Power O’Donoghue (née Lambert), Nannie (1843–1940), journalist, equestrian and writer was born 2 June 1843 and baptised as Ann Stewart Lyster Lambert in St Thomas Church of Ireland, Marlborough Street, Dublin. She was the youngest child of four daughters and one son of Charles Lambert, post office official, and his wife, Jane Catherine, the widow of R. H. Mahon and daughter of Arthur J. Irwin, a landowner with estates in Connacht. Nannie had two half-brothers from her mother’s first marriage. Charles Lambert, who came from an Anglo-Irish family with an estate at Castle Ellen, Co. Galway, had a large residence at 19 Upper Gloucester Street (latterly Sean MacDermott Street), Dublin.
Nannie published her first poem in Cassell’s Magazine when she was just eight and had an early passion for music, being a good singer and able to play assorted instruments, including the harp and piano – she could also speak French and Italian. Much to her frustration, her family did not send her to university, reserving that for her brothers. She first attracted attention as a poet and writer, appearing in print in various Irish newspapers and periodicals. By her own account, she started contributing pieces for Lady’s Pictorial from the age of sixteen.
She learned to ride horses aged fifteen and, as an adult, rode in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, and hunted with the Meath, Kildare and Ward Union packs, invariably keeping well up with the hounds. Her riding instructor, the jockey Allan MacDonogh (1800–81), twice came second in the Grand National. She was on her best horse, Pleader, when she became probably the first woman to ride the steeplechase courses of Punchestown, Fairyhouse and Baldoyle. This impressive feat, the more so for being done without mishap or refusal while riding side saddle, involved navigating assorted hedges, hurdles, water-jumps, banks and stone walls.
On 2 November 1869 she married William Power O’Donoghue, styling herself thereafter as Nannie Power O’Donoghue, though she wrote under Nannie Lambert until 1881. Hailing from a Cork merchant family, her husband was a professor of music at the Royal Irish Academy of Music as well as a noted musician and composer. They lived at 24 York Street, Dublin, a few doors up from Nannie’s cousin Edward Carson (qv), later moving to Peter Place, Portobello, Dublin. From June 1868, if not earlier, she regularly appeared on stage in Dublin alongside her husband singing soprano and sometimes playing an instrument. They also went on tours of the provinces. Generally, she wrote the songs, her husband the music, though she did compose some music to accompany her poetry and songs; some of these compositions were published. She wrote the libretto for a popular opera composed by her husband, which has not survived. From about mid-1879, aside from performances in small social settings, she stopped singing and playing music on stage.
A prolific writer, her poems appeared regularly in the weekly magazine The Orchestra throughout the 1870s. She published a book of poetry, Spring leaves (1877), mostly sentimental verse written when she was barely out of adolescence; there were some heartfelt poems inspired by the suicide of her favourite sister, Lizzie, who had been seduced and jilted. ‘What is a gentleman?’ proved especially popular, being reprinted scores of times in numerous Irish newspapers. The moral tone in Spring leaves was heightened in 1895 when it was revised and supplemented with new material to become Rhymes for readers and reciters. Her strong Christian faith was often evident in her writings.
From the late 1860s, she published quasi-autobiographical short stories and novels set in the world of hunting and horseracing. Eschewing social or political commentary, her fiction lies firmly within the ‘horsey heroine’ genre of Victorian literature, featuring strong and virtuous women who are nonetheless largely confined to a traditional gender role. Her first published novel, Knave of clubs (1868), which has survived, had a limited press run; scathingly reviewed by the Athenaeum, it was favourably received elsewhere as a good light read. Further of her novels emerged in print at regular intervals over the next decade but are known only by their titles.
When Elizabeth, empress of Austria, visited Ireland to pursue her love of hunting during February–March 1879, and again during February–March 1880, O’Donoghue rode with her, finding her to be a kindred spirit. At a large meet in Dublin (February 1880), attended by the empress, O’Donoghue noticed how badly dressed and badly seated many of the women were, and this led to her suggestion to the editor of the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News that she write a series of articles on etiquette for ladies on horseback (from October 1880). These were so immediately successful that they were collected into a book, Ladies on horseback (1881), which went through five editions and remained in print until 1904, selling strongly in New York, India and Australia; its success inspired a rash of imitators. She was asked to write a similar series for Lady’s Pictorial, which was also gathered into a book. Riding for ladies (1887) sold 94,000 copies, was translated into five languages and remained in print until 1908.
Her two books on women’s equestrianism were exhaustive, covering dress, tackle, mounting, seat, and all aspects of riding and care for horses. She interspersed her common-sense advice with stories of her adventures with the Meath, Kildare and Ward Union packs before an accident in January 1881 cut short her riding career. Her articles were so influential that manufacturers and retailers of riding equipment would advertise their products as endorsed by Mrs Power O’Donoghue. Helping to pioneer the level side saddle, she registered her disapprobation of bearing reins and other tackle that harmed horses; in general, she urged riders to treat their mounts with kindness.
