Ormond Gerard Michael MacDonagh, (1924–2002), was a noted professor of
Irish history who made a particular study of the historic relationship
between Ireland and the United Kingdom. MacDonagh spent most of his
academic career at Universities in Cambridge, Adelaide, Cork and
MacDonagh was born on August 23rd
1924 in Carlow, Ireland to Michael MacDonagh and Loretto Oliver, both
of whom were bank officials. The family settled in Roscommon, where
Oliver was initially educated by the Christian Brothers and for his
secondary schooling was sent to board at Clongowes Wood College. At
University College Dublin he studied History and Law, but socialised
more with the 'literary set', graduating in 1944 with a Bachelor of
He died May 22nd 2002 aged 77
Made Significant Contribution To Irish Historical Writing
Times, Saturday, June 8, 2002
MacDonagh, who died on May 22nd aged 77, was one of the outstanding
historians of his generation, with a major international reputation,
particularly for his innovative work on the development of the State
in the early 19th century. He made significant contributions to
British, Irish and Australian history, and his range of expertise was
prodigious, covering demographic, administrative, economic, social,
political, intellectual and literary studies.
to one of several Festschriften in his honour in 1989. the year he
retired from his chair in the Institute of Advanced Studies in the
Australian National University, Canberra, he wrote of his disbelief at
such honours. "I had no teachers; I have no disciples; I founded no
school; I possess no theory of history; 1 am master of no field; from
time to time T catch a horrid vision of myself as a sort of pinchback
ultimum Romanorum, a last general practitioner among consultants, a
chance survivor from a vanished world."
was genuine, but there was, in fact, a great depth and coherence to
his work, which focused heavily on the late 18th and early 19th
centuries, with Ireland usually at its centre. Yet, because his career
was mainly abroad, he was less well known in Ireland than he deserved.
Historical writing has a built-in obsolescence, but Oliver MacDonagh
will be read for a very long time, not only for his insights, but for
the remarkable literary qualities of his work. He was one of the best
writers of prose that Ireland has produced.
He was born
on August 23rd, 1924, in Carlow, although his father, Michael, an
official in the National Bank, was stationed in Limerick. His mother,
Loretto Oliver (formerly an employee of Bank of Ireland) came from
Carlow and returned there for the birth of her first child. His father
was made manager in Roscommon town, and Oliver MacDonagh spent his
childhood there, attending the Christian Brothers School. Before his
death, he had in preparation a volume of reminiscences of that time,
Two chapters of which appeared in The Irish Review (No. 26).
completed his secondary schooling at Clongowes Wood, before moving to
University College Dublin, where he graduated with a BA in 1944. He
was called to the Bar the following year. As a student he was an
occasional, and unlikely racing tipster for The Irish Times, and sport
remained a life long enthusiasm, especially Munster rugby. The core of
Oliver MacDonagh's MA thesis later appeared as a seminal contribution
on emigration, in R.D. Edwards and T.W. Moody (eds), The Great Famine
travelling studentship by the National University of Ireland in 1947,
he moved to Peterhouse, Cambridge, for his Ph.D, his thesis forming
the basis of his first major publication, A Pattern of Government
Growth 1800-1860: the Passenger Acts and their enforcement (1961).
Over the following 30 years his model of, how the role of the State
expanded in this crucial period stimulated debates and major research
projects worldwide, resulting in a long list of monographs and
conference volumes. He took account of these responses and refined his
model further in his Early Victorian Government (1977).
MacDonagh spent 16 happy years in Cambridge, moving to St Catherine's
College as college lecturer and fellow in 1950 (he was made an
honorary life fellow there in 1987). In 1952, he married Carmel
Hamilton, and five of their seven children were born in Cambridge.
In 1963, he
began his long association with Australia, going first as visiting
fellow to the Australian National University, and the following year
became Foundation Professor of History at the new Flinders University,
Adelaide. In 1968, he moved to the chair of modern history, at
University College Cork, the same year as he published his masterly
survey, later expanded and republished as Ireland: the Union and its
aftermath (1977). His stay in Cork was brief, but during it he
contributed greatly to the development of the history syllabus and the
modernisation of the college under M.D. McCarthy. He continued to
publish, though feeling ill-suited to the combined roles of teaching,
administration and research.
innovative O'Donnell lecture, The nineteenth century novel and Irish
soda! History (1970) opened up a new field, while his survey,
Emigration (1973) consolidated his early work.
In 1973, he
returned to Australia to the prestigious post of W.K. Hancock
professor in the Research School of Social Sciences, Canberra, but he
continued to write Irish history, The Inspector-General: Sir Jeremiah
Fitzpatrick and Social Reform 1783-1802 (1981), being followed by
States of Mind: a Study of Anglo-Irish Conflict (1983). The latter, a
series of radical interpretative essays on concepts of time and place
and on the cultural basis of politics, won the Ewart Biggs Memorial
Prize in 1985, and seems destined to remain an enduring part of his
two-volume biography of Daniel O'Connell (1988-'89) was a different
kind of tour deforce, a highly readable narrative, blending the
private and public lives, and reflecting his empathy with O'Connell,
especially as lawyer, family man and committed Catholic.
at Cambridge, he had begun (with S.R. Dennison) work on a commissioned
history of Guinnesses since 1886, but when the book was finished its
publication was vetoed by the company. It was a particular pleasure
for him when the volume Guinness 1886-1939 was published, by Cork
University Press in 1998.
