O'Donovan (Ó Donnabháin), John (Seán) (1806–61), Irish scholar, was born about 25 July 1806 at Atateemore, in the parish of Slieverue, Co. Kilkenny, a few miles from Waterford city, the seventh of nine children (of whom two died young) of Edmund (Óg) O'Donovan, farmer, and Ellenor O'Donovan (née Haberlan or Hoberlin). His father was descended from the O'Donovans of Bawnlahan, near Skibbereen, Co. Cork, and his mother was of Cromwellian ancestry from the neighbouring townland of Rochestown. John was not a robust child, and as an adult was small in stature.
O'Donovan's father prospered during the Napoleonic wars, building a new house in 1816, but then, being forced by circumstances to move, he leased thirty-three acres in the adjacent townland of Red Gap, near where his brother Patrick (1753–1831) had a cornmill. O'Donovan's eldest brother, Michael, leased forty acres in nearby Ballyrowragh at this time also. After his father died in 1817 the young John appears to have gone to live with this brother. Patrick, his uncle, was an important influence. He had gone to sea as a younger man, was widely read in both English and Irish, and had a great interest in history and tradition. Irish was the primary language in the locality at the time.
O'Donovan is said to have first attended a hedge-school taught by a lady teacher, Máire Staca. He started Latin and formal study of Irish with a protestant teacher, Richard Monck, perhaps about 1818, and was transcribing Irish competently by 1819. In 1821 he began to attend a school in Waterford maintained by a Ned Hunt. About 1822 he also began to conduct a school himself, in a barn near his home, in the evenings, with some older pupils, following a standard hedge-school curriculum of Christian doctrine (in Irish), reading and writing Irish and English, mensuration, navigation, astronomy, and agriculture. In November 1823 O'Donovan moved to Dublin to join his brother Michael, who, on the expiry of his lease, had recently obtained work there as a merchant's clerk. He enrolled in a Latin school (probably that originally founded by Fr John Austin (qv), SJ, in 1760), where he continued until 1827. He deliberated for a long time about studying for the priesthood but by the early 1830s appears to have decided against it. The related emphasis on Latin in his education, however, probably explains his lifelong view of proficiency in Latin as an index of education.
O'Donovan was introduced to the writings of a range of Irish and other authorities in grammar and antiquities by James Scurry (Séamas Ó Scorraí), from neighbouring Knockhouse, Co. Kilkenny, whose acquaintance he made in Dublin in 1826. Scurry at that time was doing scribal work for James Hardiman (qv), the Irish scholar, then commissioner in the office of the public records. After Scurry's death in 1827 O'Donovan was employed by Hardiman to copy Irish manuscripts and legal documents. Under Hardiman's tutelage O'Donovan deepened his knowledge of the Irish scholarly tradition and was introduced to other Irish scholars and historians in the RIA. About this time he was engaged to give some Irish lessons to the young Lt Thomas Larcom (qv) of the ordnance survey, and he also did some scribal work for Myles John O'Reilly (1780–1857) of Heath House, Queen's Co. (Laois).
Hardiman's position was abolished in 1830, and O'Donovan, whose health seems to have given him trouble about that time, was invited by Myles John O'Reilly to come for a change of air to Heath House, where he continued to work. Some months later O'Donovan applied to his former pupil Thomas Larcom for a position with the ordnance survey that had become vacant on the death of Edward O'Reilly (qv), the Irish scholar and lexicographer. He commenced work in October 1830, at an initial rate of two shillings and sixpence a day (rising to nine shillings a working day in 1842). He was employed as orthographer and etymologist to assist in establishing, by reference to authoritative sources, a standard of orthography in English for the Irish place names to be marked on the maps of the entire country, an undertaking that had begun in 1824. He began to collate from manuscript sources, and analyse and explain in English, Irish place names and common elements in them. Shortly after this he became acquainted with George Petrie (qv), the antiquarian and artist.
O'Donovan often wrote to the officers engaged in the work of the survey around the country – Irish was the primary or only language of about half of the population of the island at the time – asking about the form or local pronunciation of names, the lie of the land, or other matters, while he researched literary sources for references to the places in question. This modus operandi did not work to the satisfaction of anyone, and O'Donovan briefly left the survey in 1833. In the summer of that year, however, Petrie was charged by the ordnance survey with the task of preparing part of the intended survey memoir on history and antiquities, and O'Donovan was reemployed. More staff were employed and it was decided to send O'Donovan on field trips to carry out research. For seven years, commencing with Co. Down in March 1834, O'Donovan travelled, in all weathers, often on foot, and reported for the survey in the form of letters. Eugene O'Curry (qv) joined the team in 1835, and he and others did some fieldwork also. The project broadened into research towards the production of a topographical memoir on each county, and so the letters and memoirs report information on antiquities (often supplemented by sketches), topography, place names, folklore, language, and lore on families, and form a unique survey. Information was obtained by interviewing reliable authorities on such matters in each locality. Where Irish was not still widely spoken, surviving speakers were sought out and questioned about place names and lore generally. Frequently the letters contain queries to the desk staff about material in manuscripts. Collation of the work of the survey took place in Petrie's house at North Great Charles St., Dublin, which served as an office where the team of scholars met, often daily. By 1841 the constant travelling in nineteenth-century conditions had taken its toll and the (by then) newly married O'Donovan's enthusiasm for it had waned. The topographical work of the survey had drawn criticism for its scale and projected cost, and funding was discontinued in 1842. O'Donovan continued to advise the survey on place names until the end of his life.
