07 Oct 2022

A famous Laoisman and his legacy

A famous Laoisman and his legacy

Friday, April 30th, was the bicentenary of one of the O’Moore County’s most prolific and distinguished writers and historians. John Canon O’Hanlon, parish priest of Sandymount in Dublin, was born in Stradbally in 1821 and is probably best known in Laois for his History of the Queen’s County, which remains the most authoritative and informative work of its kind on the county’s past, even though it was completed by others and was published posthumously.

The digitisation of the History of the Queen’s County by the Laois Library services to mark the bi-centenary of his birth, will be welcomed by all students, local historians and researchers who have an interest in Laois’ historic past.

Athough he laboured in the pastoral fields in Dublin and the USA for most of his life, O’Hanlon always felt most at home in his native county, Laois. It was he would go to relax and re-energise himself when the occasions permitted in his busy life and it was from here he drew his inspiration.

He was a man with a mission, in his search for knowledge and his sharing of it, in the spreading of the Christian message and in his love for the county and country of his origins and her people.

His huge literary output remains his greatest legacy. When one considers that he also led a busy life as a parish priest and was never found wanting in the performance of his duties, his stamina and capacity for work is quite mind-boggling.

Amazingly this was a man who suffered from poor health on a prolonged basis in his younger years and, after a spell in the United States, had been sent home to Ireland to die. But he lived on for more than fifty years and used every waking minute of those long years in useful service to his God, country and fellow-man.

Although the Canon hailed from relatively comfortable Catholic stock, his circumstances changed radically on the death of his father, the family bread-winner. Being the eldest, he was forced to abandon his studies as a seminarian in Carlow College, and take responsibility for his family’s welfare. This was in 1842, a time of severe economic depression in Ireland. He looked to the United States for his future and that of his mother and siblings.


His next eleven years were spent in Missouri, an experience that he was never likely to forget and he shared his memories of his time there in the pages of a book which he published many years later. It tells a wonderful story of adventure, of his becoming a priest, of the fascinating people he met and of his life as a missionary in a vast virgin frontier.

It also relates a harrowing account of the plight of many thousands of Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Famine, who ended up in Saint Louis, mostly by way of New Orleans and the Mississippi. All his family, except for one sister, followed the young O’Hanlon to America. He was the only one to return to Ireland.

O’Hanlon was a willing and able student at the Saint Louis seminary, and he became well acquainted with European languages, the classics and history as well as theology. It was here his literary career began. He edited a Catholic diocesan newspaper for a brief period and wrote articles for magazines. He also published two books, one a small history of Ireland and the other a useful information guide for Irish immigrants.

The Lives of the Irish Saints

After a brief period of recuperation on his return to Ireland in the happy hunting grounds of his youth in County Laois, he took up duty as a young priest in the Dublin archdiocese. His interest in hagiology and, particularly, the lives of holy men and women in the early Irish church, was awakened in the United States and, on his return to Ireland in 1853, it became his main focus. He published biographies on a number of individual saints before embarking on his magnum opus. It was his intention to publish The Lives of the Irish Saints in twelve volumes, one volume for every month of the year.

This was a gigantic challenge both in terms of time and output, but also in financial terms. He managed to have nine volumes published in his lifetime and these remain the best source of reference for researchers of the early Irish church ever since. A part of the tenth volume was published after his death but, despite declarations of intent on the part of numerous scholars, the series remains incomplete.

Though his paternal grandfather was murdered by the militia, along with hundreds of other rebels, after surrendering at Gibbet Rath on the Curragh in 1798, O’Hanlon did not pursue the path of militant republicanism. Violence, he believed, had brought further hardship on an already long-suffering people. He was a man of peace and followed the political path of his lifelong icon, Daniel O’Connell, while also keeping in step with the anti-violence philosophies of his ecclesiastical superiors.

O’Connell monument

Like O’Connell, whom he believed was the greatest Irishman in history, his affection for Ireland knew no barriers. He loved the language, the heritage and the culture, which had been driven underground for many centuries before his time. Like O’Connell too, he loved the ordinary people of Ireland, mostly poor and illiterate and, through his ministry, provided them with spiritual and temporal care. O’Hanlon was not only a man of words but also a man of action.

When a committee was formed, in 1862, with the aim of having a fitting memorial erected in honour of the Liberator, he immediately volunteered his help. The O’Connell Monument was unveiled in Sackville Street, (later O’Connell Street), Dublin on 15 August 1882. He had been secretary to the committee for the entire period and was the main driving force behind its commissioning.

O’Hanlon’s contribution to the literary and cultural revival towards the end of the nineteenth century should not be underestimated. He produced a constant stream of work in book form, articles in magazines and papers delivered to eminent literary societies including the Royal Irish Academy and the Royal Society of Antiquities of Ireland, both of which he was an esteemed member for many decades.

Folk tales and John Keegan

Growing up in the company of story-tellers of an older generation, he developed a keen interest in folklore and recorded many of the tales he had heard in the company of country folk at the hearth-fire of a seanchaithe’s cabin. He also loved poetry and knew the work of the great poets while ever on the lookout for genius amongst the lesser known writers of verse. He wrote a considerable store of poetry himself and he published selections of his work.

Another major literary and historical project was his Irish-American History of the United States. He had the script with the printers and ready for publication when the printing-house involved was completely destroyed in a fire in 1898. His manuscripts were lost in the blaze but, reflecting the indefatigable nature of the man, he set down straight away to rewrite the huge tome from his notes. The book was eventually published in 1903, an amazing achievement for an octogenarian.

But the time lost on rewriting the script had a knock-on effect on other projects he had in hand, including his Lives and the History of the Queen’s County, as well as a book on the life and writings of the Laois rustic poet, John Keegan, all of which were left unpublished at the time of his death.


A remarkable man in every sense, unwittingly he acquired an ever broader distinction by figuring quite prominently in what is widely recognised as the greatest literary work of the twentieth century, James Joyce’s, Ulysses. As parish priest of Star of the Sea Church, Sandymount, while conducting a Benediction Service, Joyce gives him and his curate, Fr. Conroy, ample mention in his story of the fictional Leopold Bloom’s twenty-four hour odyssey around Dublin on 16 June, 1904, a journey that changed the course of English literature forever.

He died at his home in Sandymount on 15 May, 1905, and the centenary of his death in 2005 was marked by special events in Dublin and Laois including the publication of two books on his life and writings, Like Sun Gone Down by Padraig O Machain and Tony Delaney and my own book, John Canon O’Hanlon – The Man and his Legacy, which launched the O’Hanlon Centenary Exhibition in Stradbally, that included original manuscripts, photographs and memorabilia relating to this great Laoisman.

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