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Niall of the Nine Hostages, forefather of the Ui Neill (a whole series of septs tracing their ancestry to him), was making raids on Britain and France towards the end of the fourth century when the Romans were returning home. From Conall Gulban, a son of Niall, descend the O'Donnells of Tirconnell (meaning Conall's territory). They take their name from Domhnaill (meaning world mighty) an ancient and very popular Irish personal name. In time Tirconnell became known as Donegal, the area in Ulster where this powerful family was established for many generations. Their chiefs were inaugurated at Kilmacrenan, north of Letterkenny in County Donegal, first in a religious ceremony and then on the Rock of Doon, in a civil ceremony. It was here, in 1200, that Eignechan was made the first Chief of the O'Donnell clan. Like many of the ruling families at that time, they occupied themselves in tribal conflict, mostly attacking their kinsmen, the O'Neills. The family were also erenaghs of Letter and Lisfannon in the parish of Fahan in Inishowen. There are well over three hundred references to individual O'Donnells in the Annals of the Four Masters. The O'Donnells have always been both numerous and eminent in Irish life. They are of course chiefly associated with Tirconnaill (Donegal) the habitat of the largest and best known O'Donnell sept; but, as the present distribution of persons of the name implies, there were quite distinct O'Donnell septs in other parts of the country, two of which require special mention; that of Corcabaskin in West Clare, and another, a branch of the Ui Maine (Hy Many) in Co. Galway. All of these descend from some ancestor Domhnall (anglice Donal) and are Ó Domhnaill in Irish. The Donal particularized in the case of the great Tirconnaill sept, who died in 901, was himself descended from the famous Niall of the Nine Hostages. Their predominance only dates from the thirteenth century: prior to that they were located in a comparatively restricted area around Kilmacrenan, Co. Donegal. With a total of nearly 13,000 the O'Donnells are among the fifty most common names in Ireland. They have produced many illustrious figures in Irish history, as soldiers, churchmen, authors and politicians.
From Niall Garbh (d. 1439) descend the O'Donnells of Ross and Newport, Larkfield and Grayfield, Castlebar, and the branches who settled in Spain and Austria. St Colmcille (521 - 597), one of the three patron saints of Ireland, who was born at Garton, County Donegal, was a kinsman of the O'Donnells. He was the monastic scribe responsible for the Cathach, the famous Latin manuscript of the psalms which was the battle book of the O'Donnell warriors. The book, which survived much rough handling at home and abroad, is now in the Royal Irish Academy, while its elaborate silver shrine is in Dublin's National Museum.
The O'Donnells were predominantly warriors. Accounts of the deeds of their heroes reflect the early military history of Ireland and the Continent.
Chief Hugh Roe O'Donnell (1461 - 1505) built a castle and monastery at Donegal which in the sixteenth century was the stronghold of Manus O'Donnell (d. 1563), Lord of Tirconnell. In 1527, his predecessor had built Lifford Castle to keep out the O'Neills. Manus was a flamboyant man who dressed like Henry VIII, married five times and had nineteen children. With O'Neill, Manus attacked the Pale in an effort to overthrow the establishment in Dublin Castle. They failed and had to submit to the Lord Deputy. Manus was deprived of his lordship and was taken prisoner by his own son, Calvagh, who held him at his castle in Lifford. It is believed that Calvagh (d. 1566) had quarrelled with his father because he was jealous of the influence Hugh Dubh, his half-brother, had with Manus. In 1554 Calvagh went to Scotland hoping to entice Sorley Boy MacDonnell's brother, James, a kinsman on his mother's side, to help him in his struggle with the O'Neills on the coast of Antrim. Meanwhile, his half-brother, Hugh Dubh, enlisted Shane O'Neill's help. This enraged Calvagh, whose sister was married to Shane O'Neill, who treated her abominably. Calvagh and his wife were captured near Lough Swilly. He was horribly tortured while Shane took his wife as a mistress. When released in 1564, Calvagh fled to England to demand justice from Elizabeth I. In return for his loyalty he was restored to his "country", but died shortly afterwards. Since Calvagh's son Con was in prison, the despised half-brother, Hugh Dubh, was inaugurated O'Donnell, Lord of Tirconnell. The ceremony took place at the Rock of Doon when a long white rod, an slath ban, was presented to him. The inaugural address exhorted him to, "Accept this auspicious symbol of your dignity and remember to imitate in your government the whiteness, straightness and unknottedness of this rod: that no evil tongue may find cause to asperse the candour of your actions with blackness; nor any kind of corruption, or ties of friendship, be able to prevent your justice; therefore in a lucky hour take the government of this people to exercise the power given you in freedom and security".
