The O’Donovan Family

O'Donovan family crest

(Crest No. 191. Plate 39.)

THE O’Donovan family is descended from Milesius, King of Spain, through the line of his son Heber. The founder of the family was Cormac, King of Munster, A. D. 483. The ancient name was Donnaghadh, which signifies “Destroying.” The title of the chief was Prince of Carbery and Lord of Cathal, and the possessions of the sept were located in the present Counties of Cork and Limerick. The O’Donovans had their chief castle at Bruree, in the latter county. Their chief seat in the County of Cork was Castle Donovan, in West Carbery.

Donovan, the progenitor after whom the family name O’Donovan was called, was the son of Cathal, a Chief of Munster, who lived in the tenth century. Cathal MacDonovan, Prince of Cairbre Eva, fought at the battle of Clontarf under King Brian in 1014. In 1201 the chief of the O’Donovans was seated in the present County of Cork, where he was slain by the O’Briens and De Burgos. Crom O’Donovan seized and held from the O’Driscolls a large portion of Corca Luighe, to which he gave the name of Cairbre. The O’Donovans being the most powerful tribe in Corca Luighe when McCarthy Reagh became Prince of that country, the name Carbery was applied to the whole territory. It now includes four baronies in the County of Cork.

Donal O’Donovan became chieftain of the sept in 1584. Two years afterward he burned the house of William Lyons, Queen Elizabeth’s Bishop of Ross, on account of the bitter persecution which Lyons inaugurated against the Catholics of the district. He was the last chief of the O’Donovans chosen according to ancient usage, his successors enjoying their position according to the right of primogeniture.

He joined the rebellion of the Earl of Desmond, and afterward supported O’Neill. After the battle of Kinsale he submitted to the English Government, and was pardoned and restored to his privileges. His son Donal was a man distinguished for ability both in war and peace. In the great rebellion of 1641 he raised a regiment and joined the forces of Lord Castlehaven, and participated in all the movements of that General. He was subsequently reduced to great extremities by the Cromwellian forces, who seized upon all his estates, burning, killing and destroying all that came in their way. They blew up the Castle of Raheen and Castle Donovan with gunpowder. In 1650 Donal went to France, where he served under the Earl of Clancarty. After the Restoration he returned to Ireland, where he died in 1660.

His son Donal O’Donovan succeeded as head of the family, and in 1688 he raised a regiment for King James the Second. He was a member of the Dublin Parliament of 1689 and the year following he was appointed Deputy Governor of Fort Charles, Kinsale. On the surrender of that place he was complimented for its able defense by the celebrated Churchill, afterward Lord Marlborough, to whom he capitulated on honorable terms. He was restored to his estates under the treaty of Limerick. He died in 1703.

Richard O’Donovan, born in 1764, was a General in the British army, and served in Holland under the Duke of York.

The greatest and most honored of this name is Dr. John O’Donovan, the celebrated antiquary. He was born in the County of Kilkenny, in 1809. He was for many years engaged on the Ordnance Survey of Ireland. Besides his numerous contributions to periodicals on archaeological subjects, he edited many important publications, such as the Battle of Magh Rath, the Tribes and Customs of Hy Fiachrach, and the Book of Rights, which, with the exception of the Brehon Laws, is deemed the most valuable extant document illustrative of the clan government of the ancient Irish; and in 1845 he published his excellent Irish Grammar. But the great work of his life was the translation and editing and annotating of the Annals of the Four Masters. This work gained for Dr. O’Donovan a high place among European scholars, and brought him many honors from universities and institutions of learning.

This work embraces six octavo volumes of 3,764 pages, and an index of 405 pages, Irish and English on opposite pages, often more than half the pages being occupied by the editor’s notes, embracing every variety of topic—historical, topographical and genealogical—upon which the text requires elucidation or correction, and without which it would be comparatively worthless, even to the learned.