O'Donovan's first published essays appeared in the Dublin Penny Journal (established by Petrie and the Rev. Caesar Otway (qv)) in 1832–3. In 1840 the Irish Archaeological Society was founded by James Henthorn Todd (qv) and others. (Todd had obtained part-time employment for O'Donovan, cataloguing Irish manuscripts at TCD in 1836.) Under the auspices of this body, and the Celtic Society (founded in 1845), with which it subsequently merged, O'Donovan edited and published texts including The banquet of Dun na nGedh and the battle of Magh Rath (1842), The tribes and customs of Hy Many (1843), The genealogies, tribes, and customs of Hy-Fiachrach (1844), and Leabhar na gceart or the book of rights (1847). O'Donovan's wide knowledge was constantly drawn on by other scholars working in related areas. His Grammar of the Irish language, published in 1845 for the use of students at St Columba's College, Rathfarnham, was the culmination of research begun in 1828, and though now dated, was most influential in its time. From 1844 to 1847 he studied law, partly in London, but though called to the bar in l847, he never practised. He was unsuccessful in an application for a lectureship in QCC in 1848, but in 1849 he was appointed to the professorship of Celtic languages at QCB, at a salary of £100 a year. He delivered a series of lectures annually while continuing to live in Dublin.
O'Donovan edited a well known satire, The tribes of Ireland (with a verse translation by James Clarence Mangan (qv)), in 1852 and he continued to publish miscellaneous, particularly historical, matter in various journals. His magisterial edition of Annála Ríoghachta Éireann, the annals of the ‘Four masters’, appeared in seven volumes between 1848 and 1851, published by Hodges Smith & Co., in new type designed by Petrie. This groundbreaking work, with its translation and extensive topographical and genealogical notes, set a standard for future undertakings of the type. Most significantly, this, and the other works published by O'Donovan (and O'Curry also) gave access to a huge body of information to many scholars who could not manage the source material themselves.
Since the founding of the RIA various proposals had been made for the publication of the unique and large body of material on the ancient laws of Ireland extant in manuscripts. The British government made £5,000 available for the project and appointed a commission to oversee it in 1852. O'Donovan, who may have had better political skills than O'Curry, was initially appointed editor with O'Curry as an assistant. O'Curry refused this and they were then made co-editors, but O'Donovan seems to have been accorded some precedence, and relationships between the two suffered. The history of the project was unhappy. It would appear that academic politics resulted in the two scholars being subordinated to people of lesser knowledge who were not competent to deal with the archaic and technical texts. Great delays resulted. O'Donovan continued to work on this while he lived. An unreliable edition of The ancient laws of Ireland appeared after the deaths of both scholars.
From his travels throughout the country and his related researches O'Donovan acquired an encyclopedic familiarity with Irish history, topography, genealogy, and lore generally, and this is repeatedly revealed in the notes to texts he edited. He had a prodigious memory as the frequent references to manuscripts and books in his letters from the field attest. He was perhaps at his best dealing with historical texts. O'Donovan, like O'Curry, spoke from within the tradition. Without the advances of more recent scholarship, his translations of older material can be conjectural and, according to Osborn Bergin (qv), unreliable in the case of poetry. O'Donovan was colourful in his way of expressing himself. He had a sharp tongue and was frequently quite negative in comments about other scholars. He was intensely proud of his own ancestry and regularly gives information about his family in his writings. His work was recognised by the award of the Cunningham medal by the RIA in 1848, an honorary LLD by Dublin University in 1850, and (on the recommendation of Jakob Grimm) membership of the Preussische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin, in 1856. O'Donovan was awarded an annual state pension of £50 in 1856, and died on 10 December 1861. He was buried in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin.
O'Donovan married (January 1840) Mary Anne, third daughter of John Broughton of Killaderry, near Broadford, Co. Clare, whose elder sister had in 1828 married O'Curry. His wife survived him by almost thirty-two years. There were nine children of the marriage, all sons, of whom six survived to adulthood. One of the children, Edmund (qv), became a distinguished war correspondent.
O'Donovan's portrait, at the age of 32, by Charles Grey (d. 1892), hangs in the NGI, which also holds a miniature by Bernard Mulrenin. A bibliography of O'Donovan's works is given in Boyne (1987) 136–41, which also contains information on his manuscripts and papers, now mainly divided between the RIA; the Ordnance Survey Office, Dublin; UCD; and the NLI.