O'Donnell, Patrick (1856–1927), cardinal, was born at Kilraine, near Glenties, Co. Donegal, on 28 November 1856, the son, and one of nine children, of Daniel O'Donnell, tenant farmer, and his wife, Mary (née Breslin). The O'Donnells claimed descent from the medieval chiefly dynasty. O'Donnell was educated at the local national school, the high school at Letterkenny, the Catholic University, Dublin (1873–5), and St Patrick's College, Maynooth (1875–80, undertaking postgraduate study at the Dunboyne establishment in 1879). He was ordained to the priesthood on 29 June 1880, and appointed professor of dogmatic and moral theology at Maynooth (1880–88), which position he combined with the prefectship of the Dunboyne establishment, 1884–8; in 1885 he received the degree of STD. On 21 February 1888 he was appointed bishop of Raphoe, his early elevation indicating the high value placed on his abilities.
As bishop of Raphoe, O'Donnell built many schools and churches, notably St Eunan's cathedral, Letterkenny (opened 1901; a full-length statue of O'Donnell stands outside it); the opening of the cathedral was marked by the re-creation of the cathedral chapter. He was proud to present the cathedral ‘without a penny of debt to Almighty God’, and saw it as ‘not only a memorial, but a resurrection of the fallen shrines of Donegal’. He also built the Marine Industrial School at Killybegs and St Eunan's Diocesan College in Letterkenny. He made the manufacture and sale of poteen a reserved sin and regularly preached against intemperance; a powerful orator, his tall stature and handsome appearance added to his personal impact. He was an enthusiastic walker and favoured carigeen moss as a dessert.
O'Donnell brought his administrative gifts to the Congested Districts Board, on which he served from its creation in 1892 until its dissolution in 1923. He supported and encouraged the cooperative movement. He helped to negotiate the foundation of the NUI and became a founder member of its senate; in 1915 it awarded him an honorary LLD. He also held the nominal title of rector of the Catholic University of Ireland (1908). In 1917–18 he represented the catholic bishops on the Killanin commission on primary education, though he dissociated himself from the abortive Education Bill introduced in 1919 by the chief secretary, Ian Macpherson (qv).
O'Donnell's family were native speakers of Irish, and he actively promoted the revival of the language; many of the inscriptions in Letterkenny cathedral are in Irish. He issued his pastorals in Irish as well as English, and actively sponsored Irish-language festivals (one of which featured the first modern Irish-language dramatic interlude), culminating in the establishment of the annual Feis Thír Conaill in 1906. His relations with the Gaelic League were mixed; a dispute over fund-raising led him to establish his own Irish-language organisation for a period. He was criticised for arranging the appointment of his non-Irish-speaking nephew to an administrative position, and some league activists criticised him for sectarianising feiseanna by incorporating the saying of mass into the programme. (On the latter point he was defended by Francis Joseph Bigger (qv), who argued that since the feiseanna were held on Sundays it was a matter of convenience to allow catholic attenders to meet their religious obligations, and that protestant services could have been organised had there been sufficient demand.)
After the squabbles of the Parnell split in 1890–91 led archbishops William Walsh (qv) and Thomas Croke (qv) to withdraw into relative political quiescence, O'Donnell became the principal exponent of the view that church interests were best served by close identification with the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). He was closely associated with the Dillonite wing of the anti-Parnellites (unlike Cardinal Michael Logue (qv), who preferred the localist–clericalist Healyites – as archbishop of Armagh, O'Donnell later vetoed a proposed official life of Logue on the grounds that public discussion of some of his political attitudes might be unedifying). O'Donnell was the only bishop to attend the 1896 Irish Race Convention, which the Dillonites sponsored as a vehicle for attempted reunification. (‘Young Bishop Made a Tool Of’, commented the Parnellite Daily Independent.) In 1900 his active role in unseating the Healyites T. D. Sullivan (qv) and Arthur O'Connor (qv) as MPs for West and North Donegal respectively aroused considerable criticism from clerical and political opponents. O'Donnell became a trustee and treasurer of the reunited party and played a considerable role in advising its leaders; he was a friend of John Dillon (qv), and his papers in the Armagh diocesan archives are a major source for the political history of the period (though their usefulness is reduced by his famously illegible handwriting).
In 1904 O'Donnell was responsible for persuading the bishops to lift their ban on the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), previously regarded as an unacceptable secret society, after its rituals were revised under his supervision to emphasise formal religious observance and to make clear that the obligations of membership could not supersede religious duties. Although many bishops distrusted the lay-led AOH (especially as it grew in influence and numbers and became the mainstay of the IPP), O'Donnell remained its principal ally and episcopal sponsor; its national chaplain was one of his diocesan priests and he maintained a friendship with Joseph Devlin (qv).
Although he disapproved of partition, O'Donnell was hesitant about rejecting the third Home Rule Bill, introduced in 1912, on that issue alone. In February 1914 he spoke of accepting partition if it was based on local option (by which districts that had a majority of catholic residents could vote themselves out of the partitioned area). He backed Redmond's (qv) support for the British war effort, and experienced a brief period of enthusiasm for national unity. In the summer of 1916 he was less outspoken than other Ulster bishops in opposing the partition compromise, and was prepared to engage in Redmondite propaganda for an Irish-American audience; at this time he believed that only the Irish party could unite the country sufficiently to achieve home rule, and he was disquieted by the growing radicalisation of sections of the lower clergy. O'Donnell served on the Irish convention in 1917–18, where his insistence on fiscal autonomy was decisive in wrecking Redmond's attempt to reach a compromise with southern unionists. He also explained the Ne temere decree (which restricted marriages between catholics and protestants) to unionist convention members, after it had been denounced by the Orange leader Dr R. H. Wallace (1860–1929). During the 1918 general election O'Donnell privately believed that the IPP should have stood down; he endorsed Irish party candidates locally but took little part in the campaign. However, after the election he encouraged Joseph Devlin and the IPP rump to take their seats at Westminster in the hope of exercising some influence on official policy in such matters as education.
On 14 January 1922 O'Donnell was appointed titular archbishop of Attalia and co-adjutor archbishop of Armagh with right of succession; he thus followed two of his nineteenth-century predecessors in moving from the see of Raphoe to the archbishopric of Armagh. He remained as apostolic administrator of Raphoe in 1922–3 until a successor could be appointed. In this capacity he joined in the bishops’ condemnation of the anti-treaty republicans during the civil war; in reprisal for this and local executions the republicans burned his birthplace (owned by his brother's family). Privately he was disturbed by some of the new government's harsher measures and tried unsuccessfully to secure the reprieve of Erskine Childers (qv). He was also subjected to harassment by the Ulster special constabulary while carrying out pastoral duties in the Armagh archdiocese.
O'Donnell succeeded Michael Logue as archbishop of Armagh on 19 November 1924, and was created a cardinal on 14 December 1925. O'Donnell's primary impact as archbishop came through his friendly relations with the 7th marquess of Londonderry (qv), the first Northern Ireland minister for education. While refusing an invitation to serve on an educational advisory committee, he secured an arrangement for the subsidised training of Northern Ireland catholic male teachers at a catholic institution near London. He frequently made conciliatory public statements and showed willingness to accept the northern state as a fait accompli. It has been suggested that if he had lived longer he might have established friendlier relations with the Northern Ireