CELT document E890000-017

Optimism V. Pessimism: A Causerie

Notes on P. A. Sheehan: 'Optimism V. Pessimism: A Causerie,' Irish Monthly, 25/283 (January 1897) 39–52.

This essay showcases Sheehan's talents as a writer and philosopher at their best. From considering the poetry of Robert Browning, through a discussion on Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold, to delineating their optimism or pessimism through a discussion of their outlooks in the world, Sheehan presents a case for looking at the world through the lenses of writers and philosophers. However, he does not satisfy himself from considering theoretical issues alone; as he says, he will “come down from the Olympians for a moment, and challenge the man in the street.” (p. 45) Considerations of the march of technology (even if a little far-fetched, even from a twenty-first century perspective), education, and social progression make up the remainder of the essay.

Throughout much of his writings, and indeed in most of his novels, Sheehan exhibits a tension between the progressive and conservative. 1 Here, the argument can be made that the debates which he creates between the optimist and the pessimist can be interpreted as those between progressives and conservatives. There is also the implication, which he makes more clear in his later article Dawn of the Century, that the debate is taking place amongst the educated Catholics of Ireland: there is very little in terms of Protestant outlook here.

The first of his “debates” between optimism and pessimism “in daily life” concerns science. In the Ireland of Sheehan's time, science was treated with mistrust and adverse scepticism: being associated with Protestantism, agnosticism, and foreign influence. During his early career, though, Sheehan seems to have had a positive outlook towards science and how it could advance human behaviour. For example, he gave a lecture to the Mallow Literary Society in November 1880 in which he extolled the virtues of the natural world, seeing in it a way in which evolution and creation theory could co-exist in harmony. His admiration for the likes of Sir Isaac Newton and Thomas Edison were well-known. However, in an essay on Religious Instruction in Intermediate Schools, published in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record (IER) in September 1881, it is clear his initial enthusiasm for science has cooled. In the essay he singled out John Tyndall and Charles Darwin for special condemnation. Tyndall, he argued, had so strenuously put forward the case for liberating science from the hands of theologians that it would soon become “inimical to the Christian faith.” The IER article made the cogent case for ensuring that religious oversight would be provided in the teaching of history and science in Intermediate schools, to guard against atheism. Darwin's case was different. Here Sheehan saw his theory of evolution as a mere speculation; a clear case of “God's in his heaven/And all's right with the world”.

Sheehan's reference to the idea that science and theology were in conflict was regarded as offensive by many learned Catholics. There was an implied irrationality to the doctrines of the Church. However Sheehan did not argue this at all; in fact, quite the opposite. In his essay Free Thought in America, he blamed the absence of religious instruction in state schools in the USA for popularising the conflict theory. All knowledge was unified under theology — “queen of all the sciences” — therefore any potential conflict between branches of that knowledge would result in the position of theology being under serious threat. Thus, with a possible tension between progressives and conservatives over the progression of scientific discoveries in the offing, the Church must be forearmed in countering this. 2

The second of his “debates” concerns education in Ireland. Like many other countries in Europe, Ireland (even within the confines of the British state) at this time faced economic and social challenges which came as a consequence of the rapid industrial growth in countries such as Germany and the USA during the closing decades of the nineteenth century. New developments in social provision — such as improved housing, welfare and health — also had an effect on the perception of education, creating a movement towards so-called “New Education.” Analysts of the German “economic miracle” (which recurred after the Second World War) pointed to the significant contribution of reforms in technical and higher education as the driving force. This was contrasted with the stark complacency and falling capacity of the British (including Irish) economy. The reason for this faltering economy was, it was reasoned, the narrow curriculum and prescribed methods provided for by the “Instrumentary Education.” The New Educationalists rejected this model of education as placing a premium on rote learning, passivity, examination performance and “payment [of teachers] by results”. 3

In the article, Sheehan outlines the condemnations of the Instrumentary model: “Your systems of education are a mockery, a delusion, and a snare. You cram for examinations, as turkeys are crammed for Christmas: and your boys and girls are consequently suffering from intellectual plethora and indigestion, resulting in mental atrophy and paralysis.” (p. 48) A lack of proper material training, a poor grasp of the basics in many subjects, and confusion were the hallmarks of many who passed through the Intermediate Education in Ireland: “He [the graduate, for it is invariably a male] will talk of Homer, and believe that Troy was in North America; he will tell you that Mount Parnassus was in Ireland, and that the Nile flows into St George's Channel; that Caesar was killed at Clontarf, and that the battle of the Pyramids was won by Brian Boru.” (p. 49) Sheehan is perhaps closer to the pessimistic argument on education, as this passage shows: “These were the times when Irishmen knew well what they did know, when every Irishman knew three languages perfectly, Voster from cover to cover, the six books of Euclid, the science of mensuration — how to season a hurley for the Sunday game, and how to polish the pike-head for the muster in the valley, beside the singing river, at the rising of the moon.” (p. 49) This prefigures the scene in Sheehan's final novel The Graves at Kilmorna, when Fr James enters a National School and attempts to instruct, only to be told by the master that: “the boys could not bear such application, and we have no time.” And later the master concludes: “With twenty-three subjects to teach, and four hours secular instruction each day, we cannot think out problems, as if we were chess-players.” 4

