O'Donnell, Patrick (1835–83), killer of the informer James Carey (qv), was born at Meenaclady, near Derrybeg, Co. Donegal. In 1846 he emigrated with his family to the USA, but returned to Ireland in 1852. In 1860 he was back in America and during the American civil war was the driver of a wagon train attached to the union army, although he never formally enlisted in the army. He later owned a public house on the Canadian border and he may have travelled to Ireland in 1867 and taken part in the rebellion of 5–6 March. He went to America in 1871 and back to Ireland in 1879, leaving his wife behind him in Philadelphia.
Returning to his native Donegal, he worked as a labourer and bricklayer and also lived and worked in Londonderry at some point. In 1883 he decided to emigrate to South Africa, and in July sailed for the Cape on the Kinfauns Castle, travelling with a female companion whom he had met in Londonderry. When the ship docked at Capetown, he transferred to the Melrose which was bound for Natal and Durban. One of his fellow passengers on both ships was James Carey, a notorious informer whose evidence had led to the execution of five of his fellow Invincibles for the assassination of Lord Frederick Cavendish (qv) and T. H. Burke (qv) in the Phoenix Park on 6 May 1882. Carey, although travelling under the assumed name ‘Power’, had revealed his true identity to several passengers and it was mentioned in a local paper. Another passenger had shown O'Donnell a copy of the Weekly Freeman which included an illustration of Carey. A Fenian sympathiser, O'Donnell resolved to kill Carey and, confronting him in his cabin on 29 July 1883, he drew a revolver and shot him dead.
O'Donnell was subsequently taken ashore, and committed for trial in the Cape Colony on 3 August 1883. As the incident had taken place twenty-five miles offshore it was decided that he should be tried by the central criminal court in London, which technically had jurisdiction over crimes committed on the high seas. It is also likely that the head of the administrative government of the Cape Colony, Gen. Smythe, felt that a South African jury would be more sympathetic to O'Donnell. With a large escort commanded by Chief Inspector Cherry of the Port Elizabeth police, he was sent to England on the Athenian, being formally taken into custody at Plymouth on 17 September by Inspector John Littlechild, head of the Special Irish Branch.
Initially confined in Millbank prison, London, he was committed for trial at Bow St. police court on 19 September and was thenceforth confined in Newgate. His case drew much public attention in both Ireland and America, and Patrick Ford (qv), editor of the Irish World in New York, established an ‘O'Donnell defence fund’ which raised over $50,000. During his trial at the Old Bailey (30 November–1 December 1883) he was defended by Charles Russell (qv), later Lord Russell of Killowen, and A. M. Sullivan (qv). Immediately after his arrest he had claimed American citizenship and asked the American embassy in London to appoint a counsel for his defence. An American lawyer, Gen. Roger A. Pryor, also assisted the defence. O'Donnell's defence team claimed that Carey had attacked him and that he had acted in self-defence. The testimony of witnesses contradicted this claim totally and he was found guilty and sentenced to death. In the days preceding his execution, his case became the focus of much political debate. Russell wrote to the prime minister, W. E. Gladstone, pleading for clemency, while representatives of the Irish-American community lobbied the American president, Chester Alan Arthur. The American government mounted an enquiry into O'Donnell's background, but concluded that he was not entitled to American citizenship: he had failed to reside in the USA for five consecutive years after taking out his papers in 1876 and had effectively deserted from the army during the civil war.
Attended by an Irish priest, Fr Fleming, O'Donnell was hanged at Newgate on 17 December 1883. Throughout his trial he had remained remarkably calm and defiant. Fleming later stated: ‘I attended him to the scaffold and a cooler man I never saw in all my life’ (M. Ryan, 111). Many believed that O'Donnell had been sent by the Fenians with the specific mission of killing Carey, but it seems more likely that he acted on the spur of the moment. He does not appear to have been a Fenian or a member of any other revolutionary organisation: Clan na Gael, although it promoted his defence, disclaimed any knowledge of him. There is a marble memorial to O'Donnell in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin, erected by the defence committee members in New York.