CELT document E890000-005

Irish Youth and High Ideals

Patrick Augustine Sheehan


Irish Youth And High Ideals

[Very few of the essays that have appeared in this Magazine seem to have been read with keener interest than Father Sheehan's Two Civilizations, at page 293 of our last volume. A lecture delivered at the outset of his career has fallen into our hands, which appears to us to deserve a wider audience than his native town of Mallow can have afforded ten years ago. We omit a few short passages at the beginning, in the middle, and towards the end. Ed. I. M.

1. I

As an artist requires a model for his picture or statue, and as a musician is helpless without a key-note, so a preacher, when he assumes for the time the rôle of lecturer, finds it difficult to be close or consecutive in his reasoning, unless he can lean on that familiar aid and adjunct of all his discourses — a text. In casting around for a text for this address, I thought I could not do better than consult the pages of one who has written more strangely wise and more strangely foolish things than any man of this generation — one who has been alternately hailed as a prophet, and denounced as a pedant and a cheat, but one who has exercised, and continues to exercise, a more powerful influence on the young minds of this generation than any other writer and thinker — I mean Thomas Carlyle, the Philosopher of Chelsea.

In one of his most popular essays, in which he insists on the nobleness and sacredness of work, he lays it down that the primary condition of all success is a knowledge of the work each one of us has to do in this world. “Know thy work and do it,” he says, is the latest message that has come to us from the “Voices and Sages,” the men that have thought and spoken and written for the well-being of mankind. And again: “To make one spot of God's world a little brighter, better, and happier, here is work for a god.” And I have chosen these two extracts because I believe that the first contains the healthiest and safest motto for each individual member of this Society; and because the second is a perfect embodiment of the ideas that suggested the formation of this Society, and of the principles that will actuate its founders and helpers in a  p.40 steady and uniform perseverance in the great work they have undertaken.

That nothing in Nature is stagnant — that everything is capable of and demands development — and that education is second only to Nature in its effects — these are truths that require no proof, for they are almost axiomatic. They govern the world of matter, and still more, the world of mind. Nature never rests; and its glories and splendours, that make pale with wonder the observer of refinement and sensibility, are not the work of a moment, but the result of slow growth and development, carried out in obedience to secret but imperative laws. Those great, shining worlds, that rest in the Dome of Immensity, apparently so silent and still, have been moulded out of nebulous and other matter, have been subjected to the action of fire, have been and still are the theatres of the mightiest upheavals and revolutions. Stars have grown into space, have revolved in their orbits, and have been broken into fragments, and these in turn have resolved themselves into gases, and these in turn have formed in the hands of the Almighty Creator the material from which new and more beautiful worlds have arisen. If the law of development and perpetual change and progress did not exist, this mighty universe, instead of being, as it is, a stately, majestic, harmonious work, beautiful in its obedience to the unseen powers, would be a vast chaotic mass of matter in collision with matter, and worlds hurled upon worlds; and this earth of ours would become in time a mere slag — a cinder drifting dangerously through space, instead of fulfilling the vision of the poet, who sees —

