Michael Sheehy


fl.1955 [check biog.]; there is an article in [presum.] Belfast Newsletter, c.1955, reporting on the failure of the Irish-language policy in the wake of the ‘recent debate in Kilkenny’ involving Seán O’Faolain and others; issued Divided We Stand: A Study in Partition (1955), in which he argues that the Northern Protestant had good reason for not wishing to join the South.

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Divided We Stand, with Forward by John J. Horgan (London: Faber & Faber mcmlv [1955]; NY: Putnam 1955), 104pp, [Forword, pp.9-16) [infra]; Is Ireland Dying? Culture and the Church in Modern Ireland (London: Hollis & Carter 1968).

Reviews of Divided We Stand:
Kevin Faller in Irish Book Lover, Vol. XXXII (July 1956), p. 117; T. O’F. [sic], The Irish Ecclesiastical Record [Ser. 5; Vol. LXXXIV, Nov. 1955); Henry L. Roberts, ‘Recent Books on International Relations’, in Foreign Affairs [US Council on Foreign Relations] (Jan. 1957), citing US edition of 1956,  p.364 - and styled ‘A study of Partition and its effect on Irish history since 1912. Critical of Southern Irish political leadership’ [online].

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Bryan Fanning & Tom Garvin, ‘ Michael Sheehy, Divided We Stand (1955)’, in Books That Define Ireland (Sallins: Merrion 2014), Chap. 20.

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J. O. Whyte, Understanding Northern Ireland (OUP 1991), notes that Michael Sheehy, Divided We Stand: A Study in Partition (1955) argues that the Northern Protestant had good reason for not wishing to join the South. (p.119f.)

Tom Garvin, ‘Patriots and Republicans: An Irish Evolution’, in Ireland and the Politics of Change, ed. William J. Crotty & David A. Schmitt, [Chap. 8.] (London: Longman 1998): ‘[...] The intellectual vacuity of the official line was excoriated. Michael Sheehy, in a book entitled Divided We Stand (1955), tore apart the official position on partition for a newly attentive younger generation. J. v. Kelleher, a well-known Irish-American, wrote in Foreign Affairs that a lack of intellectualism among Irish leaders, combined with an emigration-enduced apathy among the general population, was almost literally killing the nation (Kelleher, 1957.) A hatred of intellectual and of psychic freedom was finally coming to be recognised as a real threat to the entire nationalist project.’ (p.149.)

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Divided We Stand (Faber 1955)
Forword (by John J. Horgan)
‘[...] one of the most remarkable contributions to Irish political philosophy for many years. For the first time a Southern Irish writer of the younger generation has courageously faced the problem of the Partition of Ireland [and] come to conclusions at once convincing and logical. […] The fallacy that underlies and dominates the approach of our Southern politicians to Partition is the extraordinary idea that geographical and political unity are necessarily identical.’ (p.9.)
‘Reading Mr Sheehy’s impartial and detached survey of the events which led inevitably to Partition, one is truck by the way in which Carson’s integrity, courage and intelligence dominated the scene. He was, indeed, a northern Parnell, sacrificing both political and professional advancement to serve the cause of Ulster. He finally realised that a federal solution was the only way out of the Ulster impasse.’ [11]

‘Anyone who saw, as I did, the smoking inferno to which the German [13] bombs reduced Belfast in May 1941, could not doubt the tenacity, courage and loyalty of the North.’

Text (by Michael Sheehy)

