Monday, May 7, 2012

John D. Sheridan, Humourist of Catholic Ireland

The newspaper column is one of my favourite forms of writing. It seems comfortably ensconced between journalism and literature, the private chat and the public square, the topical and the timeless. My favourite writer of all time, the matchless GK Chesterton, used the format to near-miraculous effect. His column in the Illustrated London News ran for three decades. The free and loose format allowed full play to Chesterton's undisciplined genius. Even the title of one of his most famous newspaper articles-- Rhapsody on a Pig-- gives some idea of the scope and versatility of his talent.

The first columnist for whom I developed a passion was Keith Waterhouse, an English writer whose long career ended with his death some years ago. I found a book of his newspaper columns, Monday Thursdays, lying around the house when I was a child, and read it over and over again. I remember one column about a delicious cheese he had bought as a gift on a visit to some English country town, and every crumb of which he ended up scoffing himself. Another column described an encounter he had with a graffiti artist on the London Underground. When Waterhouse asked the surprised vandal why he was defacing a wall, the young fellow asked him what else there was to do. Waterhouse takes up the challenge and gives him a pretty long list of suggestions. I remember two of them were "eating a Mars bar" and "building a model of the Eiffel Tower out of matchsticks". When he is finished, the vandal gives Waterhouse a pitying look and says, "You're a sad git, you are."

I remember the cover of Mondays, Thursdays showed a cartoon of various figures sitting on a merry-go-round. They included Mickey Mouse and JR of Dallas fame. I think this is the poetry of the newspaper column-- it gives us a confidence in the inexhaustible variety and picturesqueness of life.

Another book of newspaper columns I enjoyed was An Irish Eye by Anthony Cronin (though I disagreed with nearly all of his opinions) and-- of course-- the majestic Best of Myles by Myles Na Gopaleen. Cruiskeen Lawn by Myles Na Gopaleen was probably the apotheosis of the newspaper column. In fact, it is difficult to even think of Cruiskeen Lawn as a newspaper column, since Myles (AKA Flann O'Brien and Brian O'Nolan) rarely paid much attention to the events of the day, or engaged in the kind of social observation and commentary that is the bread and butter of most columnists. Cruiskeen Lawn instead was a dazzling display of comic fireworks, too idiosyncratic and brilliant to bear much comparison with any other columnist.

It is a perfect contrast with the columns of John D. Sheridan, an Irish newspaper humourist whose career overlapped with that of Myles. Sheridan wrote for the Irish Independent, while Myles wrote for the Irish Times, the other major Irish national daily. Both writers were Catholics, though many readers of Myles might be surprised to learn of his religious faith. John D. Sheridan, on the other hand, was much more straightforwardly devout, writing for a magazine called The Irish Rosary and even producing a book-length defence of Catholic doctrine (The Hungry Sheep).

The biggest difference, it has to be said, was that Myles was a literary genius, while John D. Sheridan was-- not.

All the same, I am a fan of Sheridan. Reading him takes me back to an Ireland that I never knew, but for which I feel nostalgic anyway, the Ireland of the fities and sixties. (He was published from the thirties onwards, but I've mostly read his later writing.) It was a fairly complacent Ireland, or (as John Major might put it) a nation at ease with itself. The great majority of Irish people were Catholic and nationalist, while those that were not Catholic were still Christian or, at the very least, respectful of religion. The turmoil of the War of Independence, the Civil War and the Emergency were a memory, and the Troubles in the North were yet to come. Ireland was enjoying the first comforts of modernity-- cars and radios and foreign holidays-- while still retaining a vibrant national tradition.

Even the dustjackets of John D. Sheridan's books describe his humour as "gentle"-- and if it was gentle then, it is trebly gentle now. (It has to be admitted that, in this case as many others, "gentle" is sometimes a synonym for "mediocre" and "bland". But even mediocrity and blandness have their charms.)

Sheridan was not just a newspaper columnist. He also wrote poetry (especially children's poetry), biography (a biography of James Clarence Mangan, the poet) and novels. I've read only one of his novels, The Magnificent McDarney. It is a surprisingly gritty and dark work, somewhat similar to the novels of Walter Macken in style. It chronicles the last days of an alcoholic who neglects and exploits his family, a former actor who gets by on handouts and charm. The novel does not flinch from the ugliness of alcoholism, poverty or feckless fatherhood, but-- spoiler alert-- it has a happy ending, in which McDarney goes on a retreat and makes a good confession before suddenly dying. An ending like that, in which Catholic beliefs are not only a metaphor or a theme, but actually crucial to the whole point of the story, is difficult to imagine in a popular writer today.

