A Letter from Ireland:

The Irish Surname Donovan


Tracey Ulrich asked for more on the “Donovan” family name (you can see Tracey’s story at the end of this post).

The Origin of the Name Donovan.

Donovan (or O’Donovan) comes from the Irish Ó Donnabháin. They were originally part of the Uí Fidghente sept of County Limerick – but moved into West Cork in the twelfth century where they became a leading sept in their own name.

O'Donovans in Skibbereen

O’Donovans in Skibbereen

The O’Donovan clan got their name from “Donnabhain” – a son of Callaghan – a Munster King from the 900s. Until the 1100s the stronghold of the O’Donovans (and the Uí Fidghente) was around the River Maigue and the modern County Limerick town of Bruree. They then left Limerick for West Cork to join their fellow Uí Fidghente family – the Collins clan – who had left Limerick some decades earlier.

About 75% of O’Donovans use the O prefix in Ireland today – the rest remain “Donovans“. Many O’Donovans left Ireland around the time of the famine in the mid 1800s. At that time, the O was often missing from the surname in Ireland to counter anti-Gaelic sentiment in Ireland. It was later revived in many cases in Ireland – but Donovans who had already left for the US and Canada typically remained “Donovan“.

Like to add your 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.

Home Counties of the O’Donovans.

Today, you will find most O’Donovans in West Cork and a much smaller number in Limerick – although a smaller sept also settled in County Kilkenny.

O’Donovan Family Castles.


Castledonovan undergoing conservation

The O’Donovan sept would have about seven castles in Ireland associated with their name – between County Limerick and County Cork. One that is currently being conserved – and worth a visit – is Castle Donovan in a beautiful dramatic setting near the town of Drimoleague in West Cork.

Tracey’s Family Story.

My ancestor from Ireland was my gr-grandmother Bridget Donovan whose parents were Patrick Donovan and Mary Sullivan.  Her birthdate is either June 29th, 1866, 1867, or 1868 OR Oct. of 1866 (census records vary!).  Having a bit of trouble with her county of origin as some family members say Waterford and others say Cork.  This is one of my stumbling blocks!  Bridget came to America in 1890 and by 1897 married a William Killinger; previously, in 1894 she had a son named Edward Cummings, Jr. but I do not know much about that.  She settled in Reading, PA and had several children to William and died on Christmas Day of 1935.

Bridget was known to be quite feisty and enjoyed smoking a corn cob pipe and having a drink!  She always claimed to be “42 yrs old”, which could explain the devil of a time I’m having with her birthday.  She was known to have went and bought a rope for her husband William after a particularly spirited row where he threatened to do away with himself!  She had red hair and blue eyes and was of the Catholic faith.

Tracey Ulrich, a proud gr-granddaughter and happy to have some Irish blood.

If you would like to add what you know about the O’Donovan surname, tell the story of your Donovan family OR ask a question – please do so below in the comments section.

Togher Castle

Togher Castle – A McCarthy Castle now owned by a Donovan

Remember – at Your Irish Heritage we consider an “Irish Surname” to be one that belongs in your family. It may belong to an ancestor who lived in Ireland at one stage. We consider old Gaelic, Viking, Norman and planter names to be all Irish – if they fit this criteria.

  • Melinda Stahl says:

    My great great great grandfather is Denis Donovan who was born in 1795 in County Cork. By the 1820s he had moved to New York, USA and then on to Ontario, Canada. I don’t know much about him but here is an interesting story: Donovans Point: An interesting part of local history is that it tends to get clouded with anecdotal tales – people, places and time periods get mixed up and erroneous conclusions are drawn. We have two such tales for Big Rideau Lake, that of Donovans Point and that of Murphys Bay. The tale for Donovans Point is that an Irish canal worker fell sick and on his deathbed requested that he be returned to Ireland so that he could be buried in Irish soil. There was no money to return him to Ireland, so instead a small plot of land was consecrated as being Irish and he was buried on the Rideau, in “Irish soil.” A much more embellished version of this fictional tale appeared as a factual article in the Sept 2, 2007 edition of the Ottawa Citizen.

