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O'Donnell dynasty


Arms of O'Donnell
Parent houseNorthern Uí Néill
CountryKingdom of Tyrconnell
Founded13th (5th) century
FounderConall Gulban
Current headHugo O'Donnell, 7th Duke of Tetuan
Final rulerRuaidrí, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell, An Ó Domhnaill
TitlesCenél Conaill:


International titles:

Cadet branchesO'Donell von Tyrconnell

The O'Donnell dynasty (Irish: Ó Dónaill or Ó Domhnaill, Ó Doṁnaill or Ua Domaill; meaning "descendant of Dónal") were the dominant Irish clan of the kingdom of Tyrconnell in Ulster in the north of medieval and early modern Ireland.[2]

Naming conventions

Male Daughter Wife (Long) Wife (Short)
Ó Domhnaill Ní Dhomhnaill Bean Uí Dhomhnaill Uí Dhomhnaill
Ó Dónaill Ní Dhónaill Bean Uí Dhónaill Uí Dhónaill


Like the family of O'Neill, that of O'Donnell of Tyrconnell was of the Uí Néill, i.e. descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages, High King of Ireland at the beginning of the 5th century; the O'Neill, or Cenél nEógain, tracing their pedigree to Eógan mac Néill, and the O'Donnells, or Cenél Conaill, to Conall Gulban, both sons of Niall.[3] Conall was baptised by St. Patrick.

Arms and motto

The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity after a vision before the famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge, having seen a chi-rho in the sky, and thence the motto In Hoc Signo Vinces, telling him he would be victorious with the sign of the cross. The chi-rho was adopted on a banner, the labarum, upheld on a vexillum, which resembled a Christian cross, and in time the motto became associated with the Cross all over Europe. Legend has it that St. Patrick struck the shield of Conall, son of King Niall of the Nine Hostages, with his crosier, called Bachal Isu (the staff of Jesus) inscribing thereon a sign of the cross and told him the same, and baptized him. According to the Life and Acts of Saint Patrick (chapter 138), commissioned by Sir John de Courcy and written by Jocelyn of Furness (c. 1185 AD), St. Patrick took his staff, known as the staff of Jesus, or Bacall Iosa, and struck the shield of Prince Conall, rendering a sign of the Cross on it, “et mox cum baculo suo, qui baculus Jesu dicebatur Crucis signum ejus scuto impressit, asserens neminem de stirpe ejus in bello vincendum qui signum illud”, and thus indicating that he and his offspring would henceforth be victorious in battle if they followed that sign[4] This legend is also described several centuries later in the Lebhar Inghine i Dhomhnaill.[5] His land became Tír Chonaill, Tyrconnell, the land of Conall.

Conall's Constantinian shield, and this motto, have been the main O’Donnell arms[6] in various forms, through the centuries. The motto also appears prominently placed as a motto on a ribbon unfurled with a passion cross to its left, beneath a window over the Scala Regia, adjacent to Bernini's equestrian statue of Emperor Constantine, in the Vatican. Emperors and other monarchs, having paid respects to the Pope, descended the Scala Regia, and would observe the light shining down through the window, with the motto, reminiscent of Constantine's vision, and be reminded to follow the Cross. They would thence turn right into the atrium of St. Peter's Basilica, ostensibly so inspired. In an earlier version (before Bernini's renovations in the mid-17th century), something similar may have resonated with and been observed by Prince Rory O'Donnell, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell following his visit to Pope Paul V (at the Palazzo Quirinale) in Rome, just prior to his death in 1608. It would certainly have resonated with and been observed by Cardinal Patrick O'Donnell.


