Obituary: The O'Donovan
Outdoorsman and hereditary chief of an ancient Gaelic family, writes Charles Lysaght
Morgan Gerald Daniel The O'Donovan of Hollybrook House, Skibbereen, who died last Monday aged 84, was the hereditary chief of the ancient Gaelic family of O'Donovan of Clan Cathal. As such, he presided in 2000 at the rally held at Castle Donovan near Drimoleague attended by 1,500 members of the clan, including exiles drawn from many lands.
Dan (as he was known) spent his own early life in exile, having been born in France in 1931. In 1922, his grandfather, a retired colonel in the Munster Fusiliers, had moved to England, having sold Liss Ard, the ancestral home, and the 3,000 acres to which the family had been restored by King Charles II after the Cromwellian confiscations.
In the late 1940s Dan's father, a retired brigadier who had served in both world wars, returned to West Cork, settling in Hollybrook, a big house built for relatives of his Irish wife, Cornelia Bagnell, in 1901. He maintained the tradition by which those working for the family addressed him as "O Donovan" and his wife as "Madam".
By this time the education of Dan, his only son, at Stowe in Buckinghamshire was well advanced. After national service in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, his father's regiment, Dan read history at Trinity College, Cambridge. A post with Coats, the thread manufacturers, took him to Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, Singapore and Australia.
In 1969 Neil Wates, a Stowe schoolmate, asked him to come to Dublin to manage the Wates building business here. But, like many British, the Wates family cooled on Ireland in the 1970s and sold the company's land bank rather than persevere with housebuilding in a troubled economy.
So, in 1977, with his business career cut short, Dan and his wife Jane, daughter of Irishman Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, of Malaya fame, moved to Hollybrook, which he had inherited. Between farming, gardening, tourist lettings, and his beloved shooting and fishing, he had a full life there. He was active in the Church of Ireland and served on its General Synod. He played an important role in effecting a union between his own Kildare Street Club and Dublin University Club.
Dan's father was one of those designated in the 1940s by Chief Herald Edward MacLysaght as descended on the eldest male line from the last ruling chieftain of the name. These designations were introduced at that time to undermine imposters calling themselves 'The' without any genealogical basis. In the 1990s, Dan became chairman of the Council of Irish Chiefs. They had been accorded official recognition by President Mary Robinson who received them in state. Sentiment aside, family rallies were considered to have tourist potential.
Unfortunately, it transpired that one of those more recently designated by the Chief Herald had achieved this by forged documentation and some other designations were considered dubious. On legal advice, the government decided that the Chief Herald would no longer authenticate pedigrees as heretofore.
Dan's personal position was unaffected; the courtesy recognition of him as The O'Donovan went back long before the Irish Chief Herald involved himself in the matter. But the whole episode was painful for Dan, who was as honest and straightforward a man as one could ever hope to meet. He was also a man of exquisite courtesy, with a highly developed sense of noblesse oblige.
He had a well-stocked mind and was, until the illness that blighted his final years, a fine conversationalist and the best of companions. He treasured greatly his Irish inheritance, especially the letters in his possession that John O'Donovan, the antiquary, had written to his great granduncle in the 1840s. Irish dancing and the songs of Percy French were lifelong enthusiasms.
Dan is survived by his wife Jane and one son, Teige, a lawyer now resident with his family in Hollybrook, and two married daughters, Katherine and Mary, both alumnae of Alexandra and TCD, and now resident in England.
Mary's barrister husband Francis Chamberlain is the grandson of Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who returned the ports to Ireland in 1938.