John O'Donovan (scholar)

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John O'Donovan
A miniature of John O'Donovan, by Bernard Mulrenan
Born(1806-07-25)25 July 1806
Died10 December 1861(1861-12-10) (aged 55)
Dublin, Ireland
EducationHunt's Academy, Waterford
Known fortopographer

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][failed verification]


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. Hardiman had secured O'Donovan a place in Maynooth College which he turned down.[3] 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.

from a miniature by Bernard Mulrenan (1803-1868)

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.[4]

O'Donovan became professor of Celtic Languages at Queen's University, Belfast, 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.[5][failed verification] On the recommendation of Jacob 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 Mary Anne Broughton, sister-in-law of Eugene O'Curry and was the 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 Eleanor 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.[6] See Edmund O'Donovan.

Select bibliography[edit]

  • O'Donovan, John, ed. (1841), "The circuit of Ireland, by Muircheartach mac Neill, prince of Aileach; a poem written in the year DCCCCXLII by Cormacan Eigeas, chief poet of the north of Ireland", Tracts relating to Ireland, vol. 1, translated by O'Donovan, John
  • O'Donovan, John, ed. (1842), The Banquet of Dun Na n-Gedh and The Battle of Magh Rath, An Ancient Historical Tale, translated by O'Donovan, John, Dublin: The Irish Archaeological Society
  • O'Donovan, John (1853), "Inauguration of Cathal Crobhdhearg, king of Connaught", Journal of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, 2 (2), translated by O'Daly, John: 335–347, JSTOR 2548984
  • O'Donovan, John, ed. (1857), "On the elegy of Erard MacCoise, chief chronicler of the Gaels over the tomb of Fergal O'Ruairc, chief of Brefny at Clonmacnoise", Journal of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, New, 1 (2), translated by O'Donovan, John: 341–56, JSTOR 25502520
Laws, charters, and proclamations
Irish language, grammar, etymologies, and dictionaries
Irish histories
Genealogies, family, tribal, and regional histories
On historical letters, journals, and correspondences
Religious works and figures

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. ^ "John O'Donovan (1806-1861)",
  4. ^ Hastings, Angela, John O'Donovan/William Reeves correspondence (archive), UCD Digital Library
  5. ^ Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (1836-1869), vol. 4, Royal Irish Academy, 1853, pp. 193–210, JSTOR 20520269
  6. ^ Boyne 1987, pp. 118–120.


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

External links[edit]