Spex On: A Look at the Family of Corkman, John Fergus O’Hea

For more than a quarter of a century, the cartoons of John Fergus O’Hea formed a picturesque and striking record of the second half of the nineteenth century.[1]  He signed his work ‘Spex,’ a nickname he inherited in his (bespectacled) schooldays.


O’Hea was born in Cork in 1841, son of barrister James O’Hea (1809-1882) and Alicia White, and grandson of John O’Hea and Martha Jervois.[2]  He had four sisters who were all musical.[3]


O’Hea studied at the Metropolitan School of Art and the Hibernian Academy in Abbey Street, Dublin. One of his most famous works was a painting of notable people when the Prince of Wales (King Edward VII) visited Punchestown Races in 1868.


Iconic: Punchestown Races 1868 (left).  The painting sold for €694,500 at Christie’s in 2021.[4]  On the right, Davis, Duffy and Dillon discuss the birth of The Nation newspaper

In the 1880s, O’Hea contributed a weekly political cartoon to the Weekly Freeman’s Journal.  The scenes below depict the eviction of 80-year-old Bartley Geary, Kilkerrin, Connemara in February 1888 (left), who ‘crept back to the old walls at night, and was found dead within by the neighbours,’ and 80-year-old James Dunne, evicted from Captain Singleton’s Estate at Belpatrick, Co Louth on 11 October 1888 (right), who died shortly afterwards.[5]


Harrowing: O’Hea’s evocative depictions of the effects of the new Land Act.  In the centre, Lament of the Irish Emigrant (from Lady Dufferin’s Ballad) published in 1897


O’Hea married Mary Theresa Delany, a daughter of merchant George Delany of Great Gardiner Street, Dublin on 18 November 1875 at the Pro-Cathedral, Marlborough-street, Dublin.[6]  As far as can be established, they had ten children, two sons, James William O’Hea (died in infancy) and Gervois O’Hea, and eight daughters.[7]


John Fergus O’Hea in his early and late years.  In the centre, his daughter Alice, an actress who used the stage name Isla Glynn


In January 1894, a testimonial was presented to O’Hea by his Dublin friends, Richard Adams QC, Christopher Gunn MD, James P Maunsell MA, Edwin Hamilton MRIA, John Linehan BL and James Murray MJI on his decision to take up residence in the UK:


Your departure from Dublin has entailed upon us a social loss, which must long be keenly felt, but we congratulate you and seek consolation for ourselves in that you have now entered upon a wider field of usefulness and distinction.[8]


O’Hea replied that ‘though the skies may have changed’ his warm attachment to Dublin and his friends ‘is unchanged and unchangeable’:


Dear Dublin friends, you have made many years of my life happy beyond my deserts, and my most pleasant day-dream is that I may be able to visit you again, and renew, even for a passing interval, those cordial relations which have ever prevailed between us.


In London, O’Hea contributed to Punch, Irish Figaro, The Lepracaun and The Quiz but he does not appear to have enjoyed the same level of success as he did in Dublin.[9]


John Fergus O’Hea died at 11 Lisgar Terrace, West Kensington, London on 2 September 1922.  He was laid to rest in St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green, London.[10]


The following obituary appeared:


Of the many distinguished Irish artists who have contributed to pictorial journalism, none attained a more distinguished place than John Fergus O’Hea. For more than a quarter of a century his cartoons dealing with the events of the time formed a picturesque and striking record of a historic period.  Since the seventeenth century, political cartoons have appeared … In the early period many were marred by a coarseness … a brutal severity and want of taste and utter disregard for the feelings of the people who were caricatured and held up to ridicule. A new generation of artists showed by their work that it was quite possible to convey a moral effectively without resorting to that which characterised earlier times.  The advance which took place in the processes of the reproduction of pictures enabled artists to achieve new and surprising effects. It was the good fortune of Mr O’Hea to begin his career in illustrated journalism just at the time when some of the most important and effective of these processes were devised.[11]


O’Hea’s skill:  On the left, a depiction of Justin McCarthy MP and far right, William Stokes.  In the centre, Barry Sullivan as Hamlet


O’Hea Legacy


The O’Hea family held a number of treasured heirlooms in the form of two letters associated with Daniel O’Connell, the first dated 7 April 1835 from The Liberator to the Master for the Rolls recommending James O’Hea for appointment as Circuit Court Judge for Munster (a post which he obtained) and the second dated 29 January 1846 to James O’Hea signed by The Liberator.  They also cherished a large framed photograph of the Punchestown Races painting of 1868.


Mary O’Hea, John’s longest surviving sister, bequeathed the items to her nephews, Jevois Gervois O’Hea and Standish John O’Hea (in America).[12]


Gervois O’Hea, born on 5 July 1891 at 32 Rutland Square, Dublin, served with the Army Service Corps and Royal Dublin Fusilliers in World War I.[13]  Gervois O’Hea married Madeleine Van Ure.  A son, Richard Joseph Deasy O’Hea was born in Brussels, Belgium on 19th March 1928.[14]  Gervois O’Hea died on 18th November 1963 at St Luke’s hospital, Paddington, his address 24 Lutyens House, Churchill Gardens, London SW1.


We have not been able to determine how Standish John O’Hea fits into the family tree.  Special thanks to Martine Brennan and Marie H Wilson for genealogical research.


[1] Freeman’s Journal, 5 September 1922.

[2] This birth year of John Fergus O’Hea varies, the year 1838 is generally given, also 1860.  The year 1841 appears on an official document (not his birth certificate).