Tyrconnell, the territory named after the Cenel Conaill, is the vast territory where the O'Donnells held sway, comprised the greater part of the modern county of Donegal except the peninsula of Inishowen.[3] But it also included areas outside Donegal, such as the baronies of Carbury in County Sligo, Rosclogher in County Leitrim, and Magheraboy and Firlurg in County Fermanagh, and part of southern County Londonderry, hence it straddled the modern Republic of Ireland and also part of Northern Ireland in the UK. The jewel in the O'Donnell crown was Donegal Castle, one of seven O'Donnell castles, and now a national monument partially restored by the Office of Public Works.[citation needed] Tyrconnell also, therefore, bordered on territory ruled by the O'Neills of Tyrone, who were periodically attempting to assert their claim of supremacy over it, and hence the history of the O'Donnells is, for the most part, a record of clan warfare with their powerful neighbours, and of their own efforts to make good their claims to the overlordship of northern Connacht,[3] and a wider swathe of Ulster. Nonetheless, Tyrconnell existed for a period as an independent kingdom, recognised by King Henry III of England.[7]


Gofraidh Ó Domhnaill, the first chieftain, was son of Domhnall Mór Ó Domhnaill. In 1257, Gofraidh was victorious when he went to battle at Creadran-Cille against Maurice FitzGerald.[8] Upon Gofraidh's death, subsequent to wounds incurred during the battle against Ó Néill,[citation needed] he was succeeded in the chieftainship by his brother Domhnall Óg, who returned from Scotland in time to withstand successfully the demands of Ó Néill.[3] Over time, the O'Donnell King of Tyrconnell became known as the Fisher-King, on the Continent,[9] ostensibly due to the export of fish traded for wine in La Rochelle.[10]

Patronage by the O'Donnell dynasty

The O'Donnells were patrons of the arts, literature, and of religious benefices. In particular, one, Manus, wrote the biography of ColmCille (St. Columba). They also were the patrons of the Franciscans in Donegal Abbey. They also exercised "jus patronus" to nominate bishops.

In the early 14th century A.D., the O'Donnell rulers aided Templar knights fleeing via Sligo and Tyrconnell to Scotland where a Templar priory existed at Ballymote [2], a Percival family estate for the last 300 years.

The O’Donnell rulers of Tyrconnell are also noted for having in the late 12th century given sanctuary to the Donlevy dynasty of Ulaid (Ulster), after their kingdom had fallen to John de Courcy in 1177. It is in Tyrconnell that a branch of the Donlevy's became known as the MacNulty's, deriving from the Irish Mac an Ultaigh, meaning "son of the Ulsterman", in reference to their former kingdom of Ulaid.[11] During the Donlevy exile in Tyrconnell, The O’Donnell gave them the high Gaelic status of “ollahm leighis[12][13] or his official physicians.[14]

It was in fact two of these deposed MacDonlevy (> MacNulty) royals and Roman Catholic priests thereto exiled in Tyrconnell, Fathers Muiris Ulltach in full Muiris mac Donnchadh Ulltach Ó Duinnshléibhe and Muiris Ulltach in full Muiris mac Seaán Ulltach Ó Duinnshléibhe, who both along with the Archbishop of Tuam attended Hugh Roe O'Donnell (aka Red Hugh O’Donnell), The O'Donnell of 1601 Kinsale fame, in his exile at his death bed at Simancas Castle in Spain in 1602. And, it was, in turn, an Irish Count O’Donnell, who compassionately married the widow (d. 1708) of Don-Levi, a Jacobite (Jacobitism) and, thereby, on James II of England's and his French allied's failure to reclaim his British crowns, the last The MacDonlevy to sit in Ireland (departed 1691), after this prince died in exile with the Stuarts in France at the Archbishopric of Treves. This union of the MacDonlevy and the O'Donnell, though, bore no issue.[15]

In the absence of these indulgences of the O’Donnell dynasty kings having maintained the MacDonlevy and MacNulty physicians as a dignified community, it is debatable whether they could have so influenced the course of western medicine, educating and training Niall Ó Glacáin (L. Nellanus Glacanus) in the medical arts, so he could later on the Continent apply empirical method to pioneer the field of forensic anatomy and pathology, first describe the petechial haemorrhages of the lung and swelling of the spleen incident of bubonic plague (Tractatus de Peste, 1629), and early elucidate the empirical method of differential diagnosis for the continental European medical community, and producing the medieval physician and medical scholar Cormac MacDonlevy translator from Latin to vernacular of Bernard de Gordon's Lilium Medicine, Gaulteris Agilon's De dosibus and Gui de Chuliac's Chirurgia.

