John Canon O’Hanlon and his lasting legacy in the digital age

On the 30th April 2021 we commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of John Canon O’Hanlon (1821-1905).  To mark this occasion, Laois Local Studies has digitised the History of the Queen’s County. Volume 1 and Volume 2

Portrait of John Canon O’Hanlon (courtesy of Laois County Council)

The most consulted publication in Laois Local Studies is Canon O’Hanlon’s History of the Queen’s County. Published in two volumes, this remarkable work tracks the history of the territory from the earliest time to the twentieth century. The author’s scholarly methodology and passion for preserving the history of his home county, resulted in a work so well researched, referenced and annotated, that it is practically ‘the bible’ for researching Laois local history.

Given the quality and quantity of his work on Laois, you might expect that the History of the Queen’s County was Canon O’Hanlon’s work of a lifetime. On the contrary, he published on a wide variety of topics including Irish saints, folklore, American history, travel, the Irish language, church buildings, politics, art and poetry. Indeed, he was so well known as a literary priest that James Joyce mentions him in Ulysses.

John O’Hanlon was born in Stradbally on 30 April 1821. He attended the local national school and Preston School in Ballyroan, before heading to Carlow College to train as a priest. In 1842, he emigrated with his family, initially to Quebec, but eventually settling in Missouri. He continued his studies in the Diocesan College in St. Louis and was ordained in 1847. He worked as a priest in America until poor health forced him to return to Ireland in 1853. He spent the remainder of his life working as a priest in the Archdiocese of Dublin.

Canon O’Hanlon began his literary work in America. In 1847, his talent for writing earned him the editorship of a Catholic publication, The St. Louis Newsletter. By 1851 he had completed his book on the life of St. Malachy and had produced a handbook for the Irish emigrant to America. His American experience developed his taste for travel and exploration and this passion would later find literary expression in his travel writing.

In Ireland, Canon O’Hanlon continued his hagiography but added poetry and folklore to his writing. His respect for folklore stemmed from his childhood in Stradbally, where the stories he heard not only entertained, but taught him the value and importance of native tradition. His poems, written under the pseudonym Lageniensis, expressed his love of Laois, legends and folklore. He also edited a collection of poems and stories by John Keegan, thereby preserving and renewing interest in the work of this important Laois writer.

Canon O’Hanlon’s youth in Stradbally also influenced his political outlook. As a child he was aware of the Ballykilcavan Evictions of 1828 and the growing agrarian unrest in the area in the 1830s. Later, he witnessed first-hand the misery of Irish economic refugees arriving in America in the post famine era. These experiences shaped the nationalist views he held and expressed throughout his lifetime. Although not a radical priest, he was a strong supporter of land reform and Home Rule and wrote passionately in support of both. He was also involved in the Irish language movement and was a member of the Ossianic Society, the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language and Conradh na Gaeilge.

Canon O’Hanlon’s ‘Lives of the Irish Saints’

Beyond County Laois, Canon O’Hanlon is best remembered for his Lives of the Irish Saints, but his other writings are highly regarded and can be found in national and academic libraries throughout the world. Many of his respected works are digitised and available to read online, demonstrating the lasting relevance of his work.  Laois County Library has recently digitised the History of the Queen’s County and it is available from today on the Laois Local Studies website. A complete list of Canon O’Hanlon’s writing is found below, with links to digitised copies made available through the National Library of Ireland’s website.

Laois Local Studies and Laois library branches hold several titles by Canon O’Hanlon and some biographical books and articles on the life of this prolific Laois writer. In compiling this brief account of Canon O’Hanlon’s life and works, I am greatly indebted to two of those biographical works, being John Canon O’Hanlon: the man and his legacy by Teddy Fennelly and Like sun gone down: selections from the writing of John Canon O’ Hanlon by Pádraig O Macháin and Tony Delaney. Tony Delaney will give a talk on this topic as part of Laois Libraries online history talks in May. For further detail see the Laois Local Studies news page.

Works of Canon O’Hanlon (with links to digital copies where available)






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