Ferguson, Sir Samuel (1810–86), poet and archivist, was born 10 March 1810 in Belfast, youngest of six children of John Ferguson, landowner, and his wife Agnes, daughter of John Knox, clockmaker. Ferguson attended the Belfast Academical Institution, and went on to be a student at Lincoln's Inn (admitted 1831) in London, and also at TCD (admitted February 1834). His studies were interrupted by illness in 1834. He resumed the study of law at King's Inns, Dublin, in 1836, and was called to the Irish bar two years later. Ferguson's earliest published writings were verses in the Belfast monthly Ulster Magazine (1830, 1831), but it was when his poem ‘The forging of the anchor’ appeared in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (February 1832) that his writing career commenced in earnest. In 1833 the Dublin University Magazine began publication in Dublin and Ferguson was a contributor from the earliest numbers. In 1834 he published in its pages a series of four review articles on Irish minstrelsy (2 vols, 1831), edited by James Hardiman (qv), a gathering of Irish songs and poems from earlier centuries with translations into English by various hands. Ferguson took issue with Hardiman's claim that the material belonged exclusively to catholic and nationalist or Jacobite sentiment; he argued that they were part of the cultural inheritance of all in Ireland and should be recognised and claimed as well by ‘the protestant wealth and intelligence of the country’. He also deprecated the quality of the translations, and supplied nineteen versions of his own as an appendix to the final paper. The review initiated a critical engagement with popular Irish writing, and is one of the founding documents of the Anglo-Irish literary resurgence. Furthermore, Ferguson's translations here and elsewhere initiated the development of a distinctively Irish poetry in English.
Ferguson continued writing for the University and Blackwood's during the 1830s. Among his contributions to the former was a series of tales about events drawn from Irish legend and history, collected after his death and issued in book form as Hibernian nights' entertainments (3 vols, 1887); an incomplete and unauthorised collection of them appeared in New York in 1857. For Blackwood's he wrote ‘The involuntary experimentalist’, a sensation tale parodied by Edgar Allan Poe, and ‘Fr Tom and the pope’, a burlesque targeting Fr Thomas Maguire (qv) (1792–1847) a catholic controversialist. This was frequently reprinted in the nineteenth century, because it is richly comic but also as an anti-catholic squib; in spite of its success, Ferguson was long wary of admitting authorship. He also assisted Edward Bunting (qv), who was preparing the third volume of his Ancient music of Ireland (1840).
As a newly qualified barrister in the early 1840s he lived at various addresses in Dublin while practising on the north-east circuit. He published less, but his name was kept before the public as he featured prominently in the popular anthology The ballad poetry of Ireland (1845), edited by Charles Gavan Duffy (qv), where Ferguson's poems were valuable as an example of how a protestant unionist might contribute to an assertion of Irish culture. After another breakdown of his health in 1846, he spent some months visiting libraries and antiquarian sites on the Continent. On his return he was active in the Protestant Repeal Movement, and in February 1847 the University published his obituary article and poetic lament for Thomas Davis (qv). This brief involvement with nationalist politics ended when he married Mary Catherine Guinness (Mary Catherine Ferguson (qv)), daughter of Robert Rundell Guinness and Mary Anne Guinness (née Seymour) of Stillorgan, Co. Dublin. The marriage took place on 16 August 1848 and they lived first at 9 Upper Gloucester St., Dublin, moving two years later into 20 North Great George's St., Dublin, their home for the rest of their lives. Mary Ferguson was to write a popular history, The story of the Irish before the conquest (1868) and two biographies, the Life of the Right Rev. William Reeves D.D., lord bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore (1893) and Sir Samuel Ferguson in the Ireland of his day (1896). They had no children.
Ferguson's contributions to the University, mostly book reviews, continued until 1853. He was called to the inner bar in 1859, but his legal career was unremarkable. He had a lifelong enthusiasm for antiquarian pursuits, concentrating principally on ogham stone inscriptions, and was an active member of the RIA. As early as 1845 he had turned away from the translations of short Irish poems to work on verse narratives dealing with subjects drawn from the material in manuscripts being edited and translated by scholars such as John O'Donovan (qv) and published by the Irish Archaeological Society. In 1865, already in his mid-fifties, Ferguson published his first book, Lays of the western Gael and other poems. The ‘lays’, narrative poems on Irish subjects written in the manner of Macaulay's Lays of ancient Rome and Tennyson's Arthurian poems, were the core of the book. The ‘other poems’ were principally the translations and shorter poems written thirty years before.
In November 1867 he was appointed the first deputy keeper of the records in Ireland, a congenial position which he occupied for the remainder of his life. As deputy keeper he was instrumental in assembling in the public record office at the Four Courts documentary records held until then in doubtfully secure locations in parishes throughout Ireland. Many of these records were subsequently destroyed in the fire at the Four Courts during the civil war in 1922.
Ferguson had hoped that the Lays of the western Gael would create a readership for Congal, the long verse epic on which he had been working since the 1840s and which was published in 1872. This drew on an old Irish prose text, The banquet of Dun na nGedh and the battle of Magh Rath, edited and translated by John O'Donovan in 1842. Congal was followed by Poems (1880) in which, among negligible devotional and occasional pieces, there were further narrative poems, notably ‘Conary’ which is probably the most successful of all his narrative ‘lays’. This was his last book of poems. He also published Shakespearian breviates (1882), a curious book setting out how twenty-four of Shakespeare's plays might be abridged so as to cut the number of characters and the overall length, while removing any passages considered too indelicate for a nineteenth-century drawing room, and supplying linking verses to make good the continuity. It is a book that evidently derived from Shakespearean evenings with friends, where the participants included such as Edward Dowden (qv), J. P. Mahaffy (qv), R. P. Graves, and John Kells Ingram (qv).
In 1878 Ferguson was knighted. His contribution to the RIA was recognised in 1881 when he was elected its president. He received honorary degrees from Dublin University (1865) and Edinburgh (1884). During the summer of 1886 his health was failing, and on 9 August 1886 he died of heart failure at Howth, where his wife's family had a house. After a service in St Patrick's cathedral, Dublin, he was buried at Donegore, Co. Antrim.
Towards the end of his life he wrote a dissertation on documents associated with St Patrick (qv); this, together with his verse translation of the ‘Confession’ and the ‘Epistle to Coroticus’, was published in book form in 1888 by his wife. She also oversaw editions of the Hibernian nights' entertainments and Congal (1887) and Lays of the western Gael (1888), and subsequently prepared Lays of the Red Branch (1897) which assembled his narrative lays in sequence. These publications, and her biography of him (1896), helped to keep Ferguson's reputation current in the decades following his death so that, although neglected in the middle years of the nineteenth century, his writing was seen retrospectively as an important tributary of the Irish literary revival as the century turned.
The RIA has a posthumous portrait of Ferguson by Sarah Purser (qv), painted from a photograph taken in the year he died. There are significant manuscript holdings in the NLI and RIA, Dublin, and the Linen Hall Library, Belfast. Among the ‘Blackwood's papers’ in the National Library of Scotland are his letters to various editors of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, written between 1832 and 1886.