O'Donovan, Edmund (1844–83), journalist, soldier, and Fenian, was born 13 September 1844 in Dublin, second among six sons (surviving infancy) of the celebrated Celticist and antiquarian John O'Donovan (qv) and Mary Anne O'Donovan (née Broughton), sister-in-law of Eugene O'Curry (qv). The O'Donovans lived in relative poverty but the education of the boys was of prime importance to their father, who first taught them himself at home and then sent them to the O'Connell CBS and to Belvedere College. All the boys were clever, particularly at science and languages, but they were uneven scholars: of four who began studying medicine, three failed to graduate. The Fenian Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa (qv) was a frequent visitor to the family home in Upper Buckingham St., and he was later to reproach himself that it was his early acquaintance with these boys that ‘disturbed the serenity of their lives’ (Recollections, 240), for the four eldest took the IRB oath and the first three had restless lives ending in early death. Their father died in 1861, leaving the family penniless and the boys under the guardianship of Sir Thomas Larcom (qv), under-secretary for Ireland; it was common rumour in Dublin that Larcom had to keep intervening to have the young O'Donovans released from prison.
Edmund attended the Royal College of Surgeons, St Stephen's Green, before studying medicine at TCD, where he gained prizes in chemistry, and (thanks to early training in transcribing old manuscripts) was appointed clerk to the registrar. He had a keen interest in heraldry and was for a time aide to Sir Bernard Burke (qv), Ulster king-at-arms. But these occupations could not hold him long; he was adventurous, impetuous, and versatile, and he never graduated. While still at Trinity he was made by James Stephens (qv) the centre of a Fenian circle started by his elder brother, John, of some eighty to a hundred students. He was sent round the country recruiting and training, had a great interest in military engineering, and wrote a small handbook on the rifle.
O'Donovan was arrested for the first time in 1866 and was imprisoned for six months in Limerick (1867) for carrying arms without a licence. He helped the 1867 rising by drawing up maps, but after its failure fled to Paris, where his brother William (below) was working as a journalist. Edmund was described there as ‘quick of perception and brimming with vitality . . . there was a wild glare in his eyes now and then and he was as quick of gesture as a Neapolitan . . . he knew heraldry, medicine, could sketch, shoot, lecture, botanize, quote Milton, handle conic sections, sleep on the table . . . the study of Arabic was his great passion’ (O'Shea, 78).
He returned to Ireland in 1868 and took an active part in the famous Longford election (31 December 1869) between the nationalist John Martin (qv) and the whig, Reginald Greville-Nugent. There were pitched battles in the street, with O'Donovan leading the Fenians to great effect, but Martin was defeated, and O'Donovan left for the USA and then Paris. At the outbreak of the Franco–German war (1870) he joined the French Foreign Legion as ‘Lieutenant Elliott’, and was put in charge of an Irish brigade. In Orleans he was wounded and made prisoner of war, and was interned in Bavaria. His charm won the sympathy of the prison chaplain, who appointed him an orderly, and soon O'Donovan was sending news of his exploits to London and Dublin papers. This effectively launched his journalistic career, which had begun in 1866 with occasional contributions to the Irish Times. He was released in May 1871 and returned to Ireland to assist Mark Ryan (qv) in organising the Fenian movement in Galway; in 1872 he was appointed Fenian organiser for North England.
He went to Spain at the outbreak of the Carlist uprising in 1873 and sent articles to The Times and the Freeman's Journal. He also covered the 1876 Bosnian revolt and the Russo–Turkish war (1877) for The Times, the Standard, and the Daily News. By now a celebrated war correspondent, in 1879 he was sent by the Daily News to report on the troubles in Afghanistan. He went via the Caspian Sea to north Persia, and then, accompanied by one Kurd attendant, crossed the desert to Merv, an oasis of some 600 sq. miles (1,550 sq. km), inhabited by the Turcomans. At first suspected of being a Russian spy, he persuaded them that he was British, and was kept for six months in a sort of honourable captivity. He was named a khan, made one of the ruling triumvirate, and drawn into their battle plans against the Russians, but was prevented from leaving the city. He smuggled messages out to the British minister in Tehran and to his editor on the Daily News, and (between their efforts and his own ingenuity) managed to extricate himself.
