Eoin (‘Pope’) O’Mahony

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 2004), News, News, Volume 12

When Eoin O’Mahony died in February 1970 at the age of 65 The Times said that he was the outstanding Irish talker of his time and remarked that if he had had a Boswell he was the stuff of Johnson. Born in Cork on 22 March 1905, he was educated at Clongowes, where he acquired the nickname ‘Pope’ because, with an innocence that was to become characteristic of the man, he voiced his ambition to be pope. A champion debater at University College Cork, the King’s Inns and Trinity College, Dublin, he was the centre of a notable controversy when at the formal dinner after his inaugural meeting as auditor of ‘the Hist’ in Trinity he toasted ‘Ireland’ instead of ‘The King’.


Called to the bar in 1930, he practised in Cork. He joined Fianna Fáil and served on the Corporation and County Council. He just failed to be elected to the Dáil in the 1938 general election. De Valera’s government appointed him state prosecutor. Ever ruled by his heart, he sometimes disconcerted the court by urging leniency for the accused.


Tiring of the grind and restrictions of professional and political life and careless of the need to earn a living, he gradually drifted into a nomadic way of life, championing causes that took his fancy. He was deprived of his retainer as state prosecutor when he broke with Fianna Fáil on the treatment of republican prisoners. This led him to abandon his practice, but not before he had defended Brendan Behan before both the Irish and British courts.


He grew a white imperial beard that made him seem venerable before he was 50. Genealogy and commemoration became his consuming interests. He was blessed with a retentive mind for historical detail and family connections. He spoke in torrents with a mellifluous Cork accent. The best of his talk was good and his observations sometimes singularly perceptive, but his compulsive loquacity and way of life led some not to take him seriously. He was an authority on aristocratic families, especially those who had nationalist connections, and was a regular caller at their demesnes.

Having failed to find employment as a genealogist, in which area he had done some useful work, he found a niche writing a weekly column in the Sunday Review. He was compère of a regular lunchtime Sunday show on Radio Éireann called Meet the Clans, in which he regaled gatherings with their clan history and interviewed selected leading figures of the name. He was acclaimed on visits to the United States and had two terms as visiting professor at the University of South Illinois. He made an unsuccessful bid to be nominated as a candidate for the presidency of Ireland in 1966. He also ran as an independent for the Dáil and for the university constituencies in the Seanad.

A lovable eccentric, he inspired affection, and a group of his friends established a bursary in his memory to which some 500 people subscribed. It is designed to assist those working on the history of the Irish abroad, one of his own special interests.


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