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O'Donovan ( [o:'d̪ˠɔn̪ˠəˌvˠɑ:nʲ]) or simply Donovan is an Irish surname, as well as a hereditary Gaelic title. It is also written Dhonnabháin in certain grammatical contexts, and Donndubháin, being originally composed of the elements donn, meaning lord or dark brown, dubh, meaning dark or black, and the diminutive suffix án. Ó derives from the earlier Ua, meaning grandson or descendant. Compare O'Donoghue and O'Sullivan, containing the same elements.

Historical origins and associations; Carbery

Ireland about the year 1100, showing kindreds.

A royal race in Munster, with their main fortress at Bruree, the O'Donovans were Cairbre Eva (or Uí Chairpri, see map) princes of the ancient petty kingdom of the Uí Fidgenti (Wood People), once approximately co-extensive with the modern County Limerickmarker, and were for many centuries allies of the Eóganachta, to whom they may be related by common descent from Ailill Flann Bec (or Ailill Aulom), or possibly by marriage, or both. Their extensive territory followed Limerick's River Maiguemarker, before the O'Briens and FitzGeralds, by political pressure, forced them south into County Corkmarker in the 13th century. Here they acquired more possessions, some at the expense of the powerful O'Driscolls, and are still very numerous. In this move the O'Donovans were greatly aided by their ancient allies the O'Mahonys.

Undisputed cousins of the O'Donovans by patrilineal descent appear to be the MacEnirys, also of the Uí Cairbre kindred. They remained in Co. Limerick as Lords of Connello, holding considerable estates until the Cromwellian Settlement. Many Traceys belong to the Uí Cairbre as well.

However, at times more powerful was the competing and likely somewhat larger sub-kingdom of Uí Chonaill Gabra within Uí Fidgenti, and it is possible that the Uí Cairbre, in the new form of the O'Donovans, owed their increasingly greater local position in the later period to more extensive interaction with the nearby Norse of Limerick Citymarker. Uí Conaill Gabra did not survive the Norman Invasion of Ireland, but modern representatives include many O'Collins, who joined the O'Donovans in their move to Co. Cork, and Kenneallys and Flannerys. Not much more distantly related are many Lyons and Lehanes, from the Gaelic Ó Liatháin, of Uí Liatháin, a once powerful kingdom of Co. Cork sharing early ancestors with the Uí Fidgenti (see below).

The O'Connells of Kerry are arguably the most famous modern sept of the Uí Fidgenti. Their pedigree can be found in O'Hart and Cronnelly.

Over the long course of their alliance and friendship with the Eóganachta, the O'Donovans have been closest to the O'Mahonys and to the MacCarthy Reaghs. The so-called Ivernian or Érainn families with whom they have been associated are the O'Driscolls and especially the O'Learys, both descending from Lugaid mac Con, an early High King of Ireland.

Later, the title Prince of Carbery (Cairbre) would be adopted by the MacCarthy Reaghs, as the O'Donovans ceased to be a prominent political force and came to be seen as subjects of the Desmond dynasty, although they were treated with honour and were entitled to receive the White Wand in recognition of their former status. The MacCarthy Reaghs came to be known by this former title of the O'Donovans even as far as France, where Justin MacCarthy Reagh of Spring House, Banshamarker, County Tipperarymarker was made Count of Toulouse. The O'Donovans enjoyed a privileged status under their new princes and they would eventually intermarry to some extent.

Sadly, out of all their relations and allies just mentioned, by strange accident, only the O'Donovans still retain a hereditary title.

Danish period (mid 10th to early 13th centuries)

From their association with the Limerickmarker and Waterfordmarker branches of the Dublinmarker based Uí Ímair dynasty, the O'Donovans are possibly descended from the Danish sea-king and dynast Ivar the Boneless Ragnarsson, through a daughter of Ivar of Limerick, married to the family's eponymous founder, Donndubhán mac Cathail, prince of Uí Fidgenti. In fact for a number of generations after this marriage the ethnicity of the early O'Donovans is in question, and during this period they are perhaps better described as Dano-Irish or even Norse-Gaels, if the number given Scandinavian names such as Røgnvald and Óláf is evidence. See O'Donovan, Cronnelly, O'Hart, and Todd, for their pedigrees.

