John Canon O’Hanlon
The Man and His Legacy
By Teddy Fennelly
This essay was written in 2005 to mark the 100th anniversary of Canon O’Hanlons death. We are grateful to Teddy Fennelly for his permission to reprint it.
John Canon O’Hanlon (1821-1905) was an outstanding man of his generation. His story is a marvellous one of a full life, well lived. He was a man with a mission, in his search for knowledge and his sharing of it, in the spreading of the Christian message and in his love for the country of his origins and her people.
His huge literary output remains his greatest legacy. When one considers that he also led a busy life as a parish priest and was never found wanting in the performance of his duties, his stamina and capacity for work is quite mind-boggling. Dr. Walsh, the last of the three Archbishops of Dublin under whom he served, paid him this tribute: “Those who know him only as the laborious student and writer of books might have thought that he devoted to his literary labours all his time and all his thoughts. Those who know him only as the zealous missionary priest might well have supposed that outside the sphere of these ecclesiastical duties he had no other cares.”
Amazingly this was a man who suffered from poor health on a prolonged basis in his younger years and, after a spell in the United States, had been sent home to Ireland to die. But he lived on for more than fifty years and used every waking minute of those long years in useful service to his God, country and fellow-man.
Relatively little is known of Canon O’Hanlon’s father, Edward, who operated a tanyard in Stradbally
O’Hanlon spent much of his younger years in his mother’s home at the Moores of Ballymaddock, where Sean and Margaret Scully now live.
Honor married Edward Hanlon in, or in the years previous to, 1820 and they settled in Stradbally. The O’Hanlon home was located on a site later acquired for the erection of the Presentation Convent and near where the Catholic Church now stands. Their first child, John, was born on 30 April, 1821. He was baptised two days later, witnessed by Patrick Brien and Eliza Moore. The family grew to eight children with a new arrival every second year. These were: Mary, Michael, Edward, James, Elizabeth, Charles and William.
The children were educated locally in Stradbally but it seems that only John went on to further studies. At the age of thirteen he was enrolled with the endowed Preston School in Ballyroan, about ten miles from his native town. While at Ballyroan he lived with a distant relation, John Lalor, at Pass House. John Lalor was a direct forebear of Paddy Mulhall, who helped me greatly with my research and who sadly died recently. Paddy was proprietor of one of the best-known traditional hostelries in Ireland, Morrisseys of Abbeyleix.
Go ndeana trocaire ar a anam dilis.
“The master was an eccentric character, yet for all his peculiarities he was popular with his pupils and townspeople. “He was advanced in years and the father of grown sons and daughters, who lived with him. Their mother superintended the household affairs very judiciously, and was assisted in the work by some female servants. Mr. Hutchins was rather a tall man, of lithesome shape, and having a good set of features, in which seriousness and vivacity were at once blended. His motions were restless both within and without the house, and when walking abroad his thumbs were placed in the armlets of his vest, while the tips of his fingers were continually tattooing his breast on either side. In dress he was a stylish gentleman of the olden time, wearing a long-skirted black broad-cloth frock-coat with lappels, a waistcoat and pantaloons to match, a black silk stock, with shirt collars protruding on either side of his cheeks. His shapely silk hat was worn with a jaunty air, and his boots were highly polished; but probably the most noticeable appendage of his dress was a cambric frill, snowy white, and elegantly crimped, which escaped in full display from the upper part of the vest … he had a self-satisfied air of superiority …
Although the Canon hailed from relatively comfortable Catholic stock, his circumstances changed radically on the death of his father, the family bread-winner. Being the eldest, he was forced to abandon his studies as a seminarian in Carlow College, and take responsibility for his family’s welfare. This was in 1842, a time of severe economic depression in Ireland. He looked to the United States for his future and that of his mother and siblings.
His next eleven years were spent in Missouri, an experience that he was never likely to forget and he shared his memories of his time there in the pages of a book which he published many years later. It tells a wonderful story of how he made his way from Quebec in Canada, down the Ohio River and up the mighty Mississippi to the frontier city of Saint Louis, then as now the crossroads of America. It is a story of adventure, of his becoming a priest, of the fascinating people he met and of his life as a missionary in a vast virgin frontier.
