Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

Oliver MacDonagh


Oliver MacDonagh

Oliver 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 Canberra.

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 Arts degree.

He died May 22nd 2002 aged 77 years old.

Made Significant Contribution To Irish Historical Writing

The Irish Times, Saturday, June 8, 2002

OLIVER 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.

Responding 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."

The modesty 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).

He 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 (1956).

Awarded a 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).

Oliver 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.

His 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 legacy.

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.

While still 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.

During his 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 Trollope.

Oliver 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 them.

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.

The other 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

Oliver MacDonagh

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 O’Connell.

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 New Zealand.

I was dubious, though.

This book was not a scholarly book, closer to travel than family history: perhaps too slight to interest Professor MacDonagh.

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 easily charmed’.

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 c.2012

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