    This tale has its roots in the burial of Dennis Donovan. Dennis, born in about 1795, immigrated to Canada from County Cork, Ireland. He may have ended up working on the Rideau Canal (not substantiated, there is no actual evidence for this). In 1842, he bought 50 acres of land in the area near Donovans Point. He and his family operated an apple orchard and truck (market) garden in this location. He died on December 18, 1851 and was buried on his property. When his widow and son sold the property in 1860, it was for the entire 50 acres with the exception of a small parcel, 9 feet long by 6 feet wide, the burial place of Dennis Donovan. One story (not verified) goes that the deed for this 9 foot by 6 foot wide plot was given to the City of Cork in Ireland. These are the roots of the fictional “Rideau Canal worker buried in Irish soil” story. Donavan’s headstone was found in 1970, it read “DENIS DONOVAN departed this life Dec. 18, 1851 aged 56 years, a native of the County Cork, Ireland.”

    His son, Henry Donovan, is my great great grandfather. He worked in Chicago for awhile as a carriage maker and then moved to Bates County, Missouri in the 1860s, where my family still lives today.

    Thank you for all of the work you do for this website!

    • Mike says:

      Melinda – that is such a GREAT story – I can see how it passed down through generations. I might pass it onto a local newspaper here in Cork and see if they can do some factchecking – what do you think? Thanks again – Mike.

    • Barbara Brown says:

      My third great grandfather is reported to have been a Dennis O’Donovan who emigrated from Cork with a land grant in the famine. I cannot locate him. He had a daughter named Hanora or Hannah. I wonder if it might be the same person.

      • Sandra Colby - Bowman says:

        My Irish Grandmother’s line has been my “brick-wall” for some time and recently an Irish cousin who is a O’Donavan told me my Great Great Grandmother we had listed as nNora may be named Hanore and also that we have Donavan/O’Donavan family members but I have yet to tie this all together. My Grandmother was daugter of a John Cashman and her mother was Mary Ellen Donahue who’s mother was Nora (possibly Hanore Murphy) and that is the line the Donavons come in … I’m still searching……

    • David Donovan says:

      Melinda, I was just reading your post and the names “Big Rideau Lake and Westport stood out.
      My Father Harry Donovan of Brockville had relatives the Kiliteys that lived on Foley mountain Westport and my namesake grandfather David Donovan reportedly worked on the boats between Westport and Ottawa.I have done a little research into our family history but unfortunately It seems to dead end with James Donovan who was my great grandfather.One other name that came to light was a certain James Donovan but I have little information about him

      • james donovan says:

        My name is james donovan unfortunatly i know nothing about my family line really want to find out more our donovan line are in australia thats i know

    • David O Donovan says:

      Phenomenal story.. As an O Donovan of West Cork myself I decided to look up my name and it’s heritage to learn a thing or two, and I’ve got my wish, thanks for sharing!

    • Suzanne Pitts says:

      I had a grandfather from Missouri, cannot find anything on him. He married my grandma after he made is way to Oregon. His name is James Donovan born around 1886. Is it possible he is a descendent of the Donovans in Bates County Missouri. Thanks Suzanne Pitts

  • Earl Joseph Tolbert (Donovan) says:

    I am traveling to Ireland this summer. I have been trying to find family for many years. My great-grandfather, Claude Donovan came from Ireland and moved to Indiana where my great grandmother gave birth to my grandfather. Not being a good dad, my great grandfather asked the Tolbert family there to watch after my grandfather and never returned. So he, my father and I now have the surname of Tolbert but my blood is Donovan. I wish I could find more.

  • Oh, I forgot the most important part, my great grandmother died giving birth to my grandfather, that is why he was given to the Tolbert family by my great grandfather

  • catherine donovan guynes says:

    My Donovan ancestors seem to have the names Thomas and Hayden, my great grandfather being Thomas Hayden Donovan. Can you help?

