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All About an Irish Surname: O'Donnell

All About an Irish Surname: O'Donnell

Posted by Justine Mikaloff on 15th May 2019

They came from Donegal, but their destiny was to bring their family might to the world. They’ve fought for centuries to secure their place in the world, as promised by the patron saint of Ireland himself. What prestigious family are we talking about? The O’Donnell clan. With an illustrious family history and the backing of St. Patrick, the O’Donnells are one of Ireland’s preeminent families.

The modern name O’Donnell derives from the old Irish spelling “O’Domhnaill,” which translates to “descendant of Domhnaill.” Taking it a step further, the root words of “Domhnaill” are “domhan” (translating to “the world”) and “all” (which means “mighty”). The name O’Donnell literally translates to “world mighty” or “world rulers.”

The O’Donnells have been prominent in Irish life, and the clan has produced a variety of notable figures throughout history, including soldiers, church officers, authors, and politicians. With a name that brings to mind thoughts of world domination, how could they be anything but eminent figures?

A map of clan holdings in Ireland around 1450 showing the O'Donnell clan's territory comprising most of today's County Donegal and Tyrone.

According to legend, the O’Donnell clan is descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages, whose son Conall was baptized by St. Patrick himself. Domhnaill, the namesake of the O’Donnell clan, is a descendant of Conall.

The O’Donnell family motto translates to “under this sign we are victorious.” The family coat of arms features a yellow background, on which a prominent red cross is held by a closed hand. The family crest and motto are particularly important when considering the family history. According to the 17th Century Book of O’Donnell’s Daughter, St. Patrick gave the O’Donnells their family crest when he struck Conall’s shield with his crozier, leaving the sign of the cross on the shield. According to the legend, St. Patrick told Conall that as long as he and his descendants followed this sign, victory would follow them. Hence, the family motto that the sign (of the cross) brings them victory.

Traditionally, the O’Donnells owned a small territory around Kilmacrenan, but their influence and territory grew until they became the undisputed lords of Tirconnaill (Donegal). The family became one of Ireland’s most powerful clans by the 13th century, despite having to constantly fight to defend their lands. The O’Donnells had a particularly interesting relationship with their distant kinfolk the O’Neills (who were also said to be descendents of Niall of the Nine Hostages). For centuries, the two families alternated between friendly trade relations and wars for territory.

The Nine Years War And The Flight Of The Earls

"The Gaelic Chieftain," a sculpture by Maurice Harron commemorating the 400th anniversary of Red Hugh O'Donnell's 1599 victory at Curlew Pass during the Nine Years' War. (Gareth Way Photography)

The O’Donnells’ continued dominance in the Tirconnaill region continued until the Nine Years War. In 1587, Red Hugh O’Donnell, the clan’s heir apparent, was kidnapped and imprisoned by the English in Dublin Castle along with two members of the O’Neill family. Hugh O’Neill organized a rescue mission, and the three prisoners managed to escape in 1592. The next year, Red Hugh led a rebellion against the English government, and in the years that followed the O’Donnell clan took the lead in fighting against the English in Ireland. After O’Donnell and O’Neill forces lost at the Battle of Kinsale, Red Hugh fled to Spain, hoping to find help for the Irish cause. Unfortunately, he died shortly after arriving on the Continent (allegedly poisoned by a spy working as a double agent for the English).

Red Hugh’s younger brother, Rory O’Donnell, the first Earl of Tirconnaill, was one of the Irish nobility who took part in the “Flight of the Earls,” in which many of the most powerful remaining Irish leaders departed from Donegal and headed for mainland Europe.


Today, O’Donnells can be found in many countries around the globe, making important contributions to their new home nations in fields as wide and varied as the clan’s diaspora.

Cardinal Patrick Joseph O'Donnell.

Patrick O’Donnell (1855-1927) was ordained by the Catholic church. At the time he was appointed bishop in 1888, he was the youngest bishop serving in the Church. He also served as the Archbishop of Armagh before he was created a Cardinal and assigned to the Church of St. Mary of Peace in Rome. Among his accomplishments with the Church were several building projects (including a cathedral, St Eunan’s Diocesan College, and the Presentation Monastery). He was also a great supporter of the restoration of the Irish language and culture, and helped to found the Four Masters School, an Irish summer program for teachers in St. Eunan’s College.

Elliott O'Donnell, ghost hunter.

Elliott O’Donnell (1872-1965) was an Irish writer best known for his supernatural work. He was a ghost hunter, and claimed to have seen a ghost when he was a young child. Through his paranormal investigations and writing, he became known as an authority on ghosts and the supernatural. 

Lawrence O'Donnell (Wikimedia Commons)

Lawrence O’Donnell (b. 1951) is a producer, writer, and actor, known for his work on The West Wing, Mister Sterling, and The Campaign. He also hosts a television show, The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell, in which he offers political commentary from politicians, political strategists, and journalists.

Actress Rosie O'Donnell (Wikimedia Commons)

Rosie O’Donnell (b. 1962) is an Irish-American actress, talk show host, and comedienne. She is known for her roles in such films as A League of Their Own, Sleepless in Seattle, The Flintstones, and Tarzan, has worked extensively in television as well. She was host of The Rosie O’Donnell Show, which won several Emmy awards. She also lends her voice to political activism and is a prominent member of the LGBTQ community.

Actor Chris O'Donnell (Wikimedia Commons)

Chris O’Donnell (b. 1970) is an American actor, producer, and director who started a career in modeling at the age of thirteen. Now, however, he is known for his role as Robin in 1997’s Batman and Robin. He also stars in the television series NCIS: Los Angeles.