Gerald O’Donovan (1871-1942)


Life
[bapt. Jeremiah; Fr. Jerry O’Donovan; later Gerald O’Donovan], b. Co. Down, the son of a pier-builder, originally of Bandon where he farmed sixty acres, and married piously Catholic Margaret Regan; his father engaged successfully as clerk then building contractor on Bantry pier and other Board of Works undertakings; formerly in the army; ed. in national schools variously in Co. Cork, Co. Galway, and Co. Sligo; secondary ed. Ardnaree College, Killala; entered Maynooth, Sept. 1889 [var. 1885]; commenced theology, 1892; undistinguished educational career; briefly joined Jesuits, 1893; ord. 23 June 1895, for diocese of Clonfert on nomination of Bishop John Healy; appt. curate at Kilmalinogue and Lickmolassy (var. Portumna), 1895-97; appt. Administrator at Loughrea under Bishop Healy, 1897-1904; contrib. ‘The Celtic Revival of Today’ to Irish Ecclesiastical Record, 1899;
 
became noted liberal and spokesman in favour of Catholic social action, the Gaelic League and Co-op. Movement; estab. St. Brendan’s Total Abstinence Society; engaged William Scott for the design of Loughrea, with stained-glass by Sarah Purser, Jack Yeats, and a controversial statue of the Blessed Virgin by John Hughes, who also completed an altar-piece of the Risen Christ’; brought John McCormack to sing in the cathedral, introducing him to Edward Martyn, also much involved; brought the Irish National Theatre to Loughrea, 1901; addressed National Literary Society, 1901; elected Connacht rep. on Co-operative Society exec. Committee, 1901; addressed annual meetings of Maynooth Union, 1902; contrib. to New Ireland Review, ed., Tom Finlay, SJ; joined committee of Gaelic League (though he did not speak Irish), 1903-05;
 
cited by name in Horace Plunkett’s Ireland in the New Century (1904); left priesthood due to increasingly strained relations with Thomas O’Dea, a clerical conservative who became Bishop of Clonfert when Healy moved to Tuam, 1904; conducted his last baptism, Aug. 1904; dismissed from Administratorship, Dec. 1904; quit Loughrea, and travelled to Dublin, then to London from George Moore from George Moore with letters of introduction to T. Fisher Unwin [presum. reader Edward Garnett] from George Moore, who used his experience in The Lake and short stories; acted as reader to Collins, and signed up Henry James; divided time between London and Dublin;
 
further alienated from Catholic Church by papal Bull, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, condemning Modernism (1907); attacked Catholic educational policy in English Review; travelled to America for Plunkett, Oct. 1909; served as sub-Warden of Toynbee Hall, a workers’ education institution (East End); visited Hugh Law, Nationalist MP for Donegal, and fell in love with Beryl Vershoyle, 15 yrs his junior and a member of the Northern Protestant gentry; m. Whitechapel, 15 Oct. 1910; dg. Brigid b. Dec. 1912; issued Father Ralph (1913), an autobiographical novel giving depressing view of real conditions in Maynooth and rural Ireland - ‘Bunnahone’ standing for Loughrea;
 
a son, Dermod, b. June 1913; issued Waiting (1914), a study of Ne Temere in which Maurice Blake, the independent-minded nationalist candidate, meets opposition from the clergy and choses between Catholicism and his love for Alice Baron; joined British Army on temporary commission (Humber Garrison), and invalided out after four months; briefly worked in Ministry of Munitions, resigning in Oct. 1916; manager and reader for Geoffrey Collins in London; Mary, dg., b. April 1918; joined Italian Section of Dept. of Propaganda, London, with [Emilie] Rose Macauley as his Italian-speaking secretary, embarking on an increasingly intimate relationship;
 
issued Conquest (1920), concerning the attempt of the Daly family to regain its ancestral property, a novel taken as pro-Sinn Féin by English reviewers; How They Did It (Feb. 1920), a celebration of the war-effort on the Home Front; briefly visited Italy, 1920-21; issued Vocations (1921), in which Johanna Curtin aspire to place their daughters Winnie and Kitty in the local convent, condemning Kitty to life in ‘a tomb’; The Holy Tree (1922), dealing with issues of sexual and emotional rights in peasant Ireland and written in Syngese; engaged as reader for American publishers and for Collins with special responsibility for novels of Rose Macauley; private secretary to Horace Plunkett, 1928;
 
