Thursday, February 7, 2002

John O'Donovan - Antiquarian

There is something unremitting about rain in the early spring that can weary even the most determined traveler. Much less can one imagine the motivation of a man who would travel the length and breadth of Kildare in the harsh and unforgiving winter months.

One such man was the antiquarian and historian John O’Donovan. Almost single-handedly through his researches in Irish history and archaeology he revitalised the then dormant interest in the Irish language and the history of people and place in Ireland.

As a scholar his achievements were of monumental significance. His editing and publication of the Annals of the Irish Four Masters would be sufficient to distinguish him amongst the scholars and writers of the last century. Added to this work he traveled the length and breadth of the country in the employ of the Ordnance Survey from 1830 to 1842. From October to December of 1837 O’Donovan spent his days and nights by horse and by foot travelling the highways and byways of the county of Kildare. On his travels he sought out every bit of historical or archaeological information that he could find. He began his researches in Maynooth on October 18th, 1837. In that one day he traversed “the Parishes of Leixlip, Confey, Donaghmore and Kilmacreddock and took notice of all the remarkable things connected with them that came under my observation”. He noted a well called Shaughlin’s Well in the Parish of Maynooth. The well had been a popular place for locals to visit and was a place where he was told that many miraculous cures had been effected. He wrote

“There was for many years an iron cup appended to a chain at it for the use of those who frequented it which some sacrilegious hand coveting took off a few years ago.”

Two days later he could be found in the Parishes of Kildrought, Doneycomper and Stacummey where he obtained as much information as he possibly could about the local English pronunciations and the names. He regretted to note that there was no possibility of getting it pronounced in Irish for the language had become almost entirely extinct in this part of the country.

O’Donovan was in the habit of communicating his discoveries on a daily basis to the Ordnance Survey in Dublin, with detailed descriptions of the places he went to and the people he met, while at the same time casting a critical eye over previous histories of the areas and the local traditions that he had encountered. In his endeavours O’Donovan was often times accompanied by T. O’Connor and J. O’Keeffe who did parallel researches in areas adjoining O’Donovans. From the Ordnance Survey letters there is an impression of great urgency about the work that O’Donovan and his colleagues were doing and a sense that much of the information that they were recording would be lost were they not out there collecting it on a day-to-day basis.

In many ways the works they were doing were not appreciated. O’Connor described their arrival in Clane on November 3rd, 1837. Thus :-
“We just arrived and with the greatest possible difficulty found a reception which, from its badness, will, I fear, prove injurious at least to me, as I feel on this evening rather discreetly affected with a cold arising from the very cold wettings I got in Carbery. This is a most wretched village, though it is a post town.”

The flurry of letters which the Ordnance Survey received on a day-to-day basis recorded not only the works done but often the frustrations and the limitations of the fieldwork. O’Donovan constantly wrote to the Ordnance Survey in Dublin in search of further materials, which would aid him in his field works. Often his letters would contain detailed instructions to his contemporaries in the Ordnance Survey including such men as Eugene O’Curry, his brother-in-law, the great social historian of ancient Ireland whose book on the Manners and Customs of Ancient Ireland was regarded as a classic in its day.

Sometimes in O’Donovan’s letters there is this underlying tension between his ambition to record as much as possible and the difficulty in coping with the inclement weather conditions in winter. Travelling by canal boat from Mullingar to Dublin O’Donovan arrived in the early hours of the morning of 12th November, finding himself exhausted and sleepy and unable to travel to Naas to meet up with his colleagues O’Connor and O’Keeffe to complete their works there.

Even though he found himself physically unable to make the journey he was anxious to assess the works they had done. O’Donovan showed a touching concern for his colleagues in the field while writing from Athy on November 20th, 1837. He recommended that his friend O’Keeffe be returned to Dublin for a while. He noted the weather was very severe and might injure O’Keeffe instead of improving his health. For a week in late November 1837 O’Donovan and his colleagues used Athy as a base in which to conduct their researches in the areas surrounding it. By the end of November they moved to Kildare town to explore the north of the county. His enthusiasm for his works seem to have dimmed somewhat towards the end of the year and he had developed a very poor opinion of the people and places in that part of Kildare. Visiting Monasterevin on December 3rd, 1837 he wrote as follows :-
“I visited Monasterevin yesterday but could find no feature or tradition there to throw any light on its history. The people are entirely anglicised and have lost all their ancient traditions. I long to get to Connaught again, as those of my own province are not only exceedingly ignorant on the subject of my enquiry, but also boorish and unobliging.”

The period spent in Kildare town seemed to be a difficult one for O’Donovan. Of his future plans he wrote :-
“If I can get over the writing for Kildare I think we might be able to finish the Kings County in about six weeks, but the wretched town of Kildare nearly killed me and I am now so nervous that I can scarcely hold the pen.”

Towards the end of December he visited the Moate of Ardscull a couple of miles outside of Athy. In recording his thoughts on that Moate he referred to James Hardiman’s history of Ardscull and surroundings. The errors and contradictions of Hardiman’s writings infuriated O’Donovan. He noted cantankerously :-
“It is astonishing that such a man, ‘a man of keen, discerning and of clear intellect and of vast information’ as Hardiman could insult the public by such glaring nonsense. If Hardiman knew that I wrote in this manner about his book he would become my most bitter enemy. But I don’t care about the feelings of any man, friend or foe. Nothing for me but plain honest truth. No quibbling, equivocating, disguising or suppression. No confounding of names or periods. No assumption without proof. No conjecture in the shape of positiviness! You will say that I am getting mad again. This weather is so sublime that it will throw one back three centuries.”

O’Donovan completed his work in Kildare by the end of 1837. O’Donovan died in Dublin 1862 from rheumatic fever which his friends and colleagues believed was brought on due to the many years he had spent in inclement weather on outdoor work for the Ordnance Survey.

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