  1. Its growing mass,
    Pelted with star-dust, stoned with meteor-balls,
    Heat like a hammered anvil, till at last
    Man and his works and all that stirred itself
    Of its own motion, in the fiery glow
    Turns to a flaming vapour, and our orb
    Shines a new sun for worlds that shall be born. 1
And so with our own earth. It seems so peaceful with its pleasant green fields and shining seas, that it is difficult to believe that day after day earth and water are changing places, the mountains are descending to the plains, and the seas are rising above their level, and a few centuries will behold the ships of merchants sailing over what are now busy and populous cities, and golden corn waving where now in impenetrable darkness the deep-sea monsters are  p.41 hiding in the mammoth forests of the ocean. Nature never rests. Nature demands disturbance. It will grow a foul jungle of weeds if let alone. It is only when its breast is torn open by the pick-axe of the miner or the plough of the husbandman that it yields rich ores, or the richer grain that is needed for the sustenance of men. In a word, Nature is one vast laboratory, ever dissolving and destroying, but ever, too, combining and creating. If this be true of the material world, if masses inert of themselves are moulded into form and invested with secret, mechanical power, if even a dull brown clod, when Nature's treatment is afforded it, becomes a centre of fertility, teeming with life and strength and sweetness, shall we not say that the same great laws hold for us in the development of the mighty faculties with which we are endowed? Shall it be said that man's mind alone is barren and fruitless, or fertile only in things that are evil? Have you never seriously considered the power, the strength, the swiftness, the far-reaching dominion, the comprehensive sympathies, the only less than infinite attributes, that belong to the mind of man? It is the one thing that is really terrible in created nature, because whilst striving to master all nature's secrets its own workings remain the most impenetrable secret of all. That mass of grey pulp that is hidden under our foreheads is the mightiest of natural agencies — it has forces more than electric in invincible strength and unimaginable swiftness. Look at the tenacity of man's memory. Not an idea, not an impression or experience is ever obliterated from it. Faces are photographed on the mind, and they never die. Impressions are stamped upon it, and it never loses them. They may seem to be crushed out in a medley of succeeding thoughts; but no! the perfume of a flower, the echo of a song of our early days, even the very lights and shades of a landscape, will bring back to our minds thoughts and sensations long buried and forgotten. For the mind folds its pictures as you would fold a map or a panorama; touch the secret spring or unloose the secret cord, and memory unfolds them undimmed and unfaded by time. And that other great God-given faculty, the intellect, is yet more wonderful. With the quickness of lightning it grasps an idea or a fact, and holds it, and turns it over, and studies even unconsciously and runs through a train of reasoning, and compares one fact with another, and deduces from that comparison some great truth that  p.42 was hidden away in the bosom of Nature. It is thus we have become acquainted with what are called the “Wonders of Nature,” it is thus that the great Heavens, glittering with galaxies of stars, have become an open scroll to the many; it is thus that granite rocks, and beds of gravel, and boulders of flint, are so many books in which the geologist can read the ages of their formations, and trace the effects of deluges and earthquakes; and it is thus that the student of chemical science can resolve all things, except his own mind, into their original elements, and create new substances at his own will.

Like the watchers of old upon the mountains of Chaldaea, in some remote and lonely observatory our student of astronomy sits. He is far away from the earth, and he works when sleep is on the eyes of men and all things are silent. And what is his work? He is pursuing a truly sublime vocation. He is watching the stars that look down upon him kindly, he is studying their construction and trying to bring into system their apparently erratic motions. He knows every mountain and fissure and ravine in the moon as intimately as the farmer knows the ridges and furrows of his fields. He sees the seasons come and go upon the planets, as you and I see them come and go here. He sees where the sun shines and where the snows fall and gather on these far off-worlds. And all the burning questions that agitate the minds of the millions below him, and all the passions that fret the heart of man are as nothing to him, —

  1. He is as old as Egypt to himself,
    Brother to them that squared the pyramids;
    By the same stars he watches, and reads that page
    Where every letter is a glittering world.
A lonely, desolate, solitary life! but does it not fill us with legitimate pride to think that it is a mind like our own that has spanned the wide abysses of space and wrested their latest secret from the stars? Isaac Newton saw an apple fall in his garden, and in that simple fact his great intellect discerned the great law, up to that time unknown, that holds the great worlds of this Universe together. A young boy sat and saw the steam hissing and gurgling and raising the lid of a kettle. It was a small thing, but what was the message that small thing conveyed to the great mind that beheld it? Look around the world, and see every country under heaven covered with a network of railways, every railway  p.43 laden with locomotives dragging men and merchandise after them quicker than the wind by the same power that stirred the lid of the kettle; and see the Ocean, hitherto man's greatest enemy, now completely conquered, and covered with convoys and fleets that sweep with the most perfect security over its bosom. What has thus revolutionized Nature? What has conquered space so far, and made man perfectly independent of those forces of which he had been so much afraid? A simple circumstance — but it was grasped by a mighty mind!

