The Late J.C.T. McDonagh – An Appreciation

“Speak we now in honour of famous men…here were men rich in ability, noble of aim…these were the glories of their race, the ornament of their times.” Ecclus, 44

Here we mourn not a mere man nor yet just a friend from whom one reluctantly parts. For in the passing of Chris MacDonagh out County Donegal has lost a full-fledged institution in himself and Ireland a splendid son. ‘Tis then in speech that stumbles and in lines that more than limp that we dare to pen these few faltering words.

Man Of Learning

He will be remembered most as the fear lèighinn- the man of learning. For him the hills of his adopted Donegal were alive with more than the wild life that stirs in it’s mountains, with more than the shy deer that roam by Glenveagh. To him those tall hills told a story that spoke wistfully “of old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago.” For him every part of a beloved Donegal held living memories from it’s proud past and almost everywhere he seemed to thrill to the touch of a vanished world…Lifford, Donegal and Ballyshannon were for him old O’ Donnell towns. In visiting them in his company one soon lost the sense of time, the centuries rolled back and other days came crowding in with his vivid, vibrant word- pictures of life in that long-ago. Indeed one would have been in no way startled in this man’s company in such surroundings, if through yon ivied archway of Donegal Castle there suddenly appeared the dramatic Dark Daughter herself or even dauntless Red Hugh!
No need to labour his unique work in this field: the part he played in founding (1946) and in inspiring the Co. Donegal Historical Society in the teeth of coldness, complacency and cynicism; his nonstop research on ancient records, which too often carried him (and anyone who had the previous privilege of his sanctum) into the small hours of the dawn; his organisation of the Rallies of the Clans and the fàilte to foreign O’ Donnells; his pioneering contributions on various aspects of local history in lectures besides writings in countless journals, but especially in his best-loved DONEGAL ANNUAL, which he edited right up to 1956; his fight for the preservation of the old memorials of Tiirconaill as a member of the frustrating County Donegal National Monuments Committee; his crusade for a County Museum, now realised in Rossnowlagh, where the Franciscans of Donegal to-day “keep the past for pride.”
These achievements alone would have earned any man more than a niche in Tirconaill’s Hall of Fame. But MacDonagh, the fear lèighinn, with his formidable yet modest scholarship, was but one mere rold in the like of this versatile, colourful and loveable genius. There was MacDonagh, the man of music, who made the rafters ring or coaked the poignant Cùilfhionn from his plaintive violin. MacDonagh, the man of finance, with his practical efficiency and kindly advice was again, in this role, a model of his kind.

The Man

But in seeking the original, the prototype that gave all his other roles on the stage of life their authenticity and the stamp of truth, one feels that this was indeed MacDonagh The Man- the Irish, Catholic gentleman par excellence.
Here we come to the heart of the man, a heart full of charity and kindness to the fellow man – the keystone of the Christian. It was this caritas, this full-blooded Christian charity that was the source of his unending activity, this interest in humanity that drove him on like the great ones before him; Caritas Christi urget nos. ‘Tis no surprise then to find no good cause without him, whether it was in assisting the old folk in the County Home, or a public service to his community in launching a civic week. A Tostal or a pageant or in forming a council for the blind, or at the beck and call of every society for advice, for lectures, for any kind of assistance of creed, colour or class. Here was a rare patriotism for which we oft search in vain.
His Ireland too, was no apartheid land. It was an Ireland that the invading Celt and Cromwellian, Saxon and Norman had made his own. His was a Donegal that belonged as much to Isaac Butt (whose life he wrote) and the blind poetess, Frances Browne of Stranorlar (to whom he had a plaque erected) as it did to the O’ Donnels of Glassagh (whose story he has traced) or to Sean MacCool, his Republican friend (whose praises he penned in words still remembered).
His whole life was an inspiration to any Irishman, to any son of Tirconaill, to live and work here do chum glòire Dè agus onòra na hEireann. He and his peers must surely earn the psalmist’s praise, for “their bodies lie in peace; their name lasts on, age after age. Their wisdom is yet a legend among the people; wherever faithful men assemble, their story is told.”
And so let it be with you, MacDonagh. In the highlands of Heaven we’ll seek you, with the other fold of history we’ll greet you, and please God, with many another man of Tirconaill we’ll together some day.

“…meet behind the veil, thronged on some starry parapet that looks down on Inisfàil…”


Donegal Democrat, Friday 6th May 1960.