But it is Sheridan's newspaper articles that I enjoy the most, and they are much lighter in tone. Even their titles convey a certain naivety, a lack of obliqueness that I find refreshing. Scanning down the contents page of My Hat Blew Off (one of two collections on my shelf), I find titles like Christmas Parties And Paper Hats, On Wedding Breakfasts, On Asking the Way and A Letter to Santa. They read like set titles for schoolboy essays-- an appealing association, in my view.

It has to be admitted that Sheridan was not always inspired, often stretching a theme as far as it could go and further, even within three pages. He has one feeble piece in which he describes an evening alone in the house, during which he amuses himself by ringing its various bells. (It sounds more interesting than it is.) And then there is the article in which he tries to make comic mileage out of the awkwardness of railway station farewells, a situation in which nobody (he insists) can ever think of anything to say. Artistic representations of boredom are always boring, and I no more want to read about somebody with nothing to say than I want to meet (or read) somebody with nothing to say.

But more often, Sheridan does have something to say-- usually some meditation on the mishaps of daily life, or the little pleasures of existence, or the changes in manners and in ways of life.

Writers like him are a good source of social history. In one of the articles in My Hat Blew Off-- a piece decrying the observance of the New Year-- he records that the "War on Christmas" had begun as long ago as 1951 (the year the collection was published):

It is not without significance that as New Year's becomes more and more of a feast, Christmas is becoming less and less of a feast-- in the sense that millions of people the world over no longer believe in the Founder of the feast. We have reached the stage where we commemorate a birthday without adverting to the tremendous and central fact that Someone was born; and it is on record that, some years ago, an American director of education issued instructions to his teachers, saying that every school should have a Santa Claus and a Christmas tree, but banning all songs, carols and dramatizations that "mention the Nativity" or "stress the religious significance" of a feast that has no other significance. For you cannot even use the word "Christmas" without declaring your allegiance, and even "Xmas", that miserable subterfuge, begins with a letter that is shaped like a cross.

(Incidentally, I don't myself think there is anything wrong or anti-Christian with "Xmas", and I often use it. I also don't see any conflict in celebrating both Christmas and the New Year)

One of my favourite articles is On Wedding Breakfasts, in which Sheridan lambasts the pretentiousness of modern wedding breakfasts. He writes:

Presently the guests are taken off to breakfast, and they expect, but don't get, a magnificent breakfast. They get one and a half sardines, five congealed green peas, two cubes of beetroot, several unrecognizable foreign bodies, and an immensity of knives and forks.

Sheridan is right to abhor all this, and I wish I could shake the man's hand for his own recommendation, which is exactly and even exuberantly correct:

The backbone of a breakfast, wedding or ordinary, is rashers and eggs and TEA; lashing and leavings of tea-- and from the word "go", not when one has been chilled with diced betroot and green peas. For a wedding, of course, there should be something more: since the guests expect it, and since the bride's father will have to pay through the nose whether or no. So we should have-- in addition to the basic constituents-- such trimmings as liver, sausages, black pudding, fried bread and potato cake; not all on one plate, but distributed in easily-accessible places, like side-dishes at a hunting breakfast.

Oh, all ye organizers of parties and celebrations and nosh-ups of every kind, commit these words of wisdom to memory, and never fail to heed them:

A feast should mean enormous helpings of the things you are used to, not a dismal succession of bite-sized fragments that are as unfamiliar as they are unappetizing.

A man who has made his mind up to enjoy himself thoroughly is in no mood for experiment.

Many of his articles appeal on account of their Irishness. Just One Little Word is a meditation on the Irish dialect word oul' (as in Dublin in the Rare Oul' Times). Sheridan spells it owl, and gives quite an accomplished and entertaining description of its range of meanings, its many uses and undertones. In the final paragraphs, Sheridan writes:

We Irish are supposed to wear our hearts on our sleeves; but we don't. We are terribly afraid of our hearts, and the old Gaelic reticence is still strong in us. We hide our deepest feelings, and give our emotions no words.

We can coin mighty compliments when we speak from the head, but when we speak from the heart we are tongue-tied. However, we manage to get along. We have one little word that sees us through all our emotional difficulties, and it is a fine stand-by when th'owl tongue lets us down.

 Another instance in which Sheridan gives tongue to my own views is in his tirade against eating out of doors, entitled (with usual imagination) Meals Out-of-Doors:

Country folk, with centuries of true culture behind them, never take their food out-of-doors-- unless some desperate adventure is afoot, like mowing the far meadow, or selling a cow in the neighbouring town. They may bring a can of tea to the meadow, or a few monster sandwiches to the town, but when they do they have the air of exiles, and they are always glad to get back again to the one place where a human being can eat properly...Every time you go on a picnic, you sell your birthright and become a beast of the field.

I can't cheer this loud enough! As far as I'm concerned, there are two requirements to the proper enjoyment of food and drink. One is a table beneath you, and the other is a roof above you.