This moment outside New York, in a laboratory that would suggest to a poetic mind those things Dante saw in his Vision of Hell, amid roaring furnaces, and horrid electric batteries, and miles of wiring that stretch round and round his apartments, and chain cables that would hold the Great Eastern, and mountains of jars full of chemicals, in darkness and solitude and smoke, there is a student who of late years has startled the world by new applications of scientific truth. Nature has revealed some of her most wonderful secrets to him. The world, it is true, was aware of the existence of that unseen but awful agent, subtle as a spirit, that is diffused through all things, called electricity. But Edison is the first that has made electricity the study of his life, and that has seen how widely utilised it may be, and how universally applied. And therefore he is threatening to set aside all the accessories of our boasted civilisation. The newspaper reporter will very soon take his place with the transcriber of the Middle Ages, for the phonograph takes down human speech accurately word for word, and gives it back again. And he even threatens to supersede the newspaper itself. Gentlemen of the London Clubs last year sat at their firesides and distinctly heard the debates in the House of Commons; and a concert given in the Crystal Palace, London, was heard and appreciated hundreds of miles away in Birmingham.

Here again is a proof of the magic of the human mind. But we must remember that all these miracles of science are the result of the development of the intellectual faculties — that development being the result of hard labour and much research. “Know thy work and do it,” says Carlyle. And men like Newton and Edison understand the truth of that maxim. Newton, as his biographer tells us, on one occasion forgot that he had eaten his dinner; and Mr. Edison was married last year, and forgot all about it three hours afterwards, so absorbed was he in his studies.


The thoughtful philosopher of old dreamed of these victories over nature: we have seen them. What was a thousand years ago a fancy and a chimera, came by degrees into the regions of probability, and thence into the regions of fact. Napoleon and Hannibal boasted that they had crossed the Alps; we Nineteenth-century people, have cut right through them. We have labelled and ticketed nearly every star in the firmament. We have constructed new telescopes, and by their aid discovered new stars, in reality new suns, the centres of other systems immeasurably greater than our own. Our ocean steamers cross and recross the Atlantic at fabulous speed. The world is girded with coils of wire, along which the electric spark is for ever flashing, communicating intelligence instantaneously to dwellers under far distant skies. We have opened canals, and let seas mingle with seas, and oceans pour their waters into oceans. Nay, even so rapid is the march of science, so marvellous the activity of man's mind in our age, that when thirty years ago the Poet Laureate

  1. Dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
    Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonders that would be.
    Saw the heavens filled with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
    Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales,
    Heard the heavens filed with shouting, and there rained a ghastly dew
    Of the nations' airy navies, battling in the central blue, 2
he was scoffed at as a visionary. But that vision was fulfilled in the Franco-Prussian war, when balloons were sent up from the German army on one side, and from the battlements of Paris on the other, and both armies watched with interest the conflict of their navies in the air.

Looking through all these victories over Nature gained by the indomitable energy of those silent but best benefactors of their race — the students of the garret and the closet — he who runs may read the lesson I am teaching you to-night; the power of man's mind when carefully educated and inured to constant labour and study, and can understand the enthusiasm of the poet who speaks of

  1. Men, my brothers, men the workers, ever reaping something new,
    That which they have done but earnest of the things they mean to do.3


2. II

I have now shown you that Nature needs development, and that man's mind, when educated, is master of Nature. You will bear with me for a moment, while I explain to you the still more extraordinary power that man has over his fellowman — when either the Divine gift of genius is given him, or the want of that gift is supplied by judicious and uniform studies. And lest it should be tedious if I confined myself altogether to abstract truths, I shall show you what I mean by three examples — of a preacher, an artist, and a poet, and take these examples from one city and one particular period of time. Towards the end of the fifteenth century, a strange sight was witnessed in Florence, the intellectual capital of Italy. In the grey dawn of the morning for weeks in the spring time, around a pulpit in one of the largest churches in that city, was to be seen clothed in the garb of penitence and mourning a vast crowd of people, the majority of whom belonged to the better and higher classes. They had ashes on their heads, and their feet were bare, and they held in their hands unbleached candles, such as are used in Masses for the dead, and they prayed, not in the conventional fashion, but with moans and sighs and tears that would touch any heart. They were listening to the words of a Dominican Friar, one who for the moment too had put aside the conventional sermon, and thundered forth words of mighty truth with all the passion of an ancient prophet. You will say — not so wonderful after all! But when I tell you that before that monk appeared these people were the most sceptical, luxurious, licentious people in Europe, that they spent their days and nights in revelry, that their books of devotion were the Pagan classics, that their houses were covered with statues of gods and goddesses that they almost worshipped, that they spared no money to procure relics of Pagan times, and that they considered themselves the most advanced, refined, aesthetic people in Europe, you will agree with me in thinking that if ever the empire of a great mind over lesser minds was exhibited, it was here. But Savonarola went farther. He made that proud and sensitive people strip their halls and corridors of their fairest ornaments. He made the Florentine savans bring their books and statues and pictures to the public square of the city. He made the Florentine ladies bring their lutes and guitars, and all the accessories of the Oriental magnificence  p.46 in which they lived. He piled all these treasures in the centre of the square, covered the pyre with gunpowder, burned it without remorse, and in its smoke beheld the ghost of a false art-worship — in reality Pagan worship — depart.

