McDonnell, Randal (1870–1944), novelist, poet, and engineer, was born 20 April 1870 at 30 Blessington St., Dublin, the third son among four sons and one daughter of Randal McDonnell, QC, and member of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, and Sara Martha McDonnell (née Carlisle), of Belfast; he was a nephew of the civil and locomotive engineer Alexander McDonnell (qv), and a grand-nephew of Alexander MacDonnell, Bt. (qv), barrister and public servant. He was educated at Armagh Royal School and at TCD (BA, 1893). His first book, An elementary treatise on the steam engine (1894), gave a clear description of the mechanical functioning of a steam engine accompanied by illustrations of locomotive engines; a later edition was re-titled How the steam engine works (1905). He also wrote How to become a locomotive engineer (1899). He worked for a time as an engineer for the Great Southern and Western Railway, and was an inspector for the local government board for many years; he served a brief tenure (1913–14) as assistant librarian at Marsh's library, Dublin. A writer of historical fiction, he used the literary device of ‘editing’ accounts of events in Irish history from the perspective of an individual contemporary. His first novel, Kathleen mavourneen (1898), explores the causes of the 1798 rebellion, and gives vivid descriptions of the several battles around the country as recounted by a fictional participant. There followed With the queen to Killarney, and other sketches (1900), a medley of humorous railway stories that are partly autobiographical. When Cromwell came to Drogheda: a memory of 1649 (1906) is supposedly edited from the record of a Clarence Stranger, a captain in the army of Owen Roe O'Neill (qv), who describes events ranging from the landing of Oliver Cromwell (qv) to the plantation and defence of Clonmel. His next novel, My sword for Patrick Sarsfield: a story of the Jacobite war in Ireland (1907), the purported memoirs of Phelim O'Hara, a colonel in Sarsfield's cavalry, likewise fuses fiction and historical fact, and was critically acclaimed on its publication. Ardnaree (1911), his last novel, is the story of an English girl living in Connacht in the years after the French landing of 1798, and incorporates the social life and political sensitivities of the period.
McDonnell wrote poems for the New Ireland Review, Irish Book Lover, and Green and Gold, and published several books of verse. The tower of St Michan's, and other verses (1902) collected poems previously published in Irish magazines and in the Irish-American monthly The Gael. The Irish squireens, and other verses (1906), expresses his romantic nationalism, and includes poems elegising poet James Clarence Mangan (qv), historian W. E. H. Lecky (qv), and the recently deceased Lady Mary Catherine Ferguson (qv), a personal friend of McDonnell. A study in starlight, and other poems (1919) covers similar themes, the subjects of its elegies including Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv), Charles Stewart Parnell (qv), and Thomas Kettle (qv); several selections assert the patriotism of those Irish who fought and died under British arms in the first world war. His last collection, Songs of seaside places, and other verses (1932), not only includes poems expressing his love of the sea, but also several extolling Irish rugby. In 1905 McDonnell founded the prize for Irish in TCD in memory of Samuel Ferguson (qv) and Lady Ferguson (Mary Catherine Ferguson). He married Mary (‘Moura’) Hamilton, and had one son. He died 15 March 1944 at his home at 5 Longford Terrace, Monkstown, Co. Dublin.