Continuing- another chapter from The Unquiet Grave (Edited by Michael Connolly).   

A Tale of Two Tombs: The Rise of the Catholic Middle Class is by Helen O’Carroll, Curator, Kerry County Museum  and it considers how two graves reflect a family’s change in status in the 1800s.   It has a wealth of information about one of Tralee’s merchant families, their lives and achievements from the early 1800s to the end of the nineteenth century.

The family is the Donovan family, best known now because of their connection with and ownership of the Jeanie Johnston famine ship.

Helen explains that ‘in nineteenth century Ireland, there were two elites; the ruling elite, almost exclusively Protestant’ and the economic elite, dominated by wealthy Catholics.’  The Donovans of Tralee were members of the later but these families were excluded from power or political influence because of their religion.

Helen explains how the Donovans, in the space of forty years, gained political influence along with economic success, thus becoming part of the ‘establishment’.   John Donovan, the founder started in the then small town of Tralee in the early 1800s with a hardware shop.  A boom in the grain trade in the 1820s/1830s brought the opportunity to build and expand. John Donovan was the first to ‘import a cargo of timber direct from North America to Tralee.’  By 1838 the hardware business in the Square was one of the largest in Kerry.  They had a number of ships, engaged in trade with Britain and the U.S., the most famous of these being the Jeanie Johnston, which between 1848 and 1856 plied between the Port of Tralee (Blennerville) and Quebec taking emigrants to Canada and the U.S., and returning with timber.  

John Donovan’s Tomb Ballyseedy

However, prominence as wealthy and influential local merchants did not entitle the Donovans to any political privilege or power.  Local Government was still controlled by the landed gentry, in the case of Tralee, by the Denny family , ‘adventurers’, who had been granted land confiscated from the earl of Desmond in the late 1500s.   . The Donovans kept their heads down and worked to build and expand their business.

Helen outlines the sectarian divide between the landlord or ruling class and upcoming merchant families who gradually, through their hard work for the town and through their membership of local representative associations, gained positions of leadership and finally breached the bastions of centuries of rigged local government.  

It was Nicholas Donovan, John’s son who took on the Denny clique and with his brothers and fellow traders, built up the prosperity of the town and its hinterland.  It was this group, who was instrumental in improving both the structure of the town and its amenities.

Donovan Tomb graveyard of Ardfert Church

The Donovan family prospered. The sons and their families  moved to ‘grand houses outside the town: Nicholas and Katherine lived in Seafield House, outside the Spa, then a fashionable seaside village; Henry in Cloghers House, Daniel in Spring Lodge; and Patrick in Frogmore House, The Spa … The younger generation displayed a confidence about their place in society that their father had never been able to: he continued to “live over the shop”, in his house adjacent to the business in the Square’.

John Donovan died aged 84 at his home on 13th April 1864 and there is a great description of his funeral, an opportunity for his sons ‘to demonstrate their place in the new order with a lavish display’. While John was buried in the tomb erected n 1838 at Ballyseedy, his sons (residing at the Spa) choose to be buried in their parish graveyard of Ardfert Church.   First Nicholas in 1877 and then Henry was buried here in an ornate tomb intended to reflect the family’s position as leaders of the Catholic establishment.

I would urge you to read the full chapter, available online.