John Sheehan was born at Auckland, New Zealand, on 5 July 1844, the son of David Sheehan and his wife, Ellen Byrne. His father, a Warkworth carpenter, had emigrated from Ireland to Melbourne, Australia, about 1840, subsequently travelling to Auckland in 1841 or 1842. The Sheehan family lived in the Warkworth area and David was later the landlord of the Governor Browne Hotel in Auckland. Here the young Sheehan met military men such as Thomas McDonnell, Arthur Mercer and Gustavus von Tempsky; George Grey was a visitor. David Sheehan's Irish cousins at Riverhead had married Māori and John may have been bilingual from childhood.
It was Sheehan's mother, Ellen, a former Irish farm servant, who was the strongest influence on young John. She was renowned as a woman of 'unostentatious benefactions and … great kindliness of heart', determined to give her talented and precocious son an unusually thorough education. He was taught by Richard O'Sullivan, the former headmaster of a Catholic school and a convinced secularist.
Sheehan served part time in 1863 and 1864 as a sergeant and paymaster of the Auckland Troop of the Royal Cavalry Volunteers under the patronage of Thomas Russell. He enjoyed guarding Government House and dashing about Auckland and Ōtāhuhu on his horse. He also acted as war correspondent for the New Zealander.
Articled to the Crown solicitor F. W. Merriman in 1862, Sheehan completed his articles with R. W. Wynn and J. B. Russell in 1867. As a junior to J. C. MacCormick, he made his mark among the Auckland legal fraternity during the lengthy hearing of the Ōrākei land case in 1869. He also developed close links with Ngāti Whātua chiefs Wiremu Rewiti and Pāora Tūhaere.
Already Sheehan was well known in the more cultured circles of rough-and-tumble frontier Auckland. As founder, secretary and moving spirit behind the Auckland Catholic Institute, he soon gained a reputation for organisational, debating and musical talents, and for social skills considered extraordinary in the product of a relatively unlettered Irish Catholic fraternity. The institute, founded in 1860, boasted a large library and a non-sectarian membership policy. Dancing as well as debate took place, stimulating one sour wowser to remark that the institute was a cloak for immoral pursuits. Certainly it was the venue for Sheehan's apprenticeship in amorous adventures. Throughout his career, he was to display a fondness for both hard liquor and Māori (more occasionally Pākehā) women.
Sheehan became involved in Auckland provincial politics in 1869 as the campaign manager for Superintendent John Williamson. He succeeded his father as the member for the Northern Division on the Auckland Provincial Council from 1870 to 1873, and represented Hokianga from 1873 to 1876. He served at various times as provincial solicitor, provincial treasurer, gold fields secretary and provincial secretary. Sheehan was an acute and competent legal draftsman and, ironically, was the progenitor of the Licensing Act 1871, regulating liquor licences and public houses. He remained a convinced supporter of provincial institutions, and was the most able young member of the Auckland radical group who, in 1874, persuaded Grey to end his political retirement to assume the superintendency of Auckland in order to save the provinces.
John Sheehan's political views, formed early in his career, remained remarkably consistent. Elected to the House of Representatives as the member for Rodney in 1872, he stated his creed in one of the best maiden speeches ever delivered in the House. As the first native-born Pākehā parliamentarian, Sheehan began by extolling the virtues of Britain's colonies and advocating the development of national feeling and patriotic sentiment among New Zealanders. He stressed the need for more New Zealand-born to control affairs in this 'wretchedly governed Colony'. He was, he said, 'but a "raw provincial" ' compared to those who had administered the affairs of the colony. They had 'come and gone like shadows without permanent interest in the country', while he was the first true colonial who would take his place in Parliament.
Incipient nationalist sentiment was linked to a radical social and political vision. Sheehan's parents had experienced religious prejudice, political repression and the evil of landlordism in Ireland. He believed that New Zealand's English, Irish and Scottish colonists could teach Britain a lesson in forbearance and religious tolerance. He was an unremitting advocate of secular education as the only system that would fuse together the different religious elements in New Zealand.
On a practical level, in 1872 Sheehan actively supported in the Auckland Provincial Council the first secular education act in New Zealand. Later he supported the Education Act 1877 in the House of Representatives, an action which aroused the ire of a strident body of Catholic opinion led by Bishop Patrick Moran. Education should, in Sheehan's view, produce social cohesion and help break the runholders' virtual monopoly on political power. They had, he said, come to regard themselves as a governing class, and had denied 'the bulk of the common people' the right to anything more than a basic proficiency in education 'for fear that they would get to know too much.'
