Donovan Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Donovan Meaning
The Irish Donovans can trace their name back to Donnabhain, a 10th century Munster chief in present-day
Limerick. The Donnabhain
name was composed of the Gaelic elements donn meaning
“brown, dubh meaning “black,” plus the
diminutive suffix an. And
O’Donovan has meant “
descendant of Donnabhain.”
The p
ronunciation of the name in Ireland is closest to
O’Donovan outnumbers Donovan by more than two to one in Ireland. But elsewhere Donovan prevails.

Donovan Resources on

Donovan Ancestry

The O’Donovan initial
base in Limerick
had been along the Maigue river.
From there
Cathal O’Donovan had marched with Brian Boru to Clontarf
in 1014 to fight
the Viking invaders. However, the
O’Donovans were expelled from this land in the late 12th century by
rival clans.

They were eventually settled in the West Cork
area by the MacCarthys, bringing with them the name of their ancestral
territory of Ui Cairbre. That name has
survived in the west Cork barony name of Carbery. The
O’Donovans, as vassals of the MacCarthys,
slipped into relative obscurity for two centuries before returning to
prominence in the 1500’s.

In 1560, after fighting
among the O’Donovans, Donal O’Donovan of Clancahill – known as Donal of
Hides – was inaugurated with the white wand as chief of the O’Donovans
by the
MacCarthy Reagh. His son Donal II played for and against the
invaders. However, at the decisive
Battle of Kinsale in 1601 he came out on the English side and profited
this treason. Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa
commented later:

and his heirs held landlord possession of lands that belonged equally
to their
clansmen. England protected them in that
landlord possession of the robbery from their own people.

At this time the O’Donovans of Clancahill in west Cork
were at their peak of
their powers. They held some 100,000
acres in and around Carbery and had seaborne access through the harbor
at Castlehaven. Castle
Donovan was their stronghold.

But Donal III ran foul of Oliver Cromwell and had his
estates confiscated in 1652. Then Donal
IV was outlawed in 1691 because he was a Catholic.
Some O’Donovans fled to France at this time.
One line ended up at Malaga in Spain. Nevertheless
the direct family line was able to continue in Ireland until 1829 with
O’Donovan, a general in the Napoleonic Wars, and then was passed to a
cadet line.

There were other O’Donovan lines that also continued:

  • the
    line from Daniel O’Donovan of Feenagh, also outlawed in 1691, continued
    in Munster. Feenagh here hearkened back to
    the original O’Donovan
    homeland in Limerick.
  • and a line from Mortogh O’Donovan of Glandore castle in Cork
    established itself at Camolin in county Wexford in the late 1600’s. There are still Donovans at the Ballymore
    estate there. The line included Edward
    Westby Donovan who
    fought in the Crimean War
    and was later commander of the British troops in Hong Kong.

, the eminent Irish scholar of the 19th century,
claimed a descent from Donal II O’Donovan; while the lineage of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, the
Fenian, was said to have gone even further back, to the descendants of
Aineislis O’Donovan who had come early to west Cork.

Many O’Donovans left
around the time of the famine in the mid-1800’s. At that time,
the O was often
missing from the surname in Ireland to counter anti-Gaelic sentiment in
Ireland. It was later revived in Ireland. But Donovans who
had already left at that time remained Donovan.

America. Maryland seems to have been the state with the
first Donovans in America. Timothy
Donovan married Mary Calhoun in Baltimore in 1706.
Their son Daniel who lived through the
Revolutionary War brought his family to Bracken county, Kentucky in
1792. He died there in 1808 at the good
age of

John Donovan, born in 1791
in West Virginia, had been a captain in the War of 1812 and later
settled in
Dorchester county, Maryland. His son
John migrated west after the Civil War to Missouri.

Among 19th century immigrants were Patrick and
Julia Donovan from Cork who came to Rumney, New Hampshire in the 1850’s. Their son J.J. headed west as a railroad
engineer who later involved himself in logging operations in the
Northwest. His home on Garden Street in
Bellingham, Washington was placed on the National Registry of Historic
in 1983.

were Donovans in Chicago from the 1830’s.
Mike Donovan, the famous boxer of the bare-knuckle era, wrote:

“I was
born in Chicago on September 27, 1847 of Irish parentage.
My grandparents were among the first settlers
of the city.”

