John O'Hanlon was born April 30, 1821, at Stradbally, in Queens County, Ireland. He received his early training in local and neighboring schools, and was sent at the age of seventeen to Carlow College. Four years later his studies were interrupted by the resolution to accompany some relatives to the New World. He landed at Quebec in 1842, but after a sojourn of some months went on to St. Louis. He soon entered (1843) the Ecclesiastical Seminary of that diocese, and was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Kendrick in 1847. For five or six years he devoted himself to the duties of his calling, arduous enough at that period of rapid national growth and economic expansion. But failing health turned his thoughts again to the land of his fathers, and in 1853 he returned to Dublin, where he was made curate at the Church of Saints Michael and John, a post that he occupied until 1880, when he was promoted to the parish of Sandymount. In 1885 he was made a Canon of the Dublin Cathedral by Archbishop Walsh. In 1897 he celebrated the Golden Jubilee of his priesthood. His death occurred on May 15, 1905, at the advanced age of eighty-four. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.
Canon O'Hanlon is remembered by his faithful flock as a devoted priest, to whom the beauty and glory of the house of God, the parish schools and property, the industrial schools of the neighborhood, were especially dear. Amid his learned occupations he never neglected the work of his sacred ministry, nor the care of the poor, sick and lowly. As an Irishman, he was one of the foremost patriotic figures of the nineteenth century. He had heard O'Connell, as a boy of fifteen, in 1836, on the Great Heath at Maryborough, and was present at the banquet then given at Stradbally to the Liberator. He loved to recall the political ballads of that decade apropos of Sir Henry Parnell and his "History of the Penal Laws," and the melodious folk-tunes of the pre-famine period, many of which to his great regret, he lived to see perish from the popular memory. His love of Moore's Melodies was well-known to all his friends. He was also a great admirer of the "Young Ireland" poetry, and at his death was engaged on an edition of the fugitive writings of the patriot-poet, John Keegan. He was an active member of the committee on the centenary celebration in honor of O'Connell, and as secretary of the O'Connell Memorial Committee drew up the valuable report of its proceedings from 1862 to 1882. To him is owing in no small measure the splendid Dublin monument to O'Connell, the masterpiece of Foley's art, and one of the finest monumental sculptures in Europe. He was also active in the creation of memorials to the poets Thomas Moore and Denis Florence McCarthy. His earnestness in the work of the Gaelic League is well known, likewise his intelligent devotion to the historical monuments of Ireland, the manuscripts, records, books, and curious remains that still enshrine no little of the glorious past of the beloved island. He was for forty years an active and painstaking member of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, to which he had been elected on the proposition of such an Irish antiquarian as Bishop Graves. Within the limits of his sacred calling he seems to have omitted no endeavor to serve his native country as a scholar, a poet, and a man of action.
The catalogue of Canon O'Hanlon's literary labors is a long one, and covers a period of more than fifty years of incessant study, research, and publication. He was a man of adamantine endurance, and though by his departure the Church of the United States surely lost a pen of great power, the larger world of ecclesiastical learning was proportionately the gainer. It may be stated at once that he never ceased to love the great Republic, whose institutions and spirit he thoroughly understood and admired, as the work here offered to the reader will make clear. Among his published writings is a volume of reminiscences entitled, "Life and Scenery in Missouri” (Dublin, 1890). In 1897 he crossed the ocean to take part in the Golden Episcopal Jubilee of Archbishop Kendrick, who fifty years earlier had raised him to the dignity of priesthood. It would seem that Canon O'Hanlon became an historian out of the fulness of his conviction that the Christian history of Ireland is one of the noblest chapters of all theology. His first work was an "Abridgment of Irish History from the Final Subjection of Ireland to the Present Time" (Boston, 1849), written with the view, no doubt, of fixing on the mind of the young Irish emigrant the great religious lesson of his forefathers' patient endurance and fidelity. It was followed by "The Irish Emigrant's Guide to the United States" (Boston, 1851), long a very popular work among the unfortunate Irish wanderers in a new land. During the years of his American ministry he contributed frequently to literary magazines and newspapers, and was known, before he left us, as an ecclesiastical scholar and an antiquarian of promise. It will be admitted that, given the duties of the parochial service in the United States and the scarcity of good libraries of Irish lore, these first zealous efforts deserve special commendation. He was soon, however, to find himself in a centre where opportunity, talent and energy might combine to make of him, if not an historical genius, at least one of the most useful writers who have yet appeared on the soil of Ireland. Shortly after his return he began his career as the hagiologist of Ireland, and at the same time complimented his adopted city with a little volume entitled, "A Short Life of St. Lawrence O’Toole"(Dublin, 1857). A good judge says of it that "it dispelled the cloud of ignorance respecting the life of St. Lawrence, which had been created by the wanton misrepresentation of hostile, careless and faithless chroniclers, successfully refuted the false views which had been propagated by political or religious malevolence and set the character of the illustrious subject of his work in a true light before the public.” In a sense this judgment is applicable to all the good Canon's later writings. Two years later he brought out a "Life of St. Malachy O'Morgair" (Dublin, 1859), that had originally been undertaken in the Boston Pilot (1853). Then followed at various intervals other lives of famous ancient saints of Ireland: St. Dympna (Dublin, 1863); St. Aengus, the Culdee (ibid., 1868); St. David (ibid., 1869); St. Grellan (ibid., 1881). One of his most useful books is his "Catechism of Irish History from the earliest times to the death of O'Connell" (Dublin, 1864).