Sheehan's youthful brashness and colonial high spirits irritated older gentlemen of the parliamentary club. He advocated a widening of the franchise (although he opposed female suffrage), the disappearance of separate Māori representation, the abolition of plural voting and the formation of equal electoral districts. Many of his views made him the natural representative of the outlying subsistence farmers of Auckland province, and of the miners of Thames, the electorate he represented from 1879 to 1884. He believed that small farmers were the backbone of the country and that their interests should be promoted through public works expenditure, a continuous stream of migration, and waste land sales, all filtered through provincial structures.
In common with other radicals, Sheehan saw the question of land ownership as crucial to the development of a new society in the colonies. Like his mentor, Grey, he was a bitter opponent of landlordism, and advocated the purchase of Māori land at a rate sufficient to give moderate amounts of land to men of moderate means; this would avoid class warfare and, ultimately, through numbers and taxation, break the hold of big pastoral capital in Hawke's Bay and the South Island.
Opposition to the runholders, rather than any genuine sympathy for the Māori, may have led Sheehan to act as legal counsel to the Repudiation movement in the 1870s. Hawke's Bay Māori, led by Karaitiana Takamoana and supported by Purvis and Henry Russell, claimed that men such as J. D. Ormond, Donald McLean and J. N. and Samuel Williams had swindled them out of many thousands of acres of the Heretaunga plain. Sheehan's clever, cutting, analytical advocacy won a moral victory but The Apostles kept the lands. Nevertheless, Sheehan's mana, assisted by his writings in the movement's newspaper, Te Wānanga, and by his sincere friendship with Takamoana, increased among Māori and their political allies. His fees for these services were not low, but his habits were expensive and his generosity unbounded. He made nothing from either speculation or chicanery, and acquired some powerful political enemies.
With Grey's election as premier in 1877, Sheehan was appointed native minister and minister of justice. This gave him, he believed, a unique opportunity to participate in the most difficult and critical area in New Zealand politics. He considered land policy to be cumbrous, costly and impossible for Māori to understand. Indeed, he believed in Crown right of pre-emption, the elimination of middlemen and speculators – although not lawyers – in the purchase proceedings, and an end to the type of corruption and degradation that had marked land court proceedings at Cambridge and Napier. He came to believe that the wars of the 1860s had been a mistake, and that the expenditure of 'millions in flour and sugar' would have yielded better results among a people who, Sheehan maintained, had not yet arrived at a proper appreciation of the full value of their lands.
Sheehan's policy of reliance on Crown purchase of Māori land differed from that of his predecessor, Donald McLean, who encouraged private buyers. Sheehan and Grey also abandoned McLean's cautious approach and stepped up meetings with Māori leaders in order to open the King Country, Taranaki and the Thames (Waihou) valley to European settlement. Unhappily, what was expected to be a creative and effective term of office ended in violent controversy, and eventually led to armed intervention in Taranaki.
Negotiations were opened in 1878 with Tāwhiao, the Māori King; it was hoped that European settlement in the King Country would accelerate racial assimilation and thus accumulate political capital in the North Island. A meeting near the Pūniu River in May 1878, lavish circuses at Hikurangi and at Waitara in June 1878, and a meeting at Te Kōpua in May 1879 initially failed in both their political and economic objectives. Sheehan, who had detected in some Māori, particularly Rewi Maniapoto, a desire to sell land, was nevertheless perceptive in his tactics of using a combination of negotiation, flattery and subsidy to undermine the King movement. The King Country was eventually opened up only after Sheehan's death.
Sheehan faced immense obstacles in his attempt to place the acquisition of Māori lands in the hands of the Crown, and to purge the disposal process of some dubious personalities and individual corruption. From 1869 to 1876 McLean had constructed a personal fiefdom in the Native Department, almost separate from the rest of the government. Although Sheehan shifted the Mair brothers and C. O. B. Davis, he faced continuous problems with a quasi-independent bureaucracy. He also continued, in a far more public and extravagant manner, the old devices of personal patronage and policy making. These made him politically vulnerable to the attacks of those Hawke's Bay and South Island interests and individuals that he had offended in the past.
