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:

Dear Stannie, I sent you yesterday copies of the F[reeman’s J[ournal] containing fuller accounts of the Abbey riots. The debate must have been very funny […] I read Sheehan’s with pleasure and surprise. I would like, however, to hear the phrases which drove out the ladies with expressions of pain on their faces. (11 February: Letters, vol. II, p. 211.)

The debate was fully covered the next day in the Freeman’s Journal of 5 February, and Richard Ellmann provides notes to clarify things:

Daniel T. Sheehan (whom Joyce had known at University College) spoke, as a peasant now working for a medical degree in Dublin, to defend Synge's play. He said, in part: 'Mr. Synge had drawn attention to a particular form of marriage law […] The point of view was not the murder at all, but when the artist appears in Ireland who was not afraid of life and his nature, the women of Ireland would receive him. The newspaper reports that ‘At this stage in the speech many ladies, whose countenances plainly indicated intense feelings of astonishment and pain, rose and left the place. Many men also retired.’ (Footnote 4.)

We learn that Joyce had known Sheehan at University College, and also that Sheehan’s intervention at the Abbey Theatre had clearly impressed Joyce:

Sheehan seems to be a little different from the other young men with ideas in Ireland. I suspect he must have got a high place in his exams and so can afford to treat the church on equal terms.

11 February: Letters, vol. II, p. 212

The Irish Independent of 5 February also reported the debate. Its reporter had no idea who Sheehan might be:

A young man whose name was not announced then went on the stage, and said he came there to defend the play, and he did so, ‘firstly, because he was a peasant; secondly, because he knew the peasantry; and thirdly, because he was a medical student’ (great laughter). (p. 6)

The Independent backs up the Freeman’s statement that:

While this speaker occupied the stage a number of ladies stood up in the stalls and left the building.

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:

For well over half a century, up to the time of his retirement a few years’ ago, the late Dr. Sheehan as local medical officer served the medical needs of his people faithfully and well. Rich and poor were all alike to him, and perhaps one of the greatest tributes that could be paid to his memory is that never once at any time of the night or day did he fail to be at the call of anyone needing his medical assistance, during all his years as medical officer. (p. 30)

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:

[…] promptly joined the contingent which was being organised by Major Myles O’Reilly. In the sanguinary engagement of Spoleto he was in the thickest of the fight, and when he was picked up on the field of battle it was found that a bullet had passed through his neck and that his thigh had been terribly torn […] He was also present at the battles of Perugia, Ancona, and Macerata.

Manchester Guardian (1900) 1 November, p. 7

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:

February 12th.

My Dear Sheehan — I have the honour to introduce to you Captain Moriarty. He will be of great assistance to you, and I have told him all that is to be done until I get to your place. The private spies are very active this morning. Unless they smell a rat all will be done without any trouble. Success to you. Hoping to meet you, I am, as ever,


Freeman’s Journal (1867) 12 August

‘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:

Sheehan, the alleged Killarney Head Centre, has been detained on the Lord Lieutenant’s warrant. This closed the assizes.

Freeman’s Journal (1867) 12 August

It is said that he was:

kept in custody for some time, and eventually released, it is believed, on the understanding that he was to keep out of Ireland. He came back in 1873 or 1874.

William Henry Hurlbert Ireland under Coercion (ed. 2, 1888), vol. 2, p. 38

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:

The Glenbeigh evictions have furnished a graphic illustration of the Irish land question. A landlord in pecuniary difficulties; mortgagees, after much waiting, asserting their legal claims with determination; tenants, very poor, over-crowded, probably over-rented, and in any case hopelessly in arrears; agitators urging the peasants to refuse any compromise; and, finally, the wet and cold of winter adding gloom and wretchedness to the scene.

Guardian (1887) 26 January, p. 4

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:

The Plan of Campaign on the Kenmare Estate’ – Sheehan arrested at door of Innisfallen Hotel.

Freeman’s Journal (1888) 13 November

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:

The Innisfallen Hotel is perpetually under the surveillance of the police while any Member of Parliament is supposed to be staying there.

New Zealand Tablet (1889), 29 March, p. 9

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:

Lakes of Killarney. Innisfallen and Kenmare Place Hotels. Tariff, 7s 6d per day. Dinner, Tea, Bed, Breakfast, Attendance. Excursion to Gap of Dunlow, 6s each. ‘Bus attends all trains. Visitors conveyed free of charge from railway station. J D Sheehan, Proprietor.

Freeman’s Journal (1896) 2 September, p. 1

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:

The Irish Party Fund. To the Editor of the Freeman’s Journal.

Innisfallen Hotel, Killarney, October 6th, 1908.

Dear Sir – I beg to send cheque, Irish Parliamentary Fund, £1, and regret apathy of people here.

– Yours faithfully,

J. D. Sheehan.

Freeman’s Journal (1908) 7 October, p. 7

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:

Mr. Jeremiah D. Sheehan, who has died at his residence, Killarney, was M.P. for East Kerry from 1885 to 1895. He took an active interest in local affairs and was for many years a member of various local boards.

Irish Independent (1929) 17 August, p. 3

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".]

John Simpson


1 The census enumerator was incorrect in adding ‘step-son’ as Daniel’s relationship to Jeremiah Sheehan. The step-relation to Jeremiah Sheehan was James, a son of his wife’s first marriage, to James Egan.

Search by keyword (within this site): Fenianism Hotel Medicine University Theatre America Parliament Famine American Civil War