Rev. Nicholas Sheehy (1728–1766)

For Ireland, the legacy of the seventeenth-century wars was a volatile, fragmented society, as illustrated by this case.

Nicholas Sheehy was born in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, in 1728. He was educated in Spain, and ordained a priest in 1750. He became parish priest of small parishes in the Fethard/Clogheen area of South Tipperary (whence my own ancestors, on the male line, sprang, and which later saw this incident).

At the time, the poor Catholics of Ireland were very much oppressed by the ‘penal laws’ and a form of ‘government against the people’. An agrarian movement known as the Whiteboys was active in Counties Tipperary, Waterford, Limerick, Cork and Kilkenny – ‘part of an underground that had learned not only to separate the formal law from popular notions of legitimacy, but also how to impose an alternative discipline through intimidation’, as R.F. Foster puts it.

Many of Sheehy’s congregation were Whiteboys, and he sympathized with their agitation against tithes … a tax levied on everyone, to fund the Church of Ireland. A contemporary, Dr Curry, described him as ‘a giddy and officious, but not ill-meaning man, with a somewhat quixotic cast of mind towards relieving all those within his district whom he fancied to be injured or oppressed’. He became a bête noire to the local Protestant landlords, who had him arrested on a number of occasions.

Sheehy was indicted on a charge of inciting to riot and rebellion, and surrendered himself on condition that his trial would be in Dublin (there was no chance of a fair trial in Clonmel). He was duly tried and acquitted, but then rearrested and charged with the murder of a man named John Bridge – a Whiteboy who had turned king’s evidence and was never seen again (he may have left the country). Under flogging, Bridge had previously implicated Sheehy and others in a Whiteboy conspiracy.

This time Sheehy was tried in Clonmel. The chief manager of the trial was an Anglican clergyman, who was subsequently proved to have wrongly discredited Sheehy’s witnesses. The witnesses for the prosecution were those that had not been believed in the Dublin trial. Also, Sheehy had an alibi.

None the less, he and a man named Ned Meehan were convicted of murder by the all-Protestant jury, and were hanged, drawn and quartered (a barbaric practice that involved removing the intestines while the victim was still alive) at Clonmel on 15 March 1766, in what the Oxford Companion to Irish History describes as a judicial assassination. Their heads were mounted on spikes in the town, and remained there for some years.

As a footnote, in a multi-volume history book that I copy-edited some years ago, the author described Sheehy as having a ‘Robin Hood complex’. I wrote to her:

the information on Sheehy given here doesn’t justify ascribing a ‘Robin Hood complex’ to him. The quote has said that he quixotically wished to help the poor, but Robin Hood also robbed the rich, and there’s apparently no evidence that Sheehy did the same. The term ‘complex’ suggests a psychological imbalance, and seems an immoderate way to characterise a priest’s wish to assist his flock. All in all, I think there’s a danger that the phrase could be interpreted as a sneer or a gratuitous insult. Also, it would be better to mention that a second man, Edmund Meehan, was tried and executed with Sheehy.

The author’s one-word response was ‘stet’.

I advised the editorial board that I think it’s very likely that some readers will see the phrase ‘Sheehy’s Robin Hood complex’ as evidence of political/religious bias on the author’s part, but she got her way. Well, at least I tried.



Filed under History, Ireland

67 responses to “Rev. Nicholas Sheehy (1728–1766)

  1. 🙂

    18th century is weird. Not that I know too much about it. But the few I know is weird.

    Meanwhile in this part of the world:

  2. Thanks, Levent … that is interesting. Tulip mania must have been widespread in the 18th century … certainly it reached Ireland.

    It is said that, during a tulip mania when the bulbs of black tulips were fetching hundreds of pounds, a countryman came into Macarell’s bank (in Dublin), mistook one of the bulbs on the counter (probably placed there to inspire confidence) for a potato, and ate it.

  3. Ike Jakson

    I find the event as recorded almost too horrible to stomach but the fact that it is recorded is interesting.

    It reminds us of how young civilization really is; and I still want to find out how many people actually lived in the entire
    World, say, in the year 1500. I suppose [it is dangerous to suppose things but I have to in this instance] that whether you believe in evolution or not one can safely assume that human sapiens were all “anatomically modern man” by then.

    Children at school in South Africa today know nothing about history except the past fifty years. It’s like it never existed. Really, I am dead serious, they go blank in the eyes when you tell them that there was no Internet 30 years ago; tell them there were no jet planes one hundred years ago and they think you belong …. . No, that assumes that they can actually think which they, of course, can’t because they know nothing about thinking either.

  4. Thanks for that, Ike. The population of the world in 1500 is estimated at 450 million.

    • Ike Jakson

      Thanks for the link, Brendan. It has given me a good starting point.

