Frank Hugh O’Donnell was an Irish politician and journalist, known as a fierce opponent of British imperialism and the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. His grandfather, Hugh, was a cooper in Carndonagh, and his father was born in the town. Born Francis Hugh MacDonald at a barracks in Devon to a sergeant in the British Army. He was educated in Galway at a Jesuit high school and then at Queen’s College, where he rapidly earned a reputation as an orator and controversialist.
In 1874 he was elected Member of Parliament for Galway but, in a judgement probably influenced by political bias, was convicted of electoral malpractice and removed from office. Undeterred, he returned to the Commons three years later as Member for Dungarvan, Co. Waterford, and held that seat until its abolition in 1885. A provocative and popular figure within the Home Rule League, he served the party with champion filibustering and in 1888 he launched the historic libel action against The Times which led to C. S. Parnell’s exoneration from conspiracy in the Phoenix Park Murders.
In Parliament he often spoke on British imperialism in India in analogy with Irish matters. He received a schooling in Indian nationalism from his friend G. M. Tagore, with whom he, J.C. Meenakshya and four other Irish MPs joined in 1875 to form the Constitutional Society of India. Further information was gleaned from his brother Charles J. O’Donnell, a civil servant in Bihar who earned the nickname ‘the enfant terrible of the ICS’ for his public criticism and exposure of government policy. In 1882 he told Parliament that the Irish Party were ‘the natural representatives and spokesmen for the unrepresented nationalities of the empire’ and in 1883 he threw his weight behind a premature campaign to have Dadabhai Naoroji elected to Parliament. In 1905 he sent a message of support to Shyamji Krishnavarma upon his inauguration of India House.
Defeated by Parnell in his bid for the party leadership, O’Donnell abandoned parliamentary politics and, after joining the Irish Republican Brotherhood (Fenians), pursued a chequered career of furious pamphleteering. During the Boer War he secured funds from the Transvaal Government to militate against Irish enlistment, but he was later accused of pocketing the money and condemned by the United Irishman. He spent much of his later career campaigning for secular and mixed education in a series of determined sallies against the political might of the Catholic clergy. He died unmarried at London, and is buried at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.
DERRY JOURNAL ARTICLE ON O’DONNELL’S VISIT TO CARN
– from The Derry Journal, May 25th, 1982
In the palmy days of Parnell it seems to have been regarded as an event of some moment when an Irish town was visited by a Member of Parliament. Carndonagh was the scene of one such occasion back in 1877, and the politician concerned was Mr. Frank Hugh O’Donnell.
A ‘Journal’ account of the big day began by tracing O’Donnell’s association with Carn; his grandfather, Hugh, had worked there as a cooper and it was there that his father had been born. The report proceeded to describe the advent of the great man in graphic terms. ‘Shortly after 2 o’clock on a beautifully fine day Mr. O’Donnell arrived in the town accompanied by Mr. and Mrs. O’Connell, of Moville, where he is staying. Soon the intelligence obtained circulation along the hillsides, glens and valleys of the country, and a large and enthusiastic crowd came swiftly to the town: –
‘Came as the winds come
When forests are rended!
Came as the waves come
When navies are stranded!’
The people of Carndonagh and surrounding districts ‘were evidently proud that the son of a British office, formerly one of themselves, who had won his laurels amid trials and adversity, was here in their midst’. They demonstrated their gratification by illuminating the town as darkness fell and taking part in a procession ‘bearing lighted tar barrels’. It was past eight o’clock when Mr. John Doherty, chairman of the Board of Guardian, took the chair on a platform that had been erected in Church Street and introduced the cause of all the excitement.
STATISTICS AT A PREMIUM
The contents of the speech delivered by Mr. O’Donnell from that rostrum in what is now Bridge Street suggest that he shared the point of view expressed many years afterwards by a noted Derry orator that ‘the people aren’t interested in statistics.’ If we are to accept the repeated cheers credited by the ‘Journal’ reporter, his words appear to have had a rousing effect on the audience. ‘Who,’ asked Frank Hugh, ‘could gaze unmoved upon the Aileach of the kings, the seat of the enthronement of 40 Northern monarchs of Erin? (cheers). Who could sand on the banks of the Castle River, at Buncrana, and recognise without a bitter pang that a ruined turret was al that remained of the noble castle of the proud O’Doherty? What heart could remain unstirred at the remembrance of the last closing scenes in the life of gallant Cahir Roe and the fate of the heroic Shaun O’Doherty, dragged at the tail of a wild horse through the streets of Buncrana, and beating out his faithful life upon the flinty tracks because he had refused to betray to the English victor the refuge of his chieftain brother? (prolonged cheers). Every spot of Inishowen was holy and historic ground (cheers). Upon it had beaten the fiercest fury of the foreign invasion; but, in spite of confiscation and massacre and eviction, the men of Inishowen and of Donegal had declined to go either to hell or Connaught (loud and prolonged cheers) – but were still more resolute than ever that the rule of the stranger should cease to weigh upon the old land of O’Doherty and O’Donnell (great cheers).’
A brief reference to the parliamentary tactics of the day brought the speech to a close. The Irish Party were not obstructionist for the sake of obstruction. If John Bull wanted a peaceable and happy life, he had only to grant entire justice to Ireland and Mr. Parnell (great and prolonged cheers from the audience) would cease from troubling him.
A few words from Father Devine, C. C., Carndonagh, a vote of thanks to ‘the Member’ proposed by Dr. O’Doherty and seconded by Mr. Harkin, and the crowd dispersed – some of tehm no doubt to assess the merit of Mr. O’Donnell’s oration and to ponder the political problems of the hour over a measure or two of a commodity which was considerably more plentiful in the Inishowen of 105 years ago than it is today.
Imagine the reaction there would be in these days of countless forms of recreation and amenity – the motor car, the telephone, television, radio, the cinema, electricity, central heating, various sporting activities, municipal complexes, discos and the rest – if it was to be suggested that a pleasant and elevating evening should be spent listening to the outpourings of an elected representative, however eminent!
Life was hard in the Ireland of a century ago, and for many years later. Opportunities for relaxation were few, far between and lacking in variety. But were the people less happy than the pleasure-sated and often bored masses of today? I, for one, very much doubt it.