abandoned work for Royal Society for the Deaf through poor health; worked of Czech Refugee Committee, 1939; received serious head injury in car-accident with Rose Macaulay in Lake District; moved with family to Albury, Surrey; death of dg. Mary, 1941; operated on for cancer, Feb. 1942; died of cancer, 26 July; buried Albury; anon.; tribute by Macauley printed in The Times; obit. in Times Lit. Supplement, 15 Aug.; no Irish notices. DIB DIW IF IF2 FDA DUB OCIL

[ top ]

Works
  • Father Ralph (London: Macmillan 1913); Do., rep. with biog. intro. by John F. Ryan (Dingle: Brandon 1993), 377pp. [0-86322-174-2];
  • Waiting (London: Macmillan 1914; NY: Mitchell, Kennerly 1915);
  • Conquest (London: Constable 1920; NY: Putnam 1921);
  • How They Did It (London: Methuen 1920);
  • Vocations (London: Martin Secker; NY: Boni & Liveright 1922);
  • The Holy Tree (London: Heinemann 1922).

[ top ]

Criticism
  • Peter Costello, The Heart Grown Brutal: The Irish Revolution in Literature from Parnell to the Death of W. B. Yeats, 1891-1939 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1977; NJ: Rowman & Littlefield 1978), pp.59-64;
  • Norrys O’Connor, ‘The Irish Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, in Changing Ireland (Harvard 1924);
  • John Wilson Foster, Fictions of the Irish Literary Revival (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan/Syracuse UP 1987) [q.pp.];
  • John Cronin, ‘Father Ralph’, in Anglo-Irish Novel: 1900-1940 [ Vol. II] (1990), pp.61-67;
  • John Devitt, review of Father Ralph [Brandon rep.], in Irish Literary Supplement (Spring 1994).
  • Catherine Candy, Priestly Fictions, popular Irish Novelists of the Early 20th Century (Dublin: Wolfhound 1995), 224pp.;
  • James H. Murphy, Catholic Fiction and Social Reality in Ireland, 1873-1922 (Conn: Greenwood Press 1997), ‘Intelligentsia Fiction, 1900-1922’ [Pt. II], pp.147-49 [et passim].
See also Jane Emery, Rose Macauley: A Writer’s Life (London 1991) and sundry reviews and remarks, in Commentary [infra].

[ top ]

Commentary
John Butler Yeats
(J. H. Hone, ed. Letters, 1944): I have read Father Ralph and am indeed delighted with it - particularly towards the conclusion. All through there is intensity and yet what delicacy and what restraint! I wish he had told us a little more of Hilda the mother - I mean before the Bishop and the priests took entire possession of her, about this part of her life he talks only in generalities and apparently has no facts to go on, or does not wish to reveal them. (p.119.)

[ top ]

Sean O’Faolain, The Irish: A Character Study (1947), p.114; in his discussion of priests in Irish novels, O’Faolain remarks, ‘O’Donovan’s animus is a professional dissatisfaction with the Church: he had Modernist leanings.’ (p.114). Note also O’Faolain’s comments in the course of writing on George Tyrrell in The Irish Times (3 April 1943), where he called O’Donovan the only other Irishman who seemed to be keenly responsive to ‘that subtle and penetrating and attractive idea’ of reconciling science with Catholic dogma (John F. Ryan, intro., Father Ralph, 1993 edn.)

[ top ]

James H. Murphy, Catholic Fiction and Social Reality in Ireland, 1873-1922, Conn: Greenwood Press 1997, Part II: ‘Intelligentsia Fiction, 1900-1922’: ‘If Joyce’s Bildungsroman enacts a decisive break with Catholic Ireland then O’Donovan’s traces a gradual disillusionment with it. The narrative follows Ralph’s own struggle to cope with the positive and negative aspects of his experience of Irish life. It is a process that involves him in testing the adequacy of several different interpretative paradigms for the experience he is undergoing. He is brought up as an implicit believer in traditional Catholic Ireland. As a young adult he changes into a believer in a nnew liberal Catholic Ireland. Finally, he becomes a pessimistic acceptor of the irreformability of Catholic Ireland. [/…; &c.] (p.147.)

