O'Donovan, Gerald (Jeremiah) (1871–1942), novelist and sometime reforming catholic priest, was born 15 July 1871 in Co. Down, the youngest of six children of Jeremiah Donovan, a clerk in the Board of Works, and his wife Margaret. His father's occupation meant that the family travelled round the country in Jeremiah's youth. He was educated at Ardnaree College, minor seminary for Killala diocese, and in 1889 entered the national seminary at Maynooth as a clerical student for that diocese. After a spell in the Jesuits he was eventually ordained for Clonfert diocese in 1895. He taught at Esker minor seminary before being appointed as curate in Loughrea, Co. Galway, in 1897.
O'Donovan was a prominent advocate of temperance, self-help, and the Irish revival, supporting the Gaelic League and cooperative movement locally and taking part in national debate through articles in leading journals. Appointed administrator of St Brendan's Cathedral, Loughrea, he set about decorating it with Irish art, by artists such as Sarah Purser (qv), John Hughes (qv), and the Yeats sisters, Elizabeth (qv) and Susan (qv). In this he received substantial financial assistance from his friend, Edward Martyn (qv). He left the priesthood in September 1904, perhaps as a result of personal difficulties with the new bishop of Clonfert, Thomas O'Dea (1858–1923), who had earlier disciplined him at Maynooth for reading unsuitable books. From this time O'Donovan began signing himself Gerald rather than Jeremiah. He was befriended by George Moore (qv) and may have served as a partial model for some of the priest characters in Moore's fiction.
O'Donovan spent some time in London and America before finding employment with Toynbee Hall, a Christian socialist educational institute in east London. In 1910 he married Beryl Verschoyle (1886–1968), daughter of an Irish protestant colonel; they had three children. Commissioned lieutenant in the army in 1915, O'Donovan worked for the ministry of munitions and served as head of the Foreign Office's Italian propaganda section. His novel How they did it (1920) is an attack on war profiteering. From the early 1920s O'Donovan fell into a life of indolence and desuetude, though he developed a long-lasting relationship with the novelist Rose Macaulay. He was injured in a car accident in 1939 and died 26 July 1942 of cancer in Albury, Surrey.
O'Donovan briefly enjoyed considerable public prominence with the publication of his first and best-selling novel, Father Ralph (1913), the story of a young liberal priest who becomes disillusioned with catholicism and leaves his ministry. It was an early example of a type of fiction that was soon to include Joyce's Portrait of the artist as a young man (1916), in which individuals struggled for personal freedom against the strictures of catholic Ireland.
The novel's success was caused by its perceived autobiographical basis. Thus the Times Literary Supplement (8 May 1913) wrote that ‘the picture of the seminary in this book is terribly vivid and the worst of it is that it is true’. In fact the novel's hero comes from a different social background than its author and leaves the priesthood in protest against Pope Pius X's condemnation of the modernist theological movement, which occurred several years after O'Donovan's own departure from the ministry.
None of O'Donovan's subsequent novels enjoyed the success of Father Ralph. Set against the background of Ne temere, the papal decree against mixed marriages, Waiting (1914) is the story of a catholic whose teaching and political careers are ruined because he has married a protestant. In Conquest (1920) a catholic family is obsessed with its determination to recover ancestral lands, while a young protestant woman embraces Irish republicanism. Vocations (1921), a satire on Irish religious life, is perhaps O'Donovan's best-written work, while The holy tree (1922) examines the tensions between romance, economics, and religion in the institution of marriage.