A Letter from Ireland:
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Do You Know this Irish American Hero?

In this letter – we have a look at an Irish American hero who got the Hollywood treatment – all the way back to the earliest times of his clan in Ireland.

A Still from Bridge of Spies

Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to your own Letter from Ireland for this week. We’re feeling a hint of autumn in the air in Ireland (it usually kicks in at the end of August) but hopefully there are a few more days of warm weather tucked away in those weeks of September. How are things in your part of the world today?

I’m having a nice cup of Barry’s Tea as we speak – and I do hope you will join me now with a cup of whatever you’re having yourself as we get into today’s letter.

We have just arrived back from a very successful visit to Chicago and Milwaukee – and took full advantage of the movies on offer in the airplane. One in particular caught my attention – it was a new film by Steven Spielberg. The director of Jaws and Schindler’s list always offers some great entertainment. In this case, the film in question was only so-so – but it did remind me of a letter that I received from one of our readers some time ago and I would like to share it with you today.

So, in today’s Letter we are going to combine a little Hollywood, a little ancient Ireland, and the connection between one of our readers and an old Irish surname.

The Stone House in The Woods.

About 20 miles to the east of where I am now sitting, lies the colourful market town of Clonakilty. Have you ever visited this lovely place? The name comes from the Irish, “Cloich na Coillte” (pronounced “Cluck-na-killta”) which in turn derives from “the stone house in the woods”.

As a town, Clonakilty has only been around since the 1600s – but various Irish Gaelic tribes have inhabited it’s hinterland for thousands of years. I’m sure you are familiar with many of the surnames in this area – names like Barry, Buckley, Collins, Connolly, Cronin, Crowley, Deasy, O’Donovan, O’Driscoll, Hayes, Hurley, O’Leary, O’Mahony, McCarthy, O’Regan and O’Sullivan – to name just a few.

Would you like to add your Irish surname to our list? Just signup for your free weekly Letter from Ireland by clicking here.and we’ll let you know how to join in the fun.

Do You Know this Irish American Hero?

One of our readers, James Donovan, was on to me with the following:

“You  may have seen the recent movie ‘Bridge of Spies’ with Tom Hanks portraying James B. Donovan and Steven Spielberg, the director. James Donovan was my second cousin.

The movie portrays my cousin as a lawyer assigned by the court to represent a Russian spy. Donovan also was a key Nuremberg prosecutor of major Nazi war criminals and was later asked to negotiate the release of the Cuban Bay of Pigs prisoners. Ultimately, his efforts led to the release of almost 1,250 prisoners of war and another 8,000 family members of the prisoners as well as American spies and Military personnel.

His grandfather and grandmother were James and Catherine Donovan (both born in 1850) from Clonakilty, County Cork. At some point I would like to visit Cork and Clonakilty to do further investigation into my ancestry but would be very grateful for any suggestions before my visit.

Very truly yours and Kind regards ,

James Donovan.”

Carina and myself saw “Bridge of Spies“, starring Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, just a few nights back. Have you seen it? It was great! A true story – well worth catching – and with some outstanding performances. What an amazing man – and the movie only hints at his involvement in so many pivotal historical moments.  Thank you for sharing that personal connection, James.

Now, let’s talk about the Donovans.

Where Did The O’Donovans Come From?

In Ireland, we pronounce the name Donovan as “DUNN-a-vun” – and it comes from a mix of the Irish for brown (Donn) and the Irish for dark/black (dubh). Like the majority of Irish surnames, it came about in honour of a particular family member.

O’Donovan’s Hotel, Clonakilty

In 977 AD, Donndubháin, son of Cathal, was the ruler of the “Uí Fidgenti” tribe in what is now modern County Limerick. He was slain later in that year, and his descendants took on the surname “O Donnabháin” (descendants of Donndubháin) in his honour, when the surname system developed across Ireland.

Following the expansion of the O’Brien family into their territories – and the later arrival of the Norman Fitzgeralds – the O’Donovans moved to the southwest of Ireland. There, they joined their fellow Uí Fidgente tribe members (like the Collins’) who had moved south over the previous decades.

The O’Donovans became established as chieftains in the area under the ruling McCarthy Reagh clan. Their lands stretched from around the stronghold of Castledonovan – and east towards the modern town of Clonakilty. Their days as rulers of the area had come to an end by the late 1600s.

The Remains of Castledonovan in County Cork

In the mid-1800s West Cork was one of the areas hardest hit by the Great Famine (an Gorta Mór). Many thousands died, but tens of thousands emigrated from this area to the four corners of the earth over the following decades. Maybe some of these Donovan immigrants form part of your own Irish family tree?

In Ireland, however, things stayed localised. If you want to find the majority of O’Donovans, you need to come to their ancient tribal lands in West Cork. You can see the 1901 census for Clonakilty area here – and see how many Donovans lived in that area alone.

So, we are looking forward to following James and the discovery of his Donovan ancestors – all from near the town of Clonakilty in West Cork – and to meeting him when he finally visits his own ancestral lands.

That’s it for this week. Do feel free to leave a comment below to share any stories you might have from your Irish family tree – or just to say hello!

Slán for this week,

Mike & Carina.

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