Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/O'Donovan, John
O'DONOVAN, JOHN (1809–1861), Irish scholar, fourth son of Edmond O'Donovan and his wife Eleanor Hoberlin of Rochestown, was born on 9 July 1809 at his father's farm of Attateemore, co. Kilkenny, at the foot of Tory Hill (note in MacFirbis, Annals, p. 267). He was descended from Edmond O'Donovan, who was killed in a battle between General Preston and the Duke of Ormonde at Balinvegga, co. Kilkenny, on 18 March 1643, and who, in consequence of a local quarrel, had moved from Bawnlahan, co. Cork, to Gaulstown, co. Kilkenny. Through this ancestor he was descended from Eoghan, son of Oilliol Oluim, king of Munster about 250, and common ancestor of most of the families of Munster, and from Mogh Nuadhat, after whom the south of Ireland is always called in Irish literature Leth Mogha. His father died on 29 July 1817, and on his death-bed repeated several times to his sons who were present his descent, and desired his eldest son, Michael, always to remember it. The eldest son took his brother John to Dublin, and defrayed the cost of his education. In 1821, 1822, and 1823 he paid long visits to an uncle, Patrick O'Donovan, from whom he first caught a love for ancient Irish and Anglo-Irish history and traditions. O'Donovan in 1826 obtained work in the Irish Record Office, and in 1829 was appointed to a post in the historical department of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland. His work was mainly the examination of Irish manuscripts and records, with a view to determining the nomenclature to be used on the maps, but he also visited every part of Ireland, and recorded observations and notes in letters, many volumes of which are preserved in the Royal Irish Academy, and well deserve publication. The maps contain 144,000 names, including those of 62,000 townlands, the smallest local divisions in Ireland, and all these were discussed, and those modern methods of spelling most representative of the literary Irish designation were adopted. The single volume published by the survey in 1837 contains a long Irish text and translation from the ‘Dinnsenchus’ by O'Donovan. During 1832 and 1833 O'Donovan wrote many articles, on Irish topography and history, in the ‘Dublin Penny Journal,’ and he wrote in the ‘Irish Penny Journal’ during 1840–1. Every one of these articles contains much valuable original work. The best are perhaps the series of six essays on the origin and meaning of Irish family names, in which he shows wide knowledge of the ancient and modern topography and inhabitants of Ireland, as well as an intimate acquaintance with the Irish language. The Irish Archæological Society was formed in 1840, and the first volume of its publications, which appeared in 1841, contained a text and translation, with notes, of ‘The Circuit of Ireland by Muircheartach MacNeill, a Poem written in 942 by Cormacan Eigeas,’ in which O'Donovan published the first good map of ancient Ireland. In 1842 he published ‘The Banquet of Dun na ngedh and the Battle of Magh Rath,’ two dependent historical tales. This quarto of 350 pages, besides the texts and translations, contains admirable notes, genealogies, and an appendix, showing extensive Irish reading. In 1843 he published ‘The Tribes and Customs of Hy-Many, commonly called O'Kelly's Country,’ from the ‘Book of Lecan,’ a manuscript of 1418. Very varied original information is contained in the notes to this text and translation; as well as texts and translations of a long Irish treatise on the boundaries of O'Maine and of another on the descent and merits of the O'Maddens. In 1844 he published a quarto of five hundred pages, ‘The Genealogies, Tribes, and Customs of Hy Fiachrach, commonly called O'Dowda's Country,’ the text printed from a manuscript of Duald MacFirbis. This is again accompanied by a beautiful map, and many considerable extracts from other manuscripts are given and translated in the notes.
