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Nicholas Sheehy: Wikis


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Nicholas Sheehy (1728–1766) was an 18th century Irish Roman Catholic priest who was executed on charge of accessory to murder. Father Sheehy was a prominent opponent of the British Penal Laws, which persecuted Catholics in Ireland.



Nicholas Sheehy was born in Fethard, Ireland, near Clonmel and grew up near Newcastle on the Tipperary and Waterford border.

His father was Francis, son of John of Drumcollogher.

Nicholas Sheehy had a sister, Catherine (married as Catherine Burke), who later erected his gravestone. He also had a brother, William of Baunefoune, who died in 1775.

Nicholas had a cousin (Edmund Buck), who was hanged in 1775 after appearing at Fr. Nicholas' trial.

Education, career and opposition to Penal Laws

Nicholas Sheehy was educated in France and became the parish priest for Clogheen.

During this time, famine caused much suffering and death in Ireland. It is estimated that over 400,000 perished from malnutrition.[1]

Adding to the social unrest was a rumour that the Catholic French would invade Ireland. Part of this concern stemmed from the emigration of Irish soldiers who had left for France after the Treaty of Limerick known as the Flight of the Wild Geese. The concern was that these Irish would lobby the French monarch to support the Catholics in Ireland. This led to new persecutions of Catholic Irish and their priests.[2]

Father Sheehy spoke out against the Penal Laws, the eviction of poor tenants by landlords, the elimination of common land by enclosure, and tithe taxes. These tithe taxes were for the Protestant church and Father Sheehy believed they were unjust since they were levied against the poorest residents (Catholics) to benefit the wealthiest (Protestants, including Protestant ministers). Furthermore, Father Sheehy was opposed to the British occupation of Irish lands.

Sadly for Father Sheehy, the Holy See started to support the Hanoverian dynasty from January 1766, which led on to gradual reforms of the Penal Laws over the next 60 years.

Accusations and trials

First trial (conspiracy against the State)

Father Sheehy's beliefs led him into conflict with local Protestant leaders around Clonmel. In time, he was accused of conspiracy against the State (for involvement in a Whiteboys riot that destroyed a wall that prevented access to common land near Clogheen). After a fair trial the accused were acquitted.

New allegations

Following his acquittal, Father Sheehy was accused of involvement in the disappearance or murder of an informer. A reward of £50 was offered by the government for allegations that led to conviction in this case.

Father Sheehy went into hiding at this time.

Second trial (High Treason)

In 1764, the government issued a Proclamation and offered £300 reward for the capture of Father Sheehy. When he read the Proclamation, Sheehy wrote from one of his hiding places to Thomas Waite (Under-Secretary for Ireland) and offered to surrender only if he would be tried in Dublin. The offer was accepted and the trial took place on 10 February 1766, when he was acquitted of High Treason.

Immediately after his acquittal, Father Sheehy was charged with murder.

Third trial (murder) and death sentence

On 12 March 1766, Father Sheehy was tried at Clonmel for being an accessory in the murder of John Bridge.

Many of the witnesses who had previously testified against Father Sheehy also testified in this trial, in addition to Mrs. Mary Brady (Moll Dunlea), an "abandoned character".[3] The evidence was widely considered as fabricated by local landlords and the Rector of Clogheen in south County Tipperary.

Evidence was presented in favour of Father Sheehy, that he was "a respectable man and a man of property" by a Mr Keating, who said that Father Sheehy was in his house at the time of the murder. Mr Keating's testimony was dismissed in court by a Protestant clergyman (Mr Hewitson), who declared Keating was unreliable. Mr Keating was then arrested and sent to Kilkenny Gaol based on Mr Hewitson's allegations to frustrate his giving evidence.

Father Sheehy was convicted and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. He asserted his innocence before his death of all the charges made against him. He said in his final speech, after sentenced to death, that he was being put to death for a crime which had never been committed; the murder victim (John Bridge) was alleged to be in Cork after the date of the "crime" and it is thought that he emigrated to Newfoundland.

Father Sheehy's attorney, on hearing the sentence of death, turned to the jurors and said, "If there is any justice in heaven, you will die roaring."[1]


In 1766, Father Sheehy was hanged, drawn and quartered at Clonmel on 15 March 1766.

Others accused were also convicted for the murder of John Bridge and executed (3 May 1766), including Edmond Sheehy, cousin to the priest.

Father Sheehy was hanged on a scaffold in Clonmel opposite St. Peters and Paul's Church, where there was a plaque to commemorate his death. His head was severed and stuck on a spike over Clonmel Gaol as a warning against agrarian violence. His head remained above the porch at Clonmel jail for ten[2] or twenty [1] years.

His sister Catherine regularly visited the jail and was eventually given the head. She took it home in a bag under her arm and had it buried with the rest of his body beside the ruins of the old church of Shanrahan.


To this day, Father Sheehy is regarded as a martyr. In the late 1800s and early 1900s there was an effort to have him canonised[4].

His trial and execution inflamed and polarized nationalist opinion, and had a great effect on his cousin Edmund Burke.

People visited his grave at Shanrahan cemetery near Clogheen to take clay, because it was rumoured to have healing powers. It is claimed that out of respect, birds didn't peck his head for the twenty years it was left on the spike.


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