O'Donnell, Frank Hugh (1846–1916), politician and writer, was born 9 October 1846 at Devonport, England, as ‘Francis’, son of Colour-sergt Bernard O'Donnell (MacDonald) of Cardonagh, Co. Donegal, of the Northumberland Fusiliers, and his wife Mary, daughter of William O'Cahan (Kain) of Ballybane, Co. Galway. He was educated at St Ignatius College, Galway, and QCG, gaining a BA with second class honours (1865) and MA first class (1868). He was first year law scholar (1865–6), third year law scholar (1867–8), senior law scholar (1868–9) and a gold medalist. At QCG he was an active figure in the college debating society where he was a contemporary of T. P. O'Connor (qv); he was known for encyclopaedic knowledge, and as a fine speaker advocating catholic national views and a budding author who (as ‘Francis Hugh O'Donnell’) penned his first pamphlet, Public education, in 1867.
At some point O'Donnell was initiated into the Irish Republican Brotherhood but soon deserted the movement. His Mixed education in Ireland (1870) attacked the queen's colleges. In the early 1870s he went to London, where he lived for a while with O'Connor, who helped him secure journalistic commissions. O'Donnell contributed to the catholic weekly, the Tablet, and also to the Spectator before securing an appointment on the conservative Morning Post, where he specialised in foreign affairs. At the National Conference held in Dublin in November 1873 which established the Home Rule League, he advocated parliamentary ‘activism’. O'Donnell's conception of home rule was very much akin to that of Isaac Butt (qv); he advocated it within the empire.
Entering politics as a supporter of home rule and denominational education, he stood unsuccessfully for Galway borough in the general election of 1874. On 20 March 1874 he captured the same seat, only to be disqualified on petition for clerical intimidation. A member of the council of the Home Rule League from 1874 to 1880, he also was on the executive of the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain, its vice-president 1875–80, and honorary secretary 1876–8. Meanwhile, in 1876 his reports in the Spectator (reproduced as ‘The first alarm’ respecting the Bulgarian outrages, 1876) drew attention to the Turkish massacres in Bulgaria. O'Donnell's ambition to enter the house of commons was realised on 24 January 1877 when he was returned at the by-election for Dungarvan, a seat he held until 1885 when it was eliminated under the redistribution act. On entering parliament O'Donnell associated himself with the ‘obstruction’ tactics of Joseph Biggar (qv) and Charles Stewart Parnell (qv). A knowledgeable and skilful speaker (especially on overseas questions), possessing a powerful athletic frame, moustached and sporting an eye-glass, he was a valued recruit to the ranks of the activists. Yet his complex, indeed contradictory, opinions carried the seeds of his political isolation. O'Donnell was at once an advocate of catholic views and at times a severe critic of the church; he was an Irish nationalist who espoused imperialist positions; sometimes a forceful speaker on behalf of radical reforms on the one hand, on other questions his outlook was profoundly conservative. This unusual blend endeared O'Donnell to almost no one.
Already by 1876 he incurred the suspicion of the American Fenians, who disliked his pro-clerical tendencies; this attitude blossomed into undisguised hostility by 1878. In July 1877 Isaac Butt, who might have been a kindred figure, rebuked him for obstruction of the South Africa bill. Over Biggar's objections (April 1878) he read in the house constituents’ denunciations of the slain earl of Leitrim (qv). Adopting a radical position during the debates on the employment of child labour and the committee stage of the factories bills in 1878, he was instrumental in winning key concessions from the tory government. In contrast to his fellow obstructionists, he joined Butt in support of the government's eastern policy in July 1878. In 1879 he was part of a radical coalition which secured abolition of flogging in the army. O'Donnell, additionally, had been associated with tenant right in Ireland and founded the Farmers' Alliance in England in July 1879.
The dénouement of his political fortunes came after the general election of 1880. His ambivalence towards Parnell found expression in a letter criticising him before the ballot for sessional chairman in May. Thereafter he became increasingly suspect to those around Parnell. O'Donnell was among the most vociferous opponents of the atheist Charles Bradlaugh's struggle to take his seat in the house of commons. While opposing the Land League agitation in Ireland, O'Donnell served on the executive of the Irish Land League of Great Britain 1881–3, controlling its main direction from October 1881 to May 1882 while Parnell was incarcerated. He was one of the intermediaries between Parnell and the government in spring 1882, making known to Herbert Gladstone that the chief obstacle to a settlement was exclusion of tenants in rent arrears from the land act of 1881. He was a founder of the Indian Constitutional Association in 1882. Ever an individualist, he severed himself from the Irish party in July 1883, although remaining active in parliamentary debates. His political oscillations were crowned by T. M. Healy (qv) with an epithet in July 1884, ‘Crank Hugh’, a tag that he never shook off. His constituency was abolished in 1885 and Parnell declined to allow him to be nominated for an Irish seat.
Embittered and out of parliament, O'Donnell lived mainly on the Continent. Without consulting Parnell he issued a writ for libel against The Times in October 1887 for supposed allegations against himself in the series ‘Parnellism and crime’ published earlier in the year. This was dismissed on 5 July 1888, but the case led directly to establishment of the special commission. In 1889 he co-founded the National Democratic League and was its president 1904–6. Initially opposed to Parnell at the outbreak of the party split in 1890–91, he chastised Archbishop Thomas Croke (qv) for earlier supporting the fallen Chief, and then, incredibly, published a letter in the Freeman's Journal favourable to Parnell. Never bereft of ideas, he penned a letter to the prime minister, Lord Salisbury, in early 1891 with a scheme of Irish local government based on four provincial councils.
From the 1890s O'Donnell flitted in and out of Irish circles in London. He sometimes spoke to Irish groups at Coger's Hall, notably addressing the Young Ireland Society on the commemoration of the ‘Manchester martyrs’ in 1897 and also presiding at the preliminary meeting of the committee for organising the centenary of 1798. Opposing the service of Irishmen on the British side in the South Africa war, he wrote an anti-recruiting pamphlet for the Irish National Club. He published attacks on clerical involvement in Irish politics (The ruin of education in Ireland (1902) and Paraguay on Shannon (1908)), on the Irish National Theatre project of W. B. Yeats (qv) (The stage Irishman of the pseudo-Celtic drama (1904)), and condemned the supposed alliance of priests, publicans, and politicians to the detriment of Ireland. In 1910 he published his two-volume A history of the Irish parliamentary party, which (although scarcely objective and putting its author's immense ego on show) remains an important document.
O'Donnell died a bachelor in London on 2 November 1916 and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin. A portrait is included in his Irish parliamentary party; cartoons of him appear in Vanity Fair and in Henry Lucy, Peeps at parliament (1903).