O’Hanlon worked, we are led to believe, as a river fireman on his arrival in Saint Louis. He was a religious young man and was a daily mass-goer the local Cathedral. Here he was fortunate to meet another daily mass-goer, Judge Brian Mullanphy, of Irish descent who happened to be one of the most influential men in that part of the world. The judge noticed this young stranger who knelt in the same pew every morning and was impressed at how devoutly he prayed. They met one morning after Mass and the Judge found out more about this young man. O’Hanlon told him of his deep-rooted desire to become a priest. The Judge introduced his that same day to Dr. Kenrick, Archbishop of Saint Louis and he soon was studying to be a priest in the local seminary.
He was a willing and able student at the Saint Louis seminary, and he became well acquainted with European languages, the classics and history as well as theology. It was here his literary career began. He edited a Catholic diocesan newspaper for a brief period and wrote articles for magazines. He also published two books, one a small history of Ireland and the other a useful information guide for Irish immigrants.
On one of his missionary assignments he was based at the riverside town of Hannibal just at a time when Mark Twain was a teenager there. Hannibal was the setting for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Huck’s father was Irish, and indeed many in this vast and fast developing country, especially opening up on its western frontiers, were likewise Irish immigrants.
O’Hanlon gives us a harrowing account of the plight of many thousands of Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Famine, who ended up in Saint Louis, mostly by way of New Orleans and up the Mississippi. They arrived in a frightful state starving and disease ridden. He and his fellow priests and nuns at Saint Louis cared for these poor people, helping to feed them, build temporary hospitals for them, look after the widows and orphans, and burying the dead.
All his family, except for one sister and including his widowed mother, followed the young O’Hanlon to America. He was the only one to return to Ireland.
After a brief period of recuperation on his return to Ireland in the happy hunting grounds of his youth in County Laois, he took up duty as a young priest in the Dublin archdiocese.
O’Hanlon celebrated his return to Ireland in a poem that was popular for a time, “There is balm in the air of old Ireland”. The opening verses reveal his great delight on being reunited with his beloved native land and old friends:
There is balm in the air of our island,
With incense the breath of each breeze
Sweeps freshly o’er valley and highland
Through her green meadows, pastures and trees.
What joy feels the exile returning
To the land that had haunted his dreams,
His full heart with love ever burning
To meet with dear friends and old scenes.
When her shores looming high o’er the ocean
First break on his sight from the wave
His soul swells with earnest emotion
To find there a home and a grave.
Loved land of the saints and the sages,
The heroes of shadowy years
Even yet live in history’s pages,
To lighten thy gloom and thy tears.
His interest in hagiology and, particularly, the lives of holy men and women in the early Irish church, was awakened in the United States and, on his return to Ireland in 1853, it became his main focus. He published biographies on a number of individual saints before embarking on his magnum opus. It was his intention to publish The Lives of the Irish Saints in twelve volumes, one volume for every month of the year. This was a gigantic challenge in terms of time and output, but also in financial terms. He managed to have nine volumes published in his lifetime and these remain the best source of reference for researchers of the early Irish church ever since. A part of the tenth volume was published after his death but, despite declarations of intent on the part of numerous scholars, the series remains incomplete. The manuscripts for his Lives are deposited in the Russell Library in Maynooth College.
His inability to complete the Lives project must not be seen as a failure on the part of Canon O’Hanlon. His reputation as a hagiographer and historian is assured, such is the quantity and quality of the work completed. Most people will find that his Lives are not easy reading, but there is more than adequate compensation in the overwhelming detail of the text and the extensive notes appended to every chapter, which are a testament to the range of his research and are an invaluable reference guide to scholar and casual reader alike.
Though his maternal grandfather, Denis Downey, was slaughtered by the militia, along with hundreds of other rebels, after surrendering at Gibbet Rath on the Curragh in 1798, O’Hanlon did not pursue the path of militant republicanism. Violence, he believed, had brought further hardship on an already long-suffering people. He was a man of peace and followed the political path of his lifelong icon, Daniel O’Connell, while also keeping in step with the anti-violence philosophies of his ecclesiastical superiors.
Like O’Connell, whom he believed was the greatest Irishman in history, his affection for Ireland knew no barriers. He loved the language, the heritage and the culture, which had been driven underground for many centuries before his time. Like O’Connell too, he loved the ordinary people of Ireland, mostly poor and illiterate and, through his ministry, provided them with spiritual and temporal care.
In 1864, he published a Catechism of Irish History, from the earliest events to the death of O’Connell. O’Hanlon’s pacifist style of nationalism comes through in these pages written in the catechetical style of the period. His was the nationalism preached by O’Connell and followed the direction of his boss, the ultra conservative Archbishop (later Cardinal) Cullen, who was vehemently opposed to secret societies and all movements promoting violence.
