Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/O'Donovan, Edmund
O'DONOVAN, EDMUND (1844–1883), newspaper correspondent, born at Dublin on 13 Sept. 1844, was son of Dr. John O'Donovan [q. v.], and received his early education at a day school of jesuit fathers known as St. Francis Xavier's College. Thence he proceeded to the Royal College of Science at St. Stephen's Green, Dublin. Subsequently he studied medicine at Trinity College, Dublin, where he gained prizes for proficiency in chemistry, but never graduated. During his course he held the appointments of clerk to the registrar, and assistant librarian. Having also shown great taste for heraldry, he was appointed aide to Sir Bernard Burke, Ulster king-at-arms, and in that capacity carried a banner at the installation of the Duke of Connaught as knight of St. Patrick. In 1866 he began his journalistic career by occasionally contributing to the ‘Irish Times’ and other Dublin papers. Between that date and 1870 he made several journeys to France and America, and in the latter country he continued his medical studies, attending for some time the courses at the Bellevue Hospital Medical College at New York. When the Franco-German war broke out in 1870, O'Donovan's adventurous temper led him to enter the French army, joining the Légion Etrangère after Sedan. He took part in the battles round Orleans, was wounded, and made prisoner. Interned at Straubing in Bavaria, he sent to several Dublin and London papers accounts of his personal experiences. When the Carlist rising took place in 1873 he went to Spain, and many letters from him were published in the ‘Times’ and the ‘Hour.’ In the summer of 1876, when Bosnia and the Herzegovina rose against the Turks, he proceeded to the seat of war as correspondent of the ‘Daily News.’ In the following year he went as the representative of the same paper to Asia Minor, where he remained during the continuance of the war between Russia and Turkey.
In 1879, O'Donovan, still in search of adventure, undertook, as representative of the ‘Daily News,’ his celebrated journey to Merv—a most daring, difficult, and hazardous feat, with which his name will always be associated. Spending some little time on the south-eastern shores of the Caspian Sea with the Russian advanced posts, he travelled through Khorassan, and eventually, with great difficulty and risk, accompanied only by two native servants, he penetrated to Merv. Although attired in English costume, he was at first suspected by the Turcomans of being an emissary of the Russians, who were then threatening an advance on Merv. For several months he consequently remained in Merv in a sort of honourable captivity, in danger of death any day, and with no prospect of release. He managed, however, to send into Persia a message, which was thence telegraphed to Mr. (now Sir) John Robinson, the manager of the ‘Daily News.’ In this despatch O'Donovan explained his position, and appealed to his friend: ‘For God's sake get me out of this.’ Sir John applied to the foreign office and to the Russian ambassador in London, and immediate steps were taken to effect O'Donovan's release. But meanwhile, by his own unaided efforts, which combined courage with diplomacy, he succeeded in extricating himself from his perilous position. On returning to London he was received with enthusiasm, and read a paper at a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society. In 1882 he published a book describing his adventures, entitled ‘The Merv Oasis: Travels and Adventures East of the Caspian during the years 1879, 1880, and 1881’ (2 vols. London, 8vo; abridged edit. 1883). The book is skilfully written, and O'Donovan's courage and fertility of resource excite the reader's warm admiration. In 1883 he went to the Soudan as representative, once again, of the ‘Daily News,’ and he attached himself to the army of Hicks Pasha which marched on Obeid. On 3 Nov. 1883 the army fell into an ambush, and on that and the two following days was annihilated. No information was received of O'Donovan's fate, but there can be no doubt that he perished with the other Europeans of the ill-fated force. Probate of his will, however, was not granted for eight years afterwards, as there was among some a lingering hope that he would yet reappear. A tall, handsome man, O'Donovan was kindly, genial, and popular, as restless and adventurous as he was brave. His acquirements were rather broad than deep. He was a good linguist, speaking French, German, Spanish, and Jagatai Tartar. He knew something of medicine and botany, was a fair draughtsman, and a good surveyor.
[War Correspondence of the Daily News, 1877–8 (London, 1878); The Merv Oasis, 1882; Daily News Correspondence from Egypt; Allibone's Dict. of English Authors, Suppl. ii. 1188; private information.]