John O’Donovan (1806-61)


Life
b. July 1806 [err. 1809], Attateemore, parish of Slieverue [S.E.], Co. Kilkenny, to Catholic farming family of mixed Irish and Anglo-Irish stock; raised on family farm up to death of his father in 1817; moved to rented farm with his eldest brother in proximity to an uncle, Patrick O’Donovan, an Irish speaker who had travelled in Europe and who influenced him much in scholarship and whom he later called ‘the living repositiory of the counties of Kilkenny, Carlow, and Waterford’; ed. in private school in Waterford, 1821; established his own school at Balynarg, Co. Waterford, at the age of nineteen [var. 16]; moved to Dublin, 1823, and taught [attended] at a Latin school on Arran Quay, up to 1827; declined a post at St. Patrick’s Seminary, Maynooth, secured for him by James Hardiman;
 
taught Irish to Lieut. Thomas Larcom, director of Irish Ordnance Commission, 1826 [aetat. 20]; employed by James Hardiman, then Sub-Commissioner for Public Records in Ireland, to copy Irish MSS and extracts from legal documents, 1827; transcribed Peter O’Connell’s Irish Dictionary [BML Egerton MS 84, 85]; gained work in Irish Records Office, 1826, forming acquaintance with O’Curry and later George Petrie; ed. facsimile copy of Book of Fenagh, and subsequent English translation, 1828; succeeded O’Reilly as Gaelic advisor to the Survey; appt. to historical dept. of Irish Ordnance Survey on death of Edward O’Reilly, becoming the resident ‘expert’ in August 1830; met Petrie in 1831, and began to publish articles in the Dublin Penny Journal, the first being a translation of an 11th-c. poem ascribed to Alfred, 7th c. king of Northumbria, as a student in Ireland;
 
employed by the Ordnance there to investigate history and orthography of Irish placenames (toponymy), 1830-1842; his letters from the field to Larcom survived in typescript copies, bound in volumes by county, covering every county of Ireland except Antrim, Tyrone, and Cork, all but a few written by O’Donovan between 1834 and 1841; began his field-work in Co. Down, March 1834; listed 62,000 Irish place-names and sourced 140,000 Irish placenames in situ, acting as ‘a kind of one-man local history department’ - acc. J. H. Andrews; provided the English translations (or transliterations) for very many place-names, subsequently inscribed on Irish maps; prepared analytic catalogue of TCD Irish MSS, 1836 and years following; co-fnd. Irish Archaeological Society with Eugene O’Curry and J. H. Todd, 1840 [var. 1841 DIH];
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published his many works chiefly under the Society’s imprint; wrote topographical and historical essays for Petrie’s Dublin Penny Journal, and later for the Irish Penny Journal; issued The Banquet of Dunagay and the Battle of Moira (1842) on which Ferguson based Congal (1872); issued Tracts Relating to Ireland (1843); also The Tribes and Customs of Hy-Many, commonly called the O’Kelly’s Country (1844), and a Grammar of the Irish Language (1845) - the last in response to Todd’s requirement for St. Columba’s College; ed., with others, The Book of Rights [Leabhar na gCeart] (1847), taken from the Book of Lecan and the Book of Ballymote; elected MRIA, 1847 and awarded the RIA Cunningham Medal, 1848; ed. Annals of the Four Masters, as Annala Rioghacta Eireann, Annals &c, 6 vols. (Dublin: Hodges, Smith 1848-51), dedicated to Capt. Larcom, and which included an extensive appendix on the history of his own family;
 
entered the bar, 1847; issued supplement to O’Reilly’s Irish Dictionary [being] a version of the dictionary of Peter O’Connell (1828); other works include translation and edition of The Tribes of Ireland by Aonghus Ó Dálaigh (1852); appt. professor of Irish Language [var. Prof. of Celtic Studies] at Queen's University, Belfast, Aug. 1849; joined Commission for Publication of Ancient Irish Laws, est. 1852; with O’Curry and others, worked on edition of Seanchas Mór, transcribing nine vols. of material; received honorary LL.D. from TCD, 1850; elected to membership of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences at instance of in 1856 Jakob Grimm; issued Three Fragments of Irish Annals (1860);
 