A few years after Savonarola had crushed the Paganism of Florence, a poor artizan entered that city. A huge block of marble, belonging to the City Fathers, but rejected by them as worthless, was lying outside the walls. After much trouble this wandering artist obtained possession of it and built a shed over it. Why? Because he believed that an image, an idea of his own mind, was embedded in that rock, and he was determined to find it. He went to work, and so fierce was his energy, that he with chisel and hammer cut away as much material as three labourers in a day. At night he put a candle in his cap, and worked into the small hours of the morning. At last he found his idea, and left it without a word to the City Fathers. They took it and called it the wonder of their own age, and to this day, standing on the gates of their city, it is the pride and glory of the Florentines. It is the famous statue of the youthful David, in the act of smiting the Philistine giant, and that poor artist was Michael Angelo! He went straight from Florence to Rome, built himself a scaffold in the Sistine Chapel, and from the top of that scaffold, stretched at full length day by day for three years, he painted those wonderful frescoes that are still the first attraction in the Eternal City.

Michael Angelo was a genius — one of these rare minds for whom nature strikes a special mould; but he understood the philosophy of education and of work. Even at the age of ninety, the age of second childhood to most men, he was found brush in hand before a picture of the “Dead Christ,” and whilst thus engaged he turned his face to the wall and died.

About two centuries before Michael Angelo appeared, a fierce political fight took place in Florence. It arose out of one of those hereditary feuds that were so common among ancient states, but which are unheard of in these days of broader ideas and higher civilisation. But one, then unknown to his people, was driven by the dominant faction from the city, and like all proud minds he found refuge in solitude, and forgot “the schoolboy rage” and vindictiveness of his countrymen in the vision that his great mind conjured up, and which he has framed in verse to charm and fascinate, and terrify the world. His biographer tells us that he  p.47 grew “lean from mighty labour,” and there cannot be a doubt that this great work of his created a profound impression on his own mind, for we know that to the end of his life he was silent, solitary, and sad. This was Dante, the greatest of all poets after Shakespeare — Dante, forgotten and neglected by his countrymen even after death, but now worshipped by them with all the fervour of Italian enthusiasm. For five centuries his Divina Commedia has been acknowledged as the great national classic. Its strong poetic expressions have passed into the homely but graphic language of the people, his pictures of heaven have been made the favourite subjects of painting and sculpture, and his awful descriptions of hell, terrible in their realism, have been utilised by poets and essayists so far that they would have lost their awful significance if the majesty of genius did not make them ever fresh and original. And his fame has passed into other countries. There is scarcely any important work issued from the press at the present day in which allusion is not made to Dante's poem. He illustrates oratory, poetry, and fiction; and that weird vision of his will carry his name side by side with that of William Shakespeare to the minds of all future generations, when lesser poets shall have passed for ever from the memories and traditions of men. Mr. Lowell, one of the first of American litterateurs, speaking the other day to a society like our own in London, said, that no matter how extensive the range of our reading may be, we know nothing of poetry until we have studied and mastered that vision of Dante. Here is fame! Here is mind power! The petty despots and tyrants of that day, the heads of the faction that expelled him from their city, are long since forgotten — their ashes are

