Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/O'Mahony, John
O'MAHONY, JOHN (1816–1877), Irish politician, born at Kilbeheny, co. Limerick, in 1816. His family was one of the oldest and most popular in the country, and still retained some small remnant of the tribal lands, adjoining and partly jutting into the demesne of the Earls of Kingston. Hence, as well as from more general causes of race and religion, there was a permanent feud between the O’Mahonys and, their powerful neighbours. The father and uncle of John were both ‘out’ in the rebellion of 1798.
O’Mahony was sent early in life to a good classical school in Cork, and afterwards entered Trinity College, Dublin, but never took a degree. He was a good Greek and Latin scholar, and always more or less devoted to linguistic and philological pursuits, especially in connection with his native Gaelic tongue. In 1857 he published ‘The History of Ireland, by Geoffrey Keating, D.D., translated from the original Gaelic, and copiously annotated’ (New York, 1857). It is the best translation yet published. According to Dr. Todd, the Irish antiquary, ‘it is a great improvement upon the ignorant and dishonest one published by Dermod O'Connor more than a century ago . . . but has been taken from a very imperfect text, and has evidently been executed [as O’Mahony himself confessed] in great haste.’ O’Mahony contributed to various Irish-American newspapers, but it is doubtful whether, as Mr. Webb states, he wrote articles for French journals. His articles were mostly political, and generally somewhat ponderous in style.
It is, however, as a man of action that O'Mahony is remembered. Through his whole life he showed little care for anything save the cause of his country, and as little for self as any man who has striven to serve Ireland. He was a repealer in O'Connell's time. But he had bolder aspirations than O'Connell and his immediate followers, and he acceded with the Young Irelanders in 1845. In 1848 he joined in Smith O'Brien's attempted insurrection [see O'Brien, William Smith]. After its collapse at Ballingarry, co. Tipperary, O'Mahony, with John Savage, and others, maintained a sort of guerilla struggle on the borders of the counties of Waterford and Kilkenny. But he, too, had to succumb and fly to France, where he lived in Paris for several years in great poverty. In 1852 he left Paris for New York. There for several years, O'Mahony found it impossible to do anything effective in the way of organising resistance to the English government in Ireland. The Emmet Monument Association had been founded about 1854 by Michael Doheny, O'Mahony, and others, to carry on the struggle. but it failed to effect anything. Some time in 1858, however, an envoy was sent, from a committee in New York composed of O'Mahony and his friends, to James Stephens in Dublin, with proposals for the foundation of a. new secret organisation in Ireland, with the object of overthrowing the English rule and establishing an Irish republic. Stephens consented, under certain conditions, notably the sending over of definite sums of money at stated times. Thus originated what is commonly called the Fenian Brotherhood, a name, however, which was not used in America till some yearn afterwards, and was never home at all by the allied body in Ireland. The word seems an adaptation of the Irish ‘Fian Fianna' or 'Fianna Eirionn‘ (i.e. champions of Ireland). These terms were applied in Irish heroic tales to the members of certain septs who formed the militia of the ardring or king of Erin. (Fionn was the chief warrior in the Irish legends in which Oisin or Ossian [q. v.] figured.) In the ‘Fenian' movement O'Mahony played the greatest part next to that of Stephens. For several years the society languished for lack of funds, only about 800l. in all reaching Stephens up to 1883. Between that and 1855 some 8,000l. was event over to Ireland, and this was the period of the greatest. Fenian activity, Mr. Webb estimates the whole sum contributed to the Fenian exchequer by the United States and Canada. at 80,000l., but James Stephens sets it down as little over 40,000l.
During all these years O'Mahony worked persistently, though exposed to much opposition from many of his colleagues. In the later years of the movement, too, there was constant conflict of opinion between himself and Stephens. In the abortive attempt at insurrection in Ireland in 1867, the old Fenian movement, which Lord Kimberley listed in parliament to have been the most formidable effort since 1798 to sever the connection between England and Ireland, may he said to have come to an end, and with it the career of O'Mahony practically closed. The Fenian Brotherhood still dragged on a precarious existence. For several years O'Mahony remained head centre, but neither he nor it thenceforward had any appreciable influence on Irish or Irish-American politics. Throughout this period O'Mahony lived in great poverty, He died in New York on the 1877. His remains, which were brought back to Ireland, were followed to Glasnevin by a great concourse of people. O'Mahony was physically a very powerful and handsome man.
[Personal knowledge; Webb's Irish. Biogr. Dublin. 1888. The Celtic Magazine of New York contains many articles on O'Mahony by his friend, Colonel Michael Kavanagh, who, it is understood, contemplates a full biography.]