Sheehan concludes, therefore, that “Any system of education is a dismal failure that does not supply the means towards the end [...] the end of education is to fit pupils for the spheres they shall occupy in life [...] the education of your children should be a literary education, by accident, but a technical education by necessity.” (p. 49) The rising numbers in the professional classes which the Irish education system to this time produced concerned Sheehan and his contemporaries. Rising numbers of “clerks, secretaries, teachers, etc.” left cities such as Dublin and Cork decadent, devoid of “business men and skilled artisans”. In contrast, Belfast (“a half-Scotch, half-American city”) was advancing “by leaps and bounds”. (p. 50) The undertones of Protestantism playing a key role in the development of Belfast, and the corollary that Catholicism led to a decline in other Irish cities, is evident here, in an echo of the future analysis of Max Weber.

Finally, Sheehan turns to politics. The spirit of the Parnell split of 1890-91 infuses the thought of the “political pessimist”, who argues: “The country gone to the dogs — Ireland once more on the dissecting table — the spirit of faction dominant — the world laughing at us — the country flung back fifty years, etc. etc.” (p. 50) The optimist (presumably an Anti-Parnellite) rebuts: “We don't want mechanical unity. Better Ireland free, than Ireland united.” (p. 50) In this Sheehan echoes the views of fellow Cork man Tim Healy, who would publish a polemic entitled Why Ireland is not free the following year. During the years following the traumatic schism of the Irish Parliamentary Party, Healy would present the Anti-Parnellite choice as being the tough option, the brutal but necessary rendering of Parnell and all that he symbolised. That much of his rhetoric was reported by press such as The Irish Catholic only served to strengthen the ties between Catholicism and Healyism. Indeed, Healy had the tacit approval, if not the outright support, of many ecclesiastics in his campaign against Parnell. 5

In conclusion, Sheehan makes the case for seeing the current state of science, education and politics from a pessimistic (that is, conservative but revolutionary) viewpoint: “Better one sharp struggle, though it end in failure, than the ignoble fate of those who stand up with folded arms, and witness the eternal tragedy that is going on around them.” (p. 51) However, there are a number of reservations in this. And in quoting Browning at the end, Sheehan perhaps makes his point clearer than he possibly could in prose: “All service ranks the same with God — With God, whose puppets, best or worst, Are we; there is no last, nor first.”

John O'Donovan

Patrick Augustine Sheehan

Optimism V. Pessimism. A Causerie.

I.—In Literature.


The clever agent of a circus-troupe — sent in advance with bills and flaming posters, to excite the curiosity of the young, and it may be, of the old — generally has some latent charm hidden away under some obscure and unknown phrase, to stimulate all the more the curiosity of his future clients, and assure himself of their sixpences. Somewhat in the same way I was greatly tempted to call this paper by some mysterious name, so that, if the reader did not turn to it for the writer's sake, he might do so through that universal and insatiable little vice — curiosity. And I had no trouble in finding such a phrase: for as Robert Browning is my ideal of an optimist poet — indeed, the only optimist poet of our generation; and as Robert Browning's verses are synonymous with everything that is obscure, involved, or — to use a word that has a special interest at present through Dr. Jameson and Oom Paul — outlandish: I had only to open this little duodecimo volume, and presto! here is the word, ready, cut, and dry — “Pippa passes.” Not to keep you too long on the tenter-hooks of expectation, let me say at once that Pippa is a little Italian girl, working in a silk factory, in Asolo, and Pippa has got a holiday. It is a rare event; and she is determined to enjoy it to the uttermost. She will not “squander a wavelet” of it; no, not “one mite of her twelve hours' treasure.” Now, Pippa, like all Italians, can sing; and she goes around the vine-clad hills, and down the singing valleys, with a carol on her lips, and lightness in her heart; and the burden of her song is this: —

  1. The year's at the spring,
    And day's at the morn;
    Morning's at seven;
    The hill-side's dew-pearled:
    The lark's on the wing;
    The snail's on the thorn;
    God's in His heaven —
    All's right with the world!

Now, it happens, as she goes along, four distinct groups of persons, unseen by her — four groups, who are contemplating  p.40 either crimes or critical balances in their lives, are so affected by her simple artless song, full of hope and trust, that they pause — some stricken by remorse, others, appalled at the step they were about to take. And all touched by the simple faith of this child, are moved to change into better and hopefuller ways; and consciences seared with sin, and hearts hardened in iniquity, spring towards better and loftier things, by the tender faith of this guileless child.

