Donovan Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Donovan Surname 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 pronunciation of the name in Ireland is closest to Dunaven.  

O’Donovan outnumbers Donovan by more than two to one in Ireland. But elsewhere Donovan prevails.

Donovan Surname Resources on The Internet

Donovan and O’Donovan Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Cork)
  • to America, Canada, Caribs (Barbados), South Africa and Australia

IrelandThe 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 some prominence in the 1500’s.

In 1560, after fighting among the O’Donovans, Donal O’Donovan of Clancahill – known as Donal of the 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 English invaders. However, at the decisive Battle of Kinsale in 1601 he came out on the English side and profited from this treason. Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa commented later:  “Donal  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 Richard 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.

John O’Donovan, 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 Irish 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 Ireland 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 ninety.

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 Pacific Northwest. His home on Garden Street in Bellingham, Washington was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1983.

There 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 1850’s 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.

Canada.  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 Breton.
  • Simon Donovan, also from Cork, was recorded as a Seizing Officer at the fishing port of Arichat in 1846.

Caribbean.  There were Irish among the early settlers of Barbados, including Tym Donovan who was recorded in the 1715 census. Donovans were to be found at St. Philip parish in the 18th and early 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 Donovan 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 War.

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 Donovan 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 Surname 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:

  • “Hereditary 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 follows:

  • 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 Kavanagh
  • William who married Mary Oberlin, a Puritan, and died in 1749
  • 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 York 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.”

His 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 Easter 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 everything, think that they have provided against everything; but, the fools, the fools, the fools! — They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these 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 famous swordsman in France.  Afterwards he married a MacCarthy, Eleanor MacCarthy.

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, decided to go to India about 1830 with the Donovan children to claim her brother’s 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 there.

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

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 robbery in 1823 and sentenced to life transportation to the penal colony of New South Wales.

They were held on a hulk vessel in Cork harbor until they were picked up 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 another 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 Masters.
  • 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 Republic 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.

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)

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.


Written by Colin Shelley

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