Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/O'Reilly, Edward

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O’REILLY, EDWARD (d. 1829), lexicographer, was member of a branch of an Irish sept which in ancient times dominated part of Ulster now known as co. Cavan. O'Reilly appears to have settled in Dublin about 1790, and to have there commenced the study of Irish. After the death of William Holiday in 1812, the collections which he had made for lexicographic purposes came into the hands of O'Reilly, who combined them with materials of his own, and arranged the whole to form a dictionary of the Irish language. He met little encouragement, but succeeded in printing the work by subscription at Dublin in 1817, with the following title: ‘An Irish-English dictionary, containing upwards of twenty thousand words that never appeared in any former Irish lexicon, with copious quotations from the most esteemed ancient and modern writers to elucidate the meaning of obscure words, and numerous Comparisons of the Irish words with those of similar orthography, sense, or sound in the Welsh and Hebrew languages.’ In their proper places in the ‘Dictionary’ are inserted the Irish names of indigenous plants, with the names by which they are commonly known in English and Latin. The work extended to 466 pages 4to, in double columns, with a supplement of forty-two pages. Prefixed was ‘A concise introduction to Irish grammar.’ O'Reilly's ‘Dictionary’ was reissued in 1821, and with a supplement by John O'Donovan [q. v.] in 1864.

In 1818 O'Reilly was appointed assistant secretary to the Iberno-Celtic Society established in that year at Dublin. The principal objects of this body were the ‘preservation of the remains of Irish literature by collecting, transcribing, illustrating, and publishing the numerous fragments of the laws, history, topography, poetry, and music of ancient Ireland; the elucidation of the language, antiquities, manners, and customs of the Irish people, and the encouragement of works tending to the advancement of Irish literature.’ The only book published by the society was a compilation by O'Reilly, which appeared at Dublin in 1820, with the title of ‘A chronological account of nearly four hundred Irish writers, commencing with the earliest account of Irish history, and carried down to the year 1750, with a descriptive catalogue of such of their works as are still extant, in verse or prose, consisting of upwards of one thousand separate Tracts.’

In 1824 O'Reilly received from the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, a prize for an essay on ‘The nature and influence of the ancient Irish institutes, commonly called Brehon laws, and on the number and authenticity of the documents whence information concerning them may be derived; accompanied by specimens of translations from some of their interesting parts.’ A further prize was awarded by the same academy to O'Reilly in 1829 for an essay on ‘The authenticity of the poems of Ossian, as given in Macpherson's translation, and as published in Gaelic in 1807, under the sanction of the Gaelic Society of London.’ O'Reilly contemplated the publication of ‘Irish Annals,’ a ‘History of Ireland,’ and other works. He prepared catalogues of Irish-language manuscripts in Dublin libraries, assisted Sir William Betham [q. v.] in some genealogical and antiquarian researches, and was employed in connection with Irish nomenclature for the maps of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland. His death took place in August 1829.

O'Reilly possessed many manuscripts in the Irish language, which were sold by auction at Dublin in 1830. Several of them, with some of his own compilations and translations, are now in the libraries of the British Museum and the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin. The latter institution possesses O'Reilly's copy of his ‘Dictionary,’ with copious manuscript additions by him; also his holograph catalogue of his manuscripts, with particulars of the contents of each of the volumes. An inaccurate reprint of O'Reilly's ‘Dictionary’ was issued at Dublin in 1864. O'Reilly's efforts as a grammarian and lexicographer have not received the approval of scientific Celtologists; and Eugene O'Curry has called attention to his inaccuracies in his ‘Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish.’

[Manuscripts in the library of the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin; O'Donovan's Irish Grammar, 1845; Memoir of John O'Donovan, by J. T. Gilbert; Betham's Irish Antiquarian Researches, 1827; personal information.]

J. T. G.