O'Conway, Matthias James (1766–1842), linguist and lexicographer, was born 3 February 1766 in Galway, son of Matthew O'Conway (who was according to one source a ‘merchant’ of that city) and his wife Elizabeth O'Hogan. We know of only one other sibling, an older brother, John. A native speaker of Irish, O'Conway records that he did not learn English till he was eight years old. He appears to have been born into rather comfortable circumstances. He attended the Augustinians school in Galway city, and had at least one private tutor. According to O'Conway, his interest in languages was sparked by coming into contact with Jewish refugees from Gibraltar when he was about fourteen.
In early 1783 O'Conway was involved in a street fracas while on a visit to Dublin. We have few details of this ‘imprudent act’, though it was sufficiently serious to cause O'Conway to leave Ireland. His first destination was the Caribbean island of Grenada, but by April 1784 he had taken up residence in Philadelphia. He joined the Pennsylvania militia, and was posted to the north-western wilderness of the state, the territory of the Seneca people. Here he learned elements of ‘three of their languages’. On his discharge, O'Conway spent about eighteen months as a trader with Native Americans in western Pennsylvania. His trading career came to an end when he married Rebecca Archer of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the American-born daughter of an Irish couple. O'Conway set himself up as a schoolteacher in Pittsburgh, and his daughter Cecelia was born in December 1787.
Scarcely a year later, O'Conway purchased a canoe and, with his wife and baby, set off down the Ohio river for New Orleans, a journey of some 1,500 miles. According to his explanation of this extraordinary move, O'Conway wished to bring up his family in a catholic environment, such as could be found in New Orleans. Again he took up work as a teacher of languages, and appears to have been quite successful in making a living in the southern city. He became a respected member of New Orleans society, even enlisting as a medical orderly in the San Juan regiment, formed to defend the city for Spain. Yet early in 1795 O'Conway once more abandoned everything, moving himself and family to another part of the Spanish empire: Havana, Cuba. He remained in Cuba for over two years, working in the Spanish colonial administration. He and his family returned to Philadelphia in the winter of 1797–8. He was in Philadelphia for the yellow fever outbreak of the summer of 1798, and left a diary of what he witnessed during those weeks.
Once the fever crisis had passed, O'Conway settled comfortably into the catholic community in Philadelphia. His main income appears to have come from the translation of legal and commercial documents – indeed, he was named state interpreter for Pennsylvania in 1802. He also continued to teach languages, as well as acting as accountant, legal adviser, apothecary and in other capacities, principally serving the Irish community of the city. O'Conway was a close friend of several prominent Americans of his time, including Mother Elizabeth Seton, first American-born canonised catholic saint. His eldest daughter, Cecelia, was among the tiny band of women who established Elizabeth Seton's first community, and is a figure of interest in her own right. Though a fervent catholic, O'Conway in his politics was a Republican, with a strong sense of social justice. There is considerable evidence, though as yet no conclusive proof, that he was at some stage a Freemason.
Matthias O'Conway was almost certainly the first person to write and publish language-learning books in the USA. One of these, his Hispano–Anglo grammar (1810), was both a grammar of Spanish for the English speaker and also a book of dialogues and topical vocabulary lists of everyday use. A little earlier O'Conway had published his Rasgos históricos y morales (1809), a series of short readings on topics of history or morality. Many of the excerpts came from Spanish-language newspapers, others from history books. These readings are what applied linguists today would call authentic materials. In other words, while intended for the non-native learner they are pitched at the level of proficiency of the native speaker.
O'Conway had a large family – nine children, eight of whom survived into adulthood. His later life was marred by poverty and personal tragedy – two, perhaps three, of his sons died young in Latin America. Despite many adversities, O'Conway worked for decades on several great projects: a comparative philological study whose goal was to situate Irish among the languages of Europe and the Middle East; and two dictionaries, one English–Spanish, the other English–Irish. Since none of these was ever published, an analysis of his achievement is only possible through study of his surviving papers. Many of these are now in the National Library of Ireland (NLI) in Dublin. Among them are many thousands of dictionary-type ‘slips’, encompassing entries in perhaps a score or more languages. There are also comprehensive wordlists on particular topics, English–French and English–Spanish especially. These contain thousands of entries, and deal with diverse semantic areas, such as ‘trees’, ‘shipping’, and ‘furniture’. Although the NLI collection is sizeable, it appears that some of O'Conway's papers have been lost, especially those dealing with his projected English–Irish dictionary. Nevertheless, sufficient slips remain to show that some of his lexicographical notes are taken directly from Bishop John O'Brien's (qv) Irish–English dictionary, published in Paris in 1768. O'Conway's papers also show that he had access to what is known as McCurtin's English–Irish dictionary (by Hugh Mac Curtin (Aodh Mac Cruitín), d. 1755; (qv)), published in Paris in 1732. However, a considerable amount of O'Conway's lexicographical work on Irish is clearly independent of these two sources.
Matthias O'Conway died on 28 November 1842, and was initially buried in Philadelphia's Church of St John the Evangelist. Many years after his death, his remains and those of others were removed from the vault, and it is not known what became of them.
The first attempt at a substantive biography of O'Conway is Lawrence Flick's series of four articles in the Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia (1899–1900). Flick was not a linguist, and was attracted to O'Conway principally because of the Irishman's place in American catholic history. In 2018 a new biography of O'Conway was published which attempted to evaluate his contribution to the evolution of linguistics and language teaching in the United States and assess his importance in the history of Irish lexicography.