Now, the burden of her song: —

  1. God's in His heaven,
    All's right with the world.

is the burden of all Browning's poetry. He is essentially — Browning the optimist. “All's right with the world.” This note runs through all his poems. In nature, in man, in science, in social life — everywhere there is either some good, or some tendency towards final good. He will not see gloom anywhere; and should a passing cloud darken his sunlight, he looks only at the silver lining. You remember the melancholy of Tennyson: and how he makes the lonely mere, the sombre sky, the cold grey stones of the sea, etc., typify his own sombre spirit. Browning will not have this.

  1. The lark
    Soars up and up, shivering for very joy;
    Afar the ocean sleeps; white fishing gulls
    Flit where the strand is purple with its tribe
    Of nested limpets; savage creatures seek
    Their loves in wood and plain — and God renews
    His ancient rapture!

The same spirit pervades all his poems. Where others spell failure, despair, despondency, Browning spells success, hope, and that lofty elevation of spirit, that passes from mere human joy to the highest dreams of inspiration. Of course there are flaws in the handiwork of creation: but they only show the grace and beauty of the rest of the work, and they, in turn, will be filled up, and polished into perfectness. There are discords in the music, but they only emphasize the harmony: and life, with all its sorrows, is very sweet and good, and a gift from Heaven, and can be rounded into perfect form by our own efforts, that is, if we are generous, hopeful and true.


In strange contradiction to all this, is the melancholy, the despair, the pessimism that is the key-note of all other philosophers and poets. And, as I have here introduced a new word, let me define it, or rather let me define my contradictories. Optimism is the theory that, “all that is, is right,” that it is a glorious world, full of all fine possibilities; and that mankind is ever moving onward, onward, to the goal of perfect happiness. Pessimism, on the other hand, is the sad and terrible doctrine, that life is, at best, a miserable business to be terminated as soon as possible by annihilation, that all this thing, called progress, is really retrogression, and that the sooner it is all over the better. Of course, this dismal teaching was known to the philosophers of old; but in our century, it has permeated all literature, the poem, the novel, the historical work, the treatise on philosophy; and its chief apostles were Schopenhauer and Hartmann in Germany, and a poet, named Leopardi in Italy. One, however, could be disposed to forgive and forget these idle dreamers, but the evil theory has infiltrated down into the lives and souls of men, and made miserable very beautiful and lofty spirits, whose words and deeds have been, instead of a gospel to humanity, a sad legacy of the untruthfulness of despair.

It runs like a black warp through all Carlyle's philosophy. “England consists,” he says, “of thirty million people — mostly fools.” And such expressions as everlasting falsities and negations, want of verity in public men, windbags, and all the rest of the intolerable coarseness of a poor diseased mind, which the world will have us believe was a philosophic one, force themselves on you at every page, and make you believe at last that if ever there was a sham philosopher, it was Carlyle; and if ever there was cant and humbug, it is in the twenty odd volumes which a misapplied industry has left the world. You will find the same in all his successors — in Clifford, Spencer, Martineau. They all set out with the original faith — that science means progress, and that the whole race is moving onward and upward to perfection. Then the disillusion comes with experience: and when the zeal and heat of youth are over, they give place to the blackness of despair.

I think I could forgive this in the philosophers. But how can you pardon it in the poets — the world's singers and prophets? What a frightful deordination it is, that they, whose music should lift up the weary heart of humanity, sing but to depress it, and bring into the lives of men not the songs of gladness and hope,  p.42 but the threnodies of anguish and despair. And despair, despair, is the dominant note in all the grand organ-music of the nineteenth century. As I have said of the philosophers, so do I say of the poets. No matter what songs of gladness burst from their lips in the morning of their lives, it soon dies away into one melancholy monotone of sadness and regret. You might forgive Tennyson that lovely lyric: —

  1. Break, break, break
    On thy cold grey stones, O Sea,
    But the tender grace of a day that is dead
    Will never come back to me —

but how can you forgive him for this:—

  1. There lives more faith in honest doubt,
    Believe me, than in half the creeds —
or this:
  1. Sooner or later I too may passively take the print
    Of the golden age — why not? I have neither hope nor trust;
    May make my heart as a millstone, set my face as a flint;
    Cheat and be cheated, and die; who knows? we are ashes and dust.

And if you protest and say: He rose above all that, even in that poem from which you have quoted (Maud), and wound up his awful philippics against society by declaring “It is better to fight for the good than rail at the ill; I have felt with my native land. I am one with my kind; I embrace the purpose of God, and the doom assigned” — yet he retracted again in his extreme old age, and passed his final sentence of eternal reprobation against humanity in the very last extended poem which he wrote.

