Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/D'Alton, John
D'ALTON, JOHN (1792–1867), Irish historian, genealogist, and biographer, was born at his father's ancestral mansion, Bessville, co. Westmeath, on 20 June 1792. His mother, Elizabeth Leyne, was also descended from an ancient Irish family. D'Alton was sent to the school of the Rev. Joseph Hutton, Summer Hill, Dublin, and passed the entrance examination of Trinity College, Dublin, in his fourteenth year, 1806. He became a student in 1808, joined the College Historical Society, and gained the prize for poetry. Having graduated at Dublin, he was in 1811 admitted a law student of the Middle Temple, London, and the King's Inns. He was called to the Irish bar in 1813.
He confined himself chiefly to chamber practice. He published a very able treatise on the ‘Law of Tithes,’ and attended the Connaught circuit, having married a lady of that province, Miss Phillips. His reputation for genealogical lore procured him lucrative employment, and he received many fees in the important Irish causes of Malone v. O'Connor, Leamy v. Smith, Jago v. Hungerford, &c. With the exception of an appointment as commissioner of the Loan Fund Board, he held no official position, but a pension of 50l. a year on the civil list, granted while Lord John Russell was prime minister, was some recognition of his literary claims. His first publication was a metrical poem called ‘Dermid, or the Days of Brian Boru.’ It was brought out in a substantial quarto in twelve cantos. In 1827 the Royal Irish Academy offered a prize of 80l. and the Cunningham gold medal for the best essay on the social and political state of the Irish people from the commencement of the christian era to the twelfth century, and their scientific, literary, and artistic development; the researches were to be confined to writings previous to the sixteenth century, and exclusive of those in Irish or other Celtic languages. Full extracts were to be given and all original authorities consulted. D'Alton obtained the highest prize, with the medal, and 40l. was awarded to Dr. Carroll.
D'Alton's essay, which was read 24 Nov. 1828, occupied the first part of vol. xvi. of the ‘Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy.’ In 1831 he also gained the prize offered by the Royal Irish Academy for an account of the reign of Henry II in Ireland. He then employed himself in collecting information regarding druidical stones, the raths and fortresses of the early colonists, especially of the Anglo-Normans, the castles of the Plantagenets, the Elizabethan mansions, the Cromwellian keeps, and the ruins of abbeys. These form the illustrations of Irish topography contributed by D'Alton to the 'Irish Penny Journal,' commenced in January 1833. The drawings were supplied by Samuel Lover. In 1838 D'Alton published his valuable and impartial 'Memoirs of the Archbishop of Dublin.' He published in the same year a very exhaustive 'History of the County of Dublin.' His next work was a beautifully illustrated book, 'The History of Drogheda and its Environs,' containing a memoir of the Dublin and Drogheda railway, with the history of the progress of locomotion in Ireland. Shortly followed the 'Annals of Boyle.' Lord Lorton, the proprietor, contributed 300l. towards the publication. He published in 1855 ` King James II's Irish Army List, 1689,' which contained the names of most of the Irish families of distinction, with historical and genealogical illustrations, and subsequently enlarged in separate volumes, for cavalry and infantry. They bring the history of most families to the date of publication.
In 1864 D'Alton was requested to write the 'History of Dundalk.' He had prepared the earlier part of this work, but as his strength was failing, it was entrusted to Mr. J. R. O'Flanagan, who completed it from the reign of Queen Elizabeth to that of Queen Victoria. D'Alton had great business qualities, and his rigid adherence to the naked facts of history doubtless impaired the literary success of his books.
Latterly his infirm health confined him to his house, but he was very hospitable, loved society, and had great talent as a vocalist. He occupied himself towards the close of his life in preparing an autobiography, but it has not been published. He died 20 Jan. 1867.