Ahead of his Time – Brian Maye on novelist Gerald O’Donovan


It is doubtful that the reformist Catholic priest and novelist Gerald O’Donovan, born 150 years ago on July 15, is much remembered, but one of his novels caused a sensation in his time and his contribution to the decoration from Loughrea Cathedral. stands as a lasting monument.

He was born in Kilkeel, County Down, the youngest of six children, and named Jeremiah in honor of his father. As the latter was appointed to the Works Council, the family traveled widely across the country and young O’Donovan was educated in three different counties.

After attending Ardnaree College, a minor seminary in the Diocese of Killala, he entered Maynooth as an office student for that diocese and, after studying with the Jesuits for a time, was eventually ordained in 1895 for the diocese of Clonfert.

After a brief period as a teacher he was appointed vicar in Loughrea, County Galway.

The decade of the 1890s was a period of national turmoil and he enthusiastically supported the Gaelic League, the cooperative movement and literary revival, taking an active part in the national debate by publishing articles in newspapers and magazines.

As administrator of Loughrea Cathedral, he formed a committee to redecorate it. In this he strongly promoted the use of Irish art, inviting Sarah Purser, John Hughes and the Yeats sisters to contribute. His friend, the wealthy and cultured Edward Martyn, provided generous financial support for the project.

The appointment of Thomas O’Dea as the new Bishop of Clonfert harmed O’Donovan’s position. The two had clashed before at Maynooth and O’Dea disapproved of his lectures and tours. It has also been suggested that the diocesan clergy would have preferred O’Donovan to be appointed bishop.

He left Loughrea in September 1904 and the warmth of his farewells showed how popular he was with the people.

After a period in London and America, he got a job with Toynbee Hall in east London, a Christian socialist educational institution.

By this time he had left the priesthood, which caused him to become alienated from his family (he was now called Gerald rather than Jeremiah). In 1910 he married Beryl Verschoyle, the daughter of an Irish Protestant colonel, and they had three children.

His first novel, Father Ralph, published in 1913, tells the story of a young liberal priest who becomes disillusioned with the Catholic Church and leaves clerical life. It turned out to be his best-selling work and caught the public’s attention.

As Síofra O’Donovan wrote in this diary (July 28, 2001), “It was about the rebellion and exile of the family, the church and the country three years before the Portrait of the Joyce artist. ”

He has divided opinion at home, the Times Literary Supplement and the Church of Ireland Gazette in praising it, but the Freeman’s Journal condemning him as mockingly slandering the Irish clergy and people. (Brandon Press reprinted the novel in 1998.)

His subsequent novels had neither the same success nor the same publicity.

In Waiting (1914), the teaching and political career of the Catholic protagonist is destroyed because he marries a Protestant.

During the war, O’Donovan was an army lieutenant in the Ministry of Munitions and became head of the Italian propaganda section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His 1920 novel, How They Did It, centers on war profits, which he condemns.

Religion is a main theme in his other novels. Conquest (1920) tells how much a Catholic family wants to reclaim ancestral land; Vocations (1921) satirizes Irish religious life (Professor James H Murphy in the Dictionary of Irish Biography considers it perhaps the best written work of O’Donovan) and The Holy Tree (1922) examines how the conflict between romance, economics, and religion can cause tensions in marriage.

The inspiration for the novel, according to Síofra O’Donovan, was her long-term relationship with English novelist Rose Macaulay.

O’Donovan did not publish any more novels in the last 20 years of his life, but during this time he had an underground relationship with Macaulay, a successful novelist and travel writer.

His best and most successful novel, The Towers of Trebizond (1956), features a female protagonist who is torn between her devotion to Christianity and her affair with a married man, no doubt reflecting Macaulay’s two-decade relationship with O ‘ Donovan.

He died of cancer in Albury, Surrey, on July 26, 1942, and is buried there.

When he died, his wife wrote in her diary: “Gérard left me in the morning.

In an anonymous tribute to The Times, Macaulay wrote: “To know him was to love him.


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