A letter to an Irish priest from a parishioner, 1902

A self-appointed moral policeman tries to save his neighbours’ souls.

Father Sheahan letter 001

A friend discovered this 1902  letter from “A Parishioner” to a Limerick priest in an old book recently. A useful reminder that we have always had our self-appointed moral police, for anyone who thought the Iona Institute was a recent phenomenon.



26 /2 /02


Rev. Father Sheahan

Dear Sir

Pardon me for troubling you, but the matter I have to deal with is one of vital importance to many. in that part of the parish known as Dunganville, there are some parties getting up what they term a ball, but which is, in reality, a porter party of from twenty to thirty couples contributing something above 3/ a head. I need not explain the sin and ruin to so many souls occassioned by [such] practises. I will leave the matter to your own discretion but I think its only right + just to tell the parishioners from the altar on Sunday next not to lend there houses to such disgraceful purpose. for such a kind act you will have the blessing and gratitude of many a parent in the parish

Your very humble servant

A Parishioner

Father Sheahan letter 002


Weren’t the people of Dunganville lucky that this good citizen was watching out for their eternal souls? Who knows what fine work he’d be doing if he happened to be alive today? He might even have his own Institute.

History doesn’t record how Father Sheahan reacted to the letter though if he was anything like his fellow priests of the post-Cullen tendency, he probably took firm action, perhaps involving a blackthorn stick. But on the other hand, he might have groaned and reached for a stiff whiskey. Who knows?

Thanks to information from the wonderful academic resource, Limerick’s Life, here he is in the 1901 Census, as head of household.

Father Sheahan census 001

And here’s poor old John Sheahan’s death notice, not long after he received the letter from his outraged parishioner.

death of father sheahan

This is his will. £1,388. Quite a sum for 1902.


Can we deduce anything about the writer? In the frugal spirit of the time, the letter is written on both sides of a single sheet. The handwriting is very much of its time as taught in the schools, and the grammar is more or less correct, though there are a few mis-spellings and a peculiar tendency to begin sentences with lower-case. All suggestions welcome, though I have a nagging suspicion he might have been a disgruntled publican.

Father Sheahan 001

Father Sheahan 002

Father Sheahan 003


30 thoughts on “A letter to an Irish priest from a parishioner, 1902

  1. It was well spotted by her, though, and good to notify the priest.

    Many young men were led astray by whiskey, slow horses and fast women – and the Gays.

    The Gays have the country ridden’ into the ground.

  2. so a man in ardagh, writes to a priest in kilscannel about a ball in dunganville. anyone know how far apart these places are?

  3. I think it was a woman by the handwriting. And maybe she didn’t want her husband or sons participating. The comments are funny. Thanks for the chuckle today.

  4. the 1901 census shows about 10 houses in total between dunganville upper and lower. one house in particular caught my attention. it consisted of 2 brothers and a sister, and a male and female servant. all single and aged between 34 and 45. the female servant has the same surname as the priest the letter is written to.it would be interesting to know if this lady was related to the priest. then perhaps the letter is a warning or a dig at the priest.

  5. I am intrigued by the cursive, flowery style of the handwriting. They certainly don’t teach handwriting like it today. I would guess that the writer was middle class, possibly female, but has a couple of misspellings. And the writer is obviously worried about porter parties in the neighbourhood. He/She thinks that the parish priest might be able to do something about it – obviously the RIC constabulary weren’t theologically equipped to deal with such a social problem of moral dimensions.

  6. That style of handwriting was taught to all schoolchildren at the time. It’s a little neurotic for my taste, but it could be found among people of all classes.

  7. johanna sheahan, 39 living at house 2 dunganville upper. a domestic servant head of house is woulfe. 1901 census
    father sheahan when he died left £1338 in his will. split between 2 priest and a patrick sheahan

  8. your correct, but that is the record for the house of the priest in kilscannel. the complaint to the priest concerned a house in dunganvile. i suggested that perhaps the servant in the house No2 dunganville upper may have been a relation to the priest. and perhaps this may have been a motive for writing the letter.

