O’Donnell – ‘world rulers’ from Co Donegal

History of the Irish name O'Donnell. Image copyright Ireland Calling

O’Donnell is an ancient and important Irish surname. It means ‘world rulers’ and while this might be something of an exaggeration, they were certainly an important family in Ireland for several centuries.

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They are descendants of one of Ireland’s most famous warrior kings, Niall of the Nine Hostages. This makes the O’Donnells distant relatives of the O’Neills.
The clan originated in Ulster but there were also septs, or branches, of O’Donnells in Clare and Galway.

The O’Donnell coat of arms features a hand holding a crucifix. It is said that St Patrick recommended the clan always have the sign of the cross on their family shield.

Descended from Domhnall

The name O’Donnell derives from the old Gaelic name O Domhnall. The prefix ‘O’ means ‘grandson of’ or ‘descendent of’.
They are descended from Domhnall who was a mighty chief. The word ‘Domhnall’ was a Gaelic phrase that meant ‘world ruler’. Domhnall was a descendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages.

The O’Donnells lived in Tirconnell which meant ‘Connell territory’. However, despite living in ‘Connell territory’, the O’Donnells were a powerful clan and Domhnall was a mighty leader. Tirconnell was the area of land that is now Co Donegal.

They used to inaugurate their Chieftains at the Rock of Doon, which is near to Letterkenny in Donegal. By the 13th century, the O’Donnells had become one of Ireland’s most powerful clans, owning nearly 13,000 acres of land in Kilmacrenan, Co Donegal.

Maximilian Karl Lamoral O'Donnell
Maximilian Karl Lamoral O’Donnell

The O’Donnells were constantly in battles to defend their stronghold in Co Donegal. They successfully fended off significant pressure from the O’Neills. However, they eventually lost their stronghold to the Tudors.

Hugh Roe O’Donnell

Hugh Roe O’Donnell helped to lead the nine year war against the English in 1593. He had previously been captured and imprisoned in Dublin Castle when he was just 15 years old. Sir John Perrot, who was the English Lord Deputy of Ireland, had hoped this would help to prevent an alliance between the O’Donnels and the O’Neills.

However, five years later, O’Donnell’s friend Hugh O’Neill helped him to escape from prison and O’Donnell became a leader.

He led a rebellion against the English at Kinsale in 1602 but he and his men were defeated by Baron Mountjoy Sir Charles Blount.
Following the defeat, O’Donnell moved to Spain where he was allegedly poisoned by Irish double agent James ‘Spanish’ Blake.

Saving the Austrian Emperor

By the 19th century, various branches of the O’Donnell dynasty had begun to spread across the world. Count Maximilian Karl Lamoral O’Donnell was born in Vienna and was chief of staff to Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I.

He is famous for saving the life of the Emperor in 1853 when he foiled an assassination attempt from Hungarian Nationalist János Libényi. Libényi plunged a knife into the neck of the Emperor but O’Donnell struck him with a sabre before he could inflict further damage.

Famous O’Donnells

Rosie O'Donnell. Photo copyright David Shankbone CC3
Rosie O’Donnell

Damien O’Donnell is an award-winning Irish director. His movies include East is East, Heartlands and Inside I’m Dancing. O’Donnell won the Empire Award for Best Newcomer for his work on the film East is East.

Daniel O’Donnell is an Irish folk and country singer-songwriter. He has a close relationship with his fans and has sold over 10 million albums throughout his career. He is the first artist to have a new album in the UK charts for 25 years in a row.

Rosie O’Donnell is an American actress, writer and personality. She won several Emmy awards for her years of hosting the Rosie O’Donnell Show. She has also appeared in several films and TV shows and is known for her extensive charity work.

Chris O’Donnell is an American actor who is well known for playing Robin in the mid-1990s films Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. He has also appeared in Scent of a Woman, Three Musketeers and Kinsey.

Luke O’Donnell is an Australian rugby league player who was twice been named North Queensland Cowboys Player’s Player of the Year.
Heather O’Donnell is an American concert pianist.

Irish names and their meanings

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