The Archbishop may have had, briefly, some reservations about the strength of O’Hanlon’s pacifist beliefs on being informed that he had officiated at the wedding of the Fenian leader, James Stephens, to Miss Jane Hopper, a Dublin tailor’s daughter at the Presbytery of Ss. Michael and John’s in 1863. Stephens had founded the Fenians on 17 March, 1858, and his influence on the revolutionary movement was at its height, and still on an upward spiral, at the time of his wedding. But these close encounters with such a militant figure had absolutely no bearing on O’Hanlon’s strongly held political convictions.
O’Hanlon was not only a man of words but also a man of action. When a committee was formed, in 1862, with the aim of having a fitting memorial erected in honour of the Liberator, he immediately volunteered his help. The O’Connell Monument was unveiled in Sackville Street, (later O’Connell Street), Dublin on 15 August 1882. He had been secretary to the committee for the entire period and was the main driving force behind its commissioning.
O’Hanlon’s contribution to the literary and cultural revival towards the end of the nineteenth century should not be underestimated. He produced a constant stream of work in book form, articles in magazines and papers delivered to eminent literary societies including the Royal Irish Academy and the Royal Society of Antiquities of Ireland, both of which he was an esteemed member for many decades.
Growing up in the company of story-tellers of an older generation, he developed a keen interest in folklore and recorded many of the tales he had heard in the company of country folk at the hearth-fire of a seanchaithe’s cabin near where had gone to school in Ballyroan.
O’Hanlon, once again, went back to his roots in County Laois for much of his folklore and Cullenagh was again at the centre, In his tales on Cullenagh, he relates: “The days and nights of the old rustic Shanachie and his stories by the cottage fire-side are now numbered among the customs and traditions of by-gone times; but we well remember the delight it afforded ourselves as juveniles, to have seen and heard such a historiographer, and to have learned much curious lore from his narratives to those audiences so frequently assembled in the evenings, as additions to his domestic circle. The lapse of years has driven the name of that chronicler from our recollection, although having vividly impressed on our memory the scenes presented on such occasions. These were unfolded in the chief apartment of a small farmer’s thatched dwelling, entered through the open door, with a half-door usually closed, to exclude the sow and her litter of boniveens in the bawn from the interior.”
O’Hanlon went on to quaintly describe the rustic architecture as well as the furniture and fittings of the old cabin in Cullenagh and also the manner of welcome given to visitors. “Much less imposing than a Cathedral vaulted roof, yet was the apex of the pointed gables and ridge-pole of the cabin highly pitched, the rafters were rude and wide apart, connected with cross braces and stout spans of deal to support the dark heather scraw roof, which served as a ceiling beneath the superincumbent thick outer covering of straw. The mud walls were plastered on the inside, while both within and without, they were periodically refreshed with a coating of whitewash, and everything was kept scrupulously clean about the aged couple’s household.
“A great ornament of the interior was the kitchen dresser, with rows of plates, dishes and mugs of Chinese design and gaudy colours displayed, and again these were flanked by a pan and grid-iron, with bright tin porringers, hanging from pegs driven into the walls. A kitchen table and a settle were on either side. The latter served its double purpose, a bed by night, a couch for seats by day’
His Legend Lays of Ireland contains twenty-four tales in verse relating to the folklore of various parts of the country. Once again his native county is well represented with legends of Dunamase, Clonenagh and Cullenagh. Cullenagh is a hilly townsland, adjacent to Ballyroan, in County Laois where O’Hanlon went to school. For him as a teenager, it was something of a spiritual home, where some magical tales were woven. This is one such gem. The national sport of hurling was, apparently, very popular in Cullenagh long before it came under the Gaelic Athletic Association’s banner in 1884. The landlord family of Barringtons promoted it among their tenants and fielded a team that was the envy of other parishes and other counties. The Cullenagh fable, titled “The Fairy Hurlers”, features a mythical game of hurling amongst the ‘wee folk’:
… In Comber’s Field, this glorious night,
The fairies hurl by pale moonlight …
Yes, O’Hanlon loved poetry and he was familiar with the works of all the great poets. He fancied himself as a poet of some substance and wrote voluminous verses mostly on folklore and historical topics which, no doubt, were appreciated by his admirers. His poetry was supplemented by a prolific use of notes which are a marvellous resource for researchers.
