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.