The same is true in even a more intense sense of a still more delicate and refined nature — Matthew Arnold. Many more modern critics will place his name even higher than that of Tennyson; and it is more true of his poetry than of Tennyson's that one long wail of sadness runs through it all. In that well-known poem Dover Beach, he, too, makes the eternal sea re-echo his own despair: —

  1. The sea of faith
    Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
    Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
    But now I only hear
    Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
    Retreating to the breath
    Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
    And naked shingles of the world.
  1. Let us be true
    To one another! for the world, which seems
    To be before us like a land of dreams
    So various, so beautiful, so new,
    Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
    Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
    And we are here, as on a darkling plain
    Swept with confused alarms of struggle and fight
    Where ignorant arms clash by night.

and so on, through pages of “most musical, most melancholy” verse.

Of course I have not quoted Byron, who was a professed pessimist; nor Swinburne, who tries to infuse into his poems a Greek lightness and joy, and would have succeeded, but that the curse of Paganism is on all he wrote, and his pages are floating into the waters of Lethe. Nor do I quote John Ruskin, who, as you know, thinks we are all rushing, on the wings of modern science, to certain damnation. Neither shall I mention any of our modern novelists, but to say, that if any lingering doubt remained in the minds of men, that our literature is also in a state of decadence, I need only quote Trilby, and the far worse abominations that pour forth from men and alas! women novelists, until one is inclined to believe that this awful flood of prurient literature will sweep away every old and venerated landmark of decency and propriety. But, as I half share John Ruskin's detestation of the ravages on the face of Nature made by modern science, here is a rather sharp echo and confirmation of his worst predictions.

All the valleys of the Meuse and Moselle are sullied with factory smoke and blasting powder.

The Bay of Amalfi and the shore of Posilippo are defiled by cannon foundries.

All the Ardennes are scorched and soiled and sickened with stench of smoke and suffocating slag.

The Peak country and the Derwent vales are being scarred and charred for railway lines, mines, and factories.

What has been done to Venice is such outrage, that it might wake Tiziano from under his weight of marble in the Frati Church and call the Veronese back from his grave.

The finest torrent in Scotland is about to be deviated from its course and used for aluminium works.

The fumes of these aluminium works will, when they are in full blast, emit hydrofluoric acid gas which will destroy all the vegetation on Loch Ness for miles.


The lakes of Maggiore, of Como, and Garda, are all being defiled by factories and steam-engines. Thirlmere and Loch Katrine have been violated; and all the other English and Scotch lakes will be similarly ravaged. Fucina has been dried up as a speculation, and Thrasymene has been threatened. The Rhone is dammed up, and tapped, and tortured, until all its rich alluvial deposits are lost to the soil of Provence.

So says “Ouida” in the Nineteenth Century for January, 1896. And so all the beauty and grandeur of the old world is blighted and poisoned by the insatiable lust of men and peoples for gold. It is a dismal prospect; and some will think, that amongst the few consolations we have left us in Ireland, we may number the probability that our blue skies will never be altogether blackened by belching chimneys, nor our fair vales seamed and scarred as are the sweetest spots that the great Artist, God, framed and beautified for the delight of the children of men.

And so the litany of despair goes on. In science, in literature, in the relations of great powers towards each other, in the impending and inevitable cataclysm that will rend Europe from the Ural mountains to the Atlantic seaboard, in the total absence of honour and sincerity amongst nations as among individuals, in the new ideas that are being advanced about social, parental and marital relations, in the lust of the rich for more wealth, which is so insatiable, in the subterranean thunders that herald a terrible revolution amongst the working classes — above all, in the ever growing indifference to religion in protestant lands, and the substitution of some new code of ethics for the eternal gospel of Christ: in all these things the prophets of despair, — and they are legion — forecast a future, pregnant with possibilities that may not be imagined, and full of doubt and gloom that should make sick at heart anyone who thought well of his race, or yet entertained a lingering regard for a humanity that appears to be bent on destruction. Where now is little Pippa?—

  1. God's in His heaven,
    All's right with the world.

Where is the great optimist poet who sings: —

  1. Grow old along with me!
    The best is yet to be,
    The last of life, for which the first was made;
    Our times are in his hand
    Who saith: 'A whole I planned,
    Youth shows but half; trust God, see all, nor be afraid!'


You will ask however, very naturally here, where is the point for discussion: what is your thesis, which we are to support or contradict? It is simple, apparently, a very easy question for solution; yet I venture to say, that you never discussed a question in this hall, which is so many-sided, or which leaves the decision so uncertain. The thesis is:—
The optimistic, the hopeful view of the world and humanity, is the view that commends itself to us, as fraught with the larger and higher possibilities for our race.

The contradictory thesis is:—
The pessimists are the thinkers that really, and in very deed, by their criticism, their dissatisfaction, their sublime restlessness, are pushing on the race towards the very perfection in which they do not believe.

