Roots: The O’Donnells

The O'Donnell crest
The O'Donnell crest

By Adam Farley, Editorial Assistant
October / November 2013

They came from Donegal. Legend says they are descended from the 5th-century Ulsterman Niall of the Nine Hostages, whose son Conall was baptized by St. Patrick. It is from Domhnaill (d.901), a descendant of that mythic Conall, that the family name, which has since been anglicized as O’Donnell, emerged.

St. Patrick gave the O’Donnells their crest. According to the early 17th century Book of O’Donnell’s Daughter (Lebhar Inghine i Domhnaill), St. Patrick struck Conall’s shield with his crosier, inscribing there the sign of the cross, and told Conall so long as he and his descendants followed the sign, victory would follow them.

And so it has: from Tyrconnell through the Flight of the Earls to today, from Austria to Australia, from Argentina to Antarctica, the O’Donnells have had a large and impressive diaspora.

It was not until the 13th century that the clan gained significant land and status in Ulster. From then until the 16th century, the O’Donnells and the O’Neills (also Ulster descendants of Niall) alternated between land wars and mutual trade. After the decisive victory of the O’Donnells in 1567, the last alliance was forged and led to the most famous jailbreak in early modern Irish history. In 1587, the English kidnapped the 15-year-old Red Hugh O’Donnell, heir apparent to the kingdom of Tyrconnell. He was imprisoned in Dublin Castle along with two O’Neills, but Red Hugh’s friend Hugh O’Neill arranged the trio’s escape to the Wicklow Mountains in the middle of winter 1592. The next year, he became An Ó Domhnaill, “The O’Donnell,” chief of the O’Donnell name and territory.

In 1593 Red Hugh led a revolt against the English government in Ulster, and between 1595 and 1603 was instrumental in operating the Nine Years’ War with England until the combined O’Donnell and O’Neill forces lost at the Battle of Kinsale. O’Donnell fled to Spain to enlist more aid but died shortly after arriving, allegedly poisoned by an Irish double-agent for the crown.

Though the clan’s territorial holdings were confiscated, the line of succession to Prince and Chief of the Name is one of the oldest in Irish history. The current heir apparent is the Spanish Don Hugo O’Donnell y Duque de Estrada, 7th Duke of Tetuan (b. 1948), who is descended from Calvagh O’Donnell, grandfather to Red Hugh. This group of Spanish nobles comes from the Flight of the Earls, after which many O’Donnells chose to stay in Spain. Eventually, one, Leopoldo O’Donnell y Jorris (1809 – 1867) rose to power and prominence, commanding Spanish troops in the Spanish-Moroccan War, earning himself the title of Duke of Tetuan, and serving as Prime Minister of Spain from 1858 – 1863, and again from 1864 – 1866.

Other descendants of 16th-century continental gallowglass O’Donnells can be found in France and Austria. In France, Comte Jean Louis Barthelemy O’Donnell (1783 – 1836) was born a count and survived the French revolution, eventually becoming a career military man, serving under Napoleon in France, Spain, and Italy. In Austria, Maximilian Karl Lamoral Graf O’Donnell von Tyrconnell (1812 – 1895) rose to fame when, as aide-de-camp to the Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria, he prevented an assassination attempt on the Emperor in 1853. According to a 1987 O’Donnell clan newsletter, his nobly embellished O’Donnell coat of arms can be seen in the portico of No. 2 Mirabellplatz in Salzburg, where he lived.

The history of the O’Donnells isn’t all wrapped up in orders of chivalry. Other successful O’Donnells abroad include Argentenian brothers Guillermo and Pacho O’Donnell. Guillermo (1936 – 2011) was a leading political scientist and theorist on authoritarianism and democratization at the University of Notre Dame. Pacho (b. 1941) is an eminent writer, politician, and psychoanalyst who has made significant contributions to the field of historiography. Even farther south lies O’Donnell Peak in Antarctica, just west of the Ross Ice Shelf, named for meteorologist Frank B. O’Donnell, who was a researcher at the nearby Hallett Station in 1962.

