John O’Donovan Manuscripts in UCD Special Collections

UCD Special Collections holds several manuscripts written by the 19th century antiquarian John O’Donovan.  Of these manuscripts, perhaps the most intriguing is one entitled Description and historical illustrations of the round towers and other contemporaneous ecclesiastical remains in Ireland [UCD MS 49]. It also holds a collection of correspondence between O’Donovan and his friend and fellow antiquarian William Reeves

O’Donovan was born in Kilkenny in 1806 and attended a hedge school before attending formal schools in Waterford and Dublin.  In 1827 he was employed by James Hardiman to copy Irish language manuscripts and legal documents.  This was his first introduction to the network of fellow antiquarians including George Petrie, Eugene O’Curry, William Reeves, James Clarence Mangan, John Gilbert, James Henthorn Todd and William Wakeman. He would collaborate with these men throughout the remainder of his life. His work on the translation and transcription of Irish manuscripts formed the basis of his scholarship and greatly contributed to that of others.

In October 1830 O’Donovan began work with the Ordnance Survey.  ‘He was employed as orthographer and etymologist to assist in establishing, by reference to authoritative sources, a standard of orthography in English for the Irish place names to be marked on the maps of the entire country.’ (Dictionary of Irish Biography).  O’Donovan’s work involved the standardisation of over 60,000 townland names as well as detailing the history and antiquities of said townlands.  O’Donovan also worked for several years researching the proposed Topographical Memoir of the Ordnance Survey which was to cover each county.  It was as part of this fieldwork that the famous O’Donovan’s name books and O’Donovan’s letters were produced.  

One of John O’Donovan’s closest collaborators was George Petrie, an expert in Irish archaeology and music, and an accomplished artist.  Petrie relied on the translations of Irish manuscripts by persons such as O’Donovan and Eugene O’Curry to inform his work.  One subject of Petrie’s research was the round towers of Ireland, on which he submitted a gold medal winning paper to the RIA in 1833.  Patricia Boyne, in her 1987 biography of O’Donovan, says that the latter was ‘closely involved in the compilation’ of this and other papers.  In 1845 Petrie published a book entitled The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland Anterior to the Anglo-Norman Invasion, which was an expansion of the 1833 paper.

This manuscript is possibly a planned continuation of Petrie’s The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland. Labelled as Part III, it is likely a follow-up to parts 1 and 2 of the published volume.  The late Prof. Michael Herity stated that it was written in the hands of John O’Donovan and Patrick O’Keefe. 

The manuscript is titled Description and historical illustrations of the round towers and other contemporaneous ecclesiastical remains in Ireland.  It is described as Part III, Section 1 – Province of Leinster and is subdivided by county.

The introductory paragraph above states:

‘Having, as I trust, satisfactorily proved the ecclesiastical origin of the round towers and the contemporaneousness of their erection with our ancient churches and other ecclesiastical remains, I have now, in compliance with one of the primary conditions proposed by the Royal Irish Academy, to notice in detail the various remains of these buildings still existing in the country and such notices will, if I mistake not abundantly corroborate the conclusions already arrived at, and leave no doubt, if any should still exist of their truth.’

Though the contents of this manuscript appear to follow on from Petrie’s The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland Anterior to the the Anglo-Norman Invasion, it is in O’Donovan’s hand. 

Despite its possible significance, very little is known about this UCD MS 49 and it has not been the subject of scholarship.  Special Collections would very much welcome further study of this manuscript.  We believe that it would be of relevance to researchers who are interested in individual scholars such as Petrie and O’Donovan, 19th century antiquarianism, the history of the ordnance Survey, and Irish archaeology and its development.

Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland and correspondence with William Reeves

O’Donovan is perhaps best known for his translation of and comments on the Annals of the Four Masters published in seven volumes between 1848 – 1851. UCD Special Collections holds a collection of 80 letters that are predominantly the correspondence between O’Donovan and fellow antiquarian William Reeves.  Reeves was a celebrated antiquarian and the Church of Ireland Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore.  He had published several books including the Life of St. Columba and The History and Antiquities of Down, Connor and Dromore and the paper On the Townland Distribution of Ireland

Many of these letters refer to O’Donovan’s work on the Annals and to placenames. The correspondence with William Reeves often takes an interesting form. Reeves writes to O’Donovan with enquiries about Irish words and placenames. O’Donovan annotates the letter with his answers and sends it back to Reeves.

In a letter to Reeves dated March 1846 O’Donovan speaks of how busy he is working on the Annals of the Four Masters.  His description of feeling imprisoned by his work may seem somewhat familiar to today’s PhD students. 

‘If I could get over the Annals I would feel released from bondage.  At present I am so imprisoned that I do not fear the effects of the coercion bill.’

In August of the same year, O’Donovan was still as busy as ever with his work.

I cannot get through the Annals at all!  The comparison of the text is consuming so much of my time.  The worst of all is that these annals will be of no credit or no emolument to me.  I was paid some pounds for them many years ago but I was very rash in binding myself when a little boy to a work that will not be finished when I am an old man.

O’Donovan’s edition of the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland was published in 1848 and 1851 with a second edition in seven volumes issued in 1856.  The text, translations and notes ran to nearly 4000 pages.  Special Collections holds several copies of this most significant work.

In her biography of O’Donovan Patricia Boyne states: ‘John O’Donovan’s literary output was prodigious, conscientious, scholarly.  He was an outstanding figure in Irish intellectual history during the nineteenth century and the first to interpret his county’s past clearly to contemporary readership.’  The work of O’Donovan and his contemporaries laid the foundations for the cultural revival of the late 19th and early 20th century.

  • This post was researched and written by Evelyn Flanagan, Head of Special Collections.

Manuscripts by John O’Donovan in UCD Special Collections

Correspondence between John O’Donovan (1809-1861), and, principally, William Reeves (1815-1892), 106 items held at UCD L 73 available via the UCD Digital Library

Description and historical illustrations of the round towers and other contemporaneous ecclesiastical remains in Ireland, 1844, UCD MS 49

Translations into Irish of some of Euclid propositions; verses in Irish and English – UCD Additional Irish Manuscript 2a 

Materia Medica ; Expedition and Landing of Strongbow ; Topographical poems ; The refutation of James Ussher the arch-heretic – Ó Lochlainn  MS 18

Irish English Dictionary – Ó Lochlainn MS 21 and MS 22

Catalogue of manuscripts in Trinity College Dublin, 1837 – Ó Lochlainn MS 19 and 20

A miscellany of prose and verse in Irish, with some translations into English and some notes on other manuscripts [1847] – Ó Lochlainn Ms 7 (Scribes include O’Donovan).

John O’Donovan’s notebook including List of birth dates of the O’Donovan children, Two wax seals of the O’Donovans, Pedigree of the O’Donovan family, Letter to Larcom – Ó Lochlainn MS 23

Autograph letters to Sir J. T. Gilbert (including letters to John O’Donovan from Ed. Butl. Lord Kildare) – UCD MS 12

Letter to Eugene O’Curry – UCD L 22

Further Reading

Boyne, Patricia, John O’Donovan (1806-1861) a biography, Boethius, Kilkenny, 1987.

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