Gaelic clan chieftain who returned to his ancestral home

Daniel O’Donovan: May 4th, 1931 - January 26th, 2016


Morgan Gerald Daniel The O’Donovan, who has died aged 84, was chief of one of the leading families of the old Gaelic nobility.

Belying this hereditary designation, originally reasserted by a 19th-century forebear who was a direct descendant of the 10th century Munster chieftain Donnubán mac Cathail, The O’Donovan was known to his friends as Dan.

Born in Pau in southern France, he saw little of west Cork in his early life as the family had moved in 1917 to England, where he was educated at Stowe in Buckinghamshire before completing his national service with the Royal Irish Fusiliers and taking an honours degree in history at Trinity College, Cambridge.

In 1950, his father, Brigadier The O’Donovan, retired from the British army, having served in Iraq and other theatres of war, returning to Ireland with his wife, who had inherited Hollybrook House near Skibbereen.

Idyllic days

By the time he came to Dublin in the early 1970s, he was much travelled, having worked as a manager with the sewing thread manufacturers Coats in Australia, Singapore, Cuba, and Colombia.

He became chief executive of the Irish division of Wates, the UK family-owned builders, then run by an old school friend, Neil Wates, who asked him to set up their Irish venture.

However, when the enterprise was hit by the economic downturn of the 1970s, the Wates family sold a majority stake in the Irish operation to the McGraths and sold off their land bank.

On moving to Skibbereen, The O’Donovan and his wife, Jane, took to their new life with energy and enthusiasm. Besides turning his hand to farming and gardening, he was a fine shot, a keen angler and a skilled sailor.

To generate income, they let redundant quarters at Hollybrook as a venue for tourists, occasionally facilitating interest groups by opening the main Edwardian house, which then lay generally unused.

For the far-flung O’Donovans, it was a historic place to stay. From browsing the internet, they learned some of their ancient origins, and that, even after the fall of the Gaelic order they were one of the few Irish families of Carbery and Munster still recognised by the English to be of royal extraction. No doubt they even learned The O’Donovan’s name in Irish: Murchadh Gearóid Dónal Ó Donnabháin.

His son, Morgan Teige Gerald The O’Donovan, a solicitor, now lives at Hollybrook House with his family. The younger daughter, Mary is married to Francis Chamberlain, grandson of former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain.

The O’Donovan took an active interest in the Church of Ireland, serving on the synod for many years. He became a governor of Midleton College, a Church of Ireland secondary school, and regularly attended board meetings and other school functions. Between him, his father and uncle, they gave 28 years as governors of the east Cork college.

He was chairman of the Council of Irish Chiefs, a body which included clan leaders such as The O’Donoghue of the Glens and McGillycuddy of the Reeks.

Clan gathering

He is survived by his widow, Jane, son, Teige, daughters Katherine and Mary, and sister Kate.