Donndubhán mac Cathail is a major figure and opponent of Mathgamain mac Cennétig and his brother Brian Boru in the Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib. He was (possibly) in large part responsible for the death of Mathgamain, and was slain for it, together with his brother-in-law Harald Ivarsson (Aralt mac Imair), newly elected king of the Danes and Norse of Munster, by Brian in or around the year 978.

Map showing the Norse settlements in Ireland

Another figure was Donndubhán mac Ímhair (Ivarsson) of Waterford, a son of Ivar of Waterford, presumably by a daughter of Donndubhán mac Cathail. Mentioned several times in the Annals for his involvement in slayings, he was slain himself in or around the year 996.

It is also worth noting that according to the Caithreim Cellachain Caisil and the Annals, Uainidhe mac Cathail, king of Uí Cairbre, and grandfather of Donndubhán mac Cathail, was slain at the Battle of Cromadh (Croom) by the forces of that king, ancestor of both the O'Callaghans and the MacCarthys. At this point, what would become the O'Donovan family does not yet appear to be allied with the Norse, although contacts with Limerick should have gone back to at least this time.

Finally, Óláf Mór Ua Donndubháin, king of Uí Cairbre, was slain by the O'Briens and De Burghs around the year 1201. Olaf Mor may be the last O'Donovan, Prince of Carbery. The line of Clan Cathail comes through the contemporary Røgnvald (Raghnall) Ua Donnubháin, Mael Ruanaidh mac Raghnaill, and Crom mac Mael Ruanaidh, father of Cathal Ua Donnubháin, from whom Clan Cathail. The O'Donovans had tried to make greater territorial gains than they had the resources for, contesting with the better situated and fresher Dál gCais, and it would be many generations before they would recover some of their former status.

Rev. John Begley, of St. Munchin's, gives an account of the Christianization of the Danes of Limerick by the O'Donovans, and their long intermarriage. See also Westropp.

Later history

Castle Donovan
After their move south the O'Donovans fell into relative obscurity for several centuries, fragmenting into several smaller-sized lordships. Clan Cathail, with its main seat at Castle Donovan or Castledonovan (Caisleán Uí Dhonnabháin), and Clan Loughlin (Lochlainn) both survived into the Early Modern Period. Clan Aneislis and Clan Ivar (or Gilla-Reagh) are less well documented. Notably, the names of two out of these four known septs, Lochlainn and Ivar, after their founders, are evidence the O'Donovans brought some amount of their acquired Scandinavian heritage with them from Co. Limerick to the southern shores of Co. Cork.

In the 16th century, the O'Donovans once again appear on the Irish landscape with the celebrated Domhnall na gCroiceann, or Donnell of the Hides, Lord of Clan Cathail, and his descendants. Through his and for several generations after, the O'Donovans were able to maintain intelligent, adaptable control over their small territories and so take advantage of occasional good fortunes, thus preserving their dynasty in a time when many others were failing. The second great factor was their status as vassals of the enormously wealthy and prudent MacCarthy Reaghs. It can be said they were very fortunate and could not have done better for overlords in Ireland. The MacCarthy Reaghs were beloved to many. Finally, Clan Cathail specifically owe their dominance to the O'Learys of Carrignacurra. Approaching the 20th century, the O'Donovan family was one of very few Munster dynasties remaining.

In the early 19th century all was almost lost in the strange failure of the senior line, that of General Richard O'Donovan of Bawnlahan, but was ably saved by the recent cadet branch of Reverend Morgan O'Donovan of Montpelier, ancestor of the current Lord of Clan Cathail (for whom see below).

