey Theatre on 4 February 1907 to discuss Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. The play had caused a furore at the theatre when it was first performed earlier in the week. But how was a relatively unknown medical student able to take centre stage at the Abbey in a debate led by W. B. Yeats?
Then later (1909) Joyce mentions to his brother Stannie that he has met Sheehan in Dublin. Sheehan remarked that Joyce looked ‘very thin’ (4 August: Letters, vol. II, p. 230-1)
In the final reference we learn that Sheehan has provided Joyce with a new word (‘aquacity’). But just how new was this proposed neologism?
And who was ‘Daniel T. Sheehan’? How was it that a relatively unknown medical student had the opportunity to speak from the stage during the Abbey Theatre debate on Playboy?
Daniel Sheehan at the theatre
In 1907 James Joyce wrote to his brother Stanislaus from Rome on the subject of the disturbances following the staging of Synge’s play:
The debate was fully covered the next day in the Freeman’s Journal of 5 February, and Richard Ellmann provides notes to clarify things:
We learn that Joyce had known Sheehan at University College, and also that Sheehan’s intervention at the Abbey Theatre had clearly impressed Joyce:
The Irish Independent of 5 February also reported the debate. Its reporter had no idea who Sheehan might be:
The Independent backs up the Freeman’s statement that:
Some biographical details
‘Daniel T. Sheehan’ was Daniel Thomas Sheehan, born in Killarney in late 1883. In the 1901 Ireland census he lived with his father Jeremiah Daniel Sheehan, his mother Mary Sheehan (née Sullivan), his brother Michael, and half-brother James at the family hotel, the Innisfallen, on Main Street, Killarney.1 More about his radical and rather distinguished father later.
Daniel attended the School of Medicine at the Catholic University in Dublin in the early years of the twentieth century. At that time, the University was unable to award degrees in its own right, and submitted candidates for degrees from the Royal University of Ireland. The Medical School later became the UCD Medical School. He progressed well through college, gaining a ‘Pass’ in his ‘Second Examination in Medicine’ (1904), an ‘Upper Pass’ in his ‘Third Examination’ (1905), before finally gaining his degree (Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery, and Bachelor of Obstetric Art) in 1907 – with First Class Honours in Midwifery. Joyce was right that Sheehan had ‘got a high place in his exams’, but that might not all the same have been enough for him to feel he could ‘treat the church on equal terms’.
At the end of 1908 Daniel was aboard the S.S. Oceania sailing out of Queenstown (Cobh, County Cork) and arriving in New York on 11 November. The passenger records tells us that he stood 5ft 11 inches tall, with dark hair and brown eyes. He was headed for graduate school on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
By 1912 he was back in Ireland looking for a job, and he was fortunate enough to secure one in his old stamping ground of Killarney, as Medical Officer in the Milltown dispensary district, at a salary of £125 per annum. In January 1914 he was over in Cork again to get married, to Irene, second youngest daughter of James Hanafin (M.D.), of Milltown.
Over the following years Daniel’s family grew and he took on additional medical responsibilities as district coroner. He died on 23 January 1972, succeeded as Kerry coroner by his son Dr Eamonn Sheehan. In its tribute to Daniel Sheehan the Kerryman of 29 January, 1972, wrote:
A ‘peasant’ on stage at the Abbey Theatre in 1907
None of this expalins how Daniel Sheehan had the self-confidence to offer a difficult audience at the Abbey Theatre in 1907 the benefit of his views on Synge’s play and the Irish peasantry. He was just starting out on his career, and did not then have over fifty years of medical service to the community under his belt to back up his assertion that he could speak for the ordinary Irish person.
We have to look at his family background and upbringing to find possible answers to these questions. He was born and bred, and had spent most of his life as a young man in Kerry. He seems to have spoken Irish well (in the 1901 census he and his father state their languages to be ‘Irish & English’, whilst his mother reversed the order – ‘English & Irish’ – being presumably less confident about Irish).
So he was certainly brought up amongst the country people of Kerry in the west of Ireland. But that was the same for many people who did not stand up at the Abbey Theatre to offer their views on the typical country person’s morality.
For a more credible reason for Daniel’s sense of association with the country people of Ireland we can look at his father’s life.
If we believe the 1901 census, Jeremiah Daniel Sheehan was born around 1844, in County Kerry. In 1860 he is said to have been one of the thousand or so Irishmen who answered Pope Pius IXth call for an Irish Papal Brigade to defend the Vatican City against the reunificationist forces of Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel. We are told that Jeremiah:
Irishmen, and especially Irish Catholics, joined the ill-fated Papal Brigade through religious conviction. But many developed a liking for military life and, when the brigade was dispersed in 1861, they went over to America to fight in the Civil War. And then some of those, when the Civil War came to an end in 1865, became involved in America, England, and Ireland, with the emergent Fenian movement.
