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Irish historian and antiquarian, b. at Atateemore, County Kilkenny, Ireland, 1806; d. at Dublin, 9 Dec., 1861. Coming to Dublin in 1823, he was sent to a "Latin School" to prepare for entrance to Maynooth, but later, finding he had no vocation for the priesthood, turned his attention to the study of Irish. O'Donovan himself states that, at the age of nine years, he commenced the study of Irish and Latin, and that in 1819 he could "transcribe Irish pretty well". In Dublin he was soon employed by James Hardiman, antiquarian and historian, to transcribe Irish manuscripts, and through him he was introduced to the Royal Irish Academy circle. Here he met Petrie, and the foundation of a lasting friendship was laid. Petrie's accurate antiquarian sense was supplemented by O'Donovan's knowledge of the native tongue and his ever-growing store of oral and written tradition. Aided by Sir Samuel Ferguson, they helped to destroy the influence of the fanciful theories which then held the field, championed by Betham and Vallancey. An early example of O'Donovan's historical method is to be found in his edition and translation of the Charter of Newry (Dublin Penny Journal, 22 Sept., 1832). From this on he shared with his brother-in-law, Eugene O'Curry , an undisputed position as supreme authority on the Irish language and Irish antiquities. He may be said to have been the mainstay of the archæological societies and journals of his day — the Kilkenny Archæological Society, the Ulster Journal of Archæology, and the Celtic Society. The foundation by the Government of the Ordnance Survey Department of Ireland gave O'Donovan his chance. In Petrie's house, 21 Great Charles Street, the antiquarian section had its offices, and here O'Donovan had as colleagues, among others, Petrie, O'Curry, Mangan, and Wakeman. From the preparation of lists of names of townlands and places, O'Donovan was soon sent by Larcom, the head of the Ordnance Survey, to work "in the field".
From the various places throughout Ireland which he visited, he despatched in the form of letters to Larcom accounts of antiquities and traditions which, collected in 103 volumes and at present deposited in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, are popularly known as "O'Donovan's Letters". They are not heavy with more erudition, but are enlivened with flashes of humorous anecdote and many a merry "quip and crank and jest". He was engaged on the Survey from 1830 to 1842. In 1836 he commenced the catalogue of Irish manuscripts, in Trinity College; and to aid him in his work of editing and translating manuscripts, Todd sought a grant in aid from Government. It was refused, and was followed up by the suppression in 1842 of the archæological section of the Ordnance Survey. Private effort had, therefore, to be relied upon, and, with the assistance of the members of the Archæological Society and the Celtic Society, O'Donovan was able to publish his well-known editions of Irish texts with his invaluable introductions and notes. From 1842 till his death in 1861 no year passed without some noteworthy edition of an Irish text appearing from his hands. A complete bibliography of his works was published by Henry Dixon (Dublin). We can only refer to two of his works with which his name is popularly connected — his "Irish Grammar" and his edition and translation of the Annals of the Four Masters. His grammar was published in 1845, and at once elicited the praise of Grimm, on whose recommendation he was elected in 1856 a corresponding member of the Royal Academy of Berlin, an honour which he shared with Zeuss whose epoch-making "Grammatica Celtica" appeared in that year. He was then appointed Professor of Celtic in Queen's College, Belfast. In 1848 appeared the first part of his edition of the Annals of the Four Masters ., which won for him the Cunningham Gold Medal of the Royal Irish Academy and the LL.D. degree of Trinity College, Dublin. The edition was completed in 1851, and the Government bestowed on him a pension of £50 a year. O'Donovan had decided to go to America, but the establishment of the Brehon Law Commission helped to retain his services for Ireland. He continued his work on the Brehon Law Tracts till his death in Dublin from rheumatic fever, the tendency to which was due to exposure on the outdoor work of the Ordnance Survey.
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