Sheridan's essays usually reflect a comfortable, middle-class world-- "the office" is taken to be the typical working hours location of the reader-- but, this being Catholic Ireland, he is aware of poverty and deprivation. One article describes his experience of volunteering for the St. Vincent de Paul, while another describes a carefree down-and-out sunning himself by the O'Connell monument in Dublin.

In an article entitled By The Sea, Sheridan puts forward a thesis that I have established to my own satisfaction, by spending the entirety of a passage between Dublin and Holyhead on the deck of a ferry:

I found that man of normal intelligence can exhaust the intellectual possibilities of the sea in about twenty minutes. After that it becomes monotonous. You have seen the picture through dozens of times, and there is nothing for it but to go home to your supper.

(The sea serves very well for a backdrop when you are thinking of other things, or when you are walking along it discussing other things with another soul. But try gazing into it for any length of time and you will find that Sheridan is entirely right.)

Sheridan's most touching and enjoyable pieces are usually his forays into nostalgia, and his accounts of how times have changed. This is a valuable service that the topical writer performs for posterity; he is there to capture the passing of one way of doing things, and the introduction of another. New Lamps for Old is a fascinating description of electrification, and an affectionate tribute to the oil lamp:

One of the things I noticed during two recent runs by car to places west of the Shannon is that the lights of the cities have rivals now in the lights of the little towns. Main Street is not yet as bright as O'Connell Street, but it at least belongs to the same order of brightness...the thing is spreading. To-day the towns, tomorrow the villages, and the townlands the day after...Manus the Shop, who can sell you anything from a quarter of cough-lozenges to a bag of meal, now has electric irons in his shelves, and old men are telling each other that it was all set down in Colmcille's prophecies and the end of the world is only round the corner.

(I can remember my own uncle, a Limerick farmer, discussing Colmcille's prophecies with a neighbour, in no flippant tone.)

This is what he has to say about the oil-lamp, and it makes me envious of people in those days:

Getting the lamp going was almost as soothing as filling a pipe. The globe was breathed on and polished with soft flannel, the wick was trimmed, and women cautioned their daughters to keep the flame low until the glass had time to heat. The light did not burst on you suddenly, and your eyes were ready for the full glare when it came...

One essay, A Happy Christmas, is written in Ogden Nash-like verse and shows that Sheridan's attitude towards Christmas shopping is the same as my father's:

I want to have my old-fashioned Christmas fun and do all the things that in the best circles are no longer done.
I want to be trampled and squeezed to death, to dig with and be dug by elbows as I struggle for breath,
To move in a sardine crush of reactionary fellow-shoppers in places like the Coombe and Henry Street
Where I have to ask total strangers not to stand on my feet.
I want to be one of the gawkers who stand and look at the hawkers
To be importuned to contribute to the gaiety of nations by buying a dancing sailor or a Christmas motto or the last-- the very last-- of the Christmas decorations.

I do admire the ideal, but I am afraid it is too heroic for me. I shop ahead.

One essay, On Bridges, in which Sheridan laments the city habit of passing bridges without stopping to stare into the waters below for a meditative moment, has actually changed my own behaviour. I now usually remind myself not to pass the glories of running water, even in a bus, without pausing to look.

An essay entitled The Country Dresser praises this piece of furniture and mourns its passing. One paragraph in particular is a fine summation of the whole cultural and social world that Sheridan's columns occupy:

There were letters for answering, and ink to answer them with; Rosary beads hanging from nails, prayer books, tin "pandies" with wire handles, scones of bread, neckties that were worn only once a week, and a crock of cream with a piece of fine butter-muslin across it. You went to the dresser for everything from a drink of clean water to a dab of holy water. It answered every need and was the universal provider.

Sheridan writes perceptively and sensitively about childhood. His own children, who he calls Morsels One, Two and Three (I wonder how they liked that as they grew older?) often form the subject-matter of his articles. I liked this description of a child's love for lemonade (a love I share-- and American readers, please note that, in Ireland, lemonade is a fizzy drink, commercially produced rather than homemade):

 Children love lemonade. They love the fizz and sparkle of it, the cold cutting taste of it, and the tickle that it gives the throat as it goes down. They can almost feel the beaded bubbles crumbling between their teeth. They tire in time of iced cake and trifle, and they sometimes leave a sliver of apple tart on the plate, but they would sell their nearest and dearest for lemonade, and the party is never over until the last siphon is empty.

I like John D. Sheridan because he is sentimental. I like him because is nostalgic. I like him because he is affectionate. I enjoy reading his books as much on account of the things I know won't be there as the things that I know will be there. There will be no explicit sex references, no scatology, no blasphemy or disrespect to religion. The references to pop culture will be limited to mentioning a film star here and there. The moral universe he inhabits is one that assumes every human being has dignity and worth-- there will be no reference to "losers" or "loners" or "wasters". Perhaps these are the virtues of the public he wrote for, rather than virtues particular to his work. But the point is that John D. Sheridan gave voice to that public-- he wrote for a society whose taboos and pieties, I believe, actually created more freedom than oppression, on balance. Another man may feel oppressed in a culture where he cannot describe unsavoury bodily functions in lurid language; but I feel rather liberated in knowing that he is not going to do so.

