TM Donovan was born in Church Street, Castleisland in the early 1860s. His claim to fame and a limited version of immortality, is that he, as far as we know, is the only one who penned any history of the Castleisland/East Kerry region from personal knowledge.
‘The victors write the history’ – is a truism that colours the vast bulk of historical records available to later day historians everywhere.
This is particularly true of rural Ireland right up to the turn of the 20th century.
None more so than our area of rural East Kerry, where almost the only records available are those of the police (RIC) and landlords.
“For that reason TM Donovan’s ‘Popular History of East Kerry’ – warts and all, is a treasure in it’s own right,” said Michael O’Donohoe Memorial Heritage Project Chairman, Johnnie Roche.
In this article and in advance of the publication of the book by Janet Murphy*, To Queensland with Love – A Portrait of TM Donovan, Johnnie Roche attempts to build up a picture of the man from personal recollections and from scraps gleaned from between the lines of his writings:
A Popular History of East Kerry
“At the beginning of the preface to his book A Popular History of East Kerry, Donovan states: “I do not pretend to any special training for the writing of this work – neither do I pose as a learned historian.”
Having established his credentials such, he proceeded to record his memories of the East Kerry of his youth and beyond, even quoting a named witness account of a tragic famine incident in Castleisland that gives us a personal insight of one real victim.
He was born little more than a decade after the end of the great famine.
TM Donovan, whom I knew in my schooldays, then referred to as ‘Timble’ Donovan, was well in his 60s when he penned his ‘History of East Kerry’ having spent 40 years as a teacher in the fledgling state of rural Queensland, Australia.
I’ve a personal interest in that, as Donovan went to Queensland in 1887, one year after my granduncle Denis Griffin left Dromulton for the same part of the globe.
That Great Land
My grandfather Mike Griffin had gone there about 15years earlier, and I can only wonder if they ever met in that great land. Mike Griffin returned about a year or two after his brother joined him, and purchased a farm in Breahig, where his descendants still farm.
Castleisland was widely known as the ‘Home of the Moonlighters’ since the formation of the first branch of that ‘secret society’ in the town in 1879.
Recorded for Posterity
Thanks to Donovan we have recorded for posterity an honest, independent and dispassionate account of the founding of that organisation, which, in his words ensured that ‘evictions were history in the Castleisland area within a year,’
The Castleisland moonlighters as far as I can see, are treated very badly by modern historians, who have relied exclusively on police and landlord ‘official’ reports.
The founding father of the Castleisland Moonlighters, Bob Finn was one of the leading young men of the area, who lived and worked as a cooper only 100 yards from Donovan’s home, so his account of the event is first hand and reliable.
The initial success of the movement was such that the British authorities realised that it posed a threat to the whole Irish Landlord system.
Stop to Land Grabbing
It put a stop to ‘land-grabbing’ – the occupying of an evicted holding by a new tenant. This was their stated aim from the beginning, and was eminently successful.
The Moonlighter movement was followed in 1880 by the establishment of a powerful branch of the Land League in the area, becoming a Parnell stronghold to the end.
This led to the passing of the Coercion Bill in the British Parliament, which approved internment without trial in Ireland.
Interned Without Trial
Castleisland was the first area where it was implemented, and in March 1881, 14 young men from the immediate area were interned without trial in Limerick and Kilmainham.
This led to a mass exodus of other ‘eligible’ young men from the district to Australia, South Africa and tthe US, as they felt they were targets for imprisonment, or worse.
Might was right regardless of law or evidence – or the lack thereof.
Castleisland and East Kerry
Among the first to go to Australia – Brisbane were Bob Finn, Jack Deenihan, Maurice Brosnan and Denis Shanahan.
Bob Fin returned later, and Denis Shanahan became a leading businessman in Brisbane according to Donovan. That group was followed to Australia – particularly Brisbane through the succeeding years, by many from the Castleisland and East Kerry region, including T M Donovan himself in ’87.
Descendants in Australia Today
They were hardworking and successful, and have many descendants in Australia today. A number of them were among the 1st Europeans to populate the ‘far west’ of Queensland in the 1880s, and we have documentary evidence as well as oral to verify this.
TM Donovam came from a staunchly religious family, with a brother a well-respected Jesuit, and a sister a nun – I think also in Australia for some time.
Rediscovered his Faith
Having, in his own words, lapsed for some while he taught in schools in remote areas of the new land, he rediscovered his faith.
Probably having a guilt complex for abandoning the ‘one true faith’, he tried to make up for lost time in later years, to the point where he tended to ‘preach’, while recording relevant experiences.
By making allowances for that, his work is hugely entertaining, honest, and the only antidote we have to the works of ‘lazy historians’ who give us their version of truth and history from the poisoned pens of the ‘authorities’ of the 19th century.
Thin, Worn and Austere
When we knew ‘Timble’ Donovan he was a thin worn, austere man who spent his days looking after his wife who had an aggressive form of dementia. This made life very difficult, but to his eternal credit he made it possible for her to live out her life in her own home, at a time when there were absolutely no state services.
He passed away in 1950 at approximately 87years. His house is still a landmark in Church St, Castleisland.
*Janet Murphy is the researcher and manager of the Michael O’Donohoe Memorial Project Archive and the book To Queensland with Love – A Portrait of TM Donovan is being prepared for launch.
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