O'Hagan, John (1822–90), Young Irelander, writer, and judge, was born 19 March 1822 at North St., Newry, Co. Down, second son of John Arthur O'Hagan (d. 1833), a catholic woollen draper of Newry, and his wife Mary Anne, daughter of Charles Cavanagh of Irish St., Armagh. It was a cultured and politically active family; his father was prominent in local politics and encouraged his son's love of literature. O'Hagan was educated in Dr Henderson's day school in Hill St., Newry, and at a Jesuit establishment in Hardwick St., Dublin. He entered TCD in 1837 (BA, 1842; MA, 1865), where he met Thomas Davis (qv); and in 1841, after an influential address to the College Historical Society by John Blake Dillon (qv), became an ardent nationalist, and a prominent Young Irelander. Under the pseudonyms ‘Slievegullion’ and ‘Carolina Wilhelmina’ he was an occasional contributor of patriotic verse such as ‘Ourselves alone’ (3 Dec. 1842), ‘Young Ireland’ (12 Aug. 1843) and ‘Paddies evermore’ (26 Aug. 1843), to the Nation. His most famous piece was ‘The Union' (22 Apr. 1843), which, with its stirring opening lines – ‘How did they pass the Union/By perjury and fraud/By slaves, who sold for place and gold/Their country and their God’ – became one of the standard recitations of nationalist Ireland. Several of his verses were republished in The spirit of the Nation (1843). In August 1844 O'Hagan rambled through the south of Ireland exploring places of natural and historical interest with fellow Young Irelanders Denis Florence MacCarthy (qv) and Charles Gavan Duffy (qv) (both lifelong friends), and the following year through Ulster with Duffy, John Mitchel (qv), and John Martin (qv), keeping a journal of their travels.
O'Hagan entered Lincoln's Inn in 1843, and while studying in London lodged with fellow pupil and Young Irelander John Edward Pigot (qv), a lifelong friend. In 1845 he was called to the Irish bar and joined the Munster circuit. He supported mixed education during the disputes with Daniel O'Connell (qv) on the colleges bill of 1845. Devoted to Thomas Davis, he was deeply affected by his death in September 1845 and was a leading figure in commissioning a statue by John Hogan (qv). He was in London for much of 1846–7 and took little part in the Young Irelanders’ disputes with O'Connell and the affairs of the Irish Confederation. He was not involved in the 1848 rising, but served on the defence teams of Mitchel and Gavan Duffy, helping to secure the acquittal of the latter. Duffy regarded him as one of the most astute and sensible of all the Young Irelanders, and regularly sought his advice.
After the collapse of the Young Ireland movement, O'Hagan had little to do with politics; moderate in his views, he distanced himself from Fenianism and welcomed the foundation of the home rule movement in 1870. He concentrated on his career as an equity lawyer, and received several notable appointments, including commissioner of the board of national education (1861–90), and chairman of the quarter sessions for Co. Westmeath (1864–70), Co. Leitrim (1870–72), and Co. Clare (1872–8). He was appointed QC (1865), a bencher of King's Inns (1878), and third serjeant-at-law (1881). Under the 1881 land act, he was appointed judicial commissioner of the court of the Irish land commission (1881–90), with the rank of a justice of the high court.
Regarded as a modest, cordial man of remarkable intellectual breadth, O'Hagan was highly esteemed by contemporaries for his literary and religious work. He was a founding member of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland (1847; president 1890–91), which published several of his works on legal and social issues. An elegant writer, in addition to contributing verse and reviews to journals such as the Contemporary Review and the Spectator, he published a well-regarded translation from the French, The song of Roland (1883). He wrote several works of penetrating literary criticism, including a lecture on Chaucer (Afternoon lectures on literature and art, 1864), and essays on Sir Samuel Ferguson (qv) (first appeared in the Irish Monthly (1887)), and Sir Thomas More (the Irish Monthly). He also published twenty-one pieces as ‘O’ in Dublin acrostics (1869), as well as The children's ballad-rosary (1890) and Joan of Arc (posthumous, 1893). His poetry was well regarded, and featured in the Treasury of Irish poetry (1900) edited by S. A. Brooke (qv) and T. W. Rolleston (qv).
O'Hagan was a devout catholic throughout his life; one of his earliest publications was an essay criticising TCD as an educational environment unfit for a catholic (Dublin Review, 1847). At one stage he considered giving up the bar and becoming a catholic journalist like Frederick Lucas (qv). O'Hagan often argued with radical friends against the complete separation of church and state, maintaining that religion played an important role in the life of a national community, and should be encouraged by the state. He was dismissive of critics of the ‘intolerance’ of the catholic church, claiming that in the nineteenth century it was much more likely to be the victim than the perpetrator of persecution. Appointed to the chair of political economy in the new Catholic University of Ireland in 1854, he contributed papers to its academic journal, the Atlantis. He was a member of the St Vincent de Paul Society, and devoted much of his spare time to charitable work. In an article for the Contemporary Review written just before his death he downplayed the notion of Thomas Davis as a revolutionary, arguing that he would have readily accepted home rule and that for ‘the blind, levelling, envious, anarchic forces which are the awful menace of our time, he could feel nothing but repugnance’ (lviii, 600). O'Hagan resigned from the land commission in 1890, a few months before he died on 12 November 1890 at his home, Glenaveena, Howth, Co. Dublin.
He married (1865) Frances, daughter of Thomas O'Hagan (qv), lord chancellor of Ireland. Some of his correspondence is in the PRONI and the NLI.