2. II.—In Daily Life

But, before you argue the question, it may well be asked what practical bearing has such a discussion on daily life, or the real progress of the race. It would be unkind in us, who owe so much to our poets and philosophers, to ask what influence do they exercise on the first movements and the generic ideas which are the wellsprings of all human actions. There are thinkers who trace every resolution, progressive or reactionary, to our sages of the attic and the closet, on the theory: Give me the making of a nation's ballads, and I will give you the making of a nation's laws. But, apart from all that, does not this vital question enter into our daily life, colouring all our ideas, and giving a bias towards all our emotions and actions? You will say: “But we never have met your optimists and pessimists in daily life.” Have you not? Let me come down from the Olympians for a moment, and challenge the man in the street.

When you are down below zero in spirits, unable to meet that little bill at the bank, with your sick child at home — when you walk under dripping December skies, your hands stuck deep in your pockets, a picture of misery and despair, do you know the man, that comes up with a smile, slaps you on the back till you gasp for breath, shouts at you to cheer up — that the banker will be considerate, that your child's sickness is a trifle, that the sun is  p.46 shining somewhere away behind these leaden clouds, etc., etc.? Well, that's an optimist.

Do you know the man, who tells you just as you are starting on that picnic in the middle of June, with high hopes and presages of the good time you are going to have, that it will rain cats and dogs before twelve o'clock, that you will eat your muddy sandwiches and watery pies under dripping umbrellas, and that you need take no water to dilute Jameson, Heaven will supply it by the gallon? There's your social pessimist.

Do you know the man that buttonholes you on the street, when you are rushing for a train, asks you how many miles to Sirius, and would trouble you to calculate how long an express train (just coming in to your station) at 45 miles an hour would take to reach the nearest fixed star? Do you recognise the same idiot, who asks you how many microbes there are in a spoonful of milk; and how many will there be if you leave it standing for twenty-four hours in a temperature of 77 Fahrenheit? Do you remember your delight, when he informed you that you have 24,176,348 microbes waltzing around your mouth, and that is only the advance guard, lying in ambush for the countless legions that you swallow every time you sit down to a meal, for that innocent spoonful of milk contains 10,548,000 microbes, and in twenty-four hours, if you have the courage to swallow it, you will add to the population of your interior 17,402,000,000 of the same fertile and interesting subjects? Is it not the same individual who informs you that early in the 20th century, you can carry all your meals in your waistcoat pocket — breakfast, luncheon, dinner and supper; and that, when you wish to breakfast, you just take out a capsule, as you now take a pinch of snuff, and presto, here is the concentrated essence of a beefsteak, two rashers of bacon, two poached eggs, two cups of tea, and several cuts of toast? And, when you invite your friend to dine, no more courses, no more waiters, no more napkins, nor knives and forks, nor flowers, nor glass, nor silver — no toasts, no after-dinner speeches! You touch an electric button, and lo! you have a delicious heat, and a soft lambent light playing around the room; you take out your silver box, tap it, ask your friend to take a pill, and — he has done, in a moment and in a simple way, all that we do through the long hours and exquisite tortures of an eleven course dinner à la Russe. He expects you to be enthusiastic. But if you are still dull and uncomprehensive, he will excite your  p.47 imagination by fairy stories of flying machines, Kineto-graphs, telepathy, earth-inoculation, ether-electricity, etc., etc. — space annihilated, time reduced to minutes of surpassing volume and elasticity. You want to see Rome? Touch a button here in your study; and lo! you are in Rome, walking down the Appian way, studying statues in the Vatican, or treading the pavement of St. Peter's. You'd like to see Calcutta? Here you are. Blazing sun, ill-smelling Hooghly, black Hindoos, yellow Mussulmen, bells ringing from the temples, lamps floating on the stream. Let's see Chicago! Presto! Here's Chicago — Porkopolis. Tramcars ringing, men and women pushing along on the sidewalks, the white walls of the Exhibition mirrored in the black waters of Lake Michigan, pigs squealing, as they pass into the machines, and come out hams and sausages. Sausages put into the other end of the machine, and out comes a lively porker! Madame Patti (or rather her great successor, for Madame Patti is not immortal—however, stop there, science will make her so—) is singing in Manchester to-night. Very well. We shall hear her. You touch a button here, sitting down in your armchair: and lo! her wonderful voice comes floating over the wires, and you sit enchanted — but you'd give all the world to see her. Certainly. The good genius of science is here. You call up another number. Your little study and armchair and books and pictures float away: and ecco! here is the vast theatre, the stage with its footlights, the gorgeous scenery, the orchestra, the boxstalls, the wonderful dresses, the man standing up to go out to see a friend, etc. Isn't science wonderful, my dear fellow? But your train is gone, and you are tempted to be profane? Do you know the demon? Well, that's your scientific optimist.