In conjunction with his brother-in-law, the learned Dr. Eugene O’Curry, he also translated the Senchus Mor, or ancient laws of Ireland. “O’Donovan,” says an Irish writer, “may be said to have been the first historic topographer that Ireland ever produced, and in this department he will in all probability never be equaled, as a combination of circumstances similar to those under which he acquired his knowledge is not likely to arise again.”

His work was accomplished under almost overpowering difficulties, and in the face of neglect and discouragement on the part of his own people.

“His fortress was a nation wreck’d,

His foes were falsehood, hate, neglect,

His comrades few;

His arsenal was weapon-bare,

His flagstaff splinter'd in the air,

Where nothing flew!

“Had Sarsfield on Saint Mary’s Tower

More sense of weakness or of power,

More cause to fear

Weak walls, strong foes, the odds of fate,

Than had our friend, more fortunate,

The victor here?

“Far through the morning mists he saw

Up to what heights of dizzy awe

His pathway led;

A-bye what false Calypso caves,

Amid what roar of angry waves,

His sail to spread!

“On, on he press’d from rise of sun

Until his early day was done,

Strong in the truth;

As dear to friends, as meek with foes,

At evening’s wearied sudden close

As in his youth.

“He toiled to make our story stand,

As from Time’s reverent runic hand

It came, undeck’d

By fancies false, erect, alone,

The monumental arctic stone

Of ages wreck’d.

“Truth was his solitary test,

His star, his chart, his east, his west;

Nor is there aught

In text, in ocean, or in mine,

By chemist, seaman, or divine,

More fondly sought.

“Not even our loved Apostle’s name

Could stand on ground of fabled fame

Beyond appeal;

But never sceptic more sincere

Labored to dissipate the fear

That good men feel.

“The pious but unfounded fear

That reason in her high career,

Too much might dare;

Some sacred legend, some renown

Should overturn or trample down

Beyond repair.

“With gentle hand he rectified

The errors of old bardic pride,

And set aright

The story of our devious past,

And left it, as it now must last,

Full in the light!

“Beneath his hand we saw restored

The tributes of the royal hoard,

The dues appraised

On every prince, and how repaid;

The order kept, the boundaries made,

The rites obey’d.[1]

All tribes and customs in our view,

He had the art to raise anew,

On their own ground;

But chief, the long Hy Nial line,

We saw ascend, prevail, decline

O’er Tara’s mound.

“The throne of Cashel, too, he raised—

High on the rock its glory blazed,

And, by its light,

The double dynasty we saw

Decreed by Olliol Ollum’s law,

Emerge from night.

“Happy the life our scholar led

Among the living and the dead—


’Mid precious tomes, and gentle looks,

The best of men and best of books,

He daily moved.

“Kings that were dead two thousand years,

Cross-bearing chiefs and pagan seers,

He knew them all;

And bards, whose very harps were dust,

And saints, whose souls are with the just,

Came at his call.

“For him the school refill’d the glen,

The green rath bore its fort again,

The Druid fled;

Saint Kieran’s coarb wrought and wrote,

Saint Brendan launch’d his daring boat,

And westward sped!

“For him around Iona’s shore

Cowl’d monks, like seabirds, by the score,

Were on the wing,

For North or South, to take their way

Where God’s appointed errand lay,

To clown or king.

“He marshall’d Brian on the plain,

Sail’d in the galleys of the Dane—

Earl Richard, too,

Fell Norman as he was, and fierce—

Of him and his he dared rehearse

The story true.

“O’er all low limits still his mind

Soar’d Catholic and unconfined,

From malice free;

One Irish soil he only saw,

One state, one people, and one law,

One destiny!”


[1] The Book of Rights.

Edmond O’Donovan, son of the former, the famous war correspondent and explorer, was killed a few years ago in the Soudan, Africa, in the massacre of Hicks Pasha’s army by the Mahdi. O’Donovan’s entry into Merv in 1881—the first European who had achieved that feat in modern times—his subsequent elevation to the chieftainship of the Merv Turcomans, and his numerous adventures in Central Asia read like extravagant romance. His brother, William O’Donovan, also a noted war correspondent and journalist, died in New York a few years ago.