He used lines penned by the masters of English verse as an introduction to each of his chapters in his prose books of folklore as a means of embellishing his rustic tales, quoting his inspiration for this departure from the Waverley Novels.
In his explanation for doing this he showed that he could also lace his prose with a poetic flow: The Mottoes have been culled as flowers to cover those plain, unvarnished sketches and descriptions, that are veiled and nestled beneath the adornment; so that, like darker shadows of the clouds, our homely tales may be mantled in some measure with the borrowed radiance of a silver lining.
Perhaps there was a sub-plot too for O’Hanlon’s desire to liberally sprinkle his prose work with poetic gems from the masters as well as, sometimes, from aspiring genius. It reminded readers at once of his appreciation of good poetry. Was this a means of reflecting some glory and critical acclaim on his own poetic efforts, abilities and ambitions?
He used the nom de plume Lageniensis (man of Leix) for his what we might call his creative writing on folklore and for his poetry. His epic “Land of Leix” running to all of 126 pages, including copious notes, could be said to be the history of Laois in verse.
Johanna O’Dooley gave a good summary of The Land Of Leix: “It is a history in miniature of his native Laois and is a pleasing and accurate guide to its beauty spots and antiquities, he was quite familiar with and loved every inch of his native county.
“In imagination he visits his native Stradbally and views the fair vale beneath him from one of its encircling hills. He sees again the haunts of his youth; there in Oughaval, where St. Colman Mac Ua Laoighise built his monastery in ancient days, there the groves of Knocknabraher, there the peaceful village and beautiful demesne beside the river. He feels again the rapture he experienced on seeing them all in their wondrous beauty at sunset, or in the early hours of the dawn, as he listened to the skylark’s song or the chiming of the church bells. Oh! the peace and happiness of those boyhood days. He paces again the village street and pauses to look at the old mill wheel and view the Abbey, once the site of a Franciscan Monastery, and the bridge where Owney O’Moore defeated Cosby and his kerne. So keen are the impressions of his youth that now he has but to close his eyes ‘to recall those scenes of vanished days’ – but listen to his own words.”
Although he laboured in the pastoral fields in Dublin for most of his life, he always felt at home in his native county, Laois. It was from here he drew his inspiration and it was here he would go to relax and re-energise himself. He was probably the most prolific writer on Laois and his History of the Queen’s County remains the most authoritative and informative work of its kind on the county’s past, even though it was completed by others and was published posthumously.
Another major literary and historical project was his Irish-American History of the United States. He had the script with the printers and ready for publication when the printing-house involved was completely destroyed in a fire in 1898. His manuscripts were lost in the blaze but, reflecting the indefatigable nature of the man, he set down straight away to rewrite the huge tome from his notes. The book was eventually published in 1903, an amazing achievement for an octogenarian. But the time lost on rewriting the script had a knock-on effect on other projects he had in hand, including his Lives and the History of the Queen’s County, as well as a book on the life and writings of the Laois rustic poet, John Keegan, all of which were left unpublished at the time of his death.
Keegan writings, whose early works were published in the Leinster Express, were very popular in his own time but their popularity faded after his untimely death in Famine times. O’Hanlon re-established his name and his reputation briefly but again his work was forgotten until fellow Shanahoe man, Tony Delaney, made him again famous by publishing a book on his life and writings in recent years.
On the very last day of the nineteenth century O’Hanlon wrote a poignant note which indicated that he knew he had bitten off more than he could chew relating to his mammoth work. He was now in his eightieth year and his health was beginning to fail. The day it was written, the eve of a new century, surely added a tinge of emotion to his reflections. His message was sombre and it was written by a man obviously not in good spirits. He was to live for over four more years but, as he predicted, little further progress would, indeed, be made on his major work. The memorandum read:
“It is very certain I shall not survive to complete the Lives of the Irish Saints and I desire to state that whatever Mss. of the work remain unpublished, are merely unfinished and undigested notes to be placed in better order, many to be elided when previous unnecessary repetitions are found, and all require revision. Other sources for information are far from being exhausted. I regret in the past that leisure was not afforded me for sufficient research to complete the Lives in a manner quite satisfactory to myself. Several errors and omissions of statement I have from time to time discovered and which I will never find an opportunity for correcting.
