John O'Donovan (scholar)

For other people named John O'Donovan, see John O'Donovan (disambiguation).
John O'Donovan
A miniature of John O'Donovan, by Bernard Mulrenan
Born 25 July 1806
County Kilkenny, Ireland
Died 10 December 1861
Dublin, Ireland
Residence Kilkenny
Education Hunt's Academy, Waterford
Known for topographer
Home town Kilcolumb, 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 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

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

(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.


The Annals of the Four Masters, as edited by John O'Donovan, have been called "the fount and origin from which most of Ireland's subsequent historical commentaries have been derived". But, the monumental work was not without significant criticism. "O'Donovan now and again made mistakes, the possibility of which he did not deny. Where he failed, copyists who came after him invariably failed too. Also, since his time, numerous lists of place-names have been provided by editors of texts of non-historical character. In every instance it might be said that the vast majority of their identifications are not original but second-hand. They are common property now, but in the first instance they were, as was once bluntly characterized, pillaged from the printed works of John O'Donovan".[6]

John O'Donovan's published works were extensive, and their impact and influence can not be overestimated. But, because they have been quoted and referenced and become not only common property, but common truth, errors and opinions of O'Donovan have undermined other scholarly research.

In a note in the Book of Rights, O'Donovan states without authority that Dún-na-n-Gall was intended to denote Dún Duibh-linne' (p. 226); O'Donovan, in his preface to the Annals of Dublin uses this name [Ath Cliath Duiblinne] with an assurance that leaves no doubt that it was in his opinion the full and proper title for the city, and he repeats it in the introduction to his Book of Rights. (Annals ed. O'Donovan, p. 127). Surely nowhere is the confusion of Irish history, resulting from the idée fixe of a Norse-founded Dublin, better exemplified than in the illogical position into which subsequent scholars and experts were forced.[7]

Because of his work on place-names, many locations today reflect in their published histories the hallmark of O'Donovan's work. However, "O'Donovan's identification, even when based entirely on oral information, must still be considered carefully by the contemporary Irish scholar and the grounds for rejection of his suggestions should be stated'.[8]

Because O'Donovan's work is the foundation of so many family histories today, it is important that individuals seeking information on their Irish genealogies recognise they may find themselves subjected to O'Donovan's opinions, and understand that his fiction is most often presented as fact. “ O'Donovan's legacy in terms of the identification of the political organization of the landscape is a rather less happy one. Although he recognized the incursion of new families into the Irish landscape and the possibility of changes in political control, he appears to have visualized the land-units themselves as being largely permanent. Likewise in the topographical poems of the fourteenth-century poets O Dubhagain and O hUidrin, also edited by O'Donovan, the poets themselves appear to ignore the possibility of territorial change. O'Donovan is, therefore, merely publishing long-held tenets of Irish literature and these appear to have affected his own interpretation of historical change".[9] "Territorial units remained intact from prehistoric times and the boundaries of this ancestral unit remained sufficiently well-known for them to be identified with some certainty in the nineteenth century'.[10] This however, is certainly not true. "In recent years, the historians of later medieval Ireland have increasingly emphasized the extent to which this model of a largely unchanging landscape can no longer be substantiated".[11]

O'Donovan noted that the O'Donovans listed as attainted in 1691 of Gallinlaghlin were of Clan Lochlain, solely on the similarity of the name of the location to the name of Lochlain, son of Ancrom (slain 1254 AD). This propensity of O'Donovan to rename and associate people and places was extensive, and resulted in misdirection and misinformation which subsequent generations of researchers and scholars have struggled to undo.

"According to John O'Donovan, who was the Ordnance Survey's expert on place-names for the first survey in the 1830s, Tullaghlumman meant 'Lóman's hill'. Whenever O'Donovan could not otherwise interpret a place-name he would derive it from some personal name, and he invented an amazing number of peculiarly named persons in the process. In Ireland O'Donovan himself, the greatest Irish scholar of his age, presided over the systematic corruption of Irish place-names. After the sappers on the ground had noted down the place-names from the locals as best they could, it was O'Donovan who checked the earlier textual and cartographical sources, and having decided on the correct Irish form of each name, wrote down not the Irish but the Anglicized form that was to appear on the map. It was a very great betrayal, for as he himself noted, many of these names become very indistinct when transcribed in English phonetic values. It was the second great trauma of the sense of place in Ireland".[12]


See also


  1. Autobiographical article in Transactions of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, 1851, p. 362. Printed in Dublin by John Daly, 1862
  2. 1 2 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.
  5. Boyne, 1987, pp. 118–120
  6. Paul Walsh, Irish Men of Learning, 1940
  7. George A. Little, Ireland Before The Vikings, 1957
  8. W. A. Seymour, The Survey of Ireland to 1847: a History of the Ordnance Survey, Folkestone, 1980
  9. W. A. Seymour, The Survey of Ireland to 1847: a History of the Ordnance Survey, Folkestone, 1980; p. 99
  10. W. A. Seymour, The Survey of Ireland to 1847: a History of the Ordnance Survey, Folkestone, 1980; p. 100
  11. Andrews, A Paper Landscape: the Ordnance Survey in Nineteenth Century Ireland, Oxford, 1975
  12. Tim Robinson, "Listening to the Landscape", Irish Review, Vol. 14, Autumn 1993


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