d. Dublin, 9 Dec., and bur. in Glasnevin; survived by his wife, a sister of O’Curry, with whom he had five sons, none of whom spoke Irish; one son, Edmund, died with Hinks Pasha in Sudan; his last years were marred by a quarrel with O’Curry over the editorship of the Brehon Laws; he is regarded as a founding father of the Gaelic revival in Ireland; his Letters, written during the Ordnance Survey, were edited by Fr. Michael O’Flanagan as John O’Donovan’s Archaeological Survey (52 vols., 1924-32); there is an oil portrait of by Charles Grey in the NGI. ODNB JMC IF DIB DIW DIH DIL RAF FDA OCIL
 

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Works
General Titles
  • ed., The Tribes and Customs of Hy-Many, commonly called the O’Kelly’s Country (Dublin: Irish Archaelogical Society 1843) [occas. cited as The Annals of Hy Maine, 1843)];
  • The Tribes and Customs of Hy-Fiachrach, commonly called the O’Dowda’s Country (Dublin 1844);
  • ed., Annala Rioghachta Eireann/Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, by the Four Masters, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1616 (Dublin: Hodges Smith & Co. Grafton St. 1848-1851; 2nd Edn. 1856) [see 1990 De Burca reprint, and 2nd edn. details];
  • ed., ‘Docwra’s A Narration of the Services done by the army ymployed to Lough-Foyle’, in Miscellany of the Celtic Society (Dublin 1849);
  • with Mangan, The Tribes of Ireland: A Satire, Aenghusa O’Daly, with poetical trans. by James Clarence Mangan, and a historical account of the O’Daly family by John O’Donovan (Dublin: John O’Daly 1852), 112pp. [var 266pp.: RAF];
  • ed., Topographical Poems John O’Dubhagain [O’Dugan], and Giolla na Naomh O’Huidrin [O’Heeren] edited in the original Irish from MSS in the library of the Royal Irish Academy (Dublin 1862) [cited in P. W. Joyce, Irish Names of Places, 1867];
  • ed., The Ancient Laws of Ireland, 4 vols. (Dublin 1865-1891).
 
Correspondence (Ordnance)
  • Graham Mawhinney, ed., John O’Donovan’s Letters from Co. Londonderry, 1834 (Ballinscreen Hist. Soc. 1992);
  • The Letters of John O’Donovan from Co. Fermanagh, 1834 (St Davog’s Press, Belleek 1993);
  • Letters Containing Information Relative to the antiquities of the County of Kerry: Collected During the Progress of the Ordnance Survey in 1841 [‘reproduced under direction of Rev. Michael O’Flanagan’] (Bray: 1927), xxvi, 222pp., ill. & maps [62 pls.];
 
Miscellaneous
  • ‘On the [?]Direction of the Year among the Ancient Irish’, by Dr John O’Donovan, from Book of Rights, intro. p.xlviii, rep. in Gaelic Journal Leab. 2 [Vol. 2, 1882-83], pp.221-224.
 
Reprint Editions
  • Annala Rioghachta Eireann/Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, by the Four Masters, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1616 [facs. rep. of 3rd Edn.], 7 vols. (Dublin: De Burca 1990);
  • with Eugene Curry, The Antiquities of County Clare: Ordnance Survey Letters of 1839 (Ennis: Clasp Press 1997), 335pp.;
  • The Banquet of Dun na n-Ged and the Battle of Magh Rath [1st publ 1842] (Felinach: Llanerch 1996), 360pp.
  • Origin and Meanings of Irish Family names including a Description of the Families of the Maguires and O’Reillys: Extracted from “The Irish Penny Journal” 1841, & “Duffy’s Hibernian Magazine”, 1861, ed. G. H. O’Reilly [Irish Genealogical Sources, No. 30] (Dún Laoghaire: Genealogical Society of Ireland 2003), 108pp., ill. [21cm]. 108pp. [viz., Irish Penny Journal, Vol. I, pp.326, 330, 365, 381, 396, 405, 413].