My favourite of Sheridan's articles goes by the title A Letter to Santa, and it actually made me weep one very early morning, while I was waiting to take a bus to Dublin Airport, en route to America. I think an article like this illustrates how drastically our society has been de-Christianized. In today's Ireland it is considered acceptable to write seriously about God only if you are a licensed God-botherer; a priest, or a theologian, or a spokesman for the Iona Institute. That a humourist writing for the masses, today, might introduce a serious Christian theme is almost unthinkable.

I also love this article because it makes a case for the Santa myth in a Christian household. Many of my favourite Catholic writers, like Edward Feser and Mark Shea, discourage the propogation of the Santa myth. Chesterton, on the other hand, defended it, and Tolkien (an ardent Catholic) wrote his children letters from Father Christmas every year. Is Santa a lie? Or is he an allegory that children come to understand as they mature? I don't know the answer, but I know which answer I prefer. I certainly don't feel my faith was harmed by the claim that Santa brought me gifts at Christmas time.

Sheridan writes:

Once-- and not so long ago-- Europe, at this blessed time of year, was a blaze of lighted chuch-windows, carols meant more than carousals, and red, symbolic candles shone out from a million sills to guide your landings. But the lights grow fewer every year, and a great darkness is spreading over the face of Christendom.

You were always a legend, Santa, but now they are trying to make you a lie; and you were never a lie. You were, rather, a logical necessity. You just had to be invented. You stand, not just for a parable, but for a whole medley of parables.

You represent, for instance, the belief that prayers are heard-- and answered; the belief that time and space do not exist in the spiritual dimension; the belief that there is a Bounty that is not embarrassed or diminished by the number of clients or the immensity of their needs.

Futher on, Sheridan insists: "Nothing is surer than that the spatter of Christmas lights that once pin-pointed Europe, from Tagus to Volga will come again in God's good time."

His closing lines are even more touching, and show that, though Sheridan wrote a lot of dull and plodding pieces, now and again his prose could sing:

That is why I am still prepared, in spite of the cost of living, to act as your local representative and depot superintendent until my Illustrious Virtues [his children] find both of us out; why I am prepared to perpetuate a legend that looks like a lie but is merely a cloak for the truth; why I can say, literally and with all reverence, that the tiny things I have wrapped in brown paper and hidden away against the Vigil of the Feast are part of the Deposit of Faith.

But sure, who am I telling it to?

John D. Sheridan was by no means a great writer. But I turn to his writings with great pleasure and relief, because I believe they reflect a time and a society that had attained something like greatness-- or (if that is too bold a claim) a society that was, at least, turned towards those mysteries and dogmas that are the only truly great things in this world, and are also the only enduring pillars of a life that is fully human, humane, and happy.

(NOTE: If you liked this post-- and it seems to generate a fair amount of traffic, probably because there is so little about this author on the internet-- you might also like my review of The Hungry Sheep, Sheridan's book in defence of the Catholic faith.)


  1. I'm trying to locate essay John D wrote on visit to the hairdresser ?

  2. I'm trying to locate essay John D wrote on visit to the hairdresser ?

  3. I've looked through the books I can find at home but I can't see it. There are some of his books in the library where I work so I will look there tomorrow!

  4. This article is to be found in Sheridan's collection "The Right Time". There are some second hand copies going cheap on Amazon here:

  5. Whilst I agree with you that he may not have been he best of writers there are fewer better

    1. Very interesting statement...what in particular do you like about him?

  6. Any ideas where I can find his poem that contains the words "the sums in my head"?

    1. Sorry for the late reply, Kate. Here are the words. Someone actually asked me this before so I hunted them out back then.

      Sums in my Head

      I'm quite a good reader, and I can spell
      Big words middling and little words well;
      My writing is fair, except for the blots,
      And if I get time I can manage my tots
      --But sums in my head
      Make my face very red.

      So many pounds at five-and-four,
      Two dozen eggs, and then three more,
      Tea and coffee, mutton and ham,
      Tins of pepper, and pots of jam
      --And all in my head!
      Is it any wonder my face gets red!

      It's all very well for old Mr. Brown
      In the grocery shop at the end of town,
      For he is so big, and fat, and long,
      That he raps out the answers and never goes wrong;
      He never gets flustered, he never gets red,
      And the secret, you see, is the size of his head.

      Things would be wonderful, things would be fine,
      If I had old Brown's head and old Brown had mine!