John O'Donovan (scholar)

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John O'Donovan
A miniature of John O'Donovan, by Bernard Mulrenan
Born25 July 1806
Died10 December 1861
Dublin, Ireland
EducationHunt's Academy, Waterford
Known fortopographer
Home townKilcolumb, County Kilkenny

John O'Donovan (Irish: 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, was an Irish language scholar from Ireland.[1]


He was the fourth son of Edmond O'Donovan and Eleanor Hoberlin of Rochestown.[2] 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, O'Donovan's 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.[3]

O'Donovan became professor of Celtic Languages at Queen's University, and was called to the Bar in 1847. His work on linguistics was recognised in 1848 by the Royal Irish Academy, who awarded him their prestigious Cunningham Medal.[4] On the recommendation of Grimm, he was elected a corresponding member of the Royal Academy of Prussia in 1856.

Never in great health, he died shortly after midnight on 10 December 1861 at his residence, 36 Upper Buckingham Street, Dublin. He 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-in-law[who?] 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.

Personal genealogy[edit]

In a letter to Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa of 29 May 1856 John O'Donovan gave his lineage as follows:

  • From the senior branch of Clann-Cahill, descended from the elder son Donnell II O'Donovan, married Joanna MacCarthy Reagh 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.[2]
  • Edmond 1840 d. 1842, John 1842, Edmond 1844 later War Correspondent (died in Sudan) 1882, William 1846, Richard 1846, Henry dead 1850, Henry 1852, Daniel 1856, Morgan Kavanaugh O'C 1859 d.1860.[5] See Edmund O'Donovan.

(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.) *O'Donovan Road in the Tenters area of Dublin 8 is named in his honour.

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. Thankfully for Irish scholarship, this small, personal failing does not affect the overall quality of O'Donovan's pioneering research;other criticism of his works were much more substantive. While it has not been possible to prove the great scholar's descent specifically from the Lords of Clancahill, and not from another O'Donovan sept, it was nonetheless something in which he stoutly believed. O'Donovan was also undecided and in other notes contended Edmond was a son of Donal II by his first wife Helena de Barry.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Autobiographical article in Transactions of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, 1851, p. 362. Printed in Dublin by John Daly, 1862
  2. ^ a b Boyne, 1987, p. 1
  3. ^ Hastings, Angela, John O'Donovan/William Reeves correspondence, at University College, Dublin, web site (pdf file)
  4. ^ "Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (1836-1869)". Royal Irish Academy. JSTOR 20520269. Missing or empty |url= (help)
  5. ^ Boyne, 1987, pp. 118–120


  • Encyclopaedia of Ireland, Brian Lalor, P. 813, 2003, Gill and MacMillan ISBN 0-7171-3000-2
  • A Paper Landscape, the Ordnance Survey in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, J.H.Andrews, 1993, Four Courts press, ISBN 1-85182-664-5
  • Iris Mhuintir Uì Dhonnabháin, O'Donovan History 2000, Published by the O'Donovan Clan, Skibbereen, Ireland. Article by Michael R. O'Donovan
  • John O'Donovan (1806—1861): A Biography, Patricia Boyne, 1987, Kilkenny: Boethius, ISBN 0-86314-139-0
  • De hÓir É. Seán Ó Donnabháin agus Eoghan Ó Comhraí. Baile Átha Cliath, 1962
  • MacSweeney P. A Group of Nation-Builders: O’Donovan — O’Curry — Petrie. Dublin, 1913
  • Ó Muráile N. Seán Ó Donnabháin, «An Cúigiú Máistir» // Scoláirí Gaeilge: Léchtaí Cholm Cille XXVII / Eag. R. Ó hUiginn. Maigh Nuad, 1997. Lch. 11–82.
  • Rossa's Recollections 1838 to 1898: Memoirs of an Irish Revolutionary by O'Donovan Rossa p. 332–377 relate to John O'Donovan. Published by Globe Pequot, 2004. ISBN 1-59228-362-4

External links[edit]

Online books