  1. Blown about the desert dust,
    Or buried in the iron hills, 4
while the vision seen by their victim is the one object before the eyes of the cultured thinkers of an age that believes that Guelph and Ghibelline alike were barbarians in their brute power and ignorance. If ever the immortality of genius was proven, it was here — Dante speaks to the men of the nineteenth century, who venerate and worship him, as he spoke to the men of the fourteenth century, who made him an outcast and a beggar; and Firenze la bella, his own beautiful but ungrateful city, knows that when its own fame has departed as the home of all that is choice and rare  p.48 in art, it will still be remembered in the annals of literature as the cradle of Italy's greatest poet. Its wild threat, long since bitterly repented of, remains fulfilled: “Dante will not return living or dead.” A stately cenotaph is the eternal reminder to Florence that the dust of their poet is enshrined amongst strangers at Ravenna.

I could multiply examples indefinitely. I could show that the mind of man has even more power over the will of nations than the wills of individuals. I could appeal to United Germany, as a proof of the influence of poets and philosophers, not only over their own generation, but even over the future destinies of their countries, for it was the poems and philosophy of Goethe and Schiller that changed the whole current of thought in the German Universities, and through their students permeated the masses of the people, and created the ambition, now realised, of being a united people, and the first military power in the world. For we must remember that the Germans are not only the best soldiers, but also the best students, and there is scarcely a private soldier in the German forces that does not know more of military science than the best trained officer in the English army.

Again, cast your eyes across the Atlantic and see the greatest wonder of modern times, — a state, composed of men of all nationalities, grown in thirty years to be the first power in the world — first in manufactures — first in arts — first in the enterprise of its people — every day widening its empire, and promising to be, before the dawn of another century, the exact counterpart of the old Roman empire in dominion, and wealth, and intelligence, but infinitely superior in the broad freedom and humanity of the ideas that prevail amongst its people and are reflected from the people on the Government. What is the cause of all this? What, but liberty of thought freely and wholesomely developed? America is the living proof of the truth of the first axiom in political science: “Freedom of thought is the first element of civilisation.”

And taking an example from our own country, if at the present day there is a stronger feeling of patriotism and nationality amongst us than at any former period in our history, is it not to be attributed to our superior education, to the great minds that have thought and spoken for us, and to the glorious voices that have poured their songs for freedom into the hearts of the people? Beranger kept alive in France the spirit of devotion to the Napoleonic dynasty  p.49 years after its first great founder had perished; and it is not too much to say that the poets and orators of '48, Thomas Davis, Charles Gavan Duffy, Clarence Mangan, Thomas Francis Meagher, Speranza, and the rest, had quite as much do in keeping alive, with renewed vigour and vitality, the spirit of Irish nationality. In a word, we must change that old, fast-rooted idea that we learned long ago in Political Geography, that there are five great powers in Europe — great in their armies and navies — great because prepared to butcher one another at a moment's notice. The world is beginning to have clearer ideas on these matters — more truthful ideas of silent agencies that are at work, and whose work is every day becoming more visible because more successful. The five great powers, not of Europe but of the world, now are — the memory of man, the will of man, and the intellect of man, and the voice and the pen as their agents and exponents.

It is not necessary to put the reverse of the picture before you. Nature's laws are not to be violated. Nature retaliates whenever it is abused or neglected. If man neglects the cultivation of fields, soon he will have a foul jungle of weeds breeding pestilence; and if man neglects the cultivation of his mind, very soon it will become the receptacle of everything that is coarse and evil, and if you need proof of this, look around the asylums, jails, reformatories and penitentiaries of the world! What has filled them? Ignorance. What has made society expel their inmates, and put them under restraint, as dangerous to its well-being and order? Ignorance. Ask the governors, chaplains, and other officials, what is the cause of the moral insanity that forces criminals to set their faces against their fellowmen, and violate every law with the certainty of being summarily punished? Ignorance, they will answer, and neglect of early education. Ask the political economist of the day and the men who have studied sanitary science, why diseases are propagated, and future generations punished for the neglect or crime of one man? They will tell you it is ignorance. For next to the great primal curse, the one evil that haunts our race is the neglect of these means which are given us to withdraw ourselves from that curse, or change it to a blessing.

