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Irish Surname - O'Donnell

The surname O'Donnell is one of the most famous in Irish history and it comes from the Irish O'Domhnaill, meaning 'descendant of Domhnall', a name meaning 'world-mighty'.

The O'Donnells have always been eminent and plentiful in Irish life and have produced many illustrious figures in Irish history, as soldiers, churchmen, authors and politicians.

The most famous O'Donnells were those associated with Tirconnaill (Donegal) the habitat of the largest and best known O'Donnell sept. They were part of the great Ui Neill tribal grouping, who claimed descent from the 5th century monarch, Niall of the Nine Hostages, who is reputed to have brought St Patrick to Ireland.

At first these O'Donnells owned a relatively small territory around Kilmacrenan, but their power and influence grew steadily until, by the 14th century, they were undisputed lords of Tirconnaill. This dominance continued for more than three centuries until the Nine Years War, in which Red Hugh O'Donnell (1571-1602) and his brother Rory, First Earl of Tyrconnell (1575-1608), played a famous part, almost inflicting a decisive reverse on the progress of English rule. Rory O'Donnell was one of those who took part in the 'Flight of the Earls', the departure of the most powerful remaining Irish leaders from Lough Swilly in Donegal in 1607.

The first recorded spelling of the family name is shown to be that of Godfrey O'Donnell, which was dated 1258, Chief of the Clan, and recorded in the Annals of Ireland, during the reign of Pope Alexander 1V elected 1254, died May 28th 1261. The Annals are full of the exploits of O'Donnell chiefs and military leaders in the north-west of Ireland. Unlike many others among the old Irish aristocracy, the line of descent of the O'Donnell clan remains unbroken. The last duly inaugurated chief was Niall Garbh ('Rough'), and a direct line of succession from his younger brother Hugh Buidh ('Yellow') continues down to the present.

Famous People with the Surname O'Donnell

Frank Hugh O'Donnell, MP (1848-1916) was an Irish writer, journalist and nationalist politician. He struck a colourful and controversial figure in parliament, became renowned for his declamatory speech-making.

John Francis O'Donnell (1837-1874), journalist and poet, was editor of the Fenian journal 'The Irish People' in 1863/4 and then moved on to 'The Tablet' in 1865/8. His Memoirs of the Irish Franciscans (1871) commemorates the Counter-Reformation in Ireland.

In the ecclesiastical history of Ireland there were three notable O'Donnells: Bishop James Louis O'Donnell was born in County Tipperary in 1737, joined the Franciscan order and in 1796 was appointed vicar-apostolic of Newfoundland. He resigned his see and returned to Ireland in 1807 but was frequently referred to as 'the apostle of Newfoundland'. Father Hugh O'Donnell (1739-1814) was the first Parish Priest of Belfast. Cardinal Patrick O'Donnell (1856-1927) was born in County Donegal and at the age of 24 he was the youngest bishop in the world at the time, and became a cardinal in 1915. He showed particular concern for the restoration of the Irish language, and with healing the nationalist rift following the death of Parnell. He was one of the founder members of the National University of Ireland.

The writer Peader O'Donnell (1893 - 1986), was born in Donegal into a family of eleven children. He moved from teaching to trade unionism, and involved himself in the problems of small farmers and labourers. He fought in the Civil War in Ireland. Later he joined various left-wing movements in Europe. In the 1930s he wrote plays, short stories and novels, including the much admired 'Islanders'. He edited 'The Bell', one of Ireland's finest literary magazines, in its final years.

O'Donnell Family Crest

Out of a ducal coronet or a naked arm embowed grasping a dart all proper.

O'Donnell Motto

In hoc signo vinces = Under this sign we are victorious

Please Note

There is often limited information available on a specific coat of arms and motto for an Irish surname. Sometimes there are many variations, sometimes none, we have compiled a representative, but by no means exhaustive, selection. Please visit our Coat of Arms and Motto page for more information.

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