    • sheila smith says:

      hi Catherine. We are related to a Thomas Hayden who died years ago. He owned a few movie theaters in the Boston area. I am 75 and so it stands to reason he died long ago. My father’s name was Charles S. Donovan. He was born in Somerville, Ma. His father came from Kilbrittain. His name was Michael and Michael’s father was named John. John came here during the potato famine during the 1850’s

  • Darla Andres says:

    Thank you for stories of the O’Donovans. My grandmother was Margaret Donovan from Cedartown Georgia. She was married to Sherman Davis of Welsh heritage. I live in Woodstock Georgia, a little town in metro Atlanta; just in case anyone is curious as to where you can find more of the Donovan blood.

    • Mike says:

      You are very welcome Darla – glad you enjoyed it – do spread it among the other Georgia Donovans! Mike.

  • Patricia Tarpey Golden says:

    Dad born in County Mayo (Charleston) in 1895. His name was Bartholomew Tarpey. Maternal grandmother born in Donegal in 1866 (?). Her name was Mary Maraghey( ?) . Not sure of her spelling of last name. Can you find a record of either my Dad or my grandmother? Dad’s mothers name was Bridget Clossick Tarpey.

  • Maria Beesley Nee Crowley says:

    My Great grand mother Bridget Donovan married John Crowley both ? from Ireland whom married and came to Wales. Bridget was from Limerick John from Cork and Dublin.

  • Maria Beesley Nee Crowley says:

    Forgot to mention Bridget was at the time a very strong independent woman of her time. She spent a lot of time in London, there she was looked after by asomeone very rich, then stories of a famous footballer oh and a priest!!!!! Wow. Very interesting. A lost photo showed a stunning lady with long shining black hair. This all before John. They were devoted. There was also a child a boy Dinis whom they hid and protected. Anyone have any information ! Would love to hear about my exciting family members. Maria.

  • Sheena says:

    I have been able to trace my Donovan ancestors to 1860 when Patrick Donovan married Mary McCarthy in Skibbereen. They had the following children: Johannah (1861), Michael (1862), James (1864), Patrick (1866), John (1868), Daniel (1871) and Jeremiah (1873). They resided first in Lakelands (Klnaclasha) and then Hollybrook (Maulbrack).

    Beginning in the 1880s, four of these children emigrated to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Jeremiah was the last to come to the US with Mary (mother) after the death of his father. The pair arrived at Ellis Island May 6, 1899 aboard the Brittanic.

    I have no idea what happened to Michael and John, as I have no records on them and didn’t know they existed until recently. Also, I do not know when Patrick (father) died.

    I am pretty stuck right now. I am hoping that my trip over next year will help me find out what happened to Michael and John and see if their possible descendants are still around.

    Thanks for listening to my sordid Donovan affair!

    • Matthew Donovan says:

      My great grandfather John had family from Johnstown although he died in Chicago about 1919. We don’t know who his father was.
      My nephew is John Donovan VI

  • judy hartley says:

    I was a Donovan before I married, and I’m having a devil of a job finding when, how, and why my great grandfather Denis Donovan came to Australia. He and his wife Lydia Luck had 12 children, and most of those had heaps of kids as well so there are now thousands of Donovans throughout Australia, thanks to Denis. Some people on Ancestry.com say he was a convict who came out on the ship “Mandarin”, but the details don’t tie in. Some say he was born in Kent England, others say from Cork in Ireland. Some say his father was Thomas Donovan 1795 – 1875, the noted writer. Very confusing to find the truth. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Jude.

    • Rosanne Buck says:

      Judy this is Rosanne Buck (Donovan)
      Denis’s wife was Phoebe(Phaebe) Luck.
      This was probably just a mistake but worth correcting.
      When Sarah Jane (first child) was born at Pilton in 1857
      Denis stated on the birth register that he was born in Ashford, Kent, England. This is in the Donovan Journal written by Ann Donovan and Nancy Andrews. Do you have it? Ring me in Wynnum if I can send you a copy of it.