On his return to London he was fêted, presented with £1,000 by the Daily News, and offered a lucrative lecturing tour. He disbursed his profits to the Fenian movement and to his wide circle of friends, who delighted in exchanging stories of his eccentricities. An inveterate practical joker, he frequently dressed up in full Turkish regalia, kept the most irregular hours in his flat in Bloomsbury, took potshots out of the window with his airgun, and kept all amused by fantastic stories and mordant wit. This wit was much in evidence in the published account of his adventures, The Merv oasis, which appeared in two volumes in 1882 and was named book of the year.
In 1883 he was sent by the Daily News to cover the troubles in the Sudan and took with him as his assistant Frank Power (qv), former correspondent for the Freeman's Journal. In May they joined the Egyptian army of Hicks Pasha in Khartoum, which was formed to crush the Sudanese revolt. Power fell ill and remained in Khartoum. On 3 November 1883 the army was ambushed at Obeid and annihilated over the next two days. O'Donovan's bloodstained dispatch case and mackintosh were retrieved from the battlefield by his German servant and given to a German priest (they were subsequently mislaid). There seems no doubt that O'Donovan perished in those two days, though his friends and brothers long cherished a hope that ‘O'Donovan Pasha’ would turn up in the guise of an Arab chief. He bequeathed all his property to the Fenian movement, though (in the absence of evidence of death) probate of his will was not granted for eight years. A brass tablet in St Paul's cathedral, London, commemorates the seven war correspondents who died on service in the Sudan campaign, including O'Donovan and Power. Shortly before O'Donovan's death Aloysius O'Kelly (qv) painted his portrait in Turkish costume.
His younger brother William O'Donovan (1846–86), journalist and Fenian, was born 28 July 1846 in Dublin. His father believed him to be the cleverest of all his sons, and hoped he would be a Jesuit or Passionist priest, but William followed his brothers into Fenianism. Like Edmund, he was a highly proficient linguist, and before he was 20 was sent to Paris by James Stephens to help John Mitchel (qv), who had become financial agent of the American Fenians in Paris (1865). Under the name ‘Dr Hamilton’, William acted as interpreter for the messengers sent with money for Ireland. After the failure of the 1867 rising, O'Donovan was made Paris correspondent for the Irish Times and remained there for some years, covering the Franco–German war, the siege of Paris, and the Commune. During this time he managed to master German so that he spoke it like a native, and learned enough Spanish to add to his earnings by writing a weekly column of Parisian gossip for various South American papers. The Irish Times sent him to Spain to cover one of the Carlist insurrections. There he came in close contact with the Basques and discarded the theory (long prevalent in Ireland) that the Basques were Celts, for he found neither physiognomic nor linguistic affinity between them and any Celtic nation.
In the late 1870s he returned to Dublin as editorial writer for the Irish Times. Though still a Fenian, he wrote high tory editorials to order, and treated the whole thing as a joke, for he had the same mordant quality of humour as his brother. In 1881, when United Ireland was started with William O'Brien (qv) as editor, O'Donovan joined the staff and was able to air his true views. He was a Fenian till the last, but also a strong supporter of Parnell. On the arrest of O'Brien (October 1881) O'Donovan was asked to take over the editorship. A warrant for his arrest was issued, but he escaped to New York, where he continued to work as a journalist for various papers. He became the chief assistant of John Devoy (qv) on the Irish Nation (established in New York in November 1881). Devoy valued his painstaking ability and political acumen, and was tolerant of his occasional drunken sprees. O'Donovan wrote a series for the paper on the history of European revolutionary movements and also translated articles relating to Ireland from continental newspapers. He died suddenly in New York in April 1886, and Devoy and O'Donovan Rossa were pallbearers at his burial in Calvary cemetery. He was the third of the brothers to die young: the eldest, John, was accidentally drowned in 1873 at the age of 31. Their father, commenting wryly to O'Donovan Rossa on ‘his faction of boys’, observed that having eight sons was ‘a sort of effort of nature to preserve the name’ (Recollections, 80), but the two youngest were unmarried, and the only child born to the fourth son, Richard, was a girl who herself died childless.