Fr. Eugene Sheehy was a fearless advocate for the National Land League and a vociferous campaigner for the rights of the small tenant farmer who was jailed on various occasions, writes PATRICK P. ROWAN
“I shall never forget the scene as he proceeded up the street. The people fell upon their knees as he passed and seized his hands and the skirts of his clothes, while begging his blessing before he left them.”
In his book ‘Ireland Under The Land League,’ the author Clifford Lloyd thus describes Fr Eugene Sheehy’s arrest and being brought to gaol. Clifford had an intense dislike for the priest but was obviously very impressed with how his parishioners held the priest in such high esteem although when he was the local magistrate he was responsible for having the priest gaoled.
This was the priest who came to be known as ‘The Land League Priest’ and who would be one of the priests in the GPO during the Easter Rising.
Eugene Sheehy was born on Christmas Day in 1841. His parents were Richard Sheehy and Johanna Shea who lived in Broadford, County Limerick. He had one sister, Mary, and one brother, David, who would later become a Member of Parliament.
Eugene was educated at Mungret College. He felt he had a vocation to the priesthood, but would not go to the national seminary in Maynooth as it would entail swearing an oath to the Queen. Instead he went to the Irish College in Paris and was ordained there in 1868. His brother, David, accompanied him to the Irish College but later decided he hadn’t a vocation and returned to Ireland.
When Eugene was growing up during the Famine years he became acutely aware of the hardships and disappointments of small farmers trying to eke out a living as tenants of grasping landlords. Evictions were common at the time and often the evicted had to seek a better life by emigrating to America in one of the ‘coffin ships’.
All this made such an impression on the young man that for the rest of his life he was to fight for better conditions for these farmers. Even terms in gaol did not deter him. He returned to Ireland immediately after ordination and was appointed a curate in the parish of Kilmallock in County Limerick where he would spend the next 16 years.