Genealogical tourism

In modern Irish genealogical tourism, Castle Donovan has become the peculiar focus, and obsession, of what has become known as the "O'Donovan Clan". See excellent coverage by Caroline Legrand. This frightfully decrepit but still imposing "monument", rising to six or seven stories in height, has recently been taken over by the Irish State for restoration. In 2000 a stone plaque was unveiled close to the ruin "by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Sile de Valera T.D., on the occasion of the O'Donovan Millennium Clan Gathering", as it reads.

Why this occurred at what is only the former seat of Clan Cathail, and not at the great Dun Eochair (Maigue) close to Bruree, seat of the Norse-Gael Donndubhán himself, is unexplained. This was formerly one of the greater royal seats in all of Ireland, and possibly a residence of Ailill Aulom, whose name might be preserved in Lissoleem, another name for the ancient fortress. Alternative spellings of Bruree are Bru Ri, Brugh Riogh, Brugh Righ, Brughriogh, Brughrigh, Brug Rig, Brugrig.

The early O'Donovans of Limerick are also believed to have had a fortress at Croommarker, and another named Cathair Cuan, believed to have been near Bruffmarker. It was at this latter that Brian Bórumha slew Donndubhán mac Cathail and his brother-in-law Harald Ivarsson. They may also have been seated at Adaremarker, but this has not been proved.

For some of the castles the O'Donovans have built or occupied in Co. Cork, see the work of Carroll and Langford. A couple have interesting histories but none are of great importance and so should not be dwelled upon. O'Donovan's Seat close by Castle Donovan is of more cultural importance than the castle itself. Ireland and Scotland are covered with thousands of such towers and tower houses, which are of Norman inspiration.

Castle Donovan itself is said to be cursed and haunted by a Braon Sinnsear or "constant drop", caused by the family of Dorothy Ford, whom Daniel O'Donovan and Teige-an-Duna MacCarthy hanged from the tower "to deprive her and her family of debts lawfully due unto them", and it "will never cease to flow until the last of the race of the said Daniel O'Donovan is extinct". Perhaps his line will at some point have to change their name. The constant drip of water from the ceiling of the lower chamber, or from the arch, is said to be her tears.

One son of Donnell of the Hides, Dermot or Diarmaid O'Donovan, was hanged by Dónall Cam Ó Súilleabháin Béirre in 1581 at Lathach-na n-Damh, and the oak tree, called Dairiheen Diarmada, was still standing in the mid-19th century. It is said he was encouraged by Elizabeth I to mount an expedition into O'Sullivan Beare's territory.

Mythology and prehistory

The O'Donovans have long been associated with the goddess Clídna of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, as one of her primary locations, Glandoremarker, was for hundreds of years in the possession of the family. She is mentioned in the ballad O'Donovan's Daughter by the poet Edward Walsh. Other families with special knowledge of Clídna include the MacCarthys, who adopted her as their fairy woman (probably through the O'Donovans), and the O'Keeffes and FitzGeralds, with whom she has had some amorous affairs.
Anciently, the O'Donovans are believed to be of the same race as the powerful and semi-mythological High King of Ireland, Crimthann mac Fidaig, and his sister the queen and/or goddess Mongfind. These were grandchildren of Dáire Cerbba (Cearba, Cearb, also Dáre Cerbba: Dara the Ravenous, possibly... but see MacKillop for Dáire), a dynast of uncertain origins but listed in Uí Cairbre and Uí Fidgenti genealogies as well, either as the son or twin brother of Maine Munchaín, when the two are even distinguished. Because Fiachu Fidgenid, from whom the Uí Fidgenti derive themselves, was either an uncle or first cousin of Crimthann mac Fidaig and Mongfind, it has been argued the O'Donovans then belong to one of the handful of Irish kin groups which has provided the island with a recognized monarch, however shadowy. Thus this also theoretically relates, although very distantly, the O'Donovans to the Connachta and to the surviving House of O'Conor, Mongfind being the first wife of Eochaid Mugmedón. A third branch of the line of Dáire Cerbba and Maine Munchaín were the well known Uí Liatháin, who are known to have colonized parts of Walesmarker and Cornwallmarker.

Both the Annals of the Four Masters and Geoffrey Keating agree that Crimthann and Mongfind were children of Fidach and grandchildren of Dáire Cearba.