It’s not yet clear where Jeremiah Sheehan went on his return from Italy. At some point he was in Liverpool on Fenian business. In September 1865 he is reported to have starting working for a David O’Leary, a draper in Killarney. But things had been happening in the background.
Mortimer Moriarty, brought up in the village of Cahirciveen, near Killarney, had – like many other Irish people - moved with his family to Canada during the famines. He became a leading Fenian in Canada and, in late 1866, sailed from New York for Ireland to help the nationalist cause. After various adventures he was sent by the leader of the Fenians in Kerry, Colonel J. J. O’Connor, to Killarney to meet up with the Fenian ‘Centre’ for Killarney, one J. D. Sheehan. These were the days of the Kerry Rising; the police were twitchy – constantly on the look-out for Fenians. Moriarty was arrested just short of Killarney, carrying a letter of introduction from O’Connor to Sheehan:
‘J. D. Sheehan’ was Jeremiah Daniel Sheehan, later proprietor of the Innisfallen Hotel in Killarney and father of Daniel. On 14 February 1867 Moriarty, Sheehan, and another Fenian, Thomas Garde, were arrested and held in custody in Tralee gaol. At the trial that August Captain Moriarty was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment, and the others were either imprisoned or discharged:
It is said that he was:
In February 1879 Jeremiah was married in Killarney, to Mary (O’)Sullivan, of a long-established Kerry family and the recent widow of hotel proprietor James Egan – who had died in 1875. Mary was now the owner of the Innisfallen Hotel in Killarney, and she and Jeremiah ran the place – alongside Jeremiah’s other work – till the end of the century and beyond.
Jeremiah’s credentials as a strong supporter of the country people of western Ireland did not stop with the end of the Fenian uprisings of 1867. He retained his sympathies with the tenants of Kerry, in implacable opposition to the landlordism to which they were subject.
Soon after his son Daniel’s birth, Jeremiah Daniel Sheehan was elected by a landslide majority to represent the Nationalists in the Westminster Parliament as MP for East Kerry. His victory went down in the history books, as he obtained 3,169 votes and his Tory opponent registered just 30. Daniel will have been brought up on this story, and it would doubtless have giving him the feeling that the country people of Kerry were at one with his family.
Jeremiah Sheehan did not sink into a life of luxury in Westminster. He made several speeches during his time as an MP (in support of the tenants against the landlords, etc.), but he was also very much a man of action. He was, of course, on the side of the tenants during the Glenbeigh Evictions in Kerry, signing a joint letter to the Government about the situation:
He was involved in the Plan of Campaign of 1886-7, whereby tenants paid what was considered a fair rent to a political leader, who held it until the landlord decided to accept it (minus any costs attributable to the struggle). This got him in to trouble, of course:
He spent a month in gaol in November 1888 for ‘abusing the police’ with threatening language (though by all accounts his language was fairly mild by today’s standards). The Innisfallen Hotel in Killarney gained a reputation as a refuge for Nationalist MPs:
Jeremiah Sheehan retained his seat in three elections until 1895, when he stood down. He was succeeded as MP for East Kerry by an even-better-known radical politician, Michael Davitt.
Once he had stood down from the Westminster Parliament Jeremiah Daniel Sheehan seems to have returned to work at the hotel, helping to service the tourist industry of the Lakes of Killarney:
Later on he also became proprietor of the International Hotel, near the railway station in Kenmare Place in Killarney. His wife Mary died in 1906, but Jeremiah retained an interest in politics. A year after his son Daniel spoke at the Abbey Theatre, Jeremiah – the old Anti-Parnellite - was writing laconically to the Freeman’s Journal:
In 1907 Daniel’s father was known for his active nationalism and his single-minded support for the tenantry and peasantry of Kerry. He had a history of which his son no doubt felt very proud, proud enough to stand up on the Abbey stage making his own maiden speech in support of the country people and Synge’s play.
Outside Kerry the story of Jeremiah Daniel Sheehan faded as the years passed. When he died on 16 August 1929 the Irish Independent provided a brief obituary which fails to touch on any of Jeremiah’s brave struggles for the people of Ireland:
He was almost as unknown to the newspaper in 1929 as his son had been all those years ago in Dublin.
[For information on the word that Joyce borrowed from Sheehan see: "Aquacity: awash with watery thoughts".]
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