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Bibliographical details
Annala Rioghachta Eireann
/Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, by the Four Masters, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1616
, edited from MSS in the library of the RIA and of Trinity College, Dublin, with a translation, and copious notes, by John O’Donovan LLD, MRIA, Barrister at Law [epigraph Olim Regibus parent … &c. Tacitus, Agricola c.12]; 2nd edn. (Dublin: Hodges Smith & Co. Grafton St. 1856), 7 vols; vols. 1-6, & INDEX; vols. 1 and 2 pagination 1-568; vols. 3-6 paginated 2,498pp.

CONTENTS: Vol. 1 (2242 BC – AD 902); Vol. 2 (AD 903–1171); Vol. 3 (AD 1172–1372); Vol. 4 (AD 1373–1500); Vol. 5 (AD 1501–1588); Vol. 6 (AD 1589–1616), with an Appendix containing genealogies several families of the Gaelic aristocracy, pp.2377ff.; Vol. 7, indices. [The whole available at CELT - online; accessed 29.10.2011.]

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See also A Primer / of / The Irish Language / with Copious Reading Lessons; for the use of the students / in / The College of St. Columba (Dublin: Hodges & Smith 1845), 117pp. - ‘... not intended as a grammar, but as a supplement to a grammar’ (Preface, p.v.); ‘Mr. O’Donovan’s Grammar, now in the course of publication at the expense of the College, will afford the means of completing the original design more perfectly [...]’ (Ibid., p.vi.) Preface signed R. C. Singleton, making thanks to Mr. O’Donovan and Dr. Todd of TCD for reading the proofs. (21 Feb. 1845.) [With an end-page publisher’s notice of A Grammar of the Irish Language for the use of the Students in the College of St. Columba by John O’Donovan Esq. shortly to be published in [Available at Google Books - online.]

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Criticism
Monographs
  • Eamonn de hOir, Seán Ó Donnabháin agus Eoghan Ó Comhraí (1962) [i.e., O’Donovan and O’Curry];
  • Patricia Boyne, John O’Donovan 1806-1861: A Biography (Boethius: Irish Studies 1987).

See also Rachel Hewitt, Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey (Granta 2010), 436pp. [remarks that O’Donovan say the Ordnance Survey as an opportunity to resurrect the face of the nation as it appeared before the arrival of the English and the ensuing traumatic history of plantation; vide. Irish Times review, by William J. Smyth (4 Dec. 2011), Weekend, p.11.]

Articles
  • J. T. Gilbert, On the Life and Labours of John O’Donovan, LLD (London: T. Richardson & Son, Dublin & Derby, 1862) [rep. from Dublin Review, with a prospectus of the Irish Arch. and Celtic Soc. and an appeal for O’Donovan’s family, acc. Catalogue of Henry Bradshaw Collection of Irish Books, Cambridge, 1916];
  • Helena Concannon, ‘John O’Donovan and the Annals of the Four Masters’, in Studies, XXXVII (1948);
  • Ruaidhrí de Valera, ‘Seán O’Donnabháin agus a Lucht Cúnta’, in Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, LXXXIX [79] (1949), pp.14659.
  • R. B. Walsh, ‘John O’Donovan, The Man and the Scholar’, in Talamh an Eisc: Canadian and Irish Essays, ed. Cyril J. Byrne & Margaret Harry [Irish Studies St. Mary’s Coll.] (Halifax Can.: Nimbus Publ. Co. 1986), pp.119-39 [incl. photo. port.];
  • Cathy Swift, ‘John O’Donovan and the Framing of early Medieval Ireland in the Nineteenth Century’, in Bullán: A Journal of Irish Studies, 1, 1, Spring 1994), pp.91-103;
  • Michael Herity, ‘John O'Donovan’s Early Life and Education’ [intro. to], Ordnance Survey Letters, Down, ed. Herity (Dublin: Four Masters Press 2001), xlvi, 94pp.
  • Mary Daly [chap. on John O’Donovan], in Alvin Jackson & David N. Livingstone, eds., Queen’s Thinkers: Essays on the Intelelctual Heritage of a University (Belfast: Blackstaff Press 2008), [q.pp.]
 

