O'Donnell, John Francis (1837–74), poet, journalist, and nationalist, was born in Limerick city, son of a shopkeeper; no further details of his parents are known. Educated by the Christian Brothers, he began to write poetry in his fourteenth year, contributing to the Kilkenny Journal. He started his journalistic career in 1854 as a reporter on the Munster News, at the same time contributing verses to The Nation. In 1856 he was appointed sub-editor to the Tipperary Examiner, a Clonmel paper, and in 1860 proceeded to London, where he worked for the Universal News, an Irish catholic and nationalist paper. In 1861 came the proudest moment of his short career, when Charles Dickens accepted a poem of his for All the Year Round, met him, and showed encouraging interest, though he warned him that the Irish were ‘clever, picturesque, intelligent, full of resources, but lacked staying power’ (Dowling, John O'Donnell's poems, p. xvi). This was an apt description of O'Donnell himself, who spent all his life chopping and changing between Dublin and London, held no position for long, was often indigent, and turned out verse with almost too great a facility. His friend Richard Dowling (qv) claimed that O'Donnell could make up and write a poem in shorthand in the course of a conversation.
In 1862 O'Donnell was back in Dublin as part of the editorial staff of the Nation and Duffy's Hibernian Magazine. He does not seem to have been a Fenian but was an ardent nationalist and an able propagandist for the movement. His poems appeared under the pseudonyms ‘Monckton West’ and ‘Caviare’ and were very popular in Fenian circles, though John O'Leary (qv) thought him overpraised. In 1864 he returned to London as editor of Universal News and acted for a time as London correspondent for the Fenian paper, the Irish People. In 1865 he was made sub-editor of the Tablet, the organ of the English catholics, which post he held till 1868.
In 1864 he published The emerald wreath, a collection of stories, and in 1871 Memoirs of the Franciscans, a volume of verse commemorating the counter-reformation preachers in Ireland. He sought always to free himself from his obligations to leave more time for writing, and in 1873 succeeded through the influence of Lord O'Hagan (qv) in obtaining an appointment at the London office of the agent-general of New Zealand. However, he died the following year on 7 May 1874 and was buried in Kensal Green. He left a wife, formerly a Miss Jones of Tipperary, and a number of children. Through the actions of the Southwark Irish Literary Society his grave was marked with a Celtic cross, and a collection of poems was published in 1891. This received a largely unfavourable review from W. B. Yeats (qv) in the Boston Pilot, in which he noted O'Donnell's great gift of expression but deprecated his facility and the over-influence of English poets on his work. There is no modern edition of O'Donnell, but he receives a favourable mention in the Field Day anthology.