In 1846 O'Donovan published the Irish charters in the ‘Book of Kells,’ an Irish covenant and ancient poem in Irish attributed to St. Columba, and Duald Mac Firbis's translation of Irish annals 1443–1468. The Irish Archæological and Celtic Society published three other texts and translations of his, one in 1860, ‘Three Fragments of Irish Annals, with Translation and Notes;’ the second in 1862, after his death, ‘The Topographical Poems of O'Dubhagain and O'Huidhrin.’ The last contains a reprint of his articles on Irish names, and both are full of original work. The third was ‘The Martyrology of Donegal,’ published in 1864, and edited by Bishop Reeves. The Celtic Society published for him two large volumes—in 1847 ‘Leabhar na gCeart,’ from a script of Giolla Iosa mor MacFirbis, and in 1849 ‘The Genealogy of Corca Laidhe, or O'Driscoll's Country,’ Gillabrighde MacConmidhe's poem on the battle of Down, and other poems, all containing Irish texts with translations and notes. Such productions would have been enough to occupy the whole time of most scholars; but, besides much work for others, transcribing and translating, O'Donovan published in 1845 ‘A Grammar of the Irish Language, for the use of the Senior Classes in the College of St. Columba,’ Trinity College, Dublin; the expenses of printing were equally divided between himself and the college. It will doubtless always remain the most interesting treatise on modern and mediæval Irish as a spoken tongue, and as it is found in the literature of the last six centuries. It is full of admirable examples, but it does not attempt to investigate fully the earliest grammatical forms of the language, nor to demonstrate the relation of Irish to other tongues. A small ‘Primer of the Irish Language’ was published at the same time. O'Donovan was called to the Irish bar in 1847, having entered at Gray's Inn, London, on 15 April 1844 (Foster, Gray's Inn Register, p. 466).
The ‘Annala Rioghachta Eireann,’ or ‘Annals of the Four Masters,’ in seven volumes 4to, began to appear in 1848, and the edition was completed in 1851. This is O'Donovan's greatest work. The ‘Annals’ were compiled in the reign of Charles I by Michael O'Clery [q. v.] and a company of Irish Franciscans. Dr. Charles O'Conor (1764–1828) [q. v.] had published an imperfect edition of these annals up to the year 1171, and, as the original manuscript of this part was not accessible, O'Donovan corrected and retranslated this edition. From 1171 to 1616 he took his text from the autograph manuscript of the authors preserved in the Royal Irish Academy. The translation is excellent, and the notes astonishing in their width of knowledge and in the historical acumen which they display. The publishers, Messrs. Hodges & Smith of Dublin, who undertook the risk of the publication, carried it out with genuine public spirit. The Irish type in which the text is printed was designed by George Petrie. It is not too much to say that nearly all information on the historical topography of Ireland to be found in subsequent publications on the country is drawn from the notes to this work. O'Donovan was given the degree of LL.D. by the university of Dublin. He was employed in 1852 by the commission for the publication of the ancient laws of Ireland, and this work was thereafter his chief source of income. He made transcripts of legal manuscripts in Irish which fill nine volumes of 2,491 pages, and a preliminary translation of these in twelve volumes. He did not live to edit any part. The four volumes of the ‘Senchus Mór,’ and other ancient treatises which have been published since 1865, give no idea of what the work might have been had O'Donovan lived to edit it. But that these laws are before the learned world at all in a form capable of use, by such writers as Sir Henry Maine (‘Ancient Law’), is due to the preliminary exertions of O'Donovan and O'Curry. Fragments of manuscripts and translations by O'Donovan are to be found in the works of many minor editors, for he was generous to every one who cared for his subject. He prepared, in 1843, a text and translation of the ‘Sanas Chormaic,’ a glossary by Cormac (836–908) [q. v.], bishop of Cashel. This work of much difficulty was not printed in the author's lifetime. The translation was afterwards published by Dr. Whitley Stokes, with the text and with additional articles transcribed from another manuscript, as well as full philological notes by Dr. Stokes. O'Donovan wrote a supplement to O'Reilly's ‘Irish Dictionary,’ which was published after his death, and has been much used by scholars.
O'Donovan, who was a devout Roman catholic of no narrow views, was an intimate friend of Eugene O'Curry [q. v.], and he married O'Curry's sister. Thenceforth he lived in close relations with George Petrie [q. v.], Dr. James Henthorn Todd, Dr. William Reeves, and other leading Irish scholars of his time. He died in Dublin on 9 Dec. 1861, and is buried in Glasnevin cemetery, near Dublin. His son, Edmund O'Donovan [q. v.], is separately noticed.
No one man has done so much for native Irish history as O'Donovan; in Irish historical topography no writer, ancient or modern, approaches him, and all students of the Irish language know how much he has done to elucidate its difficulties and to set forth its peculiarities. He wrote a beautifully clear Irish hand, of which a facsimile may be seen in O'Curry's ‘Lectures on the Manuscript Materials of Irish History.’
[Works; Ancient Laws of Ireland; Senchus Mór, Dublin, 1865; Lady Ferguson's Life of Bishop Reeves, London, 1893; Webb's Compendium of Irish Biography, Dublin, 1878; Memoir by J. T. Gilbert; Annala Rioghachta Eireann, vi. 2160, where O'Donovan relates the whole history of his family.]