Vivian Mercier, ‘Irish Literary Revival’, in W. E. Vaughan, ed., A New History of Ireland: Ireland under the Union II, 1870-1921, Vol. VI (Clarendon Press 1996) [Chap. XIII], gives summary of Father Ralph with remarks concluding: ‘O’Donovan does not show much gift for character-drawing here, though he later wrote five other [379] nvoels; he might have been better advised to tell his story quite frankly as autobiography, but he does give us an insight into the catholic church in ireland quite different from Moore’s on the one hand and Canon Sheehan’s on the other.’ (pp.379-80.)

[ top ]

Conor Cruise O’Brien, Ancestral Voices, Religion and Nationalism in Ireland (Poolbeg 1994), recounts that one J. O’Donovan wrote a letter of protest to The Leader (12 Jan. 1901), taking issue with the editor D. P. Moran’s statement that ‘[e]ven Mr. Yeats does not understand us, he has yet to write one line that will strike a chord of the Irish heart.’ By way of answer, O’Donovan recounts ‘an instance to the contrary that struck me very much’, viz., ‘I have a dainty volume of Mr Yeats’s collected poems. One evening I missed my book from its accustomed place. I asked my housekeeper if she saw it. In some confusion she said it was in the kitchen where she had taken it to read one of the poems –The Ballad of Peter Gilligan – to a neighbour. “To tell you the truth, sir, the two of us cried over I.”’ [56] O’Brien seems not to imagine that the writer might be Gerald O’Donovan [formerly Jeremiah], author of Fr. Ralph.

[ top ]

Tim P. Foley (Notes & Queries, June 1998), pp.232-33: Foley gives notice of an unpublished letter of W. B. Yeats to Gerald O’Donovan in which Yeats thanks the latter for his letter long after their earlier meeting in Loughrea, when the latter had mentioned a broken pane of glass in the fanlight ‘made by a drunken woman who had some distaste for the Bishop’, and which Yeats simply ascribed to urban boredom. The letter is in the possession of the Ryans, of Galway. (Bibl., John F. Ryan, ‘Gerald O’Donovan, Priest, Novelist, and Irish Revivalist’, in Journal of Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, xvliii, 1966), pp.1-47; cited here at p.29).

[ top ]

[Síofra O’Donovan], ‘Clergyman’s Flight to Literature and Love: Loughrea Cathedral, Galway, and its links to novelist Gerard O’Donovan’, in ‘Literary Landmarks’ [column], The Irish Times (28 July 2001) [Weekend Sect.], remarks on his distaste for convention; quotes his speech before the Maynooth Union in 1900: ‘go into your churches and you will find the more pretentious of the statues come from Italy and Munich. If you say that you do not like the work, the good priest looks you all over with a smile of a superior pity and reduces you to your proper level by the clinching remark: “Why, this statue was made at Carrara.”’; entered Maynooth, 1885; ord. 1895; second curacy at Loughrea, a town of ‘squalor, poverty and chronic wretchedness’ (Bishop Healy of Clonfert); fnd. St. Brendan Total Abstinence Society; mem. of Co-operative Society, Gaelic League and Irish Lit. Theatre; received orders to reduce lecturing and travel and concentrate on parish duties; left parish in 1904; Western News reported: ‘The scene at the Railway Station when Father O’Donovan was about to depart was a remarkable one. Long before the train started, the platform and the road leading from the town were crammed with young and old, anxious to get his blessing before he left, and several knelt on the ground to receive it, and as the train steamed from the station cheer after cheer was raised for the good Soggarth [...] ’; penniless in London in 1908; fell in love with Beryl Verschoyle, fg. Fermanagh colonel; m. 1910; Bridget, dg., sec. to T. S. Eliot at Faber; wrote Lovesong of Bridget J. O’Donovan to him (and was ignored); Bridget believed her father to have one br., drowned at sea; in reality hi was one of six; Father Ralph deemed a great Irish novel by Church of Ireland Gazette and a libel on the Irish clergy and people by the Freeman’s Journal; long-term affair with Rose Macauley, Bloomsbury novelist; Frank Harris celebrated The Holy Tree as a book of love; Virginia Woolff regarded him as a second-rate novelist; on his death Beryl wrote in her diary: ‘Gerard left me in the morning’; O’Faolain saw O’Donovan as ‘a romantic sport - out of the boglands, defying Rome, writing so well (The Bell).