Hugh's son was the famous Chief Red Hugh O'Donnell (1571 - 1602), whose youthful abduction was a poignant episode in Irish history. The English Deputy, Sir John Perrot, in order to check the rising power of the O'Donnells and their alliance with the Hebridean Scots, plotted to kidnap the O'Donnell heir. A ship with a cargo of Spanish wine came into Lough Swilly, and the seventeen year old Red Hugh and two companions were invited on board. The hatches were closed and the ship sailed for Dublin, where they were incarcerated in the dreaded Castle. It was not until three years later, on the eve of the Epiphany (January) 1582, that Red Hugh and two young sons of Shane O'Neill, Henry and Art, escaped (for the second time). On a three-day trek across the snow - covered Wicklow Mountains to Glenmalure they suffered intense hardship and Henry O'Neill was separated from the others. Art O'Neill died of exposure, but Red Hugh, helped by the O'Byrnes and O'Tooles of Wicklow, eventually reached his father's castle at Ballyshannon in Donegal. Hugh had to suffer the loss of his two big toes which had been frostbitten. His father handed the chieftainship over to Hugh, and, in 1598, he joined with Hugh O'Neill in the decisive battle of the Yellow Ford, when the English were heavily defeated. But a few years later came defeat at Kinsale, after which Red Hugh was sent to Spain for help. There Philip III received him well, but Hugh, in 1602, fell suddenly ill and died at Simancas. It was suspected that he was poisoned by a spy, James Blake of Galway, but modern research inclines to the belief that he died from natural causes. His life was a brief 31 years and he left no children.
Rory O'Donnell (1575 - 1608), who had fought with his brother, Red Hugh, at Kinsale, assumed the chieftainship when Red Hugh left for Spain. Together with O'Conor Sligo he tried to restore Irish power to Connacht by guerrilla tactics. In 1602 both O'Conor and O'Donnell had to submit to the Crown. In exchange, Rory was knighted and given the English title of Earl of Tirconnell. He was not pleased with the lands allowed him and, correctly, suspected that the government was planning to break the power of the Gaelic lords. Together with Tyrone and Maguire he took part in a mismanaged plot to seize Dublin Castle. The plans were leaked and he and Tyrone were lucky to escape to Rome, where he died aged only thirty three.
Rory had married Bridget, a daughter of the 12th Earl of Kildare. Their daughter Mary O'Donnell (1608 - 49) was born in England after her father's escape to Rome. James I gave her the royal name of Stuart and she was known as Mary Stuart O'Donnell. She was reared by Lady Kildare, her grandmother, who also chose a husband for her but, unfortunately, he was not to the liking of Mary Stuart. Both she and her maid adopted male disguise and, accompanied by a manservant, planned their escape to Ireland. Whenever her disguise aroused any suspicion, she allayed it by making passionate love to a girl, or offering to fight a duel! She went to Brussels, continued on to Genoa and married an O'Gallagher. When she was expecting her second child she wrote in great distress to Cardinal Barberini. The last heard of this remarkable woman was that she was a widow living in Prague.
Sir Niall Garbh (1569 - 1626), Calvagh's grandson, had vehemently opposed his cousin Red Hugh's election as chief. He captured the O'Donnell fortress at Lifford and also Donegal Abbey, and installed himself as chieftain at Kilmacrenan. He was implicated in Cahir O'Doherty's catastrophic rebellion at Derry in 1608 and was sent to the Tower of London, where he spent twenty seven miserable years.
Hugh O'Donnell (d. 1704) was known as Balldearg O'Donnell because of a red birthmark, a feature found in several members of the family. Born in Donegal, he joined the Spanish army and became a brigadier. He returned to serve James II, but reached Ireland when the battle of the Boyne was lost. In a romantic bid to fulfil a prophecy that Ireland would be saved by an O'Donnell with a red spot, he rallied 10,000 men to his side in Ulster. History repeated itself and soon there was intertribal jealousy and his army fell apart. In what has been described as an age of reason rather than patriotism, Balldearg joined William III's forces and demanded the Earldom of Tirconnell, plus suitable compensation for the loss of the brigadier rank he had held in Spain. He ravaged Connacht before setting off on a number of military missions on the Continent. In 1697 he returned to Spain and died a major-general.
The O'Donnells who sailed for Europe with the "Wild Geese" were not slow to establish themselves in the military hierarchy. Major-General Henry Count O'Donnell (a descendant of Calvagh, Chief of Tirconnell) was the founder of the Austrian branch of the family. With his O'Donnell cousins from Larkfield, County Leitrim, he went to Austria to join his uncle, General Count Hamilton. Henry's eldest son, Count Joseph O'Donnell (1755 - 1810), was the skilful Finance Minister who steered Austria through the economic disaster following the Napoleonic invasion. Joseph's son, Field Marshal Count Maurice O'Donnell, born in Vienna in 1780, was the father of the famous Major-General Maximilian Count O'Donnell who, as aide-de-camp to the Austrian Emperor, Franz Josef, saved him from assassination in 1853.