But don't you know that man that damns science, wishes back the good old times when it took four days to go to Dublin, dilates on the morning coaches à la Dickens, the early breakfast on cold beef and tankards of ale, the bugle cheerily waking up the sleepy echoes, the good nature and fellowship of your passengers, the glorious scenery by wood and lake and river, the new towns you come to, the curiosity your arrival excites, the glorious dinner of veal pie, pigeon pie, legs of mutton, sirloin of beef, oceans of claret, and plenty of time to eat it and digest it, not like your leather sandwich and your boiling coffee, a whistling engine and a shouting guard. Ah! the good old times, when science  p.48 was unknown — when men and women were fine, healthy, God-fearing beings, living on wholesome food, and not on your deleterious Oriental drugs of tea and coffee — when disease was practically unknown — when science had not invented stethoscopes and electric batteries — when there was no neurosis, or neurasthenia, and no man knew he had a liver — when we were clothed in good old Irish frieze, not in Manchester shoddy — when there were no newspapers, but you could talk for six months about a wedding or a christening; when, in a word, the world of each man was a small world, and we were more interested about our neighbours than about naked savages in Matabele, or what is to be done with the “sick man” in Constantinople. Don't you know him — the scientific pessimist?

And the educational optimist — with his piles of statistics about the Intermediate Examinations — 5,340 boys and girls passing in Botany, Mineralogy, Metallurgy, Trigonometry, Physiology, Differential and Integral Calculus, Latin, Greek, Italian, German, French, Gaelic, etc. Ah! my dear sir, what advantages young people have now that we never enjoyed! And what a glorious future lies before our country, when these young people grow to manhood and womanhood, and form the commercial and professional classes — the backbone of the country! Educate ! educate! educate! Take your stand amongst the nations of the earth, and sweep away the curse of illiteracy. We are doing it. In Primary, Intermediate, and very soon in University Education, we will come into line with the best intellects of England, Germany, and America; and then the rest is easy. Ireland's future is assured!

But here suddenly as the stream of optimistic eloquence flows on, a big block is flung across it by the no less fervid, but denunciatory eloquence of the pessimist: —

Education! there's no such thing in Ireland! There are not ten educated men in Ireland from Malin Head to Cape Clear. Your systems of education are a mockery, a delusion, and a snare. You cram for examinations, as turkeys are crammed for Christmas: and your boys and girls are consequently suffering from intellectual plethora and indigestion, resulting in mental atrophy and paralysis. Take any of your gold medallists or exhibitioners three months after examination; and he cannot translate a line or sentence in the very books in which he passed with glowing colours. And if  p.49 he goes up for a bank examination, or some minor office in the Civil Service, he cannot pass in the elements of grammar, or the rudiments of geography or Arithmetic. He will talk of Homer, and believe that Troy was in North America; he will tell you that Mount Parnassus was in Ireland, and that the Nile flows into St. George's Channel; that Caesar was killed at Clontarf, and that the battle of the Pyramids was won by Brian Boru. In other words he is a conceited ignoramus, despising everyone, and despised by all. And it only stands to reason. You cannot cram a boy's head with all this learning to any advantage. Meat for men, milk for babes. But you want the babes to fatten on roast beef. You don't know that overfeeding, as any doctor will tell you, is but another word for starvation. God be with the good old times, when the hedge schoolmasters were as plentiful as blackberries in Ireland, when the scholars took their sods of turf under their arms for school seats; but every boy knew his Virgil and Horace and Homer as well as the last ballad about some rebel that was hanged, and every farmer's son could survey his father's land by merely looking at it — when the Kerry peasants talked to each other in Latin; and when they came up to the Palatines in Limerick, as harvestmen in the autumn, they could make uncomplimentary remarks, and say cuss-words ad libitum before their master's face, and he couldn't understand them, for they spoke the tongue, of Cicero and Livy — the language of the educated world. These were the times when Irishmen knew well what they did know, when every Irishman knew three languages perfectly, Voster from cover to cover, the six books of Euclid, the science of mensuration — how to season a hurley for the Sunday game, and how to polish the pike-head for the muster in the valley, beside the singing river, at the rising of the moon. But we are degenerates. And what's the purpose of it all? Look at the way you educate your children in the National Schools. Listen! Here is a logical proposition. Any system of education is a dismal failure that does not supply the means towards the end. Now, the end of education is to fit pupils for the spheres they shall occupy in life. But the spheres that most pupils occupy in life are spheres either of menial, or manual labour. Therefore, the education of your children should be a literary education, by accident, but a technical education by necessity. Yet, we adopt the opposite course. There is no such thing as technical education in Ireland; and the literary education  p.50 is far beyond the necessities, mental or social, of nine tenths; of the children who attend our primary schools. What, for example, does a poor girl, who has to earn her bread as housemaid, want to know about freehand drawing, or perspective? and what does a factory hand want to know about the intricacies of the Tonic Sol-Fa System, the science of Transposition, the Modulator, or the humming song? And what's the result? Our country overwhelmed with professional men, clerks, secretaries, teachers, etc., and the further result, a complete dearth of business men and skilled artisans; and the further result of the decadence of Cork and Dublin, and all purely Irish cities; and the advance, by leaps and bounds, of a half-Scotch, half-American city, like Belfast!

