It is doubtful if the reforming Catholic priest and novelist Gerald O'Donovan, who was born 150 years ago on July 15th, is much remembered nowadays but one of his novels caused quite a stir in its time and his contribution to the decoration of Loughrea Cathedral stands as a lasting monument.
He was born in Kilkeel, Co. Down, the youngest of six children, and was baptised Jeremiah after his father. As the latter was a clerk in the Board of Works, the family moved round the country quite a bit and the young O'Donovan received his schooling in three different counties.
Having attended Ardnaree College, a minor seminary for Killala diocese, he entered Maynooth as a clerical student for that diocese and, after studying with the Jesuits for a time, he was eventually ordained in 1895 for Clonfert diocese.
Following a brief period as a teacher, he was appointed curate in Loughrea, Co Galway.
The decade of the 1890s was a period of national ferment and he enthusiastically supported the Gaelic League, the cooperative movement and the literary revival, taking an active part in national debate through publishing articles in newspapers and journals.
As the administrator of Loughrea Cathedral, he formed a committee to redecorate it. In this he strongly favoured the use of Irish art, inviting Sarah Purser, John Hughes and the Yeats sisters to contribute. His friend, the wealthy and cultured Edward Martyn, gave generous financial assistance to the project.
The appointment of Thomas O’Dea as the new bishop of Clonfert harmed O’Donovan’s position. The two had already clashed in Maynooth and O’Dea disapproved of his lectures and tours. It has also been suggested that the diocesan clergy would have preferred O’Donovan to have been appointed bishop.
He left Loughrea in September 1904 and the warmth of his farewell showed how popular he was with the people there.
Following a period in London and America, he secured employment with Toynbee Hall in east London, a Christian socialist educational institution.
By this time, he had left the priesthood, which caused him to become alienated from his family (he referred to himself from then on as Gerald rather than Jeremiah). In 1910, he married Beryl Verschoyle, the daughter of an Irish Protestant colonel, and they had three children.
His first novel, Father Ralph, published in 1913, tells of a liberal young priest who becomes disillusioned with the Catholic Church and leaves the clerical life. It proved to be his best-selling work and brought him to public attention.
As Síofra O’Donovan wrote in this newspaper (July 28th, 2001), “It dealt with rebellion and exile from family, church and country three years before Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist.”
It divided opinion at home, with the Times Literary Supplement and the Church of Ireland Gazette praising it but the Freeman’s Journal condemning it as mockingly libelling the Irish clergy and people. (Brandon Press reprinted the novel in 1998.)
His subsequent novels had neither the same success nor attracted the same publicity.
In Waiting (1914), the Catholic protagonist’s teaching and political careers are destroyed because he marries a Protestant.
During the war, O’Donovan was an army lieutenant in the ministry of munitions and became head of the Foreign Office’s Italian propaganda section. His 1920 novel, How They Did It, centres on war profiteering, which it condemns.
Religion is a main theme in his other novels. Conquest (1920) recounts how much a Catholic family wants to get back ancestral land; Vocations (1921) satirises Irish religious life (Prof James H Murphy in the Dictionary of Irish Biography opines that it is perhaps O'Donovan's best-written work), and The Holy Tree (1922) looks at how the clash between romance, economics and religion can cause stresses in marriage.
The novel's inspiration, according to Síofra O'Donovan, was his long-term relationship with the English novelist, Rose Macaulay.
O’Donovan published no more novels in the final 20 years of his life but during that time had a clandestine relationship with Macaulay, a highly successful novelist and travel writer.
Her best and most successful novel, The Towers of Trebizond (1956), features a female protagonist who is torn between her devotion to Christianity and her affair with a married man, no doubt reflecting Macaulay’s own two-decade relationship with O’Donovan.
He died of cancer in Albury, Surrey, on July 26th, 1942, and is buried there.
On his death, his wife wrote in her diary: “Gerard left me in the morning.”
In an anonymous tribute in the Times, Macaulay wrote: “To know him was to love him.”