The O’Donnell Family

O'Donnell heraldry

(Crest No. 3. Plate 1.)

AS meets the wild billows the deep-centered rock,

Met glorious Clan Conell the fierce Saxons’ shock;

As the wrath of the clouds flash’d the axe of Clan Connell,

Till the Saxon lay strewn ’neath the might of O’Donnell!

One warrior alone holds the wide bloody field,

With barbed black charger and long lance and shield—

Grim, savage, and gory he meets their advance,

His broad shield uplifting and couching his lance.

Say, who is this chief spurring forth to the fray,

The wave of whose spear holds yon armèd array?

And he who stands scorning the thousands that sweep

An army of wolves over shepherdless sheep?

And now, fierce O’Donnell, thy battle axe wield—

The broadsword is shiver’d, and cloven the shield,

The keen steel sweeps grinding through proud crest and crown—

Clan Fodhla hath triumph’d—the Saxon is down!

O'Donnell at the Battle of Credran


And now fierce O’Donnell thy battle-axe wield,

The broadsword is shiver’d and cloven the shield;

The keen steel sweeps grinding through proud crest and crown,

Clar-Fodhla hath triumph’d—the Saxon is down.”

THE O’Donnell family is descended from Milesius, King of Spain, through the line of his son Heremon. The founder of the family was Conal Gulban, ancestor of the Northern Hy-Nials, and son of Nial the Great or Nial of the Nine Hostages, King of Ireland, A. D. 379. The ancient name was O’Neil, and signifies “Grandson of the Champion.” The title of the chiefs of this tribe was Prince of Tyrconnell, and their possessions were located in the County of Donegal. After the death of King Conal, the territory was known as Tir-Connell, or the land of Connell. This branch of the family gave ten Ard-Righs, or supreme monarchs, to Ireland previous to the advent of the English. Eignechan, first of the O’Donnells under whom Tir-Connell became known as “the Country of O’Donnell,” was Prince of Tir-Connell from 1200 to 1207 A. D.

This name it retained for four hundred and three years, when the chiefdom was abolished, during the reign of James the First.

Another branch of this family were settled in Corca-Vascin, in the southwest of the County of Clare. They were descended from Hugh, son of Domhnall, from whom the hereditary surname was taken, and who was killed in the battle of Clontarf in 1014, and Murchadh, son of Flann, this Domhnall’s paternal uncle, who was chief of Corca-Vascin, and died in the year 918.

The O’Donnells of this race are still in ancient Thomond, but it is not easy to distinguish them from the race of Shane Luirg O’Donnell of Tir-Connell, who settled in Munster in the fifteenth or sixteenth century.

The O’Donnells were celebrated for their bravery, patriotism and their devotion to religion and literature. They were regarded with high consideration, not only throughout Ireland, but all over Europe, and especially by the Popes of Rome. The original home of the O’Donnells was in that portion of Donegal lying between the Swilly and the Dobhar, or Simmy. The Hill of Doon is situated in the center of this locality, and the Church of Killmacrenan, where St. Columbkille founded a famous abbey.

The Rock of Doon was the historic spot where the O’Donnells were inaugurated as Princes of Tir-Connell. The successors of St. Columbkille, attended by his marshal, and surrounded by the estates of the territory, performed the ceremony. The abbot would place in the chieftain’s hand a pure white and unknotted rod, and say: “Receive, Sire, the auspicious ensign of your dignity, and remember to imitate in your government the whiteness, straightness and unknottiness of this rod to the end that no evil tongue may find cause to asperse the candor of your action with blackness, nor any kind of corruption or tie of friendship be able to pervert your justice; therefore, in a lucky hour take the government of this people, to exercise the power given you with freedom and security.”

In the Franciscan Abbey, founded by the wife of Hugh Roe O’Donnell, and of which the ruins still exist, were written the celebrated Annals of the Four Masters, covering a space of four thousand five hundred years of Irish history, which may be regarded, in the language of O’Curry, as “the largest collection of national, civil, military and family history ever brought together in this or, perhaps, any other country.” Hard by is Donegal Castle, now in ruins, which was the ancient seat of the O’Donnells, and which was given by royal grant to Sir Basil Burke, in 1601.

Of the many distinguished members of this family may be mentioned Hugh, or, as he was popularly known, Balldearg (of the red mark), who rose to the rank of General in the Spanish service, returned to Ireland after the battle of the Boyne, and raised ten thousand men to continue the war against William. He was a brave, honorable and patriotic man. Another distinguished member of this princely race who rose to the rank of Marshal in the Spanish service, and finally to be Dictator of Spain, was Leopold O’Donnell, Count of Lucena and Duke of Tetuan. His lineal ancestor was O’Donnell of Castlebar, who went to Spain after the fall of O’Neill, when the power of the Irish chiefs was finally broken, in the reign of James the First of England. He had also been Captain-General of Cuba, and his name may be read to-day in characters of stone on the front of the Moro Castle.

Marshall O'Donnell, Count of Lucena and Duke of Tetuan

Count of Lucena and Duke of Tetuan, Spain.

