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DonnellyFamilies bearing the surnames O'Donnelly, Donnelly, and Donneely are most probably derived from the original Gaelic family O'Donnaghaile (this has been anglicized from the Gaelic), meaning 'descendant of Donnghal'. In Gaelic, 'dhonn' means 'brown',and 'galach' means 'valiant'. The Donnelly family is one of the 65 most numerous in Eire, comprising nearly ten thousand persons. Practically all belong to the Ulster clan, which is described here.

The surname originated in the 10th century. This distinguished family belonged to that group of clans known as Cinel Eoghain, of whom the O'Neill family is perhaps the best known in history. They were located in Ulster and derive their name and descent from Donnghal, the fourth descendant of Domnall, King of Aileach, and brother of Niall Glundhubh (black knee), the famous ancestor of the O'Neills. This would make Donnqhal the great, great grand-nephew of Niall Glundhubh, although it has been recorded elsewhere that Donnghal was the great grand-nephew of Niall Glundhubh. He was also seventeenth in descent from Niall the Great, ancestor of the royal house of O'Neill.

The chief of the O'Donnelly clan was hereditary marshal of O'Neill's forces: Donnell O'Donnelly, who accompanied Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, in the Battle of Kinsale (1603) as 'captain of one hundredmen', who fought bravely in that hopeless, one-sided struggle until he and all his men were slain. His nephew, Patrick Donnelly, was a noted captain under Sir Phelim O'Neill in the rebellion of 1641.

The O'Donnellys were originally seated at Druim Lighean, (now anglicized to Drumleen), a short distance to the north of Lifford in County Donnegal. They were expelled by the Cinel Conaill sometime before 1641. Patrick Modardha O'Donnelly captured the Castle Caufield in 1641, and it was renamed Ballydonnelly. Located to the west of Dungannon in Co. Tyrone, it was at Ballydonnelly that the celebrated Shane O'Neill (Shane the Proud) was fostered by the O'Donnellys. Later, Ballydonnelly was granted by James I to Sir Toby Caufield, ancestor of the Earl of Charlemont, and renamed Castle Cautield. This is the area where the Donnelly family is still most numerous.

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