Priestly Fictions:popular Irish novelists of the early twentieth century Catherine Candy (Wolfhound, £12.99)

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (Autumn 1996), Reviews, Volume 4

Coleridge and Matthew Arnold defended the Church of England on the grounds that its clergy spread civilisation among their flocks. Canon P.A. Sheehan of Doneraile (1852-1913) hoped the Catholic clergy might perform the same role in Ireland. Since the early 1970s critics and social historians have used his novels and those of his less well-known contemporary Canon Joseph Guinan as sources for clerical attitudes. Now Catherine Candy has produced a comparative study of Sheehan, Guinan, and Gerald O’Donovan (a priest of Clonfert diocese who left the Catholic Church because of Modernist sympathies and became a novelist).

Candy has done extensive research, used sources unavailable in Ireland, consulted publishers’ records and interviewed  relatives of Guinan and O’Donovan: the result is a fascinating glimpse of the clerical milieu of the period and readers’ responses to the books over time. (She misses, however, the extraordinary recent enlistment of Sheehan as a ‘Catholic liberal’ by the Campaign to Separate Church and State. This does have some basis in Sheehan’s tormented self-questionings about the cultural deficiencies of Irish Catholicism, but any reader of Candy will find it almost as superficial as the image of an uncomplicated ‘soggarth aroon’.)
Unfortunately her analysis of the novels themselves is not on the same level. The inclusion of O’Donovan is logical from a social historian’s point of view, since he had experienced priestly life from within, and writes about unpleasant aspects which Sheehan obscures and Guinan ignores altogether; but since O’Donovan did not belong to the same literary subculture, and was not therefore a ‘Catholic novelist’ in the same sense, his reader reception is not comparable.

Many points are mentioned but insufficiently developed. Guinan is not given sufficient credit as a social observer (he gives a much clearer sense of rural poverty than Sheehan); nor does Candy distinguish sufficiently between their attitudes to Protestantism. Sheehan, though somewhat condescending, sometimes portrays Protestants who deserve respect. Guinan had been a curate in Liverpool (with its strong Orange-Green divide) then spent the rest of his ministry in Longford, where Orangeism survived into the 1920s (several Orangemen appear in his novels). He was savagely hostile to Protestantism. In his novel Annaghmore a Catholic who marries a Protestant ascribes her children’s deaths to the wrath of God; Guinan insinuates that she is correct.

Candy would have done well to develop O’Donovan’s suggestion (which she quotes) that an international church with a centralised hierarchy was bound to have difficulties with democratic politics and relate it to the ambivalence of Sheehan and (to a lesser extent) Guinan about the Land War. Candy notes Sheehan’s occasional nostalgia for a deferential society based on ‘benevolent feudalism’ and Guinan’s defence of ‘Whig’ priests who kept on good terms with landlords, but does not realise that Sheehan criticised the Fenians as well as the Irish Parliamentary Party (his early novel My New Curate was denounced by separatists for anti-Fenian bias) nor does she notice that Guinan criticises the Land League as well as the United Irish League. (He dislikes the UIL because it attacked Catholic large farmers as well as landlords: in The Island Parish an agitation by the descendant of an dispossessed smallholder against a big farmer is presented as an outrageous swindle supported by mindless vandalism.)
It is also simplistic to treat O’Donovan as the voice of modernity. Both Sheehan and Guinan portray priests as ‘civilising agents’ in a manner familiar to readers of Tom Inglis’ Moral Monopoly. Mary Daly has pointed out that the idea of selective modernisation in order to create a self-sustaining rural civilisation was put forward by Plunkettites as well as by Catholic Actionists in the period under consideration; O’Donovan moved from Catholic revivalism to Plunkettite pantheism (under the influence of Modernism and indignation at Church support for vested interests), rather than to ‘modernity’ in the abstract.

Pioneers should not be blamed if they fail to produce a comprehensive intellectual framework. Candy adds to our knowledge of popular fiction and the roots of Irish Catholic Action, and lays the basis for an interesting comparison with Gillian Macintosh’s work on popular Ulster fiction (especially that written by Presbyterian ministers).

Patrick Maume


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568