[ top ]

Derek Hand, review of Gerard Donovan, Schopenhauer’s Telescope (Scribner), reviewed in The Irish Times (24 May 2003), Weekend, p.12’[...] Gerard Donovan is a thrice-published Irish poet, and, he brings a poet’s eye and sensibility to language and detail to this, his first novel. His characters’ concerns the powers of narrative, and of knowledge and its application, are shared by the author, who attempts to manufacture a modern myth. / It is at the level of form that reservations can he raised about Schopenhauer’s Telescope. So much emphasis is placed on these two men as mouthpieces for ideas that some essential empathy is lost. Like a Socratic dialogue, the outcome of the argument, undoubtedly fluid at the beginning, seems pre-determined as the novel comes to the close. / However, it is refreshing in a world so full of post-modern ironic indifference that Donovan is prepared to have something to say and not merely content to amuse. At a time when. the world seems more violent than ever, when history becomes a utilitarian tool to justify any position one, could care to imagine, a novel that focuses on the dilemma of the individual response to these concerns is a novel to be read.’

[ top ]

Quotations
Father Ralph
[1913] (Brandon Press Edn. 1993]: ‘Ralph walked home weary and depressed. The sunlight somewhat relieved the squalor of the town [Bunnahone], but he could not help shuddering as he passed dingy public houses, flanked by dingier private houses. He couldn’t get the thought of Mrs Reardon out of his mind and felt that behind every battered door was some tragedy of poverty or misery. / The expensive ecclesiastical buildings stood out in strange contrast against the surrounding poverty. [... &c.; p.27; for longer quotations, see infra.)

Gombeen town: ‘[T]he whole town depends on the shopkeepers. Not only do they own the shops, but they own the other houses as well and all the land round about, and they have most of the farmers [...] in their books [...] . The gombeen men pay most of the dues and the priests stand as their friends through thick and thin. There’s nobody in the town for the priests, but Hinnissey and Darcy and the like. If a man won’t go to mass Father Tom abuses him and threatens to get Mr Darcy and Mr Donoghue to give him the sack. And if a man objectes to the wages he gets from Hinnissey, Hinnissey threatens him with hell and damnation from Fr. Tom.’ (1913 Edn., p.295; cited in James H. Murphy, Catholic Fiction and Social Reality in Ireland, 1873-1922, Conn: Greenwood Press 1997, Part II: ‘Intelligentsia Fiction, 1900-1922’, p.96.)

[ top ]

Mysteries of faith: ‘Light gleamed on the wet roofs of the houses, sodden thatch glowing with myriads of jewels. Under these roofs, too, were mysteries of faith, hearts through which flowed that living stream that had fructified life ever since man felt the need for religion’; Further, ‘He took off his clerical collar and proceeded to dress in secular clothes. He had several efforts to knot his tie. It was years since he had worn one and he had forgotten how to tie it. Every new effort resulted in a more hopeless failure. He shut his eyes at length and trusted to the memory of his fingers with complete success.’ [Q.source]

Green & Orange: ‘There was her father-in-law with his little bundles of hate, and her own father at Lissyfad with his: mere bundles of Green and Orange misunderstandings and pitiful spites. They were blind and couldn’t see. How alike they were, too, in all essentials, generous, lovable, different though they thought themselves. Would love, the solvent, ever do for them what it had done for her and her husband?’ (Conquest, 1920, p.35; cited in Peter Costello, The Heart Grown Brutal; The Irish Revolution in Literature [... &c.], 1977, p.63. [For longer extracts, see Library.]