According to the Forbhais Droma Dámhgháire, Dáire Cerbba (Ceirbe) was king of the Mairtine, an early people of the region of Emlymarker who were derived from the Érainn. Whether this is meant to say that he came from them, in which case so might the O'Donovans, or whether he was seated there as a Eóganacht dynast, or seated there at all, is unknown. In Rawlinson B 502 it is stated that he was born in Brega, County Meathmarker. It has also been suggested that the Uí Fidgenti and Uí Liatháin were related to the Dáirine, themselves associated with the Corcu Loígde, the so-called Érainn of the historical period.

Dáire Cerbba is also believed an ancestor of the O'Donovans in Music has ended: The Death of a Harper, composed by the 16th-17th century bardic poet Tadhg Olltach Ó an Cháinte. A possible family tree, based on the most ancient genealogies, and on the surviving stories of Crimthann Mór and Mongfind, children of Fidach:

                                                  Mug Nuadat
                                                Ailill Aulomm
                                                  Eógan Mór
                                               Fiachu Muillethan
                                               Ailill Flann Mór
                                               Ailill Flann Bec
|                                                     ?
|                                                     ?
Luigdech/Lugaid                                (Maine Munchaín)
|                                                     ?
|                                                     ?
Conall Corc (Eóganachta)                         Dáire Cerbba
|                                                     |                                                     |
|                                                     |                                                     |
Fidach                                  Fiachu Fidgenid (Uí Fidgenti)             Eochu Liathán (Uí Liatháin)
|                                                     |
|                                                     |
Crimthann mac Fidaig                                  Mongfind = Eochaid Mugmedón = Cairenn
                                                               |                  |
                                                               |                  |
                                                           Connachta      Niall Noígiallach (Uí Néill)

It should be noted that some genealogies of later origins remove Dáire Cearba as the grandfather of Crimthann and Mongfhind and instead place him only as the ancestor of the Uí Liatháin. In these Fidach is made a son of Ailill Flann Bec, apparently in an attempt to associate his children more closely with the Eóganachta, while Maine Munchain becomes the ancestor of the Uí Fidgenti. Ailill Flann Bec thus goes from having one or two children to having four. Similar occurred with Ailill Aulomm becoming an ancestor of the Dál gCais.

Finally, although he was not an O'Donovan himself, the great Irish leader Michael Collins, being from a remnant sept of the Uí Chonaill Gabra, the Ó Coileáin family of Carbery, was also a descendant of Dáire Cearba and Maine Munchaín. Daniel "The Liberator" O'Connell was also a descendant, and so of a branch of the Uí Fidgenti and Uí Chonaill who found themselves in County Kerrymarker.


To date, fairly few O'Donovans have been tested, but it is expected that in the future the various Eóganachta relationships will be better understood. It will also be possible to separate the Eóganachta from the so-called Érainn of the historians if in fact that is even possible. There appears to be a South Irish R1b cluster which is distinct from the Irish Type 3 of the Dál gCais to the immediate north, but this is all that is clear so far. It may turn out that both the Érainn and Eóganachta, and the Laigin too, derive from the Continental Celts known to the Greeks and Romans, as indeed has been argued for decades (see O'Rahilly's historical model).

Notable scions

The O'Donovan

Morgan Gerald Daniel O'Donovan is The O'Donovan, Lord of Clancahill, Chief of his Name and Arms. Born in Paumarker, France, in 1931, the only son of the late Brigadier Morgan John Winthrop O'Donovan (1893-1969), The O'Donovan, M.C., by his wife Cornelia Bagnell (d. 1974), he succeeded to the Chiefship in 1969. Educated at Stowemarker and Trinity College, Cambridgemarker, The O'Donovan currently resides in Skibbereenmarker, West Cork. The Chief is a member of the Executive Committee of the Church of Ireland and has served as Chairman of the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains. Married to Frances Jane, only daughter of the late Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, KG, GCB, GCMG, KBE, DSO, with whom his father served in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, he has issue: a son and Tanaiste, Morgan Tiege Gerald (b. 1961), and two daughters, Katharine Jane (b. 1962) and Cecilia Mary Cornelia (b. 1966).

