Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/O'Donnell, John Francis

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O'DONNELL, JOHN FRANCIS (1837–1874), poet, born in the city of Limerick in 1837, was the son of a shopkeeper in humble position. He received his education in the primary schools of the Christian brothers, and, having acquired a knowledge of shorthand, joined as a reporter, in his seventeenth year, the staff of the ‘Munster News,’ a bi-weekly paper published in Limerick. At the same time he began to contribute verse to the ‘Nation,’ the organ of the Young Ireland party, and continued to write prose and poetry for it till his death, twenty years later. After spending two years as reporter on the ‘Munster News,’ O'Donnell was appointed sub-editor on the ‘Tipperary Examiner,’ published in Clonmel; and in 1860 he proceeded to London, where he obtained an appointment on the ‘Universal News,’ a weekly organ of Roman catholic and Irish nationalist opinion. He also contributed verse to ‘Chambers's Journal’ and ‘All the Year Round.’ Charles Dickens, who then edited the latter journal, wrote the young poet an encouraging letter, and showed kindly interest in him.

In 1862 O'Donnell joined in Dublin the editorial staff of the ‘Nation,’ then edited by Mr. A. M. Sullivan, and also acted as editor of ‘Duffy's Hibernian Magazine,’ a monthly publication; but, with the restlessness which characterised him through life, he was again in London in 1864 as editor of the ‘Universal News,’ and the next year he became sub-editor of the ‘Tablet,’ the organ of the English Roman catholics. He retained the post till 1868. At this time the fenian movement was convulsing the country. It is uncertain whether or no O'Donnell was a member of the revolutionary organisation, but he was one of its ablest propagandists in the press. The passionate nationalism of the numerous poems which, under the noms de guerre of ‘Caviare’ and ‘Monkton West,’ he contributed to the Dublin national journals swelled the ranks of the Irish republican brotherhood. He also acted as London correspondent of the ‘Irish People,’ the organ of the fenian movement, which, with John O'Leary as its editor, was founded in November 1863, and was suppressed by the government in September 1865.

In September 1873 O'Donnell obtained an appointment in the London office of the agent-general of New Zealand. He died, after a brief illness, on 7 May 1874, aged 37, and was buried at Kensal Green, London. Absorbed in journalism, O'Donnell found little time for purely literary work. ‘The Emerald Wreath,’ a collection of his prose and verse, published in Dublin as a Christmas annual in 1865, and ‘Memories of the Irish Franciscans,’ a volume of verse (1871), were his only substantial contributions to literature. Under the auspices of the Southwark Irish Literary Society, O'Donnell's poems were published in 1891, and his grave was marked by a Celtic cross.

[MacDonagh's Irish Graves in England, Dublin, 1888; O'Donnell's Poems, with an Introduction by Richard Dowling, London, 1891.]

M. MacD.