Wednesday 16 October 2019

Obituary: Brendan O'Donoghue

Senior civil servant who as Ireland's Chief Herald deftly steered the Genealogical Office through a scandal

Scholar: Brendan O'Donoghue
Scholar: Brendan O'Donoghue

Brendan O'Donoghue, who has died aged 76, had a distinguished career in the Irish civil service which culminated in his becoming the country's Chief Herald; he provided the safe pair of hands needed to manage the scandal which led to the termination of the official recognition that the Republic had afforded to the descendants of native Gaelic chieftains.

During the 19th Century a number of these had adopted the prefix 'The' before their surname. The O'Donoghue of the Glens and The O'Conor Don were so styled as members of the House of Commons; the latter was appointed to bear the arms of Ireland at the coronation of Edward VII.

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In 1943, Ireland's first Chief Herald, Edward MacLysaght, initiated the practice of verification by the new Genealogical Office of those descended on the eldest male line from the last reigning chieftain of the name. They were listed in the Irish Government gazette.

This official recognition reached its apotheosis in 1991 when the newly formed Council of Chiefs and Chieftains was received by President Mary Robinson. It was a symbol of the Irish State's identification with the Gaelic nation that had preceded the English conquest.

Then in 1999, it was alleged by a professional genealogist that the pedigree underlying the recognition in 1991 of The McCarthy Mor ("the big McCarthy") was fabricated. O'Donoghue investigated the allegation and concluded that it was justified. He published a notice admitting that the pedigree, which had been accepted by the Office, was "without genealogical integrity".

On examination, it emerged that other claims made in recent decades had been accepted without independent verification by the Genealogical Office.

The Attorney General, to whom O'Donoghue had turned for advice before unfrocking McCarthy Mor, also advised that there was no statutory or legal basis for the practice of granting courtesy recognition. It was discontinued.

Brendan O'Donoghue was born on September 19, 1942 and reared in the Co Cork town of Bandon, where his father Liam was a teacher and noted local historian.

After boarding school in Waterford and a brief sojourn at University College Dublin, he joined the civil service.

He spent most of his career in the department of local government, of which he became secretary general in 1990. He had earned his spurs transforming environmental directives of the European Communities into Irish law and masterminding legislation that transferred ultimate responsibility for planning decisions from politicians to an expert statutory board.

A new-fangled system of seven-year terms for heads of government departments propelled O'Donoghue into early retirement in 1997 when he was only 54.

Having scholarly interests, he grasped with alacrity the appointment as director of the National Library, to which the post of Chief Herald, previously held by genealogists, had been attached in 1993.

Experienced in the ways of the civil service, he was more adept than his predecessors in obtaining public funds for the library to increase staff and make valuable archival acquisitions. The purchase of James Joyce manuscripts and some papers of Sean O'Casey, the playwright, are among the legacies of O'Donoghue's term.

His contribution to scholarship as director was honoured by election to the Royal Irish Academy.

In turn, he acted as chairman of the editorial committee for the Academy's acclaimed nine-volume Dictionary of Irish Biography published in 2010. In this, as in his other roles, he was exacting in the standards he imposed on himself and expected of those working with him.

O'Donoghue's work in the department of local government had opened his eyes to the neglected history of the governance of Ireland before independence, in particular the work done by engineers and surveyors building roads and railways.

Out of this grew an historical directory of County Surveyors and a book on the 19th Century Leahy family of engineers, who not only had operated extensively in Ireland but had expanded overseas, even playing a role in the creation of the Orient Express. Another fruit of this interest was a book on Sir Henry Robinson, the most influential member of the pre-independence civil service, published in 2015.

O'Donoghue is survived by his wife Bernie and their daughter. Brendan O'Donoghue died on September 7, 2019.

© Telegraph

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