      I realized from the beginning that at some stage we would be talking about estimates. And I note your link refers to year 1000 and then simply year 1 but they don’t say whether it is the original year I, or year I AD [AD or BC does not matter] for the purpose that I need it for. What I want to go into afterwards is year 1, say AD, and then the original year 1 in the Jewish calendar or whatever sources are available. Again it doesn’t make much difference for my purpose because I only want estimates. If you should come across any links to this information please pass it on.

      The question that I really want to ask on your topic is whether the current crop of schoolchildren shares a standard History Course for the whole of the UK or would, Ireland for instance, choose its own textbooks?

      You have obviously read widely and I gather that it is a passion more than a profession, which if so, I share with you. But when we were at school we still covered much of Europe [of course not all the finer detail] and a lot of the Colonial Powers including America. Today’s children have to do with 1960 to the present moment. They call it history but it is of course, not that at all.

      However, even in our time things like the Priest in your topic were preserved by individuals and smaller groups with specific interest in it. It has long disappeared from school curriculums.

  5. Cymbeline

    I don’t think that people see Robin Hood as robbing the rich. Even a Surrey stockbroker would not see that side of the story. The overriding idea is that of helping the poor, and even Surrey stockbrokers like Robin Hood.

  6. Cymbeline

    As for complexes, I thought we all had those. The psychiatrist gentleman from Derby on MyT said as much.

  7. Cymbeline

    What does ‘stet’ mean, please?

  8. Ike Jakson


    Thanks for all the info; much I have learned. I have hope for the young Irish.

    That’s why I OFTEN SAY YOU MUST Blog on more of these things. Tell us about Ireland [and North Ireland] what makes it unique as … compared with the rest of the UK.

    Now I need those population figures for year 1 and before BC.

    And you must not forget ‘The Sea for Breakfast’ by Lillian Beckwith. You won’t ever regret getting it.

  9. Cymbeline

    Actually, one must always go beyond mockery. Thank you for helping me to think, Ike.

    I remember Amicus saying that the Irish were really part of us da British, and that they should come back into the fold. He said it in his usual tongue-in-cheek way, but Amicus uses his tongue and cheek to say what he really means. So do I. There is no such thing as irony.

    I certainly see the Irish as being part of my cultural references, and I also see the Irish as ‘my’ people in a wider sense, especially if I am a long way away from Ireland. No, that is not true. Even when close to Ireland, I feel that the Irish are part of being British.

    The Irish no doubt disagree.

  10. Interesting, Cymbeline. As it happens, I had just been reading something by Patrick McGill, an Irishman in the First World War trenches.

    Yes, Amicus used to say that. I would say that Irish and British are two different things, pertaining to the two different islands (notwithstanding the NI Unionist anomaly). They can relate in various ways, close or distant, but our culture is Irish first and European second … not British.

    My son was just listening to this on the other computer, between Bobs Dylan and Marley. I know you dislike Irish music, but this is Ireland in concentrated aural form.

  11. Cymbeline

    Interesting. Thank you.

    I expect that you now understand why many British people do not feel that mosques, halal meat, niqabs, burkas, Islamic censorship, sharia law etc are part of their culture.

  12. Cymbeline, you’re starting to seem a bit obsessed … every conversation ends with the same thing.

  13. Cymbeline

    Who says that the conversation has ended?

  14. I hope it hasn’t, of course.

  15. Cymbeline

    Newsjunkie is an excellent British voice (yes, I know who he is). So is Badger. Try to listen without being waylaid by all the peripheral stuff.

    Where is Badger anyway? I hope that he is not dead.

  16. I hope so too. It did occur to me. I Googled his name in case there was a death notice, but didn’t see one. It’s a common name … Irish, of course.

  17. Cymbeline

    And there you were telling me that British and Irish were separate.

    I hope to hear from Badger soon. I have learnt to love him.

  18. Separate but closely intertwined.

  19. Cymbeline

    Steady on. I do not like sentimentality.

  20. Cymbeline

    Anyway, I forgot to ask you what you had with your roast pork.

    What did you ‘ave to yer meat, our Brendan?

  21. Cymbeline

    (my Staffordshire side)

  22. Cymbeline loves Islam! :)))))))))

    • Ike Jakson


      Did you see what I wrote to Rainer recently? I said to him: “You are a very naughty man, Rainer, yeah, a very very naughty man. Smile.”

      Now then; do you really want me to say that to you too?

  23. Ike Jakson


    Progress is being made by an Afrikaner Boertjie. Looky hea whatta found:

    World Population Clock – Worldometers
    At the dawn of agriculture, about 8000 B.C., the population of the world was approximately 5 million. Over the 8000-year period up to 1 A.D. it grew to 200 … – Cached – Similar

    We were only five million human Sapiens not so long ago.

    And I am making even greater progress on Ireland, but will need some help from you.

Leave a Reply to Cymbeline Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s