The lineage of the Counts O'Donnell von Tirconnell in Austria is a continuing one. Henry's brother, Lieutenant-General Joseph O'Donnell (1722 - 87), lived in Spain, where the Irish always received the same opportunities for promotion as the native Spanish. He had six sons and two daughters. His eldest daughter, Beatrix, married Count Manuel de Pombo, Colombia's national hero. Her many descendants are still in South America. Carlos O'Donnell (1773 - 1830) was the second son of General Joseph O'Donnell. Carlos's son was Leopoldo O'Donnell (1809 - 67), the most outstanding of the Spanish O'Donnells. Following the successful Moroccan campaign, he was created Duke of Tetuan in 1860. He was Governor of Cuba for a while and was Prime Minister of Spain in 1858. Leopoldo's nephew, Lieutenant Carlos O'Donnell (d. 1903), was Chamberlain, Minister for State and ambassador at the courts of Brussels, Vienna and Lisbon. Carlos's son, Juan (1864 - 1928), presided at the Irish Race Convention held in 1919. The delegates endeavoured to gain the support of President Wilson of America for Ireland's claim to nationhood, but their efforts ended in failure.
In 1956, the National University of Ireland conferred an honorary degree on his descendant, Leopoldo, Duke of Tetuan (b. 1915).
It is impossible to visit Madrid today without recognizing the influence of the O'Donnells. One of its principal streets bears the name, as do many shops, commercial houses and garages. There is one family of thirteen O'Donnell brothers and in the telephone directory they are numerous. The present Duke of Tetuan of the Spanish O'Donnells has five brothers, all married.
After the battle of the Boyne in 1690, Daniel O'Donell was one of the family who went to France, taking with him the Cathach. It was deposited in a monastery where it was discovered by a priest in the 1880s. Sir Nial O'Donnell of the Newport, County Mayo, family claimed it as the badge of their chieftaincy. This was disputed by the other branches of the family. Finally the Cathach reached the neutral haven of the Royal Irish Academy, where it was placed by Sir Richard Annesley O'Donnell, 4th Baronet of Newport House (now a first class hotel).
James Louis O'Donnell (1738 - 1811) left his Tipperary home to study in Rome and in Prague, where he was ordained a Franciscan friar before returning to Ireland. In the eighteenth century, there was much contact by sea between Newfoundland and the port of Waterford, where he was Prior to the Franciscan house. Newfoundland merchants asked for him to be sent to their country. He arrived in 1796, aged 58, and made such a valuable contribution to the religious and political life of this new land that he was dubbed the "Apostle of Newfoundland".
John Francis O'Donnell (1837 - 74) was the son of a Limerick shopkeeper. At 17 he was a reporter for the Munster News. He went to London to work for a number of journals. Charles Dickens took an interest in him. In 1826, when A.M. Sullivan was editing the Young Ireland revolutionary newspaper, the Nation, John Francis returned to Dublin to work for him. Whether living in Dublin or London, he championed the nationalist movement. He had a great love of poetry and a promising literary career was cut short by his early death in London.
The O'Donnells have that rare enough distinction, especially in Ireland, of having had a cardinal in the family. Patrick O'Donnell (1856 - 1927) was born in Kilraine, County Donegal. At twenty four he was the youngest bishop in the world at the time, and became a cardinal in 1915. He was instrumental in building churches and schools. 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 best-known O'Donnell writer is Peader O'Donnell (1893 - 1986), who 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. He encouraged young writers, including the irascible genius, Patrick Kavanagh.
All the Irish branches of the O'Donnells are extinct in the male line except Larkfield. The sole surviving member is The O'Donnell of Tirconnell, Father Aedh O'Donel (b. 1940), who is a Franciscan missionary in Zimbabwe. The headship of the clan will pass from him to his Spanish cousins, represented by the Dukes of Tetuan.
The origin of the arms of this historic family is of remarkable interest and of great antiquity. Connell son of Niall "of the Nine Hostages" (High King of Ireland 375-402) is recorded in two of the lives of St. Patrick to have been converted to Christianity by that saint, who, to reward him for his singular zeal, marked on his shield the sign of the cross, directing him and his descendants ever afterwards to bear as the emblem of victory. There is no doubt that this sign or symbol was borne by his descendants, the Lords of Tirconnell, long before any formal system of heraldry existed. Hugh O'Donnell, Chief of Tirconnell and thirty third in line from Connell made his submission to the English Government in 1567 and was knighted by Sir Henry Sidney, the Lord Deputy. At that time his arms were recorded thus:
Arms: "Or issuing from the sinister side of the shield an arm fessways vested azure cuffed argent holding in the hand proper a cross crosslet fitchee gules". The recognised sept arms are identical to this except that the cross is a passion cross. Many branches of the great family adopted slight variations of this shield.
Crest: (of Manus O'Donnell, died 1793) "Two arms armed bent and counter crossed each holding a sword that on the dexter transfixing a boar's head and the other a heart". In another version, the right hand holds a scimitar and the other a heart.
Motto: In hoc signo vinces. (Under this sign we are victorious).
Notwithstanding the story of the origins, there is actually another coat of arms associated with the family and this bears a much closer relationship to the traditional Ui Neill symbolism.
Arms: Sable two lions rampant combatant argent armed and langued gules in chief a dexter hand couped at the wrist erect between two mullets and in base another mullet all of the second.
Crest: Out of a ducal coronet or a naked arm embowed grasping a dart all proper.
In hoc signo vinces.