This gifted priest was not only an excellent historian, but also a graceful poet, who knew how to clothe in pleasing metre the thousand and one traditions that everywhere cling to the soil of Ireland. In 1870 he published, under the nom de plume of Lageniensis (the man of Leix), a volume of poetry entitled, "Legend Lays of Ireland," in which old and familiar fairy legends of his people were treated with much success. In the same year he published a prose volume of popular traditions, "Irish Folk-Lore," which embraces "a vast amount of antiquarian and historical information connected with various periods of the national annals." The grave of the famous O'Carolan, the last of the Irish harpers, was visited by him in 1881, and suggested to him a new volume of verse, "The Buried Lady: A Legend of Kilronan." In 1893 he made a collection of all his metrical writings, under the title, "Poetical Works of Lageniensis," and dedicated the same to the Countess of Aberdeen, as a tribute to her genuine love for the Irish people. Another volume on "Irish Local Legends" appeared in 1895, and placed him among the most successful collectors of the rare and curious antique lore that has been so long drifting down the ages in Ireland, but that is now on the wane, and will perhaps not survive many more generations. In the meantime he brought the nation more deeply in his debt by new editions of two important works, Monck-Mason's "Essay on the Antiquity and Constitution of Parliaments in Ireland" (Dublin, 1891), and William Molyneaux's "The Case of Ireland's Being Bound by Acts of Parliament in England Stated" (Dublin, 1893). The latter work, originally published in 1698, had been burned by the common hangman, and only one edition had since then seen the light. The tireless pen of this scholarly antiquarian seemed, indeed, never to rest. He compiled a "Catechism of Greek Grammar" and "Devotions for Confession and Holy Communion," almost as a rest from his many heavier labors. During his last illness he was still busied with a history of the antiquities of his native Leix (Queens County), on which, in his intervals of leisure, he had spent considerable research. He reminds us, indeed, of Saint Columba and Saint Bede, both of whom died almost in the act of dictating to their brother scribes. It seems incredible that amid so many enterprises he found time to compose the work that is here presented to our readers. It will always possess an added interest from the fact that the original text perished in the fire that had consumed his publishers' premises in 1898. Nothing daunted, he sat down to the task a second time, rewrote the entire work, and published it as a large quarto (Dublin, 1903).
