John O’Donovan (Seán Ó Donnabháin, 25 July 1806 – 10 December 1861), from Atateemore, in the parish of Kilcolumb, County Kilkenny, and educated at Hunt’s Academy, Waterford, is recognised as one of Ireland’s greatest Irish scholars and first historic topographer.
He was the fourth son of Edmond O’Donovan and Eleanor Hoberlin of Rochestown. His early career may have been inspired by his uncle Parick O’Donovan. He worked for antiquarian James Hardiman researching state papers and traditional sources at the Public Records Office. He also taught Irish to Thomas Larcom for a short period in 1828 and worked for Myles John O’Reilly, a collector of Irish manuscripts. Following the death of Edward O’Reilly in August 1830, he was recruited to the Topographical Department of the first Ordnance Survey of Ireland under George Petrie in October 1830. Apart from a brief period in 1833, he worked steadily for the Survey on place-name researches until 1842, unearthing and preserving many manuscripts. After that date his work with the Survey tailed off, although he was called upon from time to time to undertake place-name research on a day-to-day basis. He researched maps and manuscripts at many libraries and archives in Ireland and England, with a view to establishing the correct origin of as many of Ireland’s 63,000 townland names as possible. His letters to Larcom are regarded as an important record of the ancient lore of Ireland for those counties he documented during his years of travel throughout much of Ireland.
By 1845, O’Donovan was corresponding with the younger scholar William Reeves, and much of their correspondence to 1860 survives.
O’Donovan became professor of Celtic Languages at Queen’s University, and was called to the Bar in 1847. On the recommendation of Grimm, he was elected a corresponding member of the Royal Academy Berlin in 1856. Never in great health, he died shortly after midnight on 10 December 1861 at his residence, 36 Upper Buckingham Street, Dublin and was buried on 13 December 1861 in Glasnevin Cemetery, where his tombstone inscription has slightly wrong dates of both birth and death. He married a sister of Eugene O’Curry and was father of nine children (all but one of whom died without issue). His wife received a small state pension after his death.
It should be noted that while it has not been possible to prove the great scholar’s descent from the Lords of Clancahill, it was something he was willing to believe, and most have been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
In a letter to Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa of the 29th May, 1856 John O’Donovan gave his lineage as follows:
From the senior branch of Clann-Cahill, descended from the elder son Donell O’Donovan, married Joanna McCarthy of Castle Donovan and who died 1638
Edmond, married Catherine de Burgo, killed 1643.
Conor, married Rose Kavanagh.
William, married Mary Oberlin, a Puritan, died 1749.
Edmond, married to Mary Archdeacon, died 1798.
Edmond, married Mary Oberlin, died 1817.
John O’Donovan, L.L.D. married to Mary Ann Broughton, a descendant of Cromwellian settlers.
Edmond 1840 d. 1842, John 1842, Edmond 1844 later War Correspondent died Sudan1882, William 1846, Richard 1846, Henry dead 1850, Henry 1852, Daniel 1856, Morgan Kavanaugh O’C 1859 d.1860.
An interesting feature of John O’Donovan’s works is that he found himself unable to resist asserting the claims of the O’Donovan family to ancient glory, in numerous footnotes and appendices. He personalized the history of the family to such an extent as to even dispute (erroneously) the right to succession of the current chiefly line. Thankfully for Irish scholarship, this small, personal failing does not affect the overall quality of O’Donovan’s pioneering research.
O’Donovan made a colossal contribution to Irish history and literature. He and his wife’s brother-in-law, Eugene O’Curry were the greatest Irish Scholars of their time. His work in establishing early Irish law texts, genealogies and folklore is still unsurpassed and frequently relied upon in research. (O’Curry and O’Donovan were married to the sisters Anne and Mary Anne Broughton respectively, daughters of John Broughton of Killaderry near Broadford, County Clare.) In 1852, he and O’Curry proposed the Dictionary of the Irish Language, which was eventually produced by the Royal Irish Academy starting in 1913 and finally completed in 1976.
A Grammar of the Irish Language (1845) for St. Columba’s College, Dublin
Leabhar na gCeart (The Book of Rights, 1847)
Translations of the Annals of the Four Masters (6 volumes 1846-1851)
Translation of the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland (1860)
Translation of the Martyrology of Donegal: A Calendar of the Saints of Ireland by Mícheál Ó Cléirigh (1864)