O’Donnell Abú – An Irishman’s Diary about an apocryphal apostrophe in the Killiney house dispute

Clan-do attitude

 Brian O’Donnell. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

Brian O’Donnell. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA


Everything about the Gorse Hill house dispute has been so over the top (including the site, which is on the far side of Killiney Hill from where I’m facing) that you don’t know what to expect next. So when I read a report in our online editions on Wednesday about a press conference at which “the O’Donnell’s position” would be outlined, I naturally took this at face value.

On closer inspection, the punctuation mark before the “s” turned out to be a misplaced, or “rogue” apostrophe, which was quickly caught and is now helping the grammar police with its inquiries. But quick as it was, the arrest came too late to prevent an imagined historical melodrama unfolding in the Irishman’s Diary department.

In this scenario, the dispute over the mansion had been suddenly escalated by the inauguration of Brian O’Donnell, solicitor, as clan chieftain.

Presumably encouraged by his friends in the traditionalist New Land League, he had been helicoptered from Killiney up to Donegal, and was there sworn in on the Rock of Doon, as countless previous O’Donnell clan leaders had been since the days of Niall of the Nine Hostages.

The elaborate ceremony was presumably a mixture of Christian and pagan rites (minus certain unspeakable acts with a white mare which the 12th-century historian Giraldus Cambrensis probably only made up to blacken the name of Gaels in general).

It included a recitation by the clan’s Bard of the rules and responsibilities of leadership. After that, the chieftain-elect was handed the slat bhán, or “white rod” of authority. Then, as “the O’Donnell,” formally constituted, he descended the inauguration stone, circled it three times, and was flown back to Dublin for the press conference.

Perhaps there, he would have announced joint plans, with his ally the O’Neill, to avenge Kinsale. But alas, none of this actually happened. As I say, the reference should have been to the plural “O’Donnells’ position”, which is no fun at all. Grammar can be such a spoilsport sometimes.

I’m not sure, by the way, if it was part of the O’Donnells’ position that their mansion was a “bog standard” residence, as claimed famously later that night on the Vincent Browne television show. That was the description by the New Land League’s Jerry Beades, speaking unofficially on the family’s behalf. But perhaps we should allow him bardic licence.

By a useful comparison, the Tirconnell O’Donnells lived in a wide variety of accommodations during their centuries of rule. These ranged from a lake dwelling, or crannog, to the splendid Donegal Castle. And maybe the house on Vico Road is marginally nearer the former than the latter. Even so, “bog standard” is stretching it.

As for the actual clan chieftainship, it does still exist in the 21st century, if only in title. And strange to say, the latest “O’Donnell” also lives in Killiney, although in rather more modest surrounds than Gorse Hill. His name is Fr Hugh, a Franciscan Friar who worked in Zimbabwe for years but is now semi-retired at the friary’s Dun Mhuire house.

And Dun Mhuire is an apt place for any O’Donnell, never mind the main one, to be. Among other things it boasts a fine library, which inherited part of a much older collection (since shared with UCD) that once belonged to the Franciscans’ Donegal friary. Which, as historians will know, was where the Four Masters compiled their famous Annals during the turbulent 1600s.

And yet, apt as his surroundings might be, it seems that the nominal latter-day head of the clan is a very reluctant one. When I tried to contact him yesterday, he was between appointments. But one man who answered a phone told me that Fr Hugh “doesn’t use the title”. And another, who said he’d pass on my number, warned “he really doesn’t like talking about it”.

There should no such reticence with his putative successor, or tánaiste, because the next in line to the nominal chieftainship is a Spanish nobleman, Don Hugo O’Donnell, who has at least two other titles already. He is, inter alia, the seventh Duke of Tetuan, an honour descended from an ancestor, Leopoldo O’Donnell, prime minister of Spain in the mid-1800s.

And after Don Hugo, I gather, the honour would next devolve to another nobleman, Douglas Count O’Donnell von Tyrconnell, who lives just as far away from Donegal, near Salzburg. No doubt it’s in the nature of royal lines, Gaelic and otherwise, to be scattered across Europe. But in this case it also reflects the continuing consequences of another great Irish foreclosure controversy, the Flight of the Earls.


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