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Donnelly – descended from a brave chief

Donnelly is an ancient Irish name that is common in Counties Antrim and Tyrone and has spread all over the world.

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It comes from the Gaelic name O’Donnghaile. The ‘O’ prefix means ‘grandson of’ or ‘descendent of’. Donnghaile is made up of two Gaelic words – ‘Donn’ which means brown, and would have referred to a person’s hair colour, and ‘gal’ which means valour or bravery.

People in Ireland used to take their surname from the leader of their clan, so the O’Donnghailes were descendants of a brown haired valiant chief. It is thought the original Donnelly chief was Donnghal O’Neill.History of the Irish name Donnelly. Image copyright Ireland Calling

Powerful in Ulster

Donnghal O’Neill was a distant relative of Irish king Niall of the Nine Hostages, making the Donnellys relatives of the O’Neills, as well as a number of other Irish families.

They were an important clan in Ulster and were part of the Cenel Eoghain, which was a collection of tribes that held considerable power. The Donnellys held territory in Co Donegal. Over the years they migrated east to Co Tyrone where the town of Ballydonnelly is named after them.

The family have a history as soldiers. Donnell O’Donnelly died at the 1602 Battle of Kinsale.

The family lost their land over time. The clan lost control of Ballydonnelly castle to Lord Caulfield, but Patrick Modardha O’Donnelly managed to reclaim in 1641. However, it changed hands again when the Caulfields recaptured it and it was re-named Castle Caulfield.

The name developed and spread

The name O’Donnghaile developed to become more English sounding. After Oliver Cromwell’s forces took control of Ireland in the 1600s it became hard for people with Irish sounding names to find a job.

This led people to drop the Gaelic prefixes of their names and change to an English spelling. In this case O’Donnghaile became Donnelly.

In the mid-19th century the name travelled around the world as tragedy struck Ireland. The potato famine left millions starving and at risk of disease. Millions of people emigrated to places such as America, Australia, Britain and Canada.

Notable Donnellys

Declan Donnelly. Photo copyright Damian Everett CC2
Declan Donnelly
Ignatius Donnelly was a US Congressman in the 1800s and also a popular writer. His sister Eleanor Donnelly was also a writer known for her poetry, short stories and biographies.

Charles Donnelly was born in 1914. He was a promising young writer but sadly died aged 22, fighting in the International Brigade in Spain.

Dervilla Donnelly was a distinguished scientist. She became President of the Royal Dublin Society in 1891.

Famous Donnellys

Declan Donnelly is an English TV presenter. He is one half of the popular duo Ant and Dec. After careers in acting and music the pair became TV presenters. They have fronted some of the most popular British TV shows in recent times including Britain’s Got Talent and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.

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Sharon Donnelly is a Canadian athlete. She competed in the Triathlon, which is a 1.5km swim, 40km cycle and 10km run. She won a gold medal at the Winnipeg Pan American Games in 1999.

Jamie Donnelly is an American actress. She played the role of Jan, one of the Pink Ladies, in Grease the Musical on Broadway before playing the role in the hit movie. She has also appeared in the Rocky Horror Show. She has also appeared in popular TV shows such as Family Affair.


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