[ top ]

References
Stephen Brown, Ireland in Fiction: A Guide to Irish Novels, Tales, Romances and Folklore [(Dublin: Maunsel 1919); Father Ralph (Macmillan; 6 imp. in a few months, 1914), 494pp.; An anti-clerical and modernist novel by an author with inside knowledge of the Catholic Church in Ireland. It is the story of a young priest from his birth until we take leave of him (défroqué) on board a ship leaving Ireland. In the course of the narrative there is presented a general view of Irish life, as seen from the standpoint of such writers as M. J. F. M’Carthy [McCarthy], W. P. O’Ryan, and “Pat”, but clerical life is depicted with far more minute knowledge than by any of these. Sensational features, such as the amours of priests, nuns, &c., are avoided, though much innuendo is indulged in. All the estimable characters in the book are represented as either Modernists, or else voteeens and people who avoid thinking on serious problems. The Bishop, Father Molloy, and Ralph’s mother, as depicted by the Author, are revolting in the extreme. Except in rare instances all the outward details of Irish life are true to reality, but seen with jaundiced eyes. It may fairly be said that there is scarcely a page of this book that does not appeal in one form or another to non-Catholic prejudice. [Item 1295] WAITING (Macmillan 1914), pp.387, 6s.: Maurice Blake is a young National Schoolmaster, an ideal teacher, an enthusiast for Irish Ireland and for industrial revival. He falls foul of Father Mahon, the P.P.1 who is made as odious as possible. Maurice cannot get a dispensation to marry Alice Barton, a Protestant, and is compelled to marry her in a registry office. Maurice is elected as candidate by his constituency but, through the agency of Fr. Mahon, is set aside in favour of a worthless drunkard, and a mission is preached by “ Seraphists”. Ch. XXIII, describing this mission, is most offensive and vulgar. Minor characters are Driscoll, the former Master; Breslin, editor and freethinker; Fr. Malone, a lovable character; Dr. Hannigan with his “diffident, humble manner covering the pride of Lucifer”; Fr. Cafferley, fond of tea parties in publicans’ back parlours, &c. The Church Times says of the book, “It is much more angry and malevolent than its predecessor and the Times Lit. Suppl., in an article - obviously written by a non-Catholic, “It is bitter and, if true, a deadly attack on the priesthood, and an almost rancorous indictment of the practice and influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland.” (Brown, pp.237-38.)

[ top ]

Desmond Clarke, Ireland in Fiction [Pt. 2] (Cork: Royal Carbery 1985), remarks that Fr. Ralph is in a tradition than includes James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, and modernist novel by an author with inside knowledge of the Catholic Church in Ireland’; compared in standpoint with M. J. F. McCarthy and W. P. O’Ryan [sic for Ryan]; all the estimable characters either modernists or voteens and people who avoid thinking ... innuendos about priestly amours; Waiting (Macmillan 1914) includes a version of a mission by the “Seraphists” which Brown calls ‘revolting in the extreme’. Maurice Blake, a national schoolteacher and national revival enthusiast is persecuted by the priest when he marries a Protestant, and deselected as constituency candidate by his intrigues. Times Lit. Suppl., ‘a bitter and, if true, a deadly attack on the priesthood’, regarded by the Church Times as ‘more angry and malevolent than its predecessor.’ Also founded IAOS [sic], and elected representative for Connaught; Conquest (Constable 1920), even the most tolerant must turn against England, a thesis thrashed out at the dinner table; Vocations (Martin Secker 1921), placed his vocationless nun in an invented milieu - the atmosphere of a lunatic asylum, disparaged as unrealistic in Times Literary Supplement review; The Holy Tree (Heinemann, 1922), Anne, married to a man she does not love, falls in love with Brian Hogan and he with her ... the struggle ... in [here] mind ... between passion and various influences.