See also John H. Andrews, A Paper Landscape: the Ordnance Survey in nineteenth-century Ireland (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1975), and Do. [2nd edn.] (Dublin: Four Courts Press 2001); Vivian Mercier, Modern Irish Literature, Sources and Founders (OUP 1994), and Barbara Hayley, ‘Irish Periodicals’, in Anglo-Irish Studies, ii (1976), pp.83-108. Gillian Doherty, The Irish Ordnance Survey: History, Culture and Memory (Dublin: Four Courts 2004); Stiofán Ó Cadhla, Civilizing Ireland: Ordnance Survey 1824-1842: Ethnography, Cartography, Translation, foreword by Eamon Ó Cuiv (Dublin: IAP 2007).

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Quotations

O’Donovan supplied genealogy of the O’Reilly family to William Carleton in connection with the latter’s Willy Reilly and His Coleen Bawn [1855] (2nd Edn. 1857). The genealogy is included in the Preface prefixed to the reprint of that work [attached]. .

Dun na nGed (Dunagay): ‘The clear-watered, snowy-foamed, ever-roaring, parti-coloured, bellowing, in-salmon-abounding, beautiful old torrent, whose celebrated well-known name is the lofty-great, clear-landed, contentious, precipitate, loud-roaring, headstrong, rapid, salmon-ful, sea-monster-ful, varying, in-large-fish-abounding, rapid-flooded, furious-streamed, whirling, in-seal-abounding, royal and prosperous cataract of Eas Ruaidh.’ (AP Graves quotes from his The Banquet of Dunagay and the Battle of Moira [Magh Rath], quoted in A. P. Graves, Irish Literary & Musical Studies, p. 87. [Cited as The Banquet of Dun na n-Ged and The Battle of Magh Rath in Oxford Companion to Irish Literature, ed. Robert Welch, 1996.]

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Fault-finders: ‘Let those who find fault with it remember that no human production under the sun is without mistakes, and that frequently good workmanship is unjustly blamed through envy and hatred of enemies, and also through their ignorance’ (Note in Irish at the end of the Uí Fiachrach volume, 1844; quoted in Paul Walsh, 1947, p.168.)

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Review of Zeuss: O’Donovan’s review of Zeuss’s Grammatica Celtica (1853), in Ulster Journal of Archaeology (Belfast 1859), is quoted in Alfred Webb, Compendium of Irish Biography (1878): ‘It contains proofs of the purely Japetic origin of the Celts. It demonstrates the following facts: (1) That the Irish and Welsh languages are one in their origin; that their divergence, so far from being primeval, began only a few centuries before the Roman period; that the difference between them was very small when Caesar landed in Britain so small, that an old Hibernian most likely was still understood there; and that both nations, Irish and British, were identical with the Celtae of the Continent - namely, those of Gaul, Spain, Lombardy, and the Alpine countries. This is, in fact, asserting the internal unity of the Celtic family. (2) That this Celtic tongue is, in the full and complete sense of the term, one of the great Indo-European branches of human speech … There must now be an end to all attempts at assimilating either Hebrew, Phenician, Egyptian, Basque, or any other language which is not Indo-European, with any dialect of the Celtic. The consequence further is, that, as far as language gives evidence, we must consider the inhabitants of these islands strictly as brethren of those other five European families constituting that vast and ancient pastoral race who spread themselves in their nomadic migrations, till in the west they occupied Gaul, and crossed over to Britain, and to Ireland, the last boundary of the old world… The Irish nation has had no nobler gift bestowed upon them by any Continental author for centuries back than the work which he has written on their language.’ (For longer version, see under Zeuss, q.v., [espec. Webb, attached].)

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Neglected: ‘I have been lying here these nine days without a single visit from any of these literary men who pretend to be so much my friends; and George Petrie, who lives within a musket shot of me, has neither come to see me or even enquired after the state of my health since I left him. This is true antiquarian friendship.’ (Letter to Hardiman, Feb. 1840; cited R. B. Walsh, ‘John O’Donovan, The Man and the Scholar’, in Cyril J. Byrne & Margaret Harry, eds., Talamh an Eisc: Canadian and Irish Essays, Halifax (Canada): Nimbus Publ. Co. 1986), pp.119-39 [note that this article includes confirmation of the birthdate date 1806, the other being due to an error in the parish record].