What is true of individuals is also true of whole nations. Wherever the masses of the people are allowed to remain in ignorance, wherever the Arts are without favour or patronage, wherever Science is shunned and enterprise undeveloped, there is  p.50 slowness, backwardness, discontent and revolution. And the most powerful weapon at all times in the hands of the despot has been the enforced ignorance of the people. Whenever it became necessary to stamp out the spirit of a nation, the tyrant has stifled the voices of its patriots in prison, has checked the freedom of the Press, and has taken away from the rising generation the means of education. So it was in Ireland. Because she was independent, because she repudiated any connexion, religious or political, with England, because she aspired after her own freedom, her moral and intellectual teachers were persecuted, the priest and school master were proscribed, and the “oldest, the most acute, subtle, and speculative race in the world” 5 were reduced by the operation of merciless laws to a state that would have bordered on barbarism were it not for the high principle and the unconquerable spirit of the people. Dungeons, gibbets and racks are nothing. Men can always despise them. But what hope is there when the voice of a nation is stifled and the mind of a nation paralysed?

3. III

I have dwelt a long time on this matter, because I wish to impress these great truths upon your minds. It is easy to perceive their application. Here is your work — here is your duty — your duty to yourselves, and to the two great communities to which you belong — the Catholic Church and the Irish people. You see now that if you do not develop your faculties by study and reflection, you are violating the fundamental laws of Nature. You can see too that by obeying those laws, you are securing yourselves from unwholesome thoughts and evil passions, and filling your minds with everything that is pure and high and noble. Educate yourselves, and I promise you the reward that comes from all labour — the consciousness that you have done your duty, and the intense satisfaction of acquiring knowledge. When an architect has erected a stately church, does he not feel a glow of satisfaction in thinking that it was his mind conceived the idea and his hands executed it; and that men in after times admiring its even proportions and stately dimensions will say, “this is the work of a great and a thoughtful mind?” When the farmer, after the labour and hardships of the spring, sees his work fructifying in  p.51 autumn harvests of green crops and golden wheat, has he not the satisfaction of knowing, not only that it will increase his wealth, but that it is his work and Nature's work combined? So with a student; and you will understand what I mean if ever you have waded through a difficult problem in science, or if after many painful efforts you can strike off some piece of music on flute or violin or piano. Knowledge is power; but knowledge also is pleasure — the keenest and highest and best of pleasures. I have often thought that I would sacrifice a great deal to be able to sit at that beautiful organ in our own church, and thunder along the aisles the glorious symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven.

Seek after knowledge therefore. Take up some one subject, scientific or literary, and master it. Form your tastes. Acquire a love of whatever is beautiful in poetry, or science, or art, or literature, and you will have in your possession a talisman against all physical and mental pain. Many a dark, tedious, and lonely hour will be lightened and made happy by good books. When Charles Dickens was writing the Pickwick Papers, one poor invalid amongst many, bed-ridden and afflicted with an incurable disease, wrote to him again and again to expedite the issue of his tale, “because,” said he, “when following the career of Pickwick, or laughing at the witticisms of Sam Weller, I never feel pain.” Charles Dickens' little volume was worth more to him than all the prescriptions of these necessary evils — called Doctors. Acquire then a taste for literature. I mean for high-class literature; I do not mean the gutter literature of that unclean, obscene Babylon, London — acquire a taste for literature — and you have a charm against everything evil. The troubles, vexations, and disappointments, that are incident to our condition here can be defied, because forgotten, by going out from your own minds for a while into the new world that the philosopher or the scientist, the historian, or the novelist will show you. And insensibly you will become better and wiser men. A stone is dropped into the water, and in a moment it is hidden away and unseen. But far above on the surface there is circle after circle widening and widening until they strike on the shore. So with the acquisition of new ideas. They pass away and are forgotten, but they always leave an impression behind them that grows wider and deeper and more deep. For every new idea is a new growth. Read and read, and every moment as you read, even for pleasure, your mind is developing  p.52 and expanding and becoming illuminated, until by degrees you see yourselves becoming wiser, more thoughtful, truer and better men, with greater confidence in yourselves and trusted more largely by others.