Later in the early 13th century, the O’Donnell also gave succour to the Ó Cléirigh kings of Uí Fiachrach Aidhne. Onara Ultach was descended from the MacDonlevy (dynasty) royals of Ulidia (kingdom), who as above noted after the fall of that Ulster kingdom to the Anglo-Norman forces of Henry Plantagenet served as ollam lieghis or the official physicians to the O'Donnell kings of Tyrconnell. Onara married Donnchadh Ó Cléirigh, a son of the Chief of the name of the Ó Cléirigh family then also of Tyconnell. The Ó Cléirigh were too a learned Irish royal family that had lost their sub-kingdom in Uí Fiachrach Aidhne in what is today County Galway to the Anglo-Norman forces of Henry Plantagenet. The Ó Cléirigh then went into service of the O’Donnell as poet historians, scribes and secretaries or official bards, called in Irish language "ollam righ". Onara bore for Donnchadh a son Mícheál Ó Cléirigh (c. 1590 – 1643), anglicized Michael O’Cleary, who matured to become the principal author of the Annals of the Four Masters. But for the manifold grace of the O’Donnell, this union would never have occurred, and Michael O’Cleary never lived to memorialize this history of Gaelic Ireland.

Royal Household

The Royal Household was known in Gaelic as "Lucht Tighe" and comprised several offices that were performed on a hereditary basis by the heads and members of particular other families, for over four centuries.

Later struggles and diaspora

The O'Donnells defeated the O'Neills in the 1522 Battle of Knockavoe. In 1541 Manus O'Donnell took part in the "Surrender and regrant" process. In 1567 the O'Donnells won the Battle of Farsetmore against the O'Neills, reconfirming their autonomy in Ulster.

Hugh Albert O’Donnell (later 2nd Earl of Tyrconnell), at 10 years of age as a page at the court of Albert VII, Archduke of Austria.

During the Nine Years' War of 1594-1603, the O'Donnells of Tyrconnell played a leading part, led by the famous Prince Red Hugh O'Donnell. Under his leadership, and that of his ally Hugh O'Neill, they advanced to Kinsale and laid siege to the English forces in anticipation of a Spanish invasion. En route, they implanted some O'Donnell kinsmen in Ardfert and Lixnaw to protect the territories of their ally, FitzMaurice, Lord of Kerry. The Battle of Kinsale was lost in 1601, heralding the end of the Gaelic order and Brehon Laws in Ireland, and the completion of the Elizabethan conquest. Following the Treaty of Mellifont of 1603 the new King James I pardoned Rory O'Donnell and created him Earl of Tyrconnell in the Irish peerage.

Rory then joined in the Flight of the Earls in 1607, which led to the title becoming attainted in 1614,[16] and Tyrconnell and Ulster being colonised in the Plantation of Ulster.[citation needed] He died in exile in Rome on 28 July 1608.[16]

Upon Rory O'Donnell's death in 1608, his son Hugh, who took the additional name Albert at his confirmation, under the patronage of Archduke Albert, succeeded to the title as 2nd Earl of Tyrconnell (which title was attainted in 1614 by the Crown but which attainder did not have any effect on his use of it in the Spanish realm) and thus the last titular earl of Tyrconnell was this Rory's son Hugh Albert, who died without heirs in 1642, and who by his will appointed Hugh Balldearg O'Donnell his heir. To a still elder branch belonged Daniel O'Donnell (1666–1735), a general of the Irish Brigade in the French service, whose father, Turlough, was a son of Hugh Duff O'Donnell, brother of Manus, son of an earlier Hugh Duff. Daniel served in the French army in the wars of the period, fighting against Duke of Marlborough at the battles of Oudenarde and Malplaquet at the head of an O'Donnell regiment.[16]