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Scribblers: ‘Our Irish writers of the last century have been a set of ignorant and dishonest scribblers without one manly or vigorous idea in their heads. Vallancy, Beauford, Ledwich, Roger O’Conor, &c., were all either fools or rogues who were by no means fit to demonstrate the truth of ancient or modern history.’ (Ordnance Survey Letters, typescript, Meath, pp.191-92; cited in R. B. Walsh, ‘John O’Donovan, The Man and the Scholar’, Cyril J. Byrne and Margaret Harry, eds., Talamh an Eisc: Canadian and Irish Essays, Halifax (Can.: Nimbus Publ. Co. 1986, pp.119-39.)

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Lamented: ‘When my grandfather died in Leinster, in 1798, Cleena came all the way from Tonn Cleena, at Glandore, to lament him; but she has not been heard ever since lamenting any of our race, though I believe she still weeps in the mountains of Drumaleaque in her own country, where so many of the race of Eoghan More are dying of starvation.’ (O’Donovan, letter to a friend, quoted in Dublin University Magazine, and cited by Yeats in ‘Irish Fairies, Ghosts, Witches, &c.’, article in Lucifer [Theosophical Magazine], 15 Jan. 1889; rep. in John P. Frayne, ed., Uncollected Prose of W. B. Yeats, 1970, p.130ff; p.136.

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Name-change: In a letter written to Larcom, O’Donovan outlined the damage done to the Irish language by generations of English soldiers, administrators and planters. It was not only place names that had been affected, O’Donovan discovered, but the surnames of the Irish themselves. “People frequently took great licence when changing names”, writes Doherty …’ (Eileen Battersby, review of Gillian Doherty, The Irish Ordnance Survey: History, Culture and Memory, Dublin: Four Courts, in The Irish Times, 6 Nov. 2004.)

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References
Patrick Rafroidi
, Irish Literature in English, The Romantic Period, 1789-1850 (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1980), Vol. 2; notes Correspondence, ed. Father O’Flanagan, 50 vols. (1924-1932).

Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day 1991), Vol. 2; coverage limited to secondary references at pp.6, 44n, 206, 990.

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Belfast Public Library holds (1851); The Book of Rights (1847); Celtic Records of the Past (1870); Letters Relating to the Antiquities of Ireland, 41 vols. (1839); Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, 4 vols. (1856).

University of Ulster (Morris Collection) holds Letters containing information relative to the antiquities of Co. Fermanagh collected during the progress of the ordance survey in 1834-5. Typescript. 63pp.; An Irish-English Dictionary … with Edward O’Reilly (Duffy).

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Notes
Birthdate
? - F. Carroll, ‘Mangan’s Age Complex’, Irish Book Lover, [Vol. XXXII], Sept. 1957, writes (p.134): ‘On the 8th of December 1843 John O’Donovan addressed a leter to the Rev. Dr. J. H. Todd which commenced as follows: “I was born on the townland of Attatimore (Áit an Tighe Móir) n 3rd of August 1809 (Journal of the Royal Soc. of Antiquaries of Ireland, July 1884, p.348.) The exact date of O’Donovan’s birth does not appear to be know, but he was baptised on the 26th July 1806.’ (Bibl., ‘Entries, relating to John O’Donovan and his immediate relatives’, JRSAI, Sept. 1915.)

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Portraits: There is a monument of O’Donovan in O’Connell circle, Glasnevin, records b. 9 July [copied in DIB], and by his own accounts he was born on 26 July, or 3 August, 1809; but his brother’s baptism entry shows b. 10 Feb 1810, which renders these dates impossible [see Henry Dixon, in Leabharlann, Apr. 1906, and Fr. Sweeney in A Group of Nation-builders (CTS 1913), p.5; both noted in Fr. Paul Walsh, Irish Men of Learning, as below.

Ordnance: Fellow-members of the Ordnance Commission incl. Thomas O’Conor, languages teacher, and William Frederick Wakeman, artist.

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