Many members of this illustrious house distinguished themselves and acquired high honors in Austria and France. Henry O’Donnell, afterward raised to the rank of Lieutenant-General and Count in Austria, married the cousin of the Empress Maria Theresa. In the armies of France Brigadier Daniel O’Donnell fought over the greater part of Europe for years, and participated in more than a score of pitched battles and sieges; while others of the name served with honor in the regiments of O’Donnell, Berwick, Clare and Dillon. Some of these latter, however, were of the O’Donnells of Munster, a less distinguished tribe than the O’Donnells of the North.

Among the latter, the most prominent are Calvagh O’Donnell, who rebelled against his father, and was defeated at the battle of Ballyhofey; Con O’Donnell, who was killed in battle with the forces of Henry Oge O’Neil; Hugh Roe O’Donnell, who reigned forty-four years as King of Tir-Connell, and was distinguished both as ruler and warrior; Donnell More O’Donnell, a warlike chief, who afterward became a monk at Assaroe, and Godfrey O’Donnell, Lord of Tir-Connell, who defeated a powerful English army under Maurice Fitzgerald, then Lord Justice, in 1257. This battle was fought at Creadran-Kille, now known as the Rosses. O’Donnell and Fitzgerald engaged in personal combat, and each mortally wounded the other. Brian O’Neill, taking advantage of O’Donnell’s condition, made certain demands, which O’Donnell peremptorily rejected, and causing a general muster of his people, he was carried on a stretcher on the shoulders of his followers, from which position he witnessed and directed the battle. O’Donnell was victorious, and the bier having been laid down on the street of the village, the heroic chieftain expired.

Of Hugh Roe O’Donnell, the ally of Hugh O’Neill, and Rory O’Donnell, created Earl of Tyrconnell, who died in exile at Rome after the final conquest of Ulster, it is needless to speak at length, as their lives and deeds are familiar to all readers of Irish or English history of the period.

The former, Hugh Roe, Lord of Tyrconnell, was born in 1571. He was captured by Sir John Perrot, the English Lord Deputy, in the summer of 1587, in accordance with his policy of holding hostages for the good conduct of the Irish chieftains.

A ship was sent from Dublin to Lough Swilly, and anchored near Rathmillen, near which place it was known that O’Donnell was residing at the time with MacSweeney, his foster-father. The youthful O’Donnell was inveigled on board the vessel, which was laden with Spanish wine, and during the entertainment of the guest and his friends the hatches of the ship were fastened down, and O’Donnell was carried a prisoner to Dublin. He was consigned to the Birmingham Tower, where a large number of Milesian nobles were in captivity and chains.

After a confinement of more than three years, he managed to escape, with some of his companions, and took refuge in the Dublin mountains. Here he was betrayed by one whom he had deemed to be his friend, and was returned to prison.

The following year he again managed to escape, with the sons of Shane O’Neill, Henry and Art. Tourlough Roe O’Hagan, an emissary of Hugh O’Neill, meeting them, assisted them to reach the mountains, where they suffered exceedingly from cold and hardship. Art O’Neill died of hunger and exposure, and O’Donnell was with difficulty restored to consciousness when found by Feagh O’Byrne, who had come to their assistance. After some days he was escorted across the Liffey, and reached Hugh O’Neill, at Dungannon. He was then conveyed across Lough Erne by his relatives, the Maguires, and finally arrived at Ballyshannon, his family seat.

Shortly afterward, in 1592, he was inaugurated The O’Donnell, in the place of his father, who had resigned. His first act was to march a force into Tyrone, and devastate the country of Sir Tourlough Luineach O’Neil, who had entered into an alliance with the English, burning the town of Strabane, where he held O’Neil besieged in his castle.

He carried on a vigorous warfare with the forces of the Lord Deputy, and joined Hugh O’Neill in his rebellion in 1595, destroying thirteen castles in the autumn of that year.

O’Donnell commanded O’Neill’s cavalry at the victory of the Yellow Ford, August 11, 1598.

In August, 1599, O’Donnell defeated an English force under Sir Conyers Clifford, at Ballaghboy, in Sligo, with the loss of 1,400 men.

In 1601 he joined with Hugh O’Neill, in his expedition to Kinsale. While awaiting the arrival of O’Neill in Tipperary, his passage south was barred by Sir George Carew and Lord St. Lawrence, and taking advantage of a hard frost he made a circuitous route across the mountains, and after a forced march of forty miles in one day—“the greatest march that has ever been known in these parts,” as Sir George Carew writes, appeared before Kinsale as O’Neill arrived. After the fall of that stronghold, he went to Spain to solicit aid from Philip the Third, and died suddenly, at Simancas, September 10, 1602, in his thirtieth year.

An English writer thus sums up his character: “O’Donnell’s steady and unbending zeal, patience, caution, firmness, tenacity of purpose, steady consistency, and indefatigable energy may bear an honorable comparison with the virtues of any other illustrious leader whose name adorns the history of his time.”

His brother, Rory O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell, continued the war for some time after the defeat at Kinsale. He fled with Hugh O’Neill to the Continent in 1607, and died the following year at Rome, aged thirty-three.

O'Donnell at the Battle of Credran


From the glens of his fathers O’Donnell comes forth,

With all Cinel-Conall, fierce septs of the North—

O’Doyle and O’Daly, O’Duggan and they

That own, by the wild waves O’Doherty’s sway.

Sweeping on like a tempest, the Gall-Oglagh stern

Contends for the van with the swiftfooted kern—

There is blood for that burning, and joy for that wail—

The avenger is hot on the spoiler’s red trail!