Heather Laird
University College Cork | Views:

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John F. Ryan

Liverpool University Press, 2022. 304 pages.

ISBN: 9781800855274

As indicated by the title, this book is a biography of a man whose life coincided with one of the most tumultuous periods in Irish history. Biographies are generally the preserve of those considered to have lived notable lives that impacted in some significant way on the society they inherited. While Gerald O’Donovan (born Jeremiah) is not well known in the Ireland of today, his life could certainly be described as an exceptional one. Moreover, this was a man who actively sought to shape the Ireland of his time. In survey studies of twentieth-century Irish literature and society, Gerald O’Donovan is most likely to be remembered, if at all, as a Catholic priest who left the church and went on to write Father Ralph (1913), a controversial best-selling bildungsroman about a young liberal priest who leaves his ministry in response to the Catholic church’s failure to modernise. John F. Ryan’s well-researched scholarly biography covers this important aspect of O’Donovan’s life, but also moves well beyond it to provide the reader with an admirably detailed account of O’Donovan and the world he inhabited.

O’Donovan was the author of six novels, the first of which was Father Ralph. These were all published within a ten-year period, 1913 to 1922. O’Donovan was over forty when Father Ralph appeared in print. However, prior to that he had published a significant number of shorter pieces, including stories, sketches, and articles. In addition, lectures and letters by O’Donovan, on topics ranging from industrial development to rural libraries, were published in local and national newspapers and journals. Though O’Donovan’s writing career is covered in detail in Gerald O’Donovan: A Life, 1871–1942, the book is perhaps most engaging when discussing the many causes he was involved in whilst living in Ireland, and those he encountered through his social and cultural activism. O’Donovan is aptly described by Ryan as “[a]lmost unique in his holistic approach to the Irish revival” (2), with his interests including the Irish arts and crafts movement, the Gaelic League, and the Cooperative Association. In Ryan’s analysis, two drives underpinned this activism: nation-building and modernisation, though concerns at one point about his wife’s suffragette cousin overly influencing his household suggests certain limits to his embrace of the “modern”! These two drives also influenced much of his writing, both literary and otherwise.  Gerald O’Donovan: A Life, 1871–1942 is grounded in empirical research rather than theoretical debates so the various complexities of nationalism and modernity in the Irish context, as explored by Irish postcolonial scholars and others, are not acknowledged, though there is a brief mention of O’Donovan’s underestimation of the significance of Ireland’s peripheral position in the global capitalist economy in the discussion of O’Donovan’s support for an expanded Irish manufacturing sector (23).

O’Donovan’s career as a novelist began after he left Ireland for England and married a Protestant woman with strong Irish links whose grandfather had been a Church of Ireland rector. Though he remained in England for much of the rest of his life, estranged from his immediate family who disapproved of his abandonment of the priesthood and subsequent marriage, and cultivating “an almost perfect upper-class English accent” (210), five of his six novels are set in Ireland. Moreover, he continued to meet with acquaintances from Ireland, such as George Moore and W.B. Yeats, and maintained an interest in current events in Ireland; his second novel, Waiting (1914) features an Independent Nationalist candidate for Parliament in the constituency election who is defeated after being denounced from the pulpit for his marriage to a Protestant, and his fourth novel, Conquest (1920), details an array of political opinion in Ireland in the decades running up to the Easter Rising. According to Ryan, O’Donovan, in his latter years, became even more focused on Ireland, though the Ireland that he was preoccupied with at that stage was “peopled mainly by his literary and artistic friends, and by social reformers, who shared his ideas and ideals, and whose passing evoked nostalgia” (239). A poignant point to bear in mind is that O’Donovan had not returned to the country of his birth since before his marriage.

