Though a contemporary and a fellow student at Trinity with John Mitchel, and later defender in court of Young Irelander, poet Richard Williams, it is not thought that Sir Samuel Ferguson (10 Mar 1810-9 August 1886) belonged to that august group.
Certainly that he was afterwards knighted underlines a radically different path in later life. Newry’s John O’Hagan (Young Irelander) published a work of Ferguson’s poetry.
Ferguson was a renowned Irish poet, barrister, antiquarian, artist and public servant. Perhaps the most important Ulster-Scot poet of the 19th century, because of his interest in Irish mythology and early Irish history he can also be seen as a forerunner of William Butler Yeats (who once described Ferguson as ‘the greatest living Irish poet’) and the poets of the Celtic Twilight.
Ferguson was born at 23 High Street, Belfast into a family that had moved to Ulster from Scotland during the 17th century. His father was a spendthrift and his mother was a noted conversationalist and lover of literature who read the works of Shakespeare, Walter Scott, Keats, Shelley and other English authors to her six children.
Ferguson lived at a number of addresses including Glenwhirry, where he later said he acquired the love of nature that informed his later work. He was educated at the Belfast Academy and the Belfast Academical Institution. He then moved to Dublin to study law at Trinity College, getting his BA in 1826 and his MA in 1832.
Because his father had exhausted the family property, Ferguson was forced to support himself through his student years. To do this, he turned to writing and was a regular contributor to Blackwood’s Magazine by the age of 22. He was called to the bar in 1838, but continued to write and publish, both in Blackwood’s and the newly formed Dublin University Magazine.
Ferguson settled in Dublin, where he practiced law. In 1846, he toured European museums, libraries and archaeological sites with strong connections to Irish scholarship. He married Mary Guinness in 1848 while he was defending the Young Irelander poet Richard Dalton Williams. His wife was a great-niece of Arthur Guinness (a stout man, if ever there was!). In 1875 he lived at 20 North Great George Street Dublin.
As well as his poetry, Ferguson contributed a number of articles on topics of Irish interest to antiquarian journals. In 1863, he travelled in Brittany, Ireland, Wales England and Scotland to study megaliths and other archaeological sites. These studies were important to his major antiquarian work, Ogham Inscriptions in Ireland, Wales and Scotland, which was published posthumously in 1887.
His collected poems, Lays of the Western Gael was published in 1865, resulting in the award of a degree LL.D. honoris causa from Trinity. He wrote many of his poems with both Irish and English translations. In 1867, Ferguson retired from the bar to take up the newly created post of Deputy Keeper of the Public Records in Ireland. As reward for his services, he received a knighthood in 1878.
Ferguson‘s major work, the long poem Congal was published in 1872 and a third volume, Poems in 1880. In 1882, he was elected President of the Royal Irish Academy an organisation dedicated to the advancement of science, literature and antiquarian studies. He died in Howth just outside Dublin city, and was buried in Donegore, County Antrim.
His wife Mary helped in the collection of airs, to one of which (a traditional lay of the West of Ireland) he wrote the lyrics of Lark in the Clear Air beloved of so many today.