The head of the clan was traditionally also called Ua Domhnaill ("The O'Donnell"), and inaugurated as Taoiseach (Chieftain) in an elaborate ceremony, under the Laws of Tanistry, part of the ancient Brehon Code of Law. Since the collapse of Gaelic Rule and the Brehon legal system, the putative succession of the "Chiefs of the Name" has followed the principle of male primogeniture.

On the basis of the information available at the time, the Chief Herald of Ireland recognised John O'Donel of the Larkfield branch as Chief of the Name, and he was so gazetted on 11 September 1945 in Iris Oifigiuil, bearing the courtesy title of "The O'Donnell", and who was later inaugurated as Chief of the Name, The O'Donnell (Ua Domhnaill) in County Donegal at the O'Donnell Clan rally at Easter 1954.[17] His son was the last in the Larkfield line of Chiefs of the Name of O'Donnell of Tyrconnell, namely Fr. Hugh Ambrose O'Donel, O.F.M., who adopted the modern version of the name 'O'Donnell', a Franciscan priest in Killiney, retired from missionary work in Zimbabwe, who died on 11 July 2023.[18] Although Fr. Hugh was never inaugurated as Chief of the Name, his Tánaiste (heir apparent) as The O'Donnell of Tyrconnell, Chief of the Name of O'Donnell, was commonly held to be S.E. The 7th Duke of Tetuan, a Grandee of Spain. The duke is also known as S.E. Don Hugo O'Donnell y Duque de Estrada - the latter appendant Duque de Estrada is not a title but a maternal family name. The Duke of Tetuan is an active member of the Clan Association of the O'Donnells of Tyrconnell, and a member of the nobiliary Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta, i.e. a Knight of Malta. However, following the advice of the Attorney General, in 2003 the Genealogical Office discontinued the practice of recognising Chiefs of the Name.[19]

Prominent O'Donnells

Recent times

Patrick Cardinal O'Donnell (1856–1927) was probably the next most prominent O'Donnell to emerge in Ulster, perhaps in all of Ireland, after the exile in 1607 of the 1st Earl of Tyrconnell. Thomas O'Donnell (1871–1943), MP for West Kerry from 1900 until 1918, was a leading agrarian reformer, and the first Member of Parliament to address the House of Commons in Westminster in the Irish language (Gaelic), but was called to order by the Speaker, but not without having made his mark with John Redmond's support. There was formerly an Irish senator from County Donegal named Brian Ó Domhnaill (O'Donnell).