There is your educational pessimist. Who does not know the political pessimist?

“The country gone to the dogs — Ireland once more on the dissecting table — the spirit of faction dominant — the world laughing at us — the country flung back fifty years, etc., etc.” It's all well, if he does not quote poetry, and tell us: —

  1. Thy treasure with taunts shall be taken,
    Thy valour with jibes be repaid,
    And of millions who see thee, now sad and forsaken,
    Not one shall step forth to thy aid.
    Thou art doomed for the proud to disdain,
    And the blood of thy sons, and the wealth of thy soil
    Shall be lavished, and lavished in vain.
    Thou art chained to the wheel of the foe
    By links that the world cannot sever,
    With thy tyrant through sunshine and storm shalt thou go,
    And thy sentence is “Banished for ever.”

Who does not know him, particularly in these latter days when hardly a rift appears in an ever ominous and darkening sky?

But, is there not a political optimist, who tells you to cheer up? The darkest hour is just before the dawn. We don't want mechanical unity. Better Ireland free, than Ireland united. Ça ira! all will come right. Wait till you see the scattered battalions reforming on the floor of the House of Commons, and the reveillé of the new campaign sounded, and the fighting men putting on their armour, and all opposing forces marshalled together for the fiercest, bravest, angriest Session, yet recorded in the annals of the British Parliament. Ay de mi! says the pessimist. 6

I have now drawn portraits of these two classes, into which,  p.51 in the aggregate, humanity may be divided. And now comes the important, and by no means easy question — which class best promotes the interests of humanity? Naturally, one's sympathies go out, at once, to the optimists who sing, like Pippa: —

  1. God's in His heaven,
    All's right with the world.

We feel a powerful attraction towards these bright sunny souls, who hold their heads aloft, with an eternal sursum corda! on their lips. We feel a no less powerful repulsion against these sallow, cadaverous, dyspeptic, despondent cynics, who are for ever railing against the world, and clamouring for the better things in which they have no hope. But when we come down to reasoning, perhaps the case differs. For, after all, shorn of his benevolence, what is your optimist, but the easy, self-satisfied lover of good things, who hates to have his rest disturbed, and who has ever on his lips the watchwords of reaction and retrogression: “Can't you let well alone?” “Aren't we just as well where we are?” “What was good enough for our fathers, is it not quite good enough for us?” etc., etc. And is there not something inspiring ever in the despairful, yet lofty dissatisfaction which protests: “Certainly not! Everything is not right, in your stagnancy and self-possession. You must rise up, and onwards. En avant! Everything is wrong, and we shall try to right it, though we should fail. Better failure a thousand times than to see, without protest, the lies that are daily before us, on men's lips, and in their lives. Better one sharp struggle, though it end in failure, than the ignoble fate of those who stand up with folded arms, and witness the eternal tragedy that is going on around them.”

“Troublesome fellows, dangerous fellows, revolutionaries,” says the optimist, “these fellows will upset all decent society, ruin our digestions, bring down our stocks and shares, and scatter to the winds all our dreams of present and possible happiness.”

“No matter,” says the pessimist, “anything is better than to live a lie. Come, you sleek hypocrite, and look at the world. Here, in the midst of your civilisation, human beings are rotting in misery and hunger, whilst their souls are in the grasp of the Evil One. Can you sit down to your comfortable dinner and know that thousands of your fellow beings are starving? In want and ignorance, in sin and sorrow, half mankind live out their weary  p.52 lives, and you say this is the best possible world for them and you —”

“Yes! but you say you cannot correct it?” says the optimist. “Where's the use in beating the air?”

Where indeed? And so the eternal discussion goes on: the one side maintaining that it is best to let well alone, and enjoy life as best you can — the other, that the progress of the race is due to the sublime dissatisfaction, the eternal restlessness, issuing in healthy or unhealthy revolution. For “out of the black smoke cometh flame,” say they; and out of the brooding thunder-cloud the lightning that breaks the burden of the storm; and from the hot hearts of angry men the thoughts that shape themselves into burning words. And from the words come deeds, fraught with the germs of all the great things, and all the noble things, and all the inspirement, that drew man from the beast, and pushed him ever higher and higher, until now he can see in the future that looms before him —

“What?” says the optimist.

And he must acknowledge with bent head and faltering tongue that all his visions and dreams, all the vivid splendours of his hopes and fancy, are blotted out, like a shower of fireworks on a black, frowning sky, on which is written in lurid lights one word, Despair!

Meanwhile Pippa, tired out, lies down to rest.