‘In the short run the lives of communities may appear stable and static. But in the long run, or from an historical viewpoint, one can see powerful forces making for change.
  Not merely are the boundaries or communities variable, tending to expand or contract with time, but their character is altered by migration and conquest. This alteration can be radical, as when Western settlers colonized North America, destroying the native Indians or confining them to particular areas or reservations. History shows that all communities have been subject to such transformations, and that there can be no appeal against such changes in their evolution. For to admit such an appeal would result in a disruption of established political organization. If, as has been well said, politics is the art of the possible, a statesman should recognize and deal with present problems and realities instead of vainly trying to reconstruct the past.
  The English invasion of Ireland is merely one example of an historical phenomenon which may be illustrated from the life of any modern community. What is is speciaIy interesting and perhaps unfortunate about it is that it was neither a failure nor a success. If it had failed then Ireland would have preserved her native life. If it had succeeded then Irish life [17] would have been given a new form, derived from some kind of synthesis of Irish and English life. In either case, Ireland would now have a unified political character Regrettably, from this point of view, the English conquest of Ireland was partially successfully but partially a failure so that Ireland is divided into two distinct communities; the south adhering to native traditions and the north adhering to foreign traditions.
  The subjection of a community by force, like all forms of unreasonably interference with the liberty of individuals and groups, is, of course, anathema. But if invasion and conquest happen, sometimes one has no sane alternative to accepting the consequences. If the invading forces is partially successful and establishes an independent colony among the inhabitants of the coveted area, the divided communtity cannot afford to indulge too long in criticism of the colony’s immoral origin. For all modern communities are, in the same same, bastards or begotten by conquest. The difference between the Six and the Twenty-Six counties is not one of origin but of a time-period during which an external agency of conquest came to be accepted, entirely or substantially, by their respective inhabitants.’

 ‘It must be admitted that the Irish community has never adopted a sane and realistic view of the problem caused by its division [i.e., Partition]. It has never been willing to allow the Northern Protestant community independent and separate rights so as to make Irish unity a question of voluntary agreement on the basis of a frank discussion of the problems involved in unity. It has failed to make a fair and thorough examination of such problems, to assess the degree of harmony between Northern and Southern aims, and, what is more important, to consider the vital relation which exists between these aims and the predominant international needs of our time. The Irish community has, indeed, completely ignored the fact that the division of Ireland is the result of a fundamental internal spiritual opposition. Such an attitude distorts the essential character of the problem of Partition and makes it solution a practical impossibility.’ (p.19.)
 ‘The consistent Southern failure to appreciate the independent character of the North’s refusal to accept a Dublin government is very striking. For this independence of view, separate from, and indeed opposed to, that adopted by the British Government, is one of the conspicuous features of modern Anglo-Irish history. The distortion of vision form which springs this blindness results partly form Ireland’s obsession with the idea of British Imperialism, an obsession which remains in spite of the evident liberality of present-day British foreign policy, and partly from a preoccupation with a concept of Irish unity derived from the past. In the Southern view, the Northern polity should not exist; and therefore, by illogical inference, it has no real existence, no separate will, no rights as a separate entity. But the Partition of Ireland had to be explained as the result of some cause or force. To the Southern Anglophone that force could only be England. It may be observed that this distortion in the Southern outlook, which prevents an objective view of Anglo-Irish relations, became intensified with the growth of separatist nationalism. Introspection feeding on national pride and past humiliation, had produced an unhealthy and unbalanced state of mind, divorced as much form the sanity of a genuine Christian outlook as form the hard, unaccommodating realities of the present. […]’ (p.78.)

 ‘Extreme nationalism has led the South to view the problem of Irish unity exclusively from her own point of view, and to [80] require that the North adapt herself to a Southern policy which is uninfluenced by any consideration of Northern needs. To such an extreme has this unilateral approach been taken that the North is, presumably, expected to adopt a doctrinaire and synthetic Gaelic culture instead of the culture she now enjoys. The Protestant North is absolutely hostile to a culture which embodies exclusively the view and way of life of a community traditionally regarded as an enemy. Such a culture would exclude the regional culture of the Northern community, which has its roots in Protestantism and Non-conformity, in its divergent political history and, above all, in the immediate and practical realities of the present. Obliviously, a Southern cultural policy consistent with the aim of Irish unity should be one seeking to achieve a synthesis of Northern and Southern life, and not one which, by definition, excludes the North. / A Southern Gaelic policy has not even the justification of being successful within the limits of the Twenty-Six Counties.’ [… 81]

 ‘The adoption of the Gaelic concept of a national culture represented in effect the victory of nationalism over Catholicism. The emphasis was not on our common humanity but on our distinctly Gaelic character, not on our membership of the community of nations but on the unique and exclusive nature of the Irish people and the Irish state.’ (p.83.)
 ‘Moreover, all attempts to give the Gaelic cultural concept a precise significance and content were influences by the prevailing Irish Puritanism which reduced it to a naïve and immature idea of life, suggesting Arcadian simplicity with a minimum of spiritual activity, philosophical, artistic and scientific. Our Revivalists do not ask us to embrace an hypothetical Gaelic culture of the past but rather a synthetic culture of their own devising, Gaelic indeed in language but falsified and sentimentalised out of any relation to life as it was, is, or could be lived. Such was the popular and operative concept of a Gaelic culture which, if taken seriously, would amount to frustration. It was understandable and no doubt of use in the context of the Anglo-Irish struggle; but when Ireland took her place among the community of nations and [83] was faced with the conflicting values and complexities of modern life, it proved utterly inadequate.’ (pp.82-83.)