  • CK says:

    Friends countrymen, I need a hand – I am of clan Donovan (O’Donovan) – late 1800s, early 1900s – grandfather Joseph Henry Peter (married A néé White girl, also of royal heritage, but ENGLISH) – apparently became a pirate (according to the Queen) was therefore disinherited, lost castle, family fortune, fled for South Africa, fought for the Boers in the Anglo Wars, imprisonned by the English, sent to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as POW.
    Anyone with some insight or extra info, please?

    many thanx

  • I’m davi donovan related to the donovans corneilious and michael around tuttle creek penn and that place they say the grounghog comes out. my great grandfathers wife was a brown they came out of canada but there was a family plot in keenes cemetery penn. i do not know who mikes dad and mom in canaqda where thanks

  • Marlene Eckert says:

    I am desperately trying to find family information on Thomas Edward Donovan born abt 1877 and died in 1924 in Baltimore Maryland. At the time of his death he was married to Mary Elizabth Welch/Donovan and they had one daughter, Mary Elizabeth. All I want to know is who his parents and/or siblings were. I found a census that might match. It shows William as the father and Bridget the mother. Siblings included a Mary, John and William. Not sure if that is the family I am looking for. Can anyone help?

  • Eileen Keady says:

    Hello I am looking for information on Timothy Donovan
    from west Cork. He was a survivor from the shipwreck of the Annie Jane which sank off the island of Vatersey,
    outer Hebrides Scotland in 1853. A book is being published on the events of the night ,but the author has
    failed to find out what happened to Timothy Donovan following the shipwreck. It is known that he returned to Ireland, but that is all.

  • Brendan Cottrell says:

    Hi there,

    Is anyone familiar with Margaret Donovan from Skibereen who married Johnny Cottrell (Balitimore), both born in the mid 1890s and emigrated to the USA around 1910 and dettled in Boston?

  • Brendan Cottrell says:

    Hi there,

    Is anyone familiar with Margaret Donovan from Skibereen who married Johnny Cottrell (Balitimore), both born in the mid 1890s and emigrated to the USA around 1910 and settled in Boston? The Donovans settled near the Dorchester area of Boston.

  • Christine Donovan says:

    My grandfather was Lawrence Donovan, and he married an Eliza ? They had sons Lawrence, Thomas, Phillip, Daughters Mary Ann, Liza, Katherine, Nora, does anyone know of my family I am Christine Donovan, my brother Thomas Alfred Donovan does anybody know about my family please

  • Christine Donovan says:

    Is the name Donovan from Irish gypsies

  • Daneen says:

    My gggrandfather, Patrick Donovan, was born in 1845 in Toormore– son of Daniel Donovan and Julia Hartnett. He emigrated to Buffalo, NY, in 1865 and the rest of the family came in 1867, including his parents and brothers Cornelius, Daniel, and Michael, and sisters Bridget, Catherine, Honora, and Julia. Patrick Donovan was baptized in Cork and Ross diocese, West Schull parish, and his godparents were Mick Kingston and Kate Mehigan. I’d like to find more about his father Daniel born about 1818. I believe his parents were Patrick Donovan and Julia Holohan (Houlihan?) and they also had two more boys, Patrick (1820) and James ( 1825).

    • Tara says:

      My great, great grandmother Eliza Donovan and her husband James Cleary came to Buffalo around 1863. They were married in Bantry, Cork, Ireland in 1842. They lived in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada from about 1856 -1863 before settling in the First Ward of Buffalo.
      I am woneeding if our Donovan’s could be related.

  • Chris Donovan says:

    My name is Chris Donovan, and i live in Newfoundland, Canada. The small town i was born in was called Melrose in Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. I am hoping to find my roots someday. I do know that my ancestors came to this island during the potato famine and if what little i have learned so far, they originated from County Cork.

