Horgan, Matthew (‘Mat’) (c.1775–1849), priest, poet, antiquary, and advocate of social reform, was born at Ballinraha, Blarney, in his archaeologically rich ancestral region of Co. Cork. He remained there most of his life, though educated at Charleville in north Cork, where he preferred sports to studies; nothing is known of his family background. He took holy orders in 1804 and was PP of Blarney and Whitechurch from 1817 until his death. As such, he immediately set about erecting a new parish church at Ballygibbon (or ‘Waterloo’, named after a bridge built in the year of the battle), followed by another at Whitechurch in 1822. Although of modest, even frugal means, Horgan was literate, scholarly, and idealistic (some would say naive), eager for social reform and a renewal of interest in Gaelic culture. Known widely as ‘Father Mat’, he had an engaging, sociable personality, which earned him respect and friendship among both his parishioners and the formidable Cork intelligentsia of his time. To finance local building projects he levied parishioners by applying his persuasive enthusiasm and then repaid them in pastoral devotion.
Horgan's legendary dinner parties for gentry, literary worthies, occasional visitors, and Blarney parishioners alike were occasions where simple food (usually chicken, bacon, and vegetables) was shared at long tables. Drink was allocated according to social preference, wine for the upper table and whiskey for the rest. Notwithstanding Cork's strained social, religious, and mercantile relationships, competing locally and with cities such as Dublin and Belfast, respected catholics such as the merchant James Roche (qv) and Matthew Horgan himself mixed in the largely protestant circles that comprised the county's progressive elite. Horgan aligned himself with their guiding ambition to establish a Cork university to rival TCD. His own scholarship typified the broad Celtic revival movement that developed in Ireland from about 1830. He loved and championed the Irish language, transcribing ancient manuscripts and translating Latin classics and modern works, notably the Melodies of Thomas Moore (qv), into Irish. He specialised in ogham inscriptions of the early Christian period, numerous in Munster, of which he became a renowned scholar. By extension he was an architectural antiquarian and amateur designer, especially interested in monastic round towers, whose potent religious symbolism later dominated the iconography of Celtic revivalism.
The revival represented for Horgan and his educated contemporaries, such as Abraham Abell (qv) and John Windele (qv), a route to intellectual modernity by appreciating an ancient past common to all Irish Christians of goodwill through arts, crafts, and heritage preservation. Their commitment, in spite of tithe war and famine, advanced Irish scholarship to a permanent plateau of excellence by the 1850s. Horgan was a founder member of the Cork Cuvierian Society (1835), a product of the older Royal Cork Institution (RCI), established in 1807 to press for government provision of a local university, but whose effectiveness had declined since its state subsidy was abolished in 1830. The new society ‘for the cultivation of the sciences’, named after the French zoologist Georges Cuvier (1769–1832), followed the same academic objective as the RCI. Horgan's better-placed colleagues in the society included James Roche as first president and mathematician George Boole (qv), a later president. Its more populist approach towards advanced education, appealing through lectures and open days to a wider public of interested working people, suited a man of Horgan's modest and gregarious character, but others thought it lacked the gravitas of the RCI, even though many of the leading members belonged to both bodies. Horgan was also elected MRIA (1838).
Horgan's ambition for social reform was boosted by the catholic emancipation victory of Daniel O'Connell (qv) in 1829. The great reform act of 1832 and the liberal Irish administration of Thomas Drummond (qv) encouraged Horgan's hopes for the future, as manifested in the Cuvierian Society. Meanwhile, he had been immortalised in a painting (privately owned) by London-based Cork artist Daniel Maclise (qv): ‘Snap-apple night, or All-Hallow Eve, in Ireland’ (1833) depicted the kind of pre-famine social celebration that a popular priest like Horgan might attend. His friend, folklorist Thomas Crofton Croker (qv), also depicted, had brought Maclise to record Horgan in his social milieu. Horgan, though, was no careless libertarian, as he demonstrated in condemning excessive behaviour at wakes, which attracted professional mourners and the kind of people who attended executions for the party atmosphere and none of the solemnity.
His scholarly passions, which he shared through newspapers (under the name ‘Viator’) and one major poetic lament, Gortroe (1835), about a tithe-war massacre of the previous year, ranged from observable remains of the Irish past to the romantic poetic fashions of his own age, sometimes blurring the edges of fact and fancy. He went on personal expeditions around Munster with Windele, Abell, and others of the South Munster Antiquarian Society to inspect ancient sites including lofty ‘Cahir Conri’ (Caherconree) in the Slieve Mish mountains of Kerry's Dingle Peninsula. In true romantic style, Horgan had a Spenserian vision there of its great fortress and fairy queen, which he recorded as a semi-comic Gaelic poem, ‘Cathair Chonri’, published by Windele in a private memoir of 1860.
From about 1832, after repeal of penal prohibition on Catholic belfries, Horgan planned two imitation round towers of dubious architectural accuracy to stand alongside his churches at Whitechurch and Waterloo. He saw the former completed within months, funded by local subscriptions. At Waterloo, as a result of dwindling income, the tower (in whose base he intended to be buried) was eventually completed about 1845 with a curiously bottle-shaped upper portion. However, when Horgan died 1 March 1849 at Clogheenmilcon, he was buried inside the church at Waterloo. His dispersed papers were substantially saved by deposit in institutions including the RIA and St Colman's College, Fermoy.