We have yet, however, to mention the great work on which his fame will forever rest, "The Lives of the Irish Saints." As early as 1857 he announced his resolution to compose a series of lives of the Saints of Ireland in twelve volumes, following the order of the calendar. It was to be for Irish history what Alban Butler's "Lives of the Saints" had long been for general ecclesiastical history, a vast and final work of reference and edification. The Jesuit Henry Fitzsimon, the priest Thomas Messingham, above all the Franciscans Patrick Fleming, Luke Wadding, Hugh Ward and John Colgan, had all toiled variously and with great success, in the first half of the seventeenth century, at a great compilation that was eventually to be known as the "Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae" or the "Lives of the Saints of Ireland." In the sad and dreary period that followed the "thorough" work of Oliver Cromwell the Irish clergy found no longer heart or occasion to take up a task so congenial to their temper and the character of their nation. It was reserved for the modest and laborious curate of Saints Michael and John to bend his shoulders to a work that might well challenge the organized efforts of a community of writers. In 1872 he issued the prospectus of his enterprise, as a subscription work, and promised to bring it out monthly in parts of sixty-four pages each, profusely illustrated. He kept his promise, and finished the herculean undertaking shortly before his death. It includes the lives of about 3,500 saints of Ireland, some of them dealt with briefly, but many at very great length. The nine volumes before us number over six thousand large octavo pages, and the remaining parts, when they issue from the press as volumes, will probably raise this figure to eight thousand pages or more. It is a very unique performance in the department of hagiology, whether we consider the unbroken ardor of fifty years' toil, the faithful execution of a perilous promise, the uniform excellence of the work, or the admitted need and value of a history of Irish sanctity that shall correspond to our modern methods and attainments in the province of history. That he succeeded in endowing his native land with a monument that any Catholic people would forever cherish is allowed by all who are familiar with the field of labor, among others by the Bollandists, to whose scholarly company he must henceforth be accredited as an associate, at least in learning, faith, spirit, and good work. These volumes include the result of infinite research in all the departments of Irish history, for the Saints of Ireland, since St. Patrick, are its true heroes, its representatives, and the flower of its thought and action. In so old a land the identification of place and personal names is no slight task. A chief source of information is the collection of ancient maps and manuscripts belonging to the Irish Ordnance Survey Department in Dublin. Canon O'Hanlon had an intimate acquaintance with all this material; he was likewise master of the contents of the rich public libraries of his native city and of other cites, as well as of valuable private collections of books on the topography and antiquities of Ireland. In the course of his labors he was encouraged and often helped by such scholars as Dr. John O'Donovan, Professor Eugene O'Curry, Dr. Todd, and other Irish antiquarians of the first rank. The beautiful font of Irish type occasionally used in his "Lives of the Irish Saints” was originally designed by Dr. Petrie for the Catholic University of Ireland.
The work of Canon O'Hanlon took on the character of a national monument. And as it progressed the learned world in general applauded the rare erudition, good judgment and moderation, skilful order and sense of proportion, grasp of environment and unflagging regularity of industry which he brought to the execution of this imperishable Hall of Fame, in which each of the model national worthies has his appropriate niche or pedestal. It has been truly said that the future ecclesiastical historian of Ireland — whoever he may be — must forever feel indebted to the good priest, whose labors for half a century have resulted in placing at his disposal an inexhaustible fund of well-digested and reliable information, not only concerning the personal history of the Irish Saints, but also about the social, political, literary and aesthetic life of Ireland during the period of her native independence and brilliancy. Archbishop Walsh, in commending the proposal to erect a suitable memorial to the deceased scholar, took occasion to state that in the erudite volumes of the "Lives of the Irish Saints," compiled with zeal and diligence in the spare moments of a busy missionary life. Canon O'Hanlon had "preserved for the instruction and edification of future generations all that has been handed down to us of the lives and labors of the recorded saints of our Irish Church."
As a writer Canon O'Hanlon was habitually painstaking and accurate. His information, when possible, was gathered at first hand, and the habit of composition enabled him to set it forth with good order and proportion. His style is lucid and simple, a good specimen of the historical narrative, and his diction always select and dignified. He seizes with ease on the salient and distinctive traits of a personality or a situation, and thereby relieves the reader of that vagueness and complexity that sometimes diminishes the satisfaction afforded by otherwise good histories. His spirit was ever aflame with the love of his native religion and his native land. Yet nothing gladdened him more through a long life than the consciousness that he was working, not alone for those who dwelt within the “four seas of Ireland," but also for that greater Ireland-over-sea, to whose children and whose children's children he would forever speak as a trustworthy herald of long-forgotten ages of glorious endeavor that might otherwise, perhaps, perish only too easily from the minds and the hearts of Irishmen in the United States of America, Canada, Southern Africa, United States of Australia, India and other parts of the world. May he rest in peace!
Very Rev. Thomas J. Shahan, Introduction and Memoir of the Author in Very Rev. John Canon O’Hanlon, M.R.I.A. Irish American History of the United States, Volume I, (New York, 1907).
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Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2015. All rights reserved.