See also


  1. ^ The Gazette, London, 2019
  2. ^ O'Cochlain, Rupert S (1950). The O'Donnells of Tirconaill. Journal of the County Donegal Historical Society
  3. ^ a b c d McNeill 1911, p. 6.
  4. ^ Life and Acts of Saint Patrick, by Jocelyn of Furness (chapter 138)s:The Life and Acts of St. Patrick/Chapter CXXXVIII.
  5. ^ Lebhar Inghine i Dhomhnaill (The Book of O'Donnell's Daughter), a medieval Gaelic manuscript finished in the early 1600s in the Irish Franciscan College in Louvain, and lodged today in the Bibliotheque Royale in Brussels (Ms reference 6131-3). Examples of the arms registered date back to 1567 at least, when Sir Hugh Dubh O'Donnell was knighted by Sir Henry Sidney (see Genealogical Office Manuscript "Knights Dubbed" no.51, page 115)
  6. ^ An exemplification can be found in those of Rory O'Donnell, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell, in Manuscript 34 of the Genealogical Office under the Chief Herald of Ireland
  7. ^ see Close Roll, in the Tower of London, 28 Hen. 3m.7 [better source needed]
  8. ^ Cosgrove, Art, ed. (2008). A new history of Ireland (1. publ. in paperb. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199539703.
  9. ^ O’Domhnaill Abu, Newsletter of the O’Donnell Clan Association, Issue no. 17, page 2
  10. ^ Simms, Katherine. Late Medieval Donegal, chapter 6 in Donegal History and Society – Interdisciplinary Essays etc. edited by Nolan, Ronayne, & Donleavy, Geography Publications, Dublin, 1995
  11. ^ Rev. Patrick Woulfe, Priest of the Diocese of Limerick, Member of the Council, National Academy of Ireland, Irish Names and Surnames, © 1967 Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, in Irish and English, p. 518, “O’Duįnnsléibe … also known by surname MacDuįnnsléibe … and by their place of origin Ultaċ and Utaċán.”, and, also, at p. 356 “… also Ultaċ and Utaċán, …” and “Cf. Ultaċ and Utaċán.”
  12. ^ A. Nic Donnchadha, “Medical Writing in Irish”, in 2000 Years of Irish Medicine, J.B. Lyons, ed., Dublin, Eirinn Health Care Publications © 2000, p. 217, noting the MacDonlevy as one of the ancient hereditary Irish medical families (Nic Donchadha contribution reprinted from Irish Journal of Medicine, Vol. 169, No. 3, pp 217-220, again, at 217).
  13. ^ Susan Wilkinson, “Early Medical Education in Ireland”, Irish Migration Studies in Latin America, Vol. 6, No. 3 (November 2008) pp 157-158, discussing the high status that physicians were accorded in ancient Gaelic society and, specifically, the particularly high status of "ollahm leighis". Wilkinson also alludes that the high status accorded the king’s physician was due in no small part to the fact that many a battle-wounded Gaelic chief owed his life to these skilled physicians and field surgeons, “Every Irish chieftain was accompanied into battle by his personal liaig, and not a few owed their lives – following near-fatal spear or sword injuries – to the skills of their Druid physician.” and, also, at footnote 2 of cite “The word “liaig” means ‘leech’, an archaic term for a doctor or healer. The term is often used for a Druidic doctor in ancient texts.” Leeching (medical) for millennia was in Ireland as elsewhere a commonly employed ancient medical practice.
  14. ^ Edward MacLysaght, The Surnames of Ireland, 5th Edition, Irish Academic Press, Dublin, 1980, p 238, 292, who cites to 2 entries in The Annals of the Four Masters, which is a historical chronicle that records, among other matter, the births and deaths of Gaelic nobility. The first entry cited is an entry recording the 1395 A.D. death of a Maurice, the son of one “Paul Utach”, who is, himself, recorded there to be “Chief Physician of Tyrconnell” and also as “Paul the Ulidian”. It is there in the Annals further stated by its authors of the father Paul Ultach that “This is the present usual Irish name of the Mac Donlevy, who were originally chiefs of Ulidia. The branch of the family who became physicians to O’Donnell are still extant (at the time of compilation of the Annals in the 17th century just after the fall of this last Gaelic sovereignty of Tirchonaill, itself, in 1607), near Kilmacrenan, in the county of Donegal.” The second citation is to an entry recording the 1586 A.D. death of "Owen Utach", who is therein noted to be a particularly distinguished and skilled physician. The Annals compilers further elaborate of Owen Ultach at this entry that “His real name was Donlevy or, Mac Donlevy. He was physician to O’Donnell.”
  15. ^ John O’Hart, Irish Pedigrees; or, The Origin and Stem of the Irish Nation, 5th edition, in two volumes, originally published in Dublin in 1892, reprinted, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1976, Vol. 1, p. 417
  16. ^ a b c McNeill 1911, p. 8.
  17. ^ The O'Donnell Clan Revival, Journal of the Genealogical Society of Ireland, Journal 2021, Volume 22 [1]
  18. ^ Obituary Notice of the Irish Franciscans
  19. ^ Termination of the system of Courtesy Recognition as Chief of the Name Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland (.PDF file)


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainMcNeill, Ronald John (1911). "O'Donnell". In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 20 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 6–8.