The many O’Donnells born in Ireland include Cardinal Patrick O’Donnell (1856 – 1927), from Glenties, who, when he became Bishop of Raphoe in 1888, was the youngest bishop in the Catholic Church. There was the ghost hunter and supernatural writer Elliott O’Donnell (1872 – 1965). There’s Peadar O’Donnell (1893 – 1986), a well-known republican and editor of the literary magazine The Bell from 1946 to 1954. Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander (1909 – 1974) was born in Cork and twice became British chess champion and an International Master, in addition to heading the cryptanalysis division at the British Government Communications Headquarters. And, of course, there’s the beloved Donegal-born singer of Irish country and folk, Daniel O’Donnell (b. 1961).

Here in the U.S. we have a few prominent O’Donnells as well. There is Chris O’Donnell (b. 1970), currently starring in NCIS: Los Angeles, and the two O’Donnell talk-show hosts: the comedienne Rosie O’Donnell (b. 1962), best known for The Rosie O’Donnell Show and her LGBT activism, and political pundit Lawrence O’Donnell (b. 1951), the host of MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell and an emmy-winning producer and writer. Finally, at the Citi headquarters at 390 Greenwich Street, there is James O’Donnell, who you’ll recognize from this issue’s cover.

8 Responses to “Roots: The O’Donnells”

  1. Tommy says:

    Our 400th anniversary of the Flight of the Earls commemorative coins depict the crests of the O’ Donnells and O’ Neills

  2. I am Joseph J. O’Donnell from Virginia, USA. I am an author and artist and publish two on-line magazines ( The Arts and Entertainment Magazine & THE EERIE DIGEST .

  3. Donna O'Donnell Goodwin says:

    Howdy to All the Fine Irish Americans..I am the Daughter of Frank B. O’Donnell, whom you honored in your article on the Irish American O’D’s! My Father also served our Nation in the role of a Navy Hard Hat Diver during World War II. The O’Donnell Peak was named in his honor in 1969, him having spent over one year “on the ice” in the capacity of Meteorologist for the U.S. Weather Bureau. The timing of the designation of the Peak a very unusual, inasmuch as the Geophysical Names are customarily chosen upon the demise of the honoree. Dad lived a wonderful life until he went on to be with His Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, on September 22, 2001. He, and so many others like him, lived to see the World that they had chosen to keep free turned upside down on September 11 of that year. One of our final conversations contained his wish to still be able to run down to the recruiter’s office and put on his U.S. Navy Uniform and go to defend our Freedom and that of the civilized World. My precious Daddy never even knew about the naming of the Peak on his behalf, inasmuch as he was never apprised of this distinction. My brother learned of the honor quite by accident. I now have a presentation that I give to students that will carry the torch of these brave pioneers of the interests of preserving the lands and seas that were made and entrusted to our stewardship by a Magnificent Creator God. My Dad is Father to 4 children, and our Mother is still with us. Thank you very much for inclusion in your article. We have all added lots of little clansman to continue the Light of the Great Name of O’Donnell. God Bless. Donna O’Donnell Goodwin, Tyler, Texas

    • Donnell Stock says:

      Do you have any information on the O’Donnell’s who lived in and around Refugio, Texas in the late 1800’s to present?

      • J. Patrick O'Donnell says:

        My great grandmother lived in Bayside most of her life. I know she was born in Ireland. My grandfather was Thomas Edward O’Donnell, he was born in Oklahoma in 1892. His siblings were Roland, Jacqueline, and Gertrude. Roland was the rich one, he had a son named Roland Jr, who had a son named Robert who rescued baby Jessica who fell down the well in Midland Texas. Gertrude and Jackie lived in Austin and Gertrude died somewhere near Goliad. We could easily be related. Please contact me if you wish.

  4. Dorothy O'Donnell says:

    My husband, Edward Daniel O’Donnell was a descendant of Connell O’Donnell 1774-1813, born in Donegal and died in Butler, PA. Most of his descendants remained in the Butler, PA area until the current generation. Connell is mentioned in a book about early Butler County, PA.

    Dorothy O’Donnell



  6. Patrick Joseph O'Donnell says:

    Interesting read. So, if I do some genetic chromosome testing, which is so popular these days, I should expect to find that I am most likely Spanish and French as well, and not just Irish, German, and Swedish?

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