In Ladies on horseback, she recounted her experiences of the growing conflict in Ireland between hunters and irate tenant farmers and bemoaned the attendant proliferation of wire fencing, noting that this practice was designed at least partly to injure unwary riders. She dismissed the widespread opposition to hunting in Ireland in the 1880s as ‘blind idiotcy [sic]’ (Ladies on horseback, 173), while acknowledging that behind the sometimes specious objections lay a deep-rooted animus towards landlordism. A staunch defender of landlords and of their favourite pastime, she argued that hunts stimulated economic activity in poor rural areas by drawing in wealthy outsiders.
Although Ladies on horseback maintained that women riders needed pilots when hunting – pilots were men who would lead the woman rider over fences – she did not practice what she preached; moreover, her second book declared experienced women riders had no such need. Riding for ladies also encouraged women to get involved in breeding, feeding and stable management, duties formerly left to men. Much of her advice was ahead of its time, the striking exception being her belief that women should ride side saddle rather than astride a horse: ‘Nothing could be more ungraceful or unwomanly than for a woman to ride like a man’ (Lockley, 82). This long-held convention crumbled over the next generation, forcing her to concede in 1921 that riding astride was fine for young women with good figures. Her contradictory attitudes played a key role in making women’s equestrianism socially acceptable by showing how women could become expert riders without forfeiting their femininity and respectability.
The success of her non-fiction helped sales of her novels. From early 1881 she published a reworking of Knave of clubs, entitled ‘Unfairly won’, in serial form over eight months in Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. Published as a book in 1882, Unfairly won, her second surviving novel, was a melodramatic romance with a spirited heroine, written in a trenchant tone; the reviews were good, and it was reprinted three times and sold in America. Her best novel, A beggar on horseback (1884) – which sold 23,000 copies and went through six editions – is an amusing, sharply observed study of provincial society with intelligent and competent female character. It was her last novel, though she continued for a time to publish short stories in Irish and British periodicals.
In 1885 the O’Donoghues lost money with the crash of the Munster Bank in which they were shareholders, so Nannie’s earnings contributed significantly to the household. She began concentrating on freelance journalism, initially as an equestrian specialist, before branching out into other areas. There was always an emphasis on high society events, but she became increasingly concerned by the poverty in Dublin’s slums. Contemporaries marvelled at her capacity for producing vast quantities of chatty and entertaining copy. A member of the Institute of Journalists, she was published in various Irish titles, including the (Dublin) Daily Express, Lady’s Pictorial, the Evening Herald and the Irish Times, and also further afield in Britain, New York, Boston and Calcutta. By the early 1900s, she was writing for Irish Society, which covered all aspects of high society in Dublin, becoming its de facto editor. She had a page to herself under the name ‘Candid Jane’ where she relayed social gossip and sounded off opinionatedly.
Tory and unionist in her politics, she was censorious towards the latest high society fashions, supportive of social purity movements and a relentless campaigner for measures to alleviate poverty. She opposed women’s suffrage, despite being an enthusiastic advocate for women’s right to work. Her earlier fiction had betrayed signs of frustration at the way women were obliged to depend on men, and she revelled in the financial independence enjoyed by the growing numbers of working women. She was a member from 1899 of the Irish Women’s Progressive Union, which aimed at the legal, professional and social betterment of women. Following her husband’s death in September 1908, she moved to Harold’s Cross, Dublin, and continued to support herself through journalism.
She did not shirk controversy, being critical in 1909 of Lady Aberdeen’s (qv) much-praised anti-tuberculosis drive for harming trade and tourism in Ireland. After she published an article on 14 September 1912 that decried the standard of catering at Leopardstown Racecourse, the caterers sued her and the owners of Irish Society for £1,000 in damages. The extensive newspaper coverage of the case, which came to court in late January 1913, shows that the proceedings were punctuated by regular bursts of laughter from the large crowd in the public gallery. In summing up, the presiding judge expressed his appreciation of the battle of wits that had played out between the counsel for the plaintiff and Power O’Donoghue upon her cross-examination. The jury failed to agree on a decision, leaving both parties with their legal costs, which in Power O’Donoghue’s case came to several hundred pounds. She paid up promptly, but her wealthy friends formed a committee to raise funds on her behalf, presenting her with a cheque sufficient to make good her losses in June 1914.
Moving that year to Leeson Park, Dublin, she was living in the Gresham Hotel during the 1916 Easter rising. She gave her account of the events to Irish Society in what her biographer calls her flowery, verbose, early Victorian prose: ‘I have seen bodies torn and souls go home, speeding up the mysterious pathway of which we know so little’ (Lockley, 122). She refused to comment on the politics of the rising and spent that summer touring Ireland to raise money for the Red Cross. In 1921 and 1922 she was a voluntary hospital worker. After Irish Society ceased publication in 1924, she went into retirement, appearing in public thereafter as a member of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Latterly, she lived in the Standard Hotel on Harcourt Street where she died on 12 January 1940. She was buried in St Nicholas church, Galway, leaving an estate worth almost £3,000. Her scrap book, containing cartons depicting various scenes from her life, is held in the National Library of Ireland.