Currently, O'Donovan is joined in Munster by O'Donoghue of the Glens, McGillycuddy of the Reeks, O'Callaghan (Tortosamarker), and of course by the princely Baron Inchiquin, and O'Grady of Kilballyowen.

O'Donovan is profiled and interviewed in Curley, Chambers, and Ellis.

Wild Bill Donovan

William Joseph Donovan was the head of the Office of Strategic Services and the father of the Central Intelligence Agency. A son of 1st generation immigrants, Wild Bill Donovan's family was from Skibbereen. He was also the grandson of an O'Mahony, Mary Mahoney, wife of his grandfather Timothy "Big Tim" O'Donovan. The couple came to New York Citymarker from Goleen in Skibbereen. Wild Bill's father was "Young Tim", and his mother Anna Letitia Lennon. There exists no comprehensive biography of William Joseph Donovan to date but Troy and Brown are the classic starting points.

John O'Donovan

One of Ireland's most celebrated historians was John O'Donovan, who claimed descent from the 16th century Lord of Clan Cathail Domhnall na gCroiceann (Donnell of the Hides). He published an Irish Grammar and translated and edited the first complete edition of the Annals of the Four Masters, and is often regarded as the greatest Irish scholar of the 19th century. The enormous amount of knowledge collected by John O'Donovan in the Irish countryside is still frequently relied upon for research, for example the recent title on Royal Inauguration in Gaelic Ireland by Elizabeth FitzPatrick.

A son of John O'Donovan was Edmund O'Donovan.


Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa was an important leader of the Fenians and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, organizations founded by the scholar John O'Mahony.

Also, a sept of Donovans have established themselves in Argentinamarker. General Antonio Donovan-Atkins, son of the Cork-born naval surgeon Dr. Cornelius Donovan-Crowley, was an important military leader and a Governor of the Chaco, where he appears to have a department, General Donovan, named after him.

Military, intelligence


Other notable people



See also



General works

  • Barry, Terence B., The Archaeology of Medieval Ireland. Routledge. 1988.
  • Burke, Bernard and Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd, Burke's Irish Family Records, or Burke's Landed Gentry of Ireland. London: Burke's Peerage Ltd. 5th edition, 1976.
  • Duffy, Seán (ed.), Medieval Ireland: An Encyclopedia. Routledge. 2005.
  • Edwards, Nancy, The Archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland. Routledge. Reprint edition, 2007.
  • Forte, Angelo, Oram, Richard, & Pedersen, Frederik, Viking Empires. Cambridge. 2005 ISBN 0-521-82992-5.
  • Foster, Roy (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland. Oxford University Press. 2001.
  • Holman, Katherine, The Northern Conquest: Vikings in Britain and Ireland. Signal Books. 2007.
  • Hudson, Benjamin T., Viking Pirates and Christian Princes: Dynasty, Religion, and Empire in the North Atlantic. Oxford. 2005.
  • Koch, John T. (ed.), Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. 5 volumes or single ebook. ABC-CLIO. 2006.
  • Larsen, Anne-Christine (ed.), The Vikings in Ireland. Roskilde: The Viking Ship Museum. 2001. (excellent general articles)
  • MacKillop, James, A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford. 1998.
  • MacLysaght, Edward, Irish Families: Their Names, Arms and Origins. Irish Academic Press. 4th edition, 1998.
  • Mac Niocaill, Gearóid, Ireland before the Vikings. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan. 1972.
  • Monaghan, Patricia, The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Facts On File. 2004.
  • Ó Corráin, Donnchadh, Ireland before the Normans. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan. 1972.
  • Ó Cróinín, Dáibhí (ed.), A New History of Ireland: Prehistoric and Early Ireland, Vol. 1. Oxford University Press. 2005.
  • Welch, Robert (ed.) with Bruce Stewart, The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature. Oxford University Press. 1996.

External links

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