Sheehan was a victim of high expectations which could not be fulfilled. He was, too, a member of a government composed of disparate territorial and sectional interests led by an autocratic radical (Grey), which was attempting to govern a colony beset by severe economic difficulties. Nevertheless, his handling of the land issue in Taranaki was, to say the least, inept. The prophet Te Whiti-o-Rongomai had established his headquarters at Parihaka and had embarked on a process of non-violent opposition to the government's survey and subdivision of confiscated Māori lands on the Waimate plain. It was thought that Sheehan's considerable negotiating skills, together with his knowledge of Māori and a compassionate use of state authority, would dissolve Te Whiti's resistance and lead to a lasting settlement. Sheehan failed the test.
After a disastrous meeting between Te Whiti and Sheehan on 22 March 1879, confrontation accelerated. Sheehan had asked the surveyors, employed by another department, to make and map reserves for the Māori. But the latter were never told this and it is unlikely that Sheehan and the government ever intended that they should be. The survey was deliberately provocative, the report of James Mackay after his visit to a conciliatory Te Whiti was suppressed, and the squalid and illegal process of arrest and detention without trial was begun. Whether in fact Te Whiti would have yielded is problematical; he regarded Sheehan as no more than a clever Crown swindler 'governed by the basest of Maori women and stupified by swallowing the strongest of fire-water.' Sheehan regarded the prophet as a fanatic and a fraud, with whom it was impossible to do business. And business was not done; Parihaka was destroyed by the Constabulary Field Force in November 1881. Sheehan approved of the violence, which had its roots in his own failure.
Sheehan's failure in Taranaki left him vulnerable to criticism and led to the effective demise of his political career. William Fox's attack on him in Parliament on 18 July 1879 made much of his personal conduct, which 'lowered the dignity of the Queen's Government and the Pakeha in the eyes of the Maoris', encouraged nocturnal orgies and set the country ringing with scandalous stories. Grey's defence of Sheehan, which poured cold water on Fox's irritating rectitude, was strong and sustained. But the damage was done.
The eclipse of Sheehan paralleled that of the government itself, which had been damaged by Grey's increasingly autocratic behaviour and the consequent defection of Robert Stout and John Ballance. Sheehan's mixture of personal foibles and extravagances (he had easily the largest expense account of any minister and overspent his departmental budget by £10,000 in his last year in office) made it peculiarly vulnerable to attack and smear.
Out of office after October 1879, Sheehan returned to private practice, specialising in land transfer. He negotiated an agreement for F. A. Whitaker and E. B. Walker with John Bryce, his successor, to secure the Pātetere block. Sheehan consummated the deal, which eventually allowed the Pātetere syndicate to resell most of the 226,390 acres it bought from the Māori for £55,081 to the ignorant English investors in the Thames Valley and Rotorua Railway Company for £230,000. The purchase of this land led to a vitriolic attack on Sheehan by Grey in 1880. Hurt and astonished, Sheehan was for the last five years of his life a bitter man: 'My own friends have tried and made me a scapegoat, to saddle on my back all the sins of their administration, and to drive me forth into the wilderness. But, Sir, I decline to go.' He went, nevertheless.
Defeated by Ormond in a bitter contest for Napier in 1884, Sheehan, in decline, narrowly won the Tauranga seat in 1885. He did not hold it long. After a series of illnesses he died of pneumonia and cirrhosis of the liver, aged only 40 years, at Petane (Bay View), near Napier, on 13 June 1885. His remains were taken by the government steamer Hinemoa to Auckland where, after a service at St Patrick's Cathedral, he was interred in the Catholic section of Symonds Street cemetery. A motorway now concretes his grave. In the same cathedral on 14 January 1882, Sheehan had married 15-year-old Lucy Caroline Young. There were no children. Lucy Sheehan married Herbert Wardell at Napier on 24 September 1890.
Sheehan was a very short, stocky man. Sunken eyes and an aquiline nose were surrounded by a very full, black but latterly greying beard and moustache, and his short hair was parted in the centre. After his death the tributes to him from all members of the House were particularly generous, although those from Stout and Grey were somewhat hypocritical and one can detect an air of relief that a political career which had combined Sheehan's natural talents, wit, good humour and marvellous charm was no more.
In his short life Sheehan's youth, class, religion, colonial brashness and frontier habits marked him out as a luminous forerunner of a new breed of colonial politician. Acute, personally charming and sociable, invariably persuasive, fluent and florid, a great public orator as well as a superb political organiser and numbers man, Sheehan was a brilliant failure. In the most difficult portfolio of an unstable ministry, he lacked the opportunity and also the application which might have ensured him a lasting historical reputation. As it is, he resembles a comet which flashed, briefly and erratically, across the colonial firmament before being snuffed out.