Friday 30 April 2021

Bi-Centenary of the Birth of Canon O' Hanlon

Today marks the bi-centenary of the birth of John, Canon O'Hanlon whose monumental Lives of the Irish Saints provided the original inspiration for this blog. Over the years I have developed not only a profound respect for his work but also a deep affection for the man himself. I marvel at how he was able to undertake such detailed research into the Irish saints while exercising the duties of a parish priest and producing volumes of history and poetry as well. The article below, published in the Irish Monthly shortly after O'Hanlon's death in May 1905, pays a handsome tribute to his literary output. I can only concur though with the writer's observation that he would have sacrificed the re-publication of the Irish Amercian History in order to secure the publication of the remaining volumes of the Lives of the Irish Saints. For sadly, the Lives for the last three months of the year were still in manuscript form at their author's death and there they have remained. But on the occasion of the bi-centenary of his birth I salute Canon O'Hanlon for all that he achieved and hope he enjoys eternal rest among the saints of Ireland whose memories he did so much to recover and preserve.


Canon O'Hanlon deserves pre-eminently the title which Dr Russell of Maynooth gave to Dr Matthew Kelly, calling him (in the inscription on certain statues of Irish Saints, presented by him to the College) sanctorum indigetum cliens devotissimus. He was born at Stradbally, in Queen's County, in 1821...When seventeen years of age, he emigrated to America. In his twenty-sixth year he was ordained priest by the Archbishop of St Louis, Peter Richard Kenrick. After doing priestly duty at St Louis for seven years, his health failed, and he was obliged to return to his native country. Cardinal Cullen appointed him to a curacy in the parish of SS. Michael and John's, Dublin; and there he remained till he was made parish priest of Irishtown - now after his death divided into two parishes, Ringsend and Sandymount.

It is on record that Dr Walsh, the present Archbishop of Dublin, often served Father C.P. Meehan's Mass as a boy, and no doubt he did the same of Father Meehan's fellow-curate. One of Dr Walsh's first acts as Archbishop was to name Father O'Hanlon to a canonry in the Cathedral Chapter. Canon O'Hanlon spent the rest of his life beside his beautiful church of St Mary Star of the Sea. We remember how pleased he was when we told him that the author of the favourite hymn, "Hail, Queen of Heaven", in which that title is given to our Blessed Lady, was Dr Lingard the great historian. As a priest and as a man, he was full of zeal and kindness; and he was indefatigable in the discharge of all his priestly duties. 

But he was indefatigable also in the one department of literature to which he was wise enough to devote himself almost exclusively. He had indeed tried his prentice hand on other subjects at the beginning of his career, publishing in 1849 at Boston, An Abridgment of the History of Ireland through Patrick Donahoe, founder of the Pilot and Donahoe's Magazine, both of them carried on still on a finer scale and with greater success than in the time of the founder. In 1851 he published The Irish Emigrant's Guide to the United States. Would that more of those emigrants would imitate his example and return to do good work in their native land.

His real work, however, as a writer began after his return to Ireland. In 1855 he published the life of St Laurence O'Toole, which was followed by Lives of St Malachy O'Morgair, St Dymphna and St Aengus the Culdee.  These were the preliminaries to his colossal enterprise, The Lives of the Irish Saints, for which he had been collecting materials for twenty years before he issued his prospectus. This work was issued in parts containing sixty-four pages, illustrated with pictures of ancient Irish Churches, etc; and these were gathered into very fine royal octavo volumes of between 600 and 1000 pages each. In spite of great difficulties he persevered to the end, issuing the November volume last year; and it is understood that the materials for the December volume are ready for the press. It is a pity that the good Canon had not realised even more fully that reward of the faithful confessor complevit labores illius, by issuing the concluding volume of his opus magnum. To secure that completion we could have spared his excellent Irish American History of the United States, which at the age of seventy-seven he had the courage to write out again after it had been burned in the fire that destroyed the printing works of Messrs. Sealy, Byers and Walker, in 1898. It was published two years ago.

The holy and amiable old man died peacefully and happily on May 15th, 1905, Feast of St. Dympna, one of 3,500 Irish saints of whom he was the historian. May he rest in peace.

The Irish Monthly Vol. 33, No. 385 (Jul., 1905), pp. 361-363.


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Finola Finlay said...

What an incredible enterprise. So admirable and SO useful.

Marcella said...

Yes indeed, Finola. Obviously his scholarship is now dated but his work is still useful and the scale of his achievement deserves to be acknowledged.