John Canon O’Hanlon
31 December 1899”
Because of his vocation, Canon O’Hanlon did not marry and have children of his own, and so his extended family in County Laois became like his own family and he maintained a close and happy relationship with his country cousins.
His uncle, Lewis Moore’s, wife, Anne, became his housekeeper at No. 3 Leahy Terrace, where the Canon lived during his twenty-five years in Sandymount, after her husband’s death in 1884. She tended the Canon until her death in 1901. Her son, Charles Moore, a first cousin of O’Hanlon, was present at the Canon’s death.
A grand-daughter of O’Hanlon’s sister, Mary Cantwell, who died in 1875, came to live with him on her father’s tragic death in a drowning accident in New York in 1890. Annie Cantwell was only ten years old when the Canon arranged for her to leave her home in St. Louis and took her into his care. Though a grand-niece, he always referred to her as his niece. She was his pride and joy.
In a letter, in March, 1900, to a nephew in Texas, he wrote of her: “… she is grown too tall for association with the convent day school children; yet she goes into Dublin every day to take lessons in typewriting and shorthand at the leading school in the city. She does much type-writing for me, for which I regularly pay her, so that she may be stimulated to industry. She is a fine, healthy and beautiful girl; but what is still better, she is religious, amiable and well mannered; in every way a delight and comfort to me, and a general favourite in the parish. I allow her every reasonable indulgence, especially in going down to visit her several relations in the Queen’s County; they coming up in return to stop some time with us …”
The close bond of friendship the Canon enjoyed with his extended family is reflected in this letter he sent to Mrs. Mary Morrissey, Abbeyleix, dated 21 December, 1901:
“My dear Mrs. Morrissey,
I have to thank you very cordially for the Christmas presents of the fine turkey and brace of partridges that arrived this evening, and to wish Mr. Morrissey, yourself and numerous family a very happy meeting around the festive board. I have specially to request you will allow Teresa to come up to Dublin on Monday week for her holydays, especially as I shall have a small party of young people to have an early lunch on New Year’s day, Wednesday, so that we may adjourn to our school-house at 8 o’clock, where we are to have a very enjoyable Scoraiocht – social evening – consisting of Irish songs, Irish music, Union Pipers, Violin and a lecture in Irish Then she is to remain at least into the month of February, when I promise to return with her to Abbeyleix for a couple of days when I hope to trespass on Mr. Morrissey’s valuable time to glean more particulars of John Keegan as I hope to do. I have found the date for his death, June 30th, 1849, and the spot where his neglected grave lies from the Glasnevin Cemeteries Registrar, and I am getting transcripts of his writings. For the last week, I have not been in bed before one o’clock – once before three o’clock – in the morning, working on the Index of my Irish-American History of the United States.
Wishing all the blessings of this holy season, a pleasant Christmas and happy New Year, with many returns.
John Canon O’Hanlon”.
A remarkable man in every sense, unwittingly he acquired an ever broader distinction by figuring quite prominently in what is widely recognised as the greatest literary work of the twentieth century, James Joyce’s, Ulysses. As parish priest of Star of the Sea Church, Sandymount, while conducting a Benediction Service, Joyce gives him and his curate, Fr. Conroy, ample mention in his story of the fictional Leopold Bloom’s twenty-four hour odyssey around Dublin on 16 June, 1904, a journey that changed the course of English literature forever.
Canon O’Hanlon was a beloved parish priest of Star of the Sea Parish in Sandymount and Ringsend for 25 years. The community there erected a huge celtic cross over his grave in Glasnevin. A school beside the church in Sandymount was named after his and there are memorials to him at Star of the Sea and also in the church at Stradbally.
A number of events were organised jointly by Laois heritage Society and Laois Heritage Forum to mark the centenary including an O’Hanlon Evening in Stradbally and a visit by Laois Heritage Society members to Dublin to mark Centenary Day, Sunday 15 May 2005. They were both wonderful occasions.
His friend, Rev. E. O’Leary, parish priest of Portarlington, who assumed the task of completing the History of the Queen’s County on O’Hanlon’s death, observed: “From his labours we may turn and take a glance of the man, and consider his character … He was a simple, genial, saintly priest, with a warm, generous heart that never forgot a kindness”.
One hundred years after his death on 15 May, 1905, his memory and his legacy live on.
We are very grateful to Teddy Fennelly for permission to republish his essay, first published in 2005 to mark the centenary of Canon O’Hanlon’s death. It is republished in 2021 to mark the bicentenary of O’Hanlon’s birth.