  • Claire says:

    I am the granddaughter if a Michael O’Donovan/Donovan I believe from county Cork. He married a acatherine/Nora Collins. I am desperately trying to find any info on them. They settled in New York . They had seven children Michael,John.william Nora Cathere Any information would be great I don’t know where to begin

  • Davina Donovan says:

    I’m so glad I found this website. My name is Davina Donovan and I’m from Australia, although I am currently in Ireland (county Kerry, having just come from county Cork). I’ve been searching my grandfather, Daniel John O’Donovan and continue to get brick walls. We know he was born around 1912 (died 1984 in England – he moved there at some stage, date unknown, and married my Grandmother, Constance McMahon). My father and his siblings don’t know much about their father at all. We believe he was born in Drinagh!! When I visited Cork and the surrounds I was amazing at how often my name (Donovan) appeared!! It was fantastic. I’m a little restricted also in that I don’t have a car, so relying on public transport has been tough in getting to places. If anyone knows anything (I would love more than anything to meet a relative) I would be so appreciative. Now I’ve left County Cork I’m discovering more and more about the Donovan’s and kind of wish I was back there 🙂

  • Mark Grace says:

    I am sharing the history of the DONOVANs from the Derrylahan townland (Dunmanway) Co. Cork on my research webpage. Would be pleased to hear from anyone connected to this family. Kindly refer to http://creativegraces.net/genindex/odonovan.html., where I have also interests in two other DONOVAN families in West Cork. You can also contact me through my research blog on Facebook as “My Irish Genealogy”

  • Justin says:

    My great great gandparents were Patrick Donovan(Ross County Wexford around 1829) and Anastasia Forrestal Donovan (Cork). They settled in Monroe County, Arkansas buying a farm in 1867. I grew up on that farm. Patrick is buried there.

  • Frank Donovan says:

    I’m looking for information regarding a Malachy Donovan born 1750s?, Lislee parish, and his son William Donovan born 1780s? (married to an Ellen Collins), Rathclarin parish… They are ancestors to my g-g-grandfather Timothy Donovan born 1806? Kilbrittain parish. Any thoughts anybody? His son Daniel Donovan was baptized 1839 Ballinspittal. They came to Boston USA, 1853, where my grandfather James Donovan was born in 1881, and my father Francis Donovan in 1923.

  • carina says:

    Frank, you could check out johngrenham.com and see what you discover.

  • Elise says:

    Does anyone have information on Donovan’s living in Tallow, Waterford in 1800’s?

  • Joe says:

    My ggggrandfather Jeremiah Donovan born 1785 in Cork County. I have not found any information about his descendants. He married Eliza Robinson, born 1785 possibly from England. They were married on Nov 6, 1808 at St. Georges Church, Sydney, Nova Scotia. He died in Ingonish, Victoria County, Nova Scotia ( pre 1861).

    • Cathy says:

      I see that you comment is almost 2 years old. Did you discover anything new? Jeremiah Donovan was my ggggreat grandfather. He and Eliza’s daughter Catherine (1819-1891) and then her son George Colin Brewer, then his daughter Sadie Brewer Williams are my ancestors. Sadie was my great grandmother. Her daughter Susan Williams McGuire was my dad’s mother. There is a book called Early Settlers of Ingonish by Lark Blackburn Szick that has pages of descendants of Jeremiah.