His son Arthur was a well-known boxing referee, his grandson Art
Jr, a defensive tackle for the Baltimore Colts who
was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of
Fame in 1968.

Timothy O’Donovan had been born
in Skibbereen, Cork and raised there by an uncle who was a parish
priest. After marrying Mary Maloney whose
parents had
disapproved of him, he departed Ireland for Canada and then in the
settled in Buffalo, New York. There they
dropped the “O” from their name. Grandson
William (Will Bill) Donovan, born there in 1883, made his name
with the
Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War Two.
He is generally recognized as America’s first
and foremost spymaster.

Nova Scotia was a focus of Irish and Donovan
immigration in the years after 1815.
Jeremiah Donovan arrived around 1816 and Simon Donovan in 1827:

  • Jeremiah and his family were from Cork and
    they settled at Ingonish in Victoria county. Donovans
    are still found there and at Glass Bay on Cape
  • Simon Donovan, also from Cork, was
    as a Seizing Officer at the fishing port of Arichat in 1846.

There were Irish among the early settlers of Barbados, including Tym
who was recorded in the 1715 census.
Donovans were to be found at St. Philip parish in the 18th and
19th century. However, another early
Donovan in the Caribbean was from England.
James Donovan from Gloucestershire owned the Vaughan sugar
plantation in
Antigua on his death in 1812.

South Africa. Jonathan
and his family from London were among the pioneer
British settlers to South Africa in 1820.
He later migrated to India where he died. His
family returned to South Africa and son
George settled to farm in the Orange Free State. His
son Edward was a casualty of the Boer

Australia. Michael Donovan
was an early convict to
Australia who managed to return to Ireland.
Convicted in Tipperary in 1791 for shooting at the King’s men,
he was
shipped out two years later. By 1802 he
was married and a farmer in the Hawkesbury area of NSW.
But seven years later he left his common-law
wife and family and went back to Ireland.

Dennis Donovan was less fortunate. He was
hanged in Sydney in 1814 for the
murders and rape he had carried out in the Hawkesbury area. Another Michael
was transported from Cork on the convict vessel Prince Regent 3 in 1824. On
receiving his pardon he moved to the
Melbourne area, but later accidentally drowned.

Later came Donovan
settlers. Their numbers included Dennis
Donovan, born at Clonakilty on the border of Cork and Tipperary, who
came to
Melbourne with his brother Timothy and sister Mary on the Tasmania
in 1858. They
settled at Yangery Creek near Warrnambool where they farmed. Daniel and his wife Margaret raised fourteen
children there.


Donovan Miscellany

The Early O’Donovans in Limerick.  The following medieval topographical poem (shown below in translation) set out the early rights and
territory of the O’Donovans:

to O Donnabhain of Dun Cuirc
Is this land, as a land of encampment;
To him,
without tribute, belonged the land along the sluggish Maigh.
And the plains down
to the Sionainn.”

Their extensive territory followed the Maigue river in
Limerick before they were forced to move elsewhere in the late 12th
century by the
O’Briens and other rival clans.

One sept, later represented by Daniel O’Donovan of
Feenagh, had allied themselves
with the Anglo-Norman overlords and did remain.
They were still recorded there in 1549. 

John O’Donovan’s Lineage.  John O’Donovan is often considered as the foremost
Irish scholar of the 19th century.  In a
letter to Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in 1856, he laid out his lineage as

  • from
    the senior branch of Clancahill, descended from the elder son Donal II
    O.Donovan who died in 1638
  • Edmond who married Catherine de Burgo but was  killed in 1643
  • Conor who married Rose
  • William who married Mary Oberlin, a Puritan, and died in
  • Edmond
    who married to Mary Archdeacon and died in 1798
  • Edmond who married Mary Oberlin
    and died in 1817
  • to John O’Donovan who was married to Mary Ann Broughton,
    a descendant
    of Cromwellian settlers.

The Death of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.  Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa was seriously ill in his later
years and was finally confined to a hospital bed in Staten Island, New
where he died in 1915 at the age of 83.

The new republican movement in
Ireland was quick to realise the propaganda value of the old Fenian’s
death and cabled the message: “Send his body home at once.”

body was returned to Ireland for burial and a hero’s welcome. The
funeral at Glasnev in
cemetery in Dublin was a huge affair, garnering substantial publicity
for the
Irish Volunteers at a time when a rebellion – later to emerge as the
Rising – was being actively planned.

