The astonishing history of one of Ireland’s great clans

The astonishing history of one of Ireland’s great clans Donegal Castle, home of the O'Donnells.
The O’Donnells of Tyrconnell: A Hidden Legacy

by Francis M. O’Donnell
(Academica Press / Maunsel Irish Research Series, $US95.99/€89.99)


There has been a burgeoning increase in the interest in genealogy in recent years. This has been driven by the access to information on families on the internet and such popular programmes on TV, such as Who Do you Think you Are? But there has always been a significant Irish interest in genealogy.

Edward MacLysaght is generally given the chief credit for this, as he was most active in this regard when acting as Chief Herald of Ireland and with his numerous publications on Irish Clans and families in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

Then there was Eoin O’Mahony, also devoted to family history, he was one of the founders of the Irish Genealogical Society and between 1962 and 1967 Radio Éireann retained him to compère a programme broadcast at Sunday lunchtime, called Meet the Clans.


Successive directors of the National Library of Ireland, especially Dr Brendan O’Donoghue, upgraded its department for research into family history. Then the Clans of Ireland was established in 1989 as an independent organisation to authenticate and register Irish Clans and historical families.

Over the years many excellent family histories have been published not least by graduates of NUI Maynooth. Francis O’Donnell’s magnum opus on his family, running to over 700 pages, is a welcome addition to the genre.

It is remarkable by reason of its range and its subject – the legendary Clan of the O’Donnells. They formed part of the wider Uí Néill federation, descended from the 5th-Century high-king Niall of the Nine Hostages. They rose to the kingship of Tír Chonaill, later Donegal, from about 1200 and continued to hold power until the ‘Flight of the Earls’ (of Tyrone and Tyrconnell) in 1607.

Francis O’Donnell records that he spent 14 years compiling this book and generously acknowledges that much of the research for it was conducted by his father. The catalyst for the book was his father’s determination to probe the origins of the O’Donnells residing in Co Kerry.

Taking his cue from a Gaelic Lament, Francis claims that Donal Óg O’Donnell was the person most likely to have been the ancestor from whom the North Kerry O’Donnells were descended. He was the son of Sir Donal O’Donnell, sheriff, seneschal and heir apparent to the leadership of the Clan, who was murdered by the infamous Iníon Dubh in 1590.

Thus orphaned he was briefly raised in Donegal Castle by his grandfather. He accompanied Red Hugh on the march to Kinsale in 1600. But he undertook a side-expedition to Ardfert, Ballykealy and Lixnaw to assist Gerald FitzMaurice, Lord of Kerry and Lixnaw. Subsequently both he and FitzMaurice were pardoned by King James I.

He was again in arms against the government in London and was among those who fled to the Continent in 1607. He joined an Irish Regiment in the Spanish forces in Flanders and served until he died in 1620. He was buried in the Franciscan Church in the Irish College in Louvain.

Apart from chasing down the lineage of the O’Donnells in Co Kerry, the author traces the background of many other branches of the Clan, especially those in Austria and France. He describes the significant role a number of O’Donnells had in the development of post-revolutionary France.

The book is a cornucopia of information on O’Donnell heraldry and sources of O’Donnell genealogy. It is an example of how family history could and should be written.