Canberra years, Oliver MacDonagh also began publishing on aspects of
Irish-Australia, and organising a series of conferences, editing the
proceedings with Bill Mandle. But his main contribution to Australian
history was the conception and overall management of the
collaborative, 10-volume. Australians (1988), with its focus on the
lives of ordinary people, and its fore-grounding of the work of young
historians Produced to a strict deadline for the bicentenary, it
revealed a tough-minded side to Oliver MacDonagh, usually hidden by
his innate courtesy and gentleness.
In 1991, he
published Jane Austen, real and imagined worlds, in some ways his most
characteristic work, drawing together the remarkable range of his
scholarly interests. An Austen devotee (though not "a besotted
Janeite", as he protested) all his life, he even claimed that her
novels first inspired his interest in early Victorian government and
society, and the book (begun as a hobby when confined to bed by the
back trouble that often made writing extremely painful) combined a
polished style with unshowy substance in a manner that would surely
have pleased Austen herself. Sadly, declining health, especially
problems with his eyes, prevented completion of a similar volume on
MacDonagh was an intensely private man. and could appear distant, even
aloof but to close colleagues, to the many research students he
nurtured and encouraged and to his many friends he showed a warmth,
kindliness and often uproarious humour, that will always stay with
Paradoxically, he was an electrifying public speaker, with a wonderful
resonant bass-baritone voice, and was a regular broadcaster on
national radio in Australia.
He was a
man of intense religious faith, in the intellectual tradition of his
other great literary exemplar, John Henry Newman, and he was pleased,
after his retirement from Canberra in 1989 (the year in which he was
awarded an honorary D.Litt by the National University of Ireland), to
be pressed into service as foundation professor of the new Catholic
University in Sydney.
rock on which his life was built was his family, and he was immensely
proud of his children, Clodagh. Oliver, Man-. Emer, Frank, John and
Melissa, who survive him, as does his wife Carmel and his sister Pat
and brother Donogh.
Sourcce: Carloviana No. 51. December 2002.
Page 71-72 & Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
In January 1996 Professor Oliver MacDonagh
sent me the following cutting from The Sydney Morning Herald.
The article refers to Oliver's review of
"Finding Connections" by P.J. Kavanagh (ISBN 0-09-173750-5) which
deals with Carlow / Australian research journey in 1987.
Oliver was born in Dublin Street, where the
Red Setter B+B is now established, he was related to the family that
operated "Oliver's Wool Stores".
I invited him to write about his early days
spent in Carlow, he sent us a 7 page article entitled "Carlow Days".
By Jill Kitson, Journalist.
On the grounds that I never win anything and,
besides, could not bear to be disappointed every week, I never buy
lottery tickets. But when it comes to making a weekly radio program, I
blithely put my trust in an utterly inexplicable higher power ‘one
that, as E.M. Forster might have put it, only connects. In the matter
of First Edition, serendipity rules, OK’
Take the serendipitously named book Finding
Connections, by the English writer P.J. Kavanagh.
A review copy was waiting for me when
I returned last July from a biography conference in Canberra, where I
had met Professor Oliver MacDonagh, the biographer of Daniel
A year earlier he had reviewed ‘splendidly’
Roy Foster's History of Ireland for First Edition.
Our meeting had made me anxious to
find a new title for him to review.
As if on cue, here was Kavanagh:
an account of his search for his
Irish roots, which had taken him to Ireland and to Tasmania and on to
I was dubious, though.
This book was not a scholarly book, closer to
travel than family history: perhaps too slight to interest Professor
He agreed to look at it. Two weeks passed. A
three-page fax arrived unannounced on my desk. I began reading: “in
Finding Connections, (P.J. Kavanagh) explores his ancestry in an
attempt to discover and account for the very centre of himself. The
dominant ‘though shadowy’ character in the book is his Irish
great-grandfather, Patrick Kavanagh, who at the age of 23 left Carlow
for Launceston in 1842”.
Nothing in the opening paragraph prepared me
for the next:
‘Let me declare my interest straight away,’
MacDonagh went on.
‘I, too, come from Carlow; my forebears lived
in the same place as P.J. Kavanagh's Brown Street;
I was born in the very street which is used as
a principal symbol by the author, Tullow Street, supposed to be the
narrow gut in which more than 600 rebels were massacred in 1798.
‘I have even had my hair cut by the barber
(now retired, Alec Burns) who was P.J’s first guide in Carlow history.
So I feel a sort of cousinhood or
kinship with the author, which, however spurious, allows me to be
That’s serendipity for you.
P.J. Kavanagh can rarely have been so
fortunate in his reviewer, whose mellifluous Irish accent lent his
words added charm.
Jill Kitson presents First Edition, a weekly
program on books and writers on ABC Radio National, Australia.
Source: Michael Purcell