Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ferguson, Samuel

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FERGUSON, Sir SAMUEL (1810–1886), poet and antiquary, third son of John Ferguson of Collon House, co. Antrim, was born in Belfast on 10 March 1810. He was educated at the chief public school of Belfast, the Academical Institution, and thence proceeded to Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated B.A. in 1826, and M.A. in 1832, and was created LL.D. honoris causâ in 1864. In 1838 he was called to the Irish bar, and obtained some practice on the northeast circuit of Ireland. In 1859 he was made a queen's counsel, but in 1867 retired from practice on his appointment as deputy-keeper of the public records of Ireland. He was the first holder of the office, which entailed much investigation and arrangement of documents. Just before Ferguson's appointment one of the chief officials in charge of the records had publicly stated that the Irish statutes to the reign of Queen Anne were in Norman French, a language never used in Ireland after 1495, so little were the keepers acquainted with the records they kept. He thoroughly organised the department, and on 17 March 1878 was knighted in recognition of his services. From its first appearance in 1833 he was a contributor to the ‘Dublin University Magazine.’ In it he published in 1834 an English metrical version of the ‘Address of O'Byrne's Bard to the Clans of Wicklow,’ ‘The Lament over the Ruins of Timoleague Abbey,’ ‘The Fair Hills of Holy Ireland,’ and ‘The Forester's Complaint;’ in 1836 ‘The Fairy Thorn’ and ‘Willy Gilliland.’ At the same period he published a series of tales in which verse is sometimes mingled with prose, after the manner of Cowley's essays, called ‘Hibernian Nights' Entertainments.’ These stories have been edited by Lady Ferguson since their author's death, and published in London, in 1887, together with a reprint of his first volume of collected ‘Poems’ and the ‘Remains of Saint Patrick,’ a translation into English blank verse of the ‘Confessio’ and ‘Epistle to Coroticcus,’ with a dissertation on the life of the saint. He wrote two political satires, ‘Inheritor and Economist’ and ‘Dublin.’ Other poems were published by him in ‘Blackwood's Magazine,’ of which the best known is ‘The Forging of the Anchor.’ ‘The Wet Wooing’ was published in the same magazine in 1832, and in May 1838 his amusing satirical dialogue, illustrative of Irish educational schemes then prominent, ‘Father Tom and the Pope.’ This has been reprinted with other contributions of his in ‘Tales from Blackwood,’ 1st ser. vols. iii. vii. viii. xii. In 1865 he published a volume of collected poems, ‘Lays of the Western Gael,’ in 1872 ‘Congal, an Epic Poem in Five Books,’ and in 1880 a third volume of ‘Poems,’ chiefly on subjects taken from Irish literature. Besides the contents of these three volumes a few separate poems of Ferguson are in print. ‘The Elegy on the Death of Thomas Davis’ appeared in the ‘Ballad Poetry of Ireland,’ while the witty song of ‘The Loyal Orangeman’ was never published, though privately circulated, and often recited in Dublin. Besides these numerous contributions to literature he wrote many essays on Irish antiquities (‘Proceedings’ and ‘Transactions’ of Royal Irish Academy, 1834–84), and carried on lengthy investigations in several parts of Ireland. In 1882 he was unanimously elected president of the Royal Irish Academy.

He married, on 16 Aug. 1848, Mary Catharine Guinness, and for many years he and his wife practised an open, generous, and delightful hospitality towards every one in Dublin who cared for literature, music, or art, at their house in North Great George's Street. He died, after an illness of some months, at Strand Lodge, Howth, in the county of Dublin, on 9 Aug. 1886. After a public funeral service in St. Patrick's Cathedral, his body was conveyed to his family burying-place at Donegore, co. Antrim. As an antiquarian Ferguson's most important work was his collection of all the known Ogham inscriptions of Ireland and their publication (‘Ogham Inscriptions in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland,’ edited by Lady Ferguson, Edinburgh, 1887). He was laborious and accurate, and nearly all he wrote on antiquarian subjects deserves careful study.

As a poet he deserves recollection in Ireland, for he strove hard to create modern poetry from the old Irish tales of heroes and saints and histories of places. Another Irish poet has maintained that the epic poem ‘Congal’ entitles Ferguson to rank in Ireland as the national poet (Reflector, 14 April 1888), and his long metrical versions of Irish sagas are praised by Miss M. Stokes (Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, November 1886) and by Judge O'Hagan (Irish Monthly Magazine, vol. xii.) He was not perfectly acquainted with the Irish language, and perhaps this accounts for the fact that, while sometimes giving the stories more beauties than he takes away, he misses something of the reality of ancient life, and seems to talk of a shadowy scene, and not of the real deeds of men and women. Several of the poems of his own experience are admirable, and will probably have a permanent popularity in Ireland. The ‘Elegy on Thomas Davis,’ ‘Willy Gilliland,’ and the ‘Lines on the Liffey in Mesgedra’ are not faultless, but they are beautiful poems with a true Irish air.

His antiquarian knowledge, his literary ability and attainments made Ferguson's conversation delightful, while his high character and generous disposition endeared him to a large circle of friends.

[Miss Stokes's Memoir in Blackwood's Magazine, November 1886; information supplied by his brother-in-law, the Rev. R. Guinness; On the History, Position, and Treatment of the Public Records of Ireland, by an Irish Archivist, 2nd ed. London, 1864; A. P. Graves's Has Ireland a National Poet?; Reflector, No. 16, 14 April 1888; Lord Plunket's Parting Tribute to the Memory of Sir S. Ferguson, 1886; Athenæum, 14 Aug. 1886; O'Hagan's Poetry of Sir S. Ferguson, 1887.]

N. M.