It must not be lost sight of either that no one can be so completely isolated from his fellowmen as to be able to establish a republic in his own mind so independent that he can be heedless of the shame or glory that reflects upon others from his actions. Now it is our pride and happiness that we belong to the most ancient and perfect organisation that exists in this world at present; that we are, to use the familiar but striking language of Macaulay, members of a Church “that saw the commencement of all the governments and all the ecclesiastical establishments that exist in the world, and is destined to see the end of them all — that was great and respected before the Saxon set foot in Britain and before the Frank had crossed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, and idols were worshipped in the temple of Mecca.” From that Church we have received innumerable blessings, and it behoves us to pay back a filial debt of gratitude by making ourselves such worthy members of it, that our intelligence and advancement even in secular knowledge shall be accepted as a refutation of the ancient calumny that the Catholic Church is the enemy of human progress. It is assuredly a far-fetched accusation to attribute to the mother of arts, the custodian of all ancient literature, the patroness of the sciences, a spirit of hostility to the advancement of human interests. But the charge is made, and we must refute it — refute it by our knowledge of the religion we profess, and even by our knowledge of all those subjects that are considered essential to a liberal education. For when men of different creeds meet, they do not care to launch at once into religious controversy, but measure one another by conversation on all those branches of knowledge that are supposed to be included in the curriculum of the studies even of self-educated men. And then they slide gradually into the one subject that has always a supreme interest for the thoughtful — the subject of the human soul and its destinies, and all the mysteries that circle round the one great central question. And this leads me to speak with sorrow of the neglect of the study of Catholic theology that is so common amongst us. Theology is justly called the queen of all the sciences, partly because of its sacred subjects, and partly because it is so intimately  p.53 connected with all other sciences. Now there is an idea prevalent amongst many, that theology is only for priests, that laymen have no need of it, and thus it happens that, though most Catholics have clear ideas of the principles, doctrines, and discipline of the Church, very few have that detailed knowledge that comes from judicious, well-regulated and sustained study. This should not be. Catholics should take a pleasure in studying those subjects that have had such an attraction for the greatest minds. And to take a utilitarian view of the matter, we must remember that we are by compulsion a migratory race, that it is not given to all to die in sight of the “fair hills of holy Ireland,” but that hundreds and thousands are compelled to go amongst the stranger and to be subjected to the critical glance of freethinkers, who identify every Irishman with Rome and Catholicity. Is it not well that we should show them that our religion is not a superstition, and that our love for it is not founded on ignorance; that if we have been denied the blessings of education for seven centuries, we had amongst us the great civilising agent of the world — the Catholic Church; that she supplied what our rulers denied; and that at any moment we are prepared to enter the lists even against trained controversialists and take our stand on the eternal principles of truth and justice to prove the teaching of the Church to be in all things consistent with the eternal verities of God? This is what most of our fellow-countrymen have done in the large populous centres of America and England. But many, too, from want of education, have betrayed themselves and their country and prevaricated, because finding themselves helpless before ridicule they were made ashamed of the religion which they were unable to defend.

Again, we owe a duty to the grand old race from which we have sprung, of whose history, dark and melancholy though it be, we are so proud, and of whose future we have such great and well-founded hopes. It is a subject which it is difficult for any Irishman to approach without emotion. When we consider what our race has suffered, and why it has suffered, — the ferocity with which its enemies sought to destroy it, and its unflinching adhesion through the bitterest trials to the great principles of nationality and religion, we cannot help thinking that sooner or later the world at large will do it justice, and that the impartial historian of the future will have for his brightest page the record of the sufferings of our people for the highest and holiest principles that can govern the mind and  p.54 stir the heart of man. Side by side with this fidelity to principle, the distinguishing characteristic of our race has always been a thirst for knowledge — a love for learning. It was so in times of old when the halls of Bangor and Lismore were thronged with students from all parts of the Continent, and Ireland held up, undimmed and unextinguished, the lamp of learning that had flickered and died out in Europe. It was so even under the penal laws, which proscribed learning even more rigidly than religion, and books were studied where the Mass was read, under the friendly shade of the rock, or far out on the bleak and unfrequented moor. And it is so now when all disabilities being removed, our people are free at last to indulge the national passion for knowledge. I do not believe that any race of men in the world could have made such progress in learning as the Irish in the fifty years of their freedom. In a period of time that would be required by any other nation to shake themselves free from the habits and instincts of serfdom, the Irish people have sprung into all the privileges, and all the acquired tastes and attributes of free men. Even within the last ten years the ambition of the people has run far ahead of their resources. The learning and accomplishments that ten years ago were supposed to be out of the reach of the multitude are now considered utterly inadequate to the wants of the multitude. Students are now familiar with subjects that were formerly the exclusive property of the professor. The demand is far beyond the supply. The cry of the dying Goethe for “More light! more light!” is now the cry of the Irish people, — more light to understand themselves, their rights, their wrongs, and their power, — more light