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Why the Gaelic Revival Has Failed” (c.1955)

Sheehy begins by noting that at the Gaelic festival in Dublin no more than thirty were present at any time, and most of these were competitors; he speaks of recent debate in Kilkenny involving Sean O’Faolain, failing Irish-speaker numbers, and the status of Irish as ‘a school subject rather than a native tongue’. [...]


‘The philosophy of culture which underlies the Gaelic revival is vague and negative. It reveals a reluctance to face the problems of today, a failure to define itself in terms of a positive social ethic and aesthetic, which is indispensable for people who must come to terms with modern influences and solve modern problems.
 It is the absence of such practical values which explains the paradox that, with an increasing knowledge of the Irish language, there is a diminishing wish to speak it and to identify oneself with the mentality which underlies it.
 The intellectual and emotional food of the modern Irish child derives mostly from external sources as represented by the more sentimental and vulgar elements in the cinema, radio, magazine, and newspaper, and this type of experience does not lend itself to expression in Ireland. Finn McCoul, in spite of his gargantuan achievements, cannot compete with Davy Crockett.
 The negative attitude characteristic of the Gaelic revival is conveyed clearly by Mr. Ernest Blythe speaking as President of the National Convention of the Irish Language ...:

“In a world of immense cultural dust-storms it [the Irish language] provies a shelter-belt for native writers and thinkers who will give detailed study to the problems and psychological needs of the community to which they belong, and prevent a small ... country being made an intellectual and emotional desert by erosion.”

Mr. Bythe’s hopes that Eire’s cultural life could be isolated through the spread of the language is poorly founded. A language revival no matter how successful could not eliminate those world contacts so considerable to-day. [...]
 Eire’s present economic difficulties show how absurd has been the attempt to achieve material independence. This ideal has led to an utterly wrong approach to industry, giving priority to manufacturers and leaving Eire’s main resources - agriculture and fisheries - in a comparatively backward condition. [...]
 It is hard to feel enthusiasm for a national concept which fails to provide work and a reasonable standard of living and which forces one in four young people to emigrate. [...] An escapist culture is bound to fail because it does not face realities. Life in Eire is at the mercy of external influences.
 Yet the revivalists who aim to create a distinctive Irish life, have no clear social policy beyond the revival of the Irish language. Over the entire social field, if one excludes economy and some of the practical art forms such as the song and dance, it would be hard to find a native idea or ideal which offers practical inspiration. [...] The Gaelic revivalists do not appreciate enough that Irish life is an integral part of the European and that, consequently, it must have a clear reference to these European developments which have a decisive importance for the world to-day.’

[Sheehy further speaks of -]
‘[...] recent attempts to enforce a world-wide acceptance of anti-Christian ideologies’ and remarks: ‘The revivalists did not object to Irish neutrality in the last war of Nazi-German aggression. Nor do they now object to Eire’s continued neutrality in the conflict between Russia and the West [a reference to non-membershi of NATO].
 Yet it should be obvious that a Russian victory will destroy any hope whatever of realising an Irish culture in any traditional sense of the term. The real problem which faces national cultures to-day is not one of deliberate isolation, of resisting the pull into the main-stream of world affairs. On the contrary, it is the need to enter, expand, and direct its central current.
 If that be so, the main intention and influence of the Gaelic revival stands condemned.
 It may be objected that its more liberal followers, unlike Mr. Blythe, are sympathetic to humanist culture and appreciate the need for some kind of integration. Such followes must now be forced to admit that the predominant influence of the Gaelic revival has been to create a narrow regionalist outlook in Eire, and that there is no immediate prospect of a more realist attitude to bring that reactionary and dangerous regionalism to an end.’ [End.]
Source: cutting, Belfast Newsletter, c.1955; tipped into copy of Divided We Stand (1955).

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See also an article purporting to develop Sheehy’s critique of Irish nationalism in the context of an argument for the necessity for Partition - as attached.