Further reading

  • O'Donnell, Francis Martin (2018). The O'Donnells of Tyrconnel – A Hidden Legacy. Academia Press. ISBN 978-1680534740.
  • O'Donnell, Vincent (2007). O'Donnells of Tyrconnell - A Concise History of the O'Donnell Clan. Dalach. ISBN 978-0955562501.
  • The Life of Hugh Roe O'Donnell, Prince of Tyrconnell (Beatha Aodh Ruadh O Domhnaill) by Lughaidh O'Cleirigh. Edited by Paul Walsh and Colm Ó Lochlainn. Irish Texts Society, vol. 42. Dublin: Educational Company of Ireland, 1948 (original Gaelic manuscript in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin).
  • Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland (Annála Ríoghachta Éireann) by the Four Masters, from the earliest period to the year 1616, compiled during the period 1632-1636 by Brother Mícheál Ó Cléirigh, translated and edited by John O'Donovan in 1856, and re-published in 1998 by De Burca, Dublin.
  • Burke, Sir Bernard (1866), "O'Donnell–Earl of Tyrconnell", A Genealogical History of the Dormant: Abeyant, Forfeited, and Extinct Peerages of the British Empire, Harrison, pp. 408–410
  • Vicissitudes of Families, by Sir Bernard Burke, Ulster King of Arms, published by Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, Paternoster Row, London, 1861. (Chapter on O’Donnells, pages 125-148).
  • A View of the Legal Institutions, Honorary Hereditary Offices, and Feudal Baronies established in Ireland, by William Lynch, Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, published by Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, Paternoster Row, London, 1830 (O’Donnell: page 190, remainder to Earl’s patent).
  • The Fate and Fortunes of the Earls of Tyrone (Hugh O’Neill) and Tyrconnel (Rory O’Donel), their flight from Ireland and death in exile, by the Rev. C. P. Meehan, M.R.I.A., 2nd edition, James Duffy, London, 1870.
  • The Fighting Prince of Donegal, A Walt Disney Film, made in 1966 about the life of Prince Red Hugh O’Donnell (i.e. Hugh Roe), starring Peter McEnery, Susan Hampshire, Gordon Jackson, and Andrew Keir.
  • Erin’s Blood Royal – The Gaelic Noble Dynasties of Ireland, by Peter Berresford Ellis, Constable, London, 1999, (pages 251-258 on the O’Donel, Prince of Tyrconnell).
  • Blood Royal - From the time of Alexander the Great to Queen Elizabeth II, by Charles Mosley (genealogist), published for Ruvigny Ltd., London, 2002 (O'Donnell listed as Baron, page v) ISBN 0-9524229-9-9
  • History of Killeen Castle, by Mary Rose Carty, published by Carty/Lynch, Dunsany, County Meath, Ireland, April 1991 (ISBN 0-9517382-0-8) - page 18 refers to Elizabeth O'Donnell as 1st Countess of Fingal, by marriage to Lucas Plunkett, 1st Earl of Fingall.
  • Vanishing Kingdoms - The Irish Chiefs and Their Families, by Walter J. P. Curley (former US Ambassador to Ireland), with foreword by Charles Lysaght, published by The Lilliput Press, Dublin, 2004 [ISBN 1-84351-055-3 & ISBN 1-84351-056-1]. (Chapter on O'Donnell of Tyrconnell, page 59).
  • A Political Odyssey - Thomas O'Donnell, by J. Anthony Gaughan, Kingdom Books, Dublin, 1983.
  • The Execution, Life and Times of Patrick O'Donnell, by Gavin O'Donnell, Perfugulator Publishing 2023. ISBN 978-1399951326
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O'Donnell dynasty
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