John O'Donovan

Vol. 3 No. 2 - 1976

John O'Donovan and Dean Waring

by T J Malcomson

When the Ordnance Survey of Ireland was commenced in the early 1830s, John O'Donovan was appointed to assist Dr. Petrie in the historical, archaeological and antiquarian positions of the work. This involved him in travelling through every county in Ireland, studying the origins of place names, collecting local history and legend etc. The letters written by him during his travels are in the library of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.

A letter written about a visit to Dean Holt Waring on 29th March, 1834 is given below. John O'Donovan LLD., M.R.I.A., a Gaelic scholar, was the translator of the "Annals of the Four Masters", "The Battle of Maghrath (Moira)" etc. In 1849 he was appointed professor of Celtic languages at Queens College, Belfast at a salary of £100 a year. It is said that, during the 12 years he held this post, he never had a student.

March 30th 1834

Dear Sir, I went yesterday to Waringstown and called upon Rev. Mr. Waring, the Lord of the soil. He lives in a castellated house erected in 1666 and presents an appearance of no inconsiderable importance. He was all day engaged with lawyers about some matters relating to his estate, and it was 4 o'clock before I could see him. At first he paid no attention but the most indifferent to me (the result in all probability of my weather-beaten appearance) saying. "This is a very awkward hour for Surveyors to be calling on me - Easter Saturday".

I perceived immediately that his nature was aristocratic and that it was very probable I could get no good of him. So I told him in a few words what I was about, upon which he immediately changed his tone and countenance, and asked me to take some wine etc. He then attended with the most profound respect. It is strange how the fancies of men run, how they are amused or disgusted accordingly as you touch them [on] their own hobbies or antipathies. I never saw a clearer instance of this than in Mr. Waring.

He examined me to see how far I was really acquainted with Irish or literature, or what I knew about the nature of language in general. How many tenses were there in Irish verbs, and how they were used and distinguished. I was never more prepared to answer questions than his. He then began to ask questions about the significations of Irish names and whether we would publish any books to illustrate the ordnance map. I told him such a thing was contemplated. He was then satisfied and began to tell me what information he could give us, especially about his own town, etc.

Mr. Waring is very proud of his Cromwellian dynasty (as he calls it) and has the original grants made by Cromwell and his family, but the name becomes extinct in him, as he has no son but all daughters. He spoke to me at full length about Irish forts, on the site of one of which, he says, his own mansion is erected, and I was glad to find him of opinion that all these forts were not erected by the Danes.

In writing upon statistics, he would be glad that we would apply our thoughts to account for the fact that in the reign of Charles II there was no fir tree indigenous in Ireland though fir is found in great quantities in almost every bog.

He told me many anecdotes concerning his ancestors - how his present home was taken by the rebels shortly after its erection, etc. etc. all of which I thought useless to take down now.

He told me whenever we intended to write about Waringstown, to come down to his house, and that he would lay all his papers and authorities before me, and give me 'all the facilities and assistance in his power', and though he intended at first to dismiss me in a few minutes for the first words he said were that 'he was very ill and his wife lying in bed' yet he detained me till six o'clock, and would have kept me longer, were it not that I assured him that I had to go back to Dromore that night, so much was he delighted at the thought of writing about W-town.

I returned to Dromore in the dark as there was not one house in W-town in which I could stop. I intend to return to Hillsborough this evening.

Yours invariably
John O'Donovan

(O'Donovan wrote "W-town" as he did not wish to become involved in a dispute as to the correct spelling of the name).

From a letter written in Downpatrick, April 26th 1834: "I mentioned to him (Rev. Archibald, Rector of Rathmullen) that Rev. Holt Waring of Waringstown, insists upon having his name spelled Waring and that of his town Waringstown. He said that Mr. Waring had no right to alter his name and that if I humour the whims of an old pedant, I shall hear from himself. He says that in all the records and grants to the family the name is spelled Warring with two r's". (Dean Holt Waring appears to have been Rector of Lurgan from 1798 to 1850).