This Callan man is seen as something of the Samuel Pepys of Ireland and the Irish language. While born in Killarney, he came to Kilkenny at nine years of age. His father was a hedge school master. Proinsias O’Drisceoil says in his notes for Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that O’Sullivan senior built a school house in one day.
Humphrey was born in 1780 and brought the beautiful Gaeilge na Mumhan (Munster Irish) with him to Callan. He was not a one trick pony being a linen draper, a politician and a hedge school master as well. He seems well versed in mathematics, literature, botany and Greek and Latin Classics. He was particularly interested in herbology, and his diary is dotted with references to the affairs of nature. He was capable of course in speaking, reading and writing English, and his diary features both Irish and English.
O’Drisceoil says Humphrey leaves a significant record of the lives of those provincial middle class Catholics who supported the campaigns of Daniel O’Connell and tried to replace the ruling elite of the established church as the dominant class in Irish society. Yet, as a measure of his charm he managed to get signed a Protestant Declaration in favour of Catholic Emancipation. He was a local leader in O’ Connell’s political campaigns. Their mutual Kerry background no doubt was a factor. Ó Suilleabhain made a speech in Irish at a ‘monster meeting’ in favour of Catholic emancipation in 1828. He also collected local contributions to the O’Connellite campaigns (the ‘Catholic rent’), and in 1828 led the Catholic side in an agitation to wrest the charitable Callan dispensary from protestant control.
The Callan of Humphreys time was no Garden of Eden. It was known as Callainn an Chlampair -Callan of the Ructions. It was noted for its extreme poverty in a country where the great majority of the people lived under wretched conditions. Thomas Cromwell, an English visitor around 1820 wrote ‘Callan is the very impersonation of Irish poverty and wretchedness’.
Humphrey described himself as a seanachaí. He certainly displays many of their talents in his diary. Take this gem “Long as drinking lasts, it ends in thirst. It’s sweet drinking, its bitter paying.” For 13th May 1827 he records “News from Suirside – a poor hungry crowd tried to take meal from the boats which were sailing between Clonmel and Carrick but the peelers fired on them from the boats killing three and wounding six”. On 29th June 1827, the Feast of Sts Peter and Paul, there was a hurling match on the Fair Green in Callan. He says the sticks were brandished like swords. He says “hurling is a war like game.” He records the death of his mother on Aug 9th 1827. He reminisces on his father’s death in 1808 the year of the big snow. He mentions for the 26th May 1828 the Fair of Ballingarry. Attendees would need to know how to twist their shillelaghs. As a coroner famously remarked having heard the medical evidence into the death of a man “What was a man with a thin cranium doing at the fair of Cappawhite?”
Humphrey married Maire Ní Dhulachanta (Mary Delahunty). She died 1 July 1829. They left four children. He died himself in 1838 and is buried in Kilbride. Fortunately, the work of our only known diarist in the Irish language up to then found its way to the Royal Irish Academy from whence generations of Irish scholars have enjoyed them.