  9. Mr.Bock,Sir,

    If somebody was throwing what you personally considered an objectionable party near your house, what would you do? Call the police?
    As an example of what you would find objectionable, lets say it was a small religious gathering singing hymns up to the same hour that many bawdy parties have been known to go on for.

    What the parishioner is doing here is far less than what many people would do today.
    I think that you overlook that the religious culture of those years was completely different from what it is today. Something worth considering here is that the RELIGIOUS outlook,of people in those days was probably nearer to the Middle Ages than it is to the religious outlook of today. Importantly, do not confuse this medieval religious outlook with the general social outlook or the advance of technology.
    As I mentioned in “Lenten Regulations” I myself have a medieval religious approach but I do not think that I am living the Middle Ages. (According to Carry, I “am a self proclaimed proponent of medieval christianity” — HUH!!).

    Now, the writing. As you note, it is in character with the times, but handwriting of earlier times, say the late seventeenth century is not much different from what you see in the 1902 letter. Jonathon Swift’s handwriting is much nearer than anything you would see today.
    I believe this to be the effect of the pens that were used up to the advent of the Biro.
    Pens were “dip pens” then, a modification really of the feather quill pen that Swift would have used and these instruments made people “paint” their writing. Thus the consistent style.
    Guessing here, the mis-spellings may not be mistakes as the spelling of some words has changed over time. e.g. ” Very” was a little over 100 years ago, “Werry” and I notice that some people from isolated places still use that.

    Anyway, I admire the writer’s action in the context of the society in which he/she lived.

  10. “lets say it was a small religious gathering singing hymns ” That’s not much of a party Ebenezer… that sounds more like choir practice.

    “As I mentioned in “Lenten Regulations” I myself have a medieval religious approach ”
    I missed this.. That science thread makes more sense now. It’s gas how what someone writes on another thread can influence how you perceive what they write on the next.

    So anyways you’re into the auld inquisitions and torture are ya?

  11. Artemis,

    So what if it is choir practice? What difference does that make?
    Noisy party, choir practice, call the police. That is what would happen today.

    I think that you missed exactly what I said.
    I said IN FULL: “I myself have a medieval religious approach but I do not think that I am living in the Middle Ages”

    I do take an interest in scientific matters and what is happening in the world around me.
    I do not believe that the earth is flat and that the sun goes round the earth but as with people in the Middle Ages it really never made any difference to me whether it did or not!

    I have been reading your article on the gravity waves thread and I was meaning to reply but you are over my head and you certainly have a better aptitude for such subject matter than me. I’m not flattering but you really do have an inquiring scientific mind.

    To quote you: “It’s gas how what someone writes on another thread can influence what they write on the next”

    Answer: What I said to Mr. Bock a week or two ago “I’m a funny kettle of fish”.
    You are just getting to know me, Artemis, that’s all!

  12. Mr. Bock,Sir,

    Some details I have noticed in the letter which I don’t see mentioned anywhere.

    Parishioners are cautioned “not to lend their houses ……. ” and parish parents would be grateful.

    These two details seem to indicate to me that it is a party for young teenage people.

  13. “You are just getting to know me, Artemis, that’s all!” Lucky us. :)

    What I said was – ” It’s gas how what someone writes on another thread can influence how you perceive what they write on the next. ”

    Slight difference than what you quoted there. :)

    I meant that, in relation to others stating on the gravitational waves thread that you were a supporter of the medieval stuff, when you didn’t actually state that you were there, not on that thread.

    So anyway the scientific revolution and the enlightenment were a waste of time I suppose?

  14. Another titbit, Mr. Bock,
    The writer addresses the priest as “Sir” which was pre-Cullen format. Cardinal Cullen instructed Catholics to title their priests as “Father”. Previously they were “Mister”. It is my own belief that the title “Mister” and “Sir” were used in Penal times to protect the identity of priests from outsiders up to the time of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, so it may be an indication in the letter of a diehard elderly man writing. Women in my estimation would be more likely to use “Father”.

    Regards, Jeanne.

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