  1. to cleave a path to right
    Through the mouldering dust of ages, 6
more light till at last Ireland resumes her old privilege of enlightening the world, and, holding up the beacon lights of faith and knowledge, takes her rightful place amongst the nations of the earth in the vanguard of human progress.


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Title (uniform): Irish Youth and High Ideals

Author: Patrick Augustine Sheehan

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Electronic edition compiled by: Beatrix Färber

Funded by: School of History, University College, Cork

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Extent: 7690 words

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Date: 2013

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  • [Details to follow].

Canon Sheehan on the Internet

  • http://www.canonsheehanremembered.com.


  1. Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present (London 1843).
  2. Alfred Lord Tennyson, Poems (London 1842).
  3. Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam (London 1850).
  4. Speranza (=Lady Jane Wilde), The New Path, in: Poems (Glasgow 1871 ). Online at the Victorian Women Writers Project, http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/vwwp/view?docId=VAB7166, at the University of Indiana.
  5. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr, The Poet at the Breakfast Table (Boston 1883).
  6. Herman Joseph Heuser, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile: the story of an Irish parish priest as told chiefly by himself in books, personal memoirs, and letters (New York 1917).
  7. Arthur Coussens. P. A. Sheehan, zijn leven en zijn werken (Brugge/Bruges 1923).
  8. Michael P. Linehan, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile: Priest, Novelist, Man of Letters (Dublin 1952).
  9. James O'Brien (ed.), The Collected Letters of Canon Sheehan of Doneraile, 1883–1913 (Wells 2013).
  10. James O'Brien, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile 1852–1913: Outlines for Literary Biography (Wells 2013). [Bibliographical references 205–11.]
  11. Joachim Fischer, 'Canon Sheehan und die deutsche Kultur', In: Joachim Fischer, Das Deutschlandbild der Iren 1890–1939, (Heidelberg: Winter 2000).

The edition used in the digital edition

‘Irish Youth and High Ideals’. In: The Irish Monthly: A Magazine of General Literature‍ 19.211. Ed. by Matthew Russell SJ, pp. 39–54.

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  editor 	 = {},
  title 	 = {Irish Youth and High Ideals},
  journal 	 = {The Irish Monthly: A Magazine of General Literature},
  editor 	 = {Matthew Russell SJ},
  address 	 = {Dublin},
  publisher 	 = {Irish Jesuit Province},
  date 	 = {January 1891},
  volume 	 = {19 },
  number 	 = {211},
  pages 	 = {39–54}


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Creation: By Patrick Augustine Sheehan (1852–1913)

Date: 1870s?

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  • The text is in English. (en)
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Keywords: essay; prose; 19c; science and nature; christian education; catholicism

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  1. 2013-11-11: Additions to bibliographical details made. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
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  6. 2013-09-16: Text scanned. (file capture Beatrix Färber)

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  1. Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–1894), Regrets. 🢀

  2. Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–1894), Wind-Clouds and Star-Drifts. 🢀

  3. Alfred Tennyson (1809–1892), Locksley Hall (1835). 🢀

  4. [rectius: 'seal'd within the iron hills'], Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam, LVI (1835). 🢀

  5. Cardinal Newman. 🢀

  6. [rectius: 'And nations are cleaving a path to Right'], Speranza, The New Path. 🢀


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