Roots: The Marvelous McDonaghs
By Maeve Molloy
April / May 2012
McDonagh is one of the rarer surnames of Ireland, but exists also as MacDonagh, MacDonough, Donogh, and Donagh. The modern forms of the name are derived from Mac Donnchadha, which originates from the first name Donnchadh, a compound of “donn” meaning brown, plus “cath,” a battle. Often translated as “brown one,” Donnchadh was a common first name in ancient times. Given its popularity, the surname derived from it rose quickly through many regions of Ireland. These many sects of McDonaghs grew separately throughout the country, and thus there is not always a common thread between McDonagh clans.
The McDonaghs of old were found mainly in counties Cork and Galway. In Cork, the McDonaghs were a branch of the MacCarthy clan. They were known as the “Lords of Duhallow” and built Kanturk Castle. Construction began on this semi-fortified castle in about 1610, but was halted when the English government became jealous of the size and apparent strength of the structure. Never finished, the shell of the castle is known as “McDonagh’s Folly.”
A McDonagh family also rose to prominence in Connacht. These McDonaghs, a branch of the MacDermotts, claim Donagh MacDermott as an ancestor and ruled in the barony of Tirreril in ancient times. Their power was spread throughout Counties Sligo and Roscommon. McDonagh or MacDonagh is, in most cases, a Connacht name and is today concentrated in Galway, Mayo and Roscommon.
A martyr for Irish independence, Thomas MacDonagh (1878-1916) was a gifted poet and a lecturer at University College Dublin. He is most remembered for his part in the 1916 uprising, during which he became a signatory of the Proclamation of Independence, and for which he was executed. A distinguished poet, he was highly regarded in Dublin’s literary community and was remembered after his death in the writings of his contemporaries, including W.B. Yeats.
MacDonagh’s son, Donagh MacDonagh (1912-68), was also a poet and dramatist, with three volumes of poetry and the classic play Happy as Larry.
Continuing the McDonagh tradition in the arts is Maitland McDonagh, a noted film critic and author of several books on cinema. Born into an Irish-American family, McDonagh was raised in New York City. Her emigrant grandparents were the proprietors of the Moylan Tavern, which was reincarnated as the Moylan Tavern of Fox’s The George Carlin Show. McDonagh teaches film at Brooklyn College and is author of Filmmaking on the Fringe and Movie Lust.
A shining star in the clan’s theatrical orbit is playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh, interviewed in this issue about his upcoming film Seven Psychopaths. London-born to Irish parents, his most famous plays are The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. He won an Oscar in 2006 for best live-action short film for Six Shooter, and directed his first full-length movie, In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, in 2008.
His older brother, John Michael McDonagh, is also a filmmaker, best known for the 2011 hit The Guard, starring Brendan Gleeson. His next film, also to star Gleeson, is called Calvary.
Upholding the McDonaghs’ sports tradition is Jenny McDonagh, who is a field hockey forward on the Belfast Harlequins team. She played for the Women’s National team in 2001 against England, as well as the Olympic and World Cup qualifiers in 2004 and 2006 respectively. On the ice, Irish American Ryan McDonagh is a rising hockey star. The 22-year-old plays defense for the New York Rangers.
The McDonaghs also have fine pugilists in the family. Irishman Peter McDonagh is currently fighting at welterweight. During the 1980s, Seamus McDonagh was a popular cruiserweight turned heavyweight who fought Evander Holyfield in 1990. Since putting the gloves away, Seamus has gone on to become an actor.
The McDonagh name is popular in Galway City, where “McDonagh’s Seafood” was established On Quay Street in 1902. The restaurant is still owned by the original McDonagh family, and has become known around the world as the restaurant to visit in Galway. Presented with the “Best Bag of Chips [Fries] Award” in 2007, this famous spot even made it into a version of the video game Grand Theft Auto.