  1. God bless me! I can pray no more to-night.
    No doubt, some way or other, hymns say right.
    All service ranks the same with God—
    With God, whose puppets, best or worst,
    Are we; there is no last, nor first.


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Title (uniform): Optimism V. Pessimism: A Causerie

Author: Patrick Augustine Sheehan

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Electronic edition compiled by: Benjamin Hazard and John O'Donovan

Introduction by: John O'Donovan

Funded by: School of History, University College, Cork and private donation

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Date: 2014

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  • [Details to follow].

Canon Sheehan on the Internet

  • http://www.canonsheehanremembered.com.


  1. Canon P.A. Sheehan, 'Optimism V. Pessimism: A Causerie,' The Irish Monthly, 25/283 (January 1897) 39–52.
  2. Canon P.A. Sheehan, 'Optimism in Literature. Optimism in Daily Life,' The Literary Life, Essays: Poems (Dublin 1921) 35–57.


  1. 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).
  2. Arthur Coussens, P. A. Sheehan, zijn leven en zijn werken (Brugge/Bruges 1923).
  3. P.A. Sheehan, The Graves at Kilmorna: A Story of '67 (London: 1918 edition).
  4. Michael P. Linehan, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile: Priest, Novelist, Man of Letters (Dublin 1952).
  5. Seamas Ó Buachalla (ed.), A Significant Irish Educationalist: The Educational Writings of P.H. Pearse (Dublin and Cork 1980).
  6. Catherine Candy, Priestly Fictions, Popular Irish Novelists of the Early Twentieth Century—P.A. Sheehan, Joseph Guinan, Gerald O'Donovan (Dublin 1995).
  7. Frank Callanan, T. M. Healy (Cork 1996).
  8. James O'Brien (ed.), The Collected Letters of Canon Sheehan of Doneraile, 1883–1913 (Wells 2013).
  9. James O'Brien, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile 1852–1913: Outlines for a Literary Biography (Wells 2013). [Bibliographical references 205–11].
  10. Don O'Leary, 'Faith, Science and Nature in the Works of Canon Sheehan,' New Hibernia Review, 17/2 (Summer 2013) 119–135.

The edition used in the digital edition

‘Optimism V. Pessimism: A Causerie’. In: The Irish Monthly‍ 25.283. Ed. by S.J. Matthew Russell, pp. 39–52.

You can add this reference to your bibliographic database by copying or downloading the following:

  title 	 = {Optimism V. Pessimism: A Causerie},
  journal 	 = {The Irish Monthly},
  editor 	 = {Matthew Russell, S.J.},
  address 	 = {Dublin},
  publisher 	 = {Irish Jesuit Province},
  date 	 = {January 1897},
  volume 	 = {25},
  number 	 = {283},
  pages 	 = {39–52}


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Creation: By Patrick Augustine Sheehan (1852–1913)

Date: 1897

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  • The text is in English. (en)
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Keywords: essay; prose; 19c; philosophy; theology; catholicism; Robert Browning; Thomas Carlyle; Matthew Arnold

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(Most recent first)

  1. 2014-03-11: File parsed; minor additions and modifications made to encoding and header. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
  2. 2014-03-10: Text proof-read (2); structural and content mark-up completed. (ed. Benjamin Hazard)
  3. 2014-02-07: Introduction proof-read (2); header created; structural and content mark-up added. (ed. Benjamin Hazard)
  4. 2014-02-05: Introduction compiled; text of essay proof-read (1); mark-up added for page-breaks and paragraphs. (ed. John O'Donovan)
  5. 2014-01-24: Text scanned. (file capture Benjamin Hazard)

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  1. Catherine Candy, Priestly Fictions, Popular Irish Novelists of the Early Twentieth Century — P. A. Sheehan, Joseph Guinan, Gerald O'Donovan (Dublin 1995), p. 67. 🢀

  2. Don O'Leary: 'Faith, Science and Nature in the Works of Canon Sheehan,' New Hibernia Review, 17/2 (Summer 2013), pp. 119-35. See http://0-muse.jhu.edu.library.ucc.ie/journals/new_hibernia_review/v017/17.2.o-leary.pdf (Accessed 5 Feb. 2014). 🢀

  3. Seamas Ó Buachalla (ed.), A Significant Irish Educationalist: The Educational Writings of P.H. Pearse (Dublin and Cork 1980), pp. xiv–xv. 🢀

  4. The Graves at Kilmorna: A Story of '67 (London: 1918 edition), pp. 234–5. 🢀

  5. Frank Callanan, T. M. Healy (Cork 1996), pp. 378–93. 🢀

  6. That is, “Woe is me!” Here, Sheehan alludes to Lord Byron's poem 'Romance Muy Dolorosa Del Sitio y Toma de Alhama—A Very Mournful Ballad on the Siege and Conquest of Alhama🢀


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