A many-faceted Catholic of his time

A many-faceted Catholic of his time
The Most Estimable of Men: Judge John O’Hagan, Patriot, Poet, Scholar, Lawyer by Thomas J. Morrissey SJ (Messenger Publications, €19.95/£18.95)

Having heard so much recently about patriots of later generations, it is very welcome to have a biography of a man of the Young Ireland movement – a book which will remind some and inform many that what we think of as patriotism, mere love of country, once had many dimensions. Dimensions which we could well do with these days.

Over the years Fr Morrissey has written many substantial and important books, mainly on social and trade union topics. In this much smaller book, however, he takes a new and significant direction, which other historians might follow.

In Ireland we are rather over-obsessed with important figures, leaving secondary and tertiary figures, as some see them, in the shade. But such people have made in the past important contributors to the development of Ireland’s life and culture.

His subject in this book is Judge John O’Hagan, born in 1822, of whom I suspect few will have heard. There is no large hoard of papers available. So, Fr Morrissey has had to research his life largely through his activities and his friendships. Overall it makes for a very interesting, at times very moving and human book.

The major influences on O’Hagan’s life were the loss of his father as a boy, and the love of his wife, who survived him but by whom he had no children.

The book is built up from fragmentary passages culled from other people’s books and papers. But these people and their connection with O’Hagan make for a fascinating jigsaw.

From his father he received a love of the classics and of literature which was of value to him all his life. For instance, in his later years he made a very well-received translation of Le Chanson de Roland – at a time when a new interest in medieval French literature was developing in France. This was posthumously published to great praise in the literary journals.


The book provides interesting vignettes of his friends. Prominent among these was Fr Mathew Russell, the energetic  and dynamic editor who cultivated many of the rising writers of the Irish Revival.

But there were also more intimate encounters, with, for instance, Gerard Manley Hopkins. The passage about the poet reveals however not the man so often thought of as a depressive, but rather ‘the happy Hopkins’ that Desmond Egan has laid such emphasis on in recent years. The conjunction of Hopkins, Bridges and O’Hagen is most interesting.

Though brief, this book is full of interest. Would that more historians, both national and local, would devote more time themselves to exploring, albeit in a brief form, the lives of those who in the 19th Century were seen as a generation of ‘nation builders’. O’Hagan’s work as Chief Land Commissioner transformed the country, as Gladstone admitted. In his hands local problems were turned into national achievements.

O’Hagan’s connection with the Young Ireland movement shaped his views. Later he refused to see Thomas Davis as a revolutionary. Indeed he had hard words for such people as the Fenians whom he saw quite simply as “anarchists”.

Fr Russell after O’Hagan’s death rightly noted that for many of his friends O’Hagan was quite simply “the best man they had ever known”.