[ top ]

Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day 1991), Vol. 2 selects Father Ralph, pp.1077-88, The novel begins, ‘It was his mother’s idea that Ralph O’Brien should be a priest’; and traces his progress from a sheltered education in Dublin, the removal of his family to Inniscar in the Irish midlands where he attends a seminary, his graduation at Maybooth and ordination; disfavour with his selfish and conservative superior Father Molloy and the bishop; conflict when the bishop returns to Rome with the Pope’s condemnation of Modernism [‘the synthesis of all heresies’] in 1907, confirming Papal Infallibility decree arising from the Vatican Council of 1867-1870, ‘The bishop arrived home, and was received at the railway station by the brass band. ... The bishop ... made a glowing speech on the wisdom of the Pope, whose unceasing care of his people would be manifest when the great encyclical [Pascendi Dominici Gregis] which he had in his pocket was read in the churches.’ In the ensuing scenes, the young priest refuses to make a declaration before the bishop imposed on the younger clergy of the diocese, repudiating ‘all the so-called modernist errors’. His mother, Hilda, writes to the priest beginning, ‘You have broken my heart ... I have no son ... I hope to begin my life of reparation in the convent ... May God in His mercy bring you back to the true fold.’ The novel ends, ‘Only one dream had faded into the sea, he thought .../And then?’ [Vol. 2, p.1077]. [O’Donovan] shares with the regional mode an equal, perhaps even greater, determination to get the facts of landscape and character right, 1021; Father Ralph dramatises the conflict when a priest is ordered to submit formally to the decree (lamentabili) that preceded the encyclical [compares O’Donovan with liberal priests Walter McDonald and Michael O’Hickey, Maynooth professors immortalised in O’Casey’s Drums Under the Window (1945)] pp.1023; 1218, BIOG, Cork family; father built piers; ord. to diocese of Clonfert; curacy of Kilmalinogue and Lickmassy, moving to Loughrea, 1896; representative of Connacht on Horace Plunkett’s IAOS, along with Edward Martyn; attracted Jack B. Yeats and Sarah Purser to work on the new cathedral, and the Abbey to perform there; new bishop [Thomas O’Dea] in 1903; freeland in London, and subwarden of Toynbee Hall, 1910-11; British Dept. of Propaganda, wartime; later worked for Collins publishing house; three children by his marriage, 1910; one died young; d. of cancer July 1942.

[ top ]

Belfast Public Library holds Conquest (1920); Father Ralph (1914); The Holy Tree (1922); Waiting (1914). BNB, Out Of Print, 1950-1984 CAT, &c.; Father Ralph, rep. (Dingle: Brandon 1993).

[ top ]

Notes
Father Ralph
(1913): Ralph becomes a diocesan priest in the parish of Bunnahone, where his father John O’Brien has resumed living after long years in Dublin. His father’s disappointment in him turns to feverish alienation in his last moments of illness, and his mother’s remorseless devotion to the clergy leads her to hand over the family property to the local bishop, who effectively ousted Ralph from the parish on account of his opposition to the gombeen-clerical conspiracy of the township against the artesans and poor farmers. Ralph is intellectually affronted by the intransigent ultra-Montanism of the papal decree Lamentabili Sane, followed by an encyclical condemning Modernism, and is driven to resign from the priesthood, taking ship for England. A cousin Eve, who also supposed herself to ahve a vocation, is actually love-lorn for him, while a Reverend Mother of gentle disposition, who admits to him that she has wasted her life in the convent, is ousted from office by the Bishop and a mean-minded rival in the convent. Long scenes at Maynooth are devoted to illustrating the anti-intellectual climate of the college and the snobbishness of Clonliffe where obsequious and time-serving young priests thrive and rote-answers are mistaken for scholarship. Irish-language sympathies are part of the ethos of the novel, while the hijacking of the Land League by petty-capitalists and priests provides a strand of vigorous political criticism in the second half. [BS]

[ top ]

Rose Macaulay (1881-1958), who was estranged from the Anglican church during a long affair with a married man who died in 1942, was author of the novels Potterism (1920) and They were Defeated (1932) as well as the prose Life Among the British (1942; rep. 1996) in the British Writers series; later returned to fiction with The World my Wilderness (1950), The Towers of Trebizond (1956) and Pleasure of Ruins (1953); correspondence with Rev. J. H. C. Johnson published as Letters to a Friend (1961-62). [Note, Macauley’s given name was Emilie Rose.]

[ top ]