O'Donnell, Nuala (c.1575–c.1630), refugee, was born in Tir Conaill, daughter of Hugh O'Donnell (qv) (d. 1600), lord of Tyrconnell and his second wife, Fiona MacDonnell (qv) of the Isles. Nuala was sister of Red Hugh O'Donnell (qv) and two of the participants in the 1607 flight of the earls: Ruaidhrí O'Donnell (qv), 1st earl of Tyrconnell, and Caffar O'Donnell (qv) (d. 1609). Educated and reared in a manner befitting the daughter of the lord of Tyrconnell, Nuala's intellect and her affiliations with the Franciscans suggests they were responsible for her education.
Daughters of chieftains had political and economic obligations to their family and descent group. In 1591 she fulfilled this expectation by marrying her aspiring first cousin, Niall Garvach O'Donnell (qv). When Niall signed a separate peace with England during the nine years war, Nuala ended their ten-year marriage. Unmarried and without children, she resided with her younger brother, Rory, the new earl of Tyrconnell. In September 1607 she accompanied her brothers, as well as Hugh O'Neill (qv), earl of Tyrone, and Cuconnacht Maguire (qv) to the Continent.
Though Nuala, together with her sister-in-law, Rosa O'Doherty (qv), Cathbar's wife, was responsible for the two young Hugh O'Donnells, the sons of Rory and Cathbar, both boys were left in Louvain under the safeguard of the Franciscans. Nuala and the other refugees were directed to Rome and away from the port towns of the Spanish Netherlands. Living on an inadequate Spanish pension, the exiles subsisted in a sparsely furnished residence provided by the pope. Seeking a respite from this condition, the O'Donnell brothers and Hugh O'Neill's son spent a few days in the mosquito-ridden marshlands outside of Rome, where they came down with a violent fever. Within a few months Rory and Cathbar died, leaving Nuala to speak for the O'Donnell cause.
Appreciating the plight of Nuala and her young widowed sister-in-law, Rosa O'Doherty, the Spanish ambassador petitioned Philip III that Nuala should be granted her late brother's pension. He also pleaded that both ladies be permitted to return to Flanders, where they could look after the young O'Donnell heirs. The pension was not a problem, but the Spanish did not want to upset the English authorities by allowing the refugees access to a western port. Nuala was not deterred. She complained about the Roman climate and solicited the king to reconsider his travel prohibitions. On 26 August 1610, Philip III relented and granted Nuala permission to go to Flanders. She was given 300 crowns for expenses and her pension was transferred to a secret Spanish Netherlands’ army fund. It was to be paid ‘as long as she may live or as long as I may wish’ (Philip III to archduke, 20 Nov. 1610; quoted in Kerney Walsh, 280).
Dr Eugene Matthews (qv) (MacMahon), the catholic archbishop of Dublin, with a special papal commission to reconcile the fractious Irish catholic community in Flanders, accompanied Nuala to the Lowlands. Once in Flanders, Nuala gave her attention to the well-being of her young fatherless nephews, who had been turned over to the Franciscan superior, Hugh MacCaghwell (qv), at the Irish College of Louvain. Here they were reunited with Hugh O'Neill's two sons, John and Brian. In March 1614 Nuala's efforts took an unexpected and desperate turn. Under the pretext of going on a pilgrimage to the Lady of Hal, she went to Brussels and set up a clandestine meeting at her lodgings with the English ambassador, William Trumbull. He reported that the young earl of Tyrconnell's guardian had professed loyalty to King James I and offered to withdraw the youngster from Flanders; she wanted the king's ‘grace and pardon . . . together with the restoring of his father's [Rory's] lands’. The astonished Trumbull could give no assurances of the king's favour because of the late earl's ‘ingratitude and offences’, but suggested that Nuala return to England with her nephew and plead for ‘bounty and clemency’ from James I (Trumbull to James I, 7 Apr. 1614; S.P Flanders 77/11, H, 27v–28). Without safe passage guarantees Nuala's desperate proposals remained stillborn.
Her greatest challenges were now the ever-threatening cuts to the O'Donnell subsidies, including her own secretly funded pension. Successful in averting reductions, she did see her position change as her nephew, Rory's son, matured and took over the direction of the O'Donnell claims. She eventually became his dependant, and on occasion required the support of Florence Conry (qv), the catholic archbishop of Tuam, to vouch for her personal needs. She died c.1630 and was interred in the chapel of the Irish Franciscan college at Louvain.