  • Karen Wesdock says:

    I am planning a family trip to Ireland for my Dad’s 75th birthday in July. It is on his bucket list to see the town where his great, great grandfather, Cornelius Donovan was born. Would really like to find the church his family attended. I think I have it narrowed down to 3 churches in Ballinhassig Parish, Cork & Ross. I have an ancestry record of Danl Donovan and Bridgt Sullivan being married in Ballinhassig Parish on Feb. 2, 1845. They had 3 children baptized also in Ballinhassig Parish: Pat Dec. 24, 1845; Corns (Cornelius?) April 12, 1847; Ellen June, 1851. Looks like they had another child (James) in the US (2 years younger than Ellen). I tracked this family down in an 1855 census in Buffalo, NY Ward 11. Census said they had been in Buffalo for 1 year but can’t find any information on where they may have arrived or which port they came from but I believe it would be between 1851 (Ellen was baptized in Ireland in June) and 1853 or 1854 since the 1855 census said they had already lived there one year. I can tie this Cornelius (based on later census and city directory information) to my Dad’s great grandfather and grandfather. So I am 99% certain that I have traced this back to the correct family in Ireland. I have contacted Ballinhassig Parish for help and they said they would get back to me to try to narrow this down to a specific church. Would love to go to Mass at the church my Dad’s great grandfather was baptized in while we are there! If anyone has any other suggestions on how to get more info on the churches or land parcels from the 1840’s – 50’s I would appreciate it. Also trying to track down more on Cornelius and wife Elizabeth Jones. Where are they buried? (I assume in Buffalo). Elizabeth Jones was born in New York (City or State? Not sure.) They had 4 children: Mary, James, Frank (my dad’s grandfather – born Sept. 1886), Nellie (Helen). Cornelius was a Buffalo fireman and they lived on Rhode Island Street and Lakeview. Thanks for any other information you may have on my family!

    • Victoria Vaccaro says:

      I have a Cornelius, Francis, Nellie, Ellen, James, William, May and Mary in my family of Donovans. Mine were from Ireland (don’t know where, I heard Co. Cork) They went to Canada and then to Michigan, Some ended up in Niagara Falls, NY. Some in Washington State. I would love to know about my family. Good luck with your search! Victoria Vaccaro, nee Donovan.

      • John Donovan says:

        Hello. We are looking for tree information of Donovans in Newfoundland, Harbour Main and Conception Bay. Difficult to find. Brothers, Patrick and Daniel, sons of Cornelius, came to Philadelphia in around 1918 – 1925???. Thanks. John Donovan

  • Andrew Donovan says:

    I have traced my Donovan ancestry back to Richard Donovan. My information on him from an old family tree:
    Born June 24th, 1819. Co. Kerry
    He later moved to Canada.

    Has anyone come across this family in their own searches?


  • I am trying to identify the parents of my Great Grandfather’s parents. His name was William Donovan born August 27, 1847 in Canada.
    Thank you

    • Victoria Vaccaro says:

      My great (maybe great-great) grandfather who was William Donovan came to Canada from Ireland, then to Michigan. I think my grandfather was James and my grandmother Mary. They ended up in Niagara Falls, NY I would love to have info on my family.

  • Chris Barto says:

    trying to find my gg Thomas Cornelius O’Donovan 1710-1766 from Cork. Had at least one son Patrick born 1755. Appreciate any help.
    Christine Donovan Barto

  • John Joe Donovan says:

    Thru DNA we now have proof that most O’DONOVAN’s of West Cork are Descended from a 3rd Century King of Ireland Eoghan Mor and are kin to the group called Eoghancht such as McCarthy, O’Sullivan etc. Our Clan is considered by Ireland as a Eoghancht sept but we as Ui Fidgente were a power to ourselves. We left Bruree to join our Kin the MCCarthys after some problems with Brian Boru and his family , later the High King .
    We had a noted expert from Trinity College verify the results !

    John Joe Donovan

  • Mary Campbell says:

    My great grandmother was Ellen T Donovan Williams BIRTH 06/16/1864 • Schull West, Cork, Ireland. Her Father John Donovan and Mother Mary Coughlan Donovan were married Augherdown, Co Cork, January 18th 1859. They both died in Skibbereen in 1877. John Donovan, their second child was born 03/04/1868 • Skull Dispensary, Cork. Mary Donovan Nolan was born 02/12/1871 • Skull Dispensary, Cork,. All three emigrated to Boston in the 1880’s and settled in Lynn Massachusetts .

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