John O’Donovan of Attatimore

John O’Donovan of Attatimore

Peter McQuillan

Who was John O’Donovan? We’ll let him tell you himself. In an autograph letter dated October 8th 1843 he wrote “I was born on the townland of Attatimore (Áit an Tigh Mór – the place of the big house) on 3rd August 1809. My father died… when I was about 8 years old. I commenced the study of Latin and Irish when I was about nine, and made considerable progress although I was exceedingly delicate….in 1821 I was sent to school in Waterford by my brother… in 1823 I came to Dublin where my brother had gone to work and he sent me to a Latin school for four years. I then met Mr. Hardiman, Commissioner of Public Records and worked with him, copying Irish manuscripts and other documents in his office.”

The young man’s health, which plagued him all his life, disimproved, and his friend, Myles John O’Reilly invited him to his home in the Queen’s County, where he worked translating parts of the Annals of the Four Masters relating to the O’Reillys. During his time in the country his health improved greatly and he had plenty of opportunity to read. When he moved back to Dublin he met James Scurry, a neighbour from Knockhouse, Co. Kilkenny, who was working for James Hardiman, and Scurry introduced him to the writings of Irish and other writers in grammar and antiquities.

Around this time the British Parliament started a project to make a consistent system for the valuation of all property in Ireland, as a basis for taxation. The work involved military engineers, through the Ordnance Survey, mapping, setting administrative boundaries and assessing the productive capacity of all property in a uniform way. John O’Donovan got a position in the historical department of the Survey under George Petrie. His job was to examine old Irish manuscripts to assist in getting names for local townlands.

In 1834 he embarked on an arduous but invaluable series of fieldwork tours throughout the length and breadth of Ireland to study tens of thousands of place names on behalf of the Ordnance Survey. Covering the country. often on foot, over the next seven years, O’Donovan – with the assistance of a few colleagues, notably O’Curry, O’Conor and O’Keefe – sent back to headquarters in Dublin a voluminous and extremely valuable stream of letters, now known as the celebrated Ordnance Survey Letters. These letters, written with a quill pen, often on poor quality paper, dealt with the toponymy,, history and antiquities of the country. Those dealing with Co. Kilkenny were published in book form in 2003, edited by Michael Herity and with a preface by Fr. Feargus Ó Fearghail. The publishers are the appropriately named Four Masters Press. The book is a fascinating read and is available in bookshops, in the public libraries and in Rothe House.

In 1840 John O’Donovan married Mary Anne Broughton in Dublin, a sister-in-law of O’Curry and they soon had a young family to support. He went on to publish many learned studies, including A Grammar for the Irish Language and the translation of Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters. He also had many articles in the Journal of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society. In 1849 he was appointed Professor of Celtic Languages in the newly opened Queen’s College in Belfast. In 1861 rheumatic fever caused his untimely death. He was survived by his wife and by six of their nine sons. He is buried in the O’Connell Circle in Glasnevin Cemetery.

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