The graveside oration, given by
Patrick Pearse, remains one of the most famous speeches of the Irish
independence movement, stirring his audience to a call to arms.
It ended
with the lines:

They think that
they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of
us and
intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen
think that they have provided against everything; but, the fools, the
the fools! — They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds
graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”

O’Donovans in France.  One line from Daniel O’Donovan, the outlawed MP for
Baltimore in Cork who died in 1694, led to Timothy O’Donovan, a student
at the
University of Toulouse in France in 1754.
On July 15 of that year it was said that he vanquished the most
swordsman in France.  Afterwards he married a MacCarthy, Eleanor

They had two sons, Richard and Daniel.  Daniel
is thought to have been the last
survivor of the Irish Brigade in France.
After the French Revolution the Irish Brigade officers were
permitted to
join the British army, which Daniel did.
He died in Ireland in 1835.

Donovans in South Africa and India.  Joseph Donovan,
a taxidermist by profession, was born in 1794 in London.
His wife Susanna Clark had first married a
composer called Samuel Garbett with whom she had two children.
Her brother had
been to India and made some money then died.

So Joseph and Susanna, after going
to South Africa with their four children as part of the 1820 settlers,
to go to India about 1830 with the Donovan children to claim her
inheritance.  This unfortunately had been
frittered away and already dispersed.  Joseph managed to find a
job in India
where he decided to stay.  About two or three years later he died

then took the children and left for South Africa in 1835 on the Roxburgh Castle.   She
died just before they arrived at Cape

Matthew Donovan in Australia.  Back in Ireland Matthew Donovan had been a member of
Michael Collier’s
highwayman gang in the Dublin area.
Together with other gang members he was tried and convicted of
in 1823 and sentenced to life transportation to the penal colony of New

They were held on a hulk vessel in Cork harbor until they were picked
in January 1824 by the convict vessel Prince
Regent 3
.   They
traveled via Rio de Janeiro and arrived
in New South Wales in June.

Matthew became an assigned convict in the Goulburn
area.  He later received a Ticket of
Leave and a Conditional Pardon. Leaving New South Wales, Matthew moved
to the Melbourne
area.  He lived in Richmond Flat and
worked as a wood-seller, going out into the bush felling trees, cutting
them up
and returning to the city and selling the wood.

In 1844 he was married to Margaret Purcell at Saint
Francis Roman Catholic church in Melbourne.  They
had a daughter Eliza in 1844.  However, in
July 1846 Matthew drowned in the
Yarra river while out with friends celebrating the intended arrival of
child.  Margaret gave birth to another daughter three months later.



Donovan Names

  • Donal O’Donovan,
    known as Donal of the
    Hides, was inaugurated as the first chief of the O’Donovans in 1560. 
  • John O’Donovan was an eminent Irish scholar of the 19th
    century, publishing an Irish grammar and the first complete edition of
    the Annals of the Four Mast
  • Mike Donovan was a champion
    bare-knuckle boxer in America in the 1870’s and later one of the foremost
    teachers of the sport
  • Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, born Jeremiah Donovan, was
    an Irish Fenian leader and a prominent member of the Irish
    Brotherhood in the late 19th century. 
  • Wild Bill Donovan was the most decorated American soldier of World War One and headed the US Office of Strategic Studies in
    World War Two. He is known as the father
    of American intelligence. 
  • Jason Donovan is an Australian actor and singer who rose to fame in the Australian TV soap Neighbours in the 1980’s.

Select Donovan Numbers Today

  • 10,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in London)
  • 18,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 28,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)


Select Donovan and Like Surnames 

The Irish clan or sept names come through the mists of time until they were found in Irish records such as The Annals of the Four Masters.  The names were Gaelic and this Gaelic order was preserved until it was battered down by the English in the 1600’s.

Some made peace with the English.  “Wild geese” fled to fight abroad.  But most stayed and suffered, losing land and even the use of their language.  Irish names became anglicized, although sometimes in a mishmash of spellings.  Mass emigration happened after the potato famine of the 1840’s.

Some surnames – such as Kelly, Murphy and O’Connor – span all parts of Ireland.  But most will have a territorial focus in one of the four Irish provinces – Leinster, Munster, Ulster, and Connacht.

Munster in SW Ireland covers the counties of Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford.  Here are some of the Munster surnames that you can check out.



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