John O'Donovan

O’Donovan, John, a distinguished Irish scholar, was born at Atateemore, in the County of Kilkenny, 9th July 1809.

The death of his father in 1817 caused the dispersion of the family, and John was brought to Dublin by his elder brother Michael, who although in poor circumstances, procured for him the rudiments of a sound education.

He often ascribed his taste for historical pursuits to the narrations of his uncle, Patrick O’Donovan, who was well versed in the Gaelic lore of the county of his birth.

In 1826 O’Donovan began to apply himself to archaeological investigations and to the philosophical study of the Irish language.

Through James Hardiman he was engaged to transcribe legal and historical documents in the Irish Record Office; and with some slight assistance from his brother, was enabled to support himself until he obtained a situation on the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, in the historical department, under George Petrie, left vacant on Edward O’Reilly’s death in 1829.

To him was confided the examination of the ancient manuscripts in the Irish language in the Royal Irish Academy and elsewhere, for the purpose of fixing the nomenclature on the maps, and extracting the local information they contained.

Already acquainted with modern Gaelic, in the course of these labours he gradually acquired a knowledge of the language in its ancient and obsolete forms.

Working in company with Petrie, O’Curry, and Mangan, after researches in all parts of Ireland, the names of the 62,000 townlands were satisfactorily fixed.

“Of the entire 144,000 names on the maps, every one was made the subject of more or less investigation; the name finally adopted being that among the modern modes of spelling most consistent with the ancient orthography, and approaching as near to correctness as practicable, without restoring the original and often obsolete appellation.”

His first important essays appeared in the Dublin Penny Journal, to which he was a frequent contributor, until the fifty-sixth number, in July 1833, when the paper passed out of the management of John S. Folds.

His articles upon such subjects as “The antiquity of Corn in Ireland,“ “The Battle of Clontarf,” “Irish Proverbs,” “Antiquity of Mills in Ireland,” “Dunseverick Castle,” “Cormac’s Glossary,” established his character as an historic topographer.

Several of his papers will also be found in the Irish Penny Journal, 1840–’41—indeed it is chiefly his writings that make sets of these magazines now so valuable.

In 1836 he commenced the compilation of an analytical catalogue of the Irish manuscripts in Trinity College, Dublin. The result of these investigations satisfied all conversant with the subject that the writings of many who during the previous century had been considered authorities on Irish history were worse than useless.

Mainly through the instrumentality of Dr. Todd, the Irish Archaeological Society was formed in 1840. O’Donovan edited the first and many of its most important publications, as the Battle of Magh Rath, the Tribes and Customs of Hy Fiachrach, and the Miscellany; he also edited the Book of Rights for the Celtic Society—

“with the exception of the Brehon Laws, the most valuable extant document illustrative of the clan government of the ancient Irish.”

In 1845 Irish Grammar appeared, which had engaged his attention at intervals during the preceding seventeen years. In its compilation he was much assisted by Dr. Todd and Eugene O’Curry. It treated both of the vernacular and the language of ancient records, and “although not marked by profound philosophical or philological dissertations,” or at all coming up to Zeuss’s subsequent work (the importance of which he was the first to impress on the British public), it gained for him a high place amongst European scholars.

In 1842 the Government had unexpectedly stopped the grant for the Historic Department of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, and O’Donovan and his fellow labourers, just when they were prepared to arrange and give to the world the mass of materials collected with such study and investigation, were left to seek occupation elsewhere.

He was called to the Bar in 1847. He was now engaged on the great work of his life—the translation, annotating, and editing of the first complete edition of the Annals of the Four Masters, for Hodges & Smith, the Dublin publishers.

The volumes of the Annals from 1172 to 1616 appeared in 1848, and from 2242 A.M. to 1171 A.D. in 1851. They fill six volumes (3,764 pp.) and index (405 pp.)—Irish and English on opposite pages: often more than half of both pages being occupied with notes in small type.

This work gained for O’Donovan the degree of LL.D. from Trinity College, and the Royal Irish Academy awarded its highest distinction—the Cunningham medal.

O’Curry says:

“The translation is executed with extreme care. The immense mass of notes contain a vast amount of information, embracing every variety of a topic—historical, topographical, and genealogical—upon which the text requires elucidation or correction; and I may add, that of the accuracy of the researches which have borne fruit in that information, I can myself, in almost every instance, bear personal testimony. … There is absolutely nothing left to be desired. There is no instance that I know of in any country, of a work so vast being undertaken, much less of any completed in a style so perfect and so beautiful, by the enterprise of a private publisher.”

The Irish type for the Annals was cast from designs drawn by George Petrie. The work was entrusted to Michael H. Gill, College Printer, Dublin, who in this and similar books printed about the same period, carried typography to higher perfection than it had ever before attained in Ireland.

On the completion of this work, John O’Donovan looked forward with gloomy apprehensions towards the future of himself and his numerous children, and even thought of emigrating; but the establishment, in November 1852, of a commission for the translation of the ancient laws of Ireland (Senchus Mor) gave him and O’Curry the prospect of a narrow livelihood for some years to come.

The translation was commenced by them in January 1853, and continued “regularly daily from ten a.m. to four p.m., at a scale of remuneration quite inadequate for the work, which no other living scholars had qualified themselves to execute.”

The first volume was not given to the world until 1865, long after the decease of both the great translators.

For the Archaeological and Celtic Society he edited The Topographical Poems of John O’Dubhagain and of Giolla na Naomh O’Huidhrin, from the original Irish manuscript in the library of the Royal Irish Academy, with a translation, notes, and introductory dissertations, and finally revised the work for the press; but it was not published until 20th January 1862, the index being entirely the work of Dr. Reeves.

His translation of The Martyrology of Donegal, for the same Society, was edited in 1864 by Dr. Todd and Dr. Reeves.The Martyrology of DonegalNor was his supplement to O’Reilly’s Irish Dictionary given to the public until after his death.The Martyrology of DonegalThere is scarcely an important work on Irish antiquities or topography which appeared during his manhood that does not to some extent bear the marks of his scholarship.

We are told that

“O’Donovan had begun life full of hope in the resurgence of true Irish learning, trusting that the results of his exertions, while advancing the reputation of his country, would gain for himself somewhat of national gratitude and estimation; … [but as the years passed over] he gradually fell into a condition of fixed depression and despondency, taking an interest only in the education of his children, and in preserving and elucidating the historic records of the ancient Irish. … O’Donovan may be said to have been the first historic topographer that Ireland ever produced, and in this department he will, in all probability, never be equalled, as a combination of circumstances similar to those under which he acquired his knowledge is not likely to arise again.”

He died in Dublin, 9th December 1861, aged 52, and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

The materials for this notice are taken almost entirely from an article in the Dublin Review, by his friend J. T. Gilbert.


115a. Dublin Review, 1836–’77. See also No. 101a.

134. Four Masters, Annals of Ireland by the: Translated and Edited by John O’Donovan. 7 vols. Dublin, 1856.

233. Manuscript and Special Information, and Current Periodicals.

260. O’Curry, Eugene: Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History. Dublin, 1861.

300a. Senchus Mor. vol. i. Dublin, 1865.