[3] An account of the musical O'Hea sisters, Margaret, Mary, Alice and Ellen, given in the thesis (Maynooth) The Role of Women in Music in Nineteenth-Century Dublin  (2010) by Jennifer O'Connor, includes an image of Margaret O'Hea in the appendix (p311).

[4] Irish Examiner, 17 July 2021, ‘Cork artist made his mark with Punchestown Races painting.’ https://www.irishexaminer.com/property/homeandgardens/arid-40336895.html

[5] See inquest on James Dunne, The Meath Herald, 27 October 1888.

[6] Mary Theresa Delany’s sister was the wife of Dr Joseph Kenny MP.

[7] Known children were James William O’Hea (Jacobus Gulielmus Maria Joseph) O’Hea (1876-1877) The death of the infant was recorded in the Freeman’s Journal, 18 May 1877 at 2 North Frederick Street, Dublin; Alice Mary Josephine O'Hea (stage name Isla Glynn) (born 1877) who married 2 September 1905, at the RC Church of the Holy Trinity, Brook Green, Kensington, theatrical manager Arthur Octavius Whittaker, youngest son of Constantine Whittaker Esq of Bockland Park, Kent.  In 1901, Miss Isla Glynn appeared in Charley’s Aunt at the Gaiety Dublin; Eileen Mary Joseph O'Hea (born 1879); Eva Mary O'Hea (1881-1960) governess, never married, lived her final days at Nazareth House, Hammersmith, London W6. Left £171 8s 3d in her will to Gervais Emanuel O'Hea, Advertising Executive, on her death on 14 May 1960; Nora Mary Joseph O'Hea (born 1885); Ethne O’Hea (1885-1966) never married, last known address 82 Ladywell Road, Lewisham, London. Left £486 in her will to Richard Joseph Deasy O'Hea, Advertising Account Director, on her death on 19 March 1966; Maire Moya? (born 1886); Kathleen O'Hea (1888-1962) never married, last known address Hundred Acres, Banstead, Surrey.Left £723 14s 10d in her will to Gervais Emanuel O'Hea, Retired Advertising Manager; Maev (Maeve) Columba O’Hea (1889-1960) married Geoffrey Horatio Dumbleton, son of Horatio Dumbleton Esq of Thornhill Park Hants, in Fulham, London on 24 April 1911. Left £1619 6s 6d to her husband.  Excise Licence 1931 granted to Maev Dumbleton  for The Corner House Canons Park, Edgware, owned by The Cannon Brewery Company Limited, St John Street, Clerkenwell EC1; Gervois (Gervais/Jervois) O'Hea (1891-1963).

[8] Freeman’s Journal, 31 January 1894.

[9] https://www.dib.ie/biography/ohea-john-fergus-a6797#:~:text=Remembered%20for%20his%20great%20personal,Terrace%2C%20West%20Kensington%2C%20London.

[10] Grave No 1286 NE.

[11] Weekly Freeman, 9 September 1922.

[12] The siblings of John Fergus O’Hea were Alice Mary O’Hea (1862-1937).  Alice Mary O’Hea of 23 Lower Leeson Street, Dublin died 25 November 1937 at age 75, an unmarried teacher.  Her sister Mary O’Hea of 23 Lower Leeson St, Dublin present at death. Wreaths sent by Nora and Fred, Maeve and Geoffrey, Eva, Moya, Ethne and Kathleen; Margaret O’Hea FRIAM (1844-1938).  Obituary ‘The family have as one of their most cherished possessions a letter dated April 7 1835 from the Liberator to the Master for the Rolls introducing Mr O’Hea and recommending him for appointment as Circuit Court Judge for Munster, a post which he obtained; Ellen O’Hea (composed under name Elena Norton) died at Bournemouth, Hants circa 1 March 1880 from acute bronchitis; Mary O'Hea (1857-1949). Mary died 17 April 1949 aged 92, last surviving daughter of James and Alice O'Hea, niece K T M O'Hea present at death, address (possibly) 25 Cheniston Gardens, Kensington W8  Funeral from St Kevin's Church, Harrington Street, Dublin to Dean's Grange Cemetery. Miss Mary O’Hea of 23 Lower Leeson St, Dublin, died in April 1949: ‘The actress, a former member of the Benson Shakespearean Company, and professor of elocution at the Royal Irish Academy and a co-founder of the Dublin branch of the British Empire Shakespeare Society who died on April last, daughter of the late James O’Hea, who was private secretary to Daniel O’Connell, left personal estate in England and the Republic of Ireland valued at £3,814.  She left the letter dated 7 April 1838 written by Daniel O’Connell ‘introducing my father when a candidate to be called to the bar, to the then Attorney General and also the large framed photograph of the picture of the Punchestown races 1868 which was painted by my brother John Fergus O’Hea’ to the order of John Chancellor of Sackville St, Dublin, to her nephew, Jevois Gervois O’Hea.  A letter dated 29 January 1846 to my father, which was dictated and signed by Daniel O’Connell to her nephew, Standish John O’Hea, resident in the USA.  £25 to Mary Anne Rickaby, charwoman, a few other bequests and the residue to various nieces’ (Irish Examiner, 26 October 1949). 

[13] Medals were sent to 11 Lisgar Terrace, London.  His name is also given as Gervais and Jervois. There is mention of Gervais Deasy O’Hea in 1917.  The name Emanuel Gervois O'Hea also appears.

[14] Richard appears to have married Jane L Dillon in Westminster in 1967. They lived at 106 Howard House, Dolphin Square, London SW1 in 1968.