Gerard O’Donovan, who led a singularly varied life, is depicted in this biography as a talented man who could potentially bring something of value to a range of workplaces, but who found it hard “to make any long-term commitment or settle in any position” (162). Indeed, his later tendency to walk away from jobs raises the question as to whether his resignation from the ministry had been purely on ideological grounds, though this is not directly addressed in the book. Most notably, O’Donovan worked off and on in publishing; as a private secretary to the co-operative leader Horace Plunkett; and also for a while in the British Department of Propaganda, with H.G. Wells as one of his colleagues and a subsequent friend. Whilst working for the Department, he also met the renowned author Rose Macaulay, and commenced an affair with her that continued, alongside his marriage, for the rest of his life, nearly two decades. Given his patchy employment and the fact that none of his later novels achieved the success of Father Ralph, O’Donovan was lucky that his wife benefited from a trust fund and inheritances, and that some of his friends were willing to lend or give him money when he required it. Even Macaulay, who, in a letter to a fellow novelist attributed the relative lack of success of some of O’Donovan’s novels to the fact that his writings were “too documentary” and “lacking in style” (223), was a source of financial assistance, contributing to the education of his children. This may strike the reader as an odd scenario, but a useful context provided in the biography is that O’Donovan was a strong advocate of proper education for girls, notwithstanding his aforementioned reservations about his wife’s suffragette cousin, and was keen for his two daughters to be as well-educated as his son.

As stated in the opening sentence of the book’s acknowledgements, Gerald O’Donovan: A Life, 1871–1942 is the result of many years of research into O’Donovan and the various milieus he inhabited. John F. Ryan is an independent scholar and this very rich book, the first full-length study of O’Donovan, raises important questions about contemporary research culture. Professional academics in today’s university too often operate in a system in which citation numbers matter more than the context of the citation and are under constant pressure to increase their publication “output”. In response to this situation, some are now advocating for “slow scholarship”, pointing out that time is essential to good research, whether that be time to think, trawl the archives, read books, or simply converse with scholars working in overlapping areas and other relevant parties. John F. Ryan’s book is a standout example of the benefits of the longer journey to publication. The primary sources Ryan consulted range from newspapers and journals to papers in libraries in Ireland, England, the U.S., and Canada. Moreover, Ryan’s longstanding devotion to the topic of O’Donovan’s life and times is key to the relationship of trust and friendship that he built with some members of O’Donovan’s family. This relationship, referenced in the acknowledgements, ensured that he could gain access to materials relevant to Gerard O’Donovan that are not in official archives, such as unpublished literary works; correspondence with such important contemporary figures as W.B. Yeats, Constance Markievicz, and H.G. Wells; and unpublished reminiscences of Gerald O’Donovan’s wife. The latter includes an account of a holiday in Co. Donegal in August 1910, where Beryl O’Donovan, then Beryl Verschoyle, first met the man who would become her husband. In these reminiscences, she recalls that they were both guests in the home of Hugh Law, the Nationalist MP for Donegal, and his wife Lota, and that Æ (George Russell) was also staying there at the time. Vividly capturing the oft exhilarating atmosphere of Ireland in the period leading up to the Rising, she describes long conversations into the night between O’Donovan and Æ concerning “fairy lore, politics, agriculture and the United Irish Creameries, literature, poetry and Indian philosophy on and on past the point to where one got a kind of second quickening” (105). Given how richly O’Donovan’s life is contextualized in this biography, it is a pity that the book does not include in its opening pages a chronology of that life alongside a chronology of O’Donovan’s times, with the latter subdivided into cultural context and historical events. Indeed, when reading the book, I found myself on more than one occasion flicking back through its pages, seeking to place a detail, and expecting to find such a resource.

In conclusion, given its focus on an Irishman who is now relatively unknown, this is a book that is likely to attract a niche readership, but Gerald O’Donovan: A Life, 1871–1942 is deserving of broader attention. The contemporary university press often finds itself having to prove its value, sometimes in quite instrumentalist terms. In continuing to publish books like this biography, Liverpool University Press aligns itself with those of us who still strongly believe that the quality of the scholarship rather than the quantity of readers should be at the core of a university press’s mission. The Press is also to be commended for the design of this publication, with the front cover warranting special mention. Here the then Father Jeremiah O’Donovan looks intently out at us with a firm but not unkind expression. The cover reproduces the black backdrop of artist Dermod O’Brien’s portrait of O’Donovan. Against both that backdrop and the slightly darker black of O’Donovan’s priestly garb, the cover captures the luminosity of the priest’s face and white collar in O’Brien’s portrait. Indeed, the flesh of O’Donovan’s face is so richly rendered in what is otherwise an unusually flat monochrome image, that it produces a subtle three-dimensional effect, as if the subject of the artwork may at any moment reach out and enter the world of the viewer. In O’Brien’s portrait, as in the book that its reproduction adorns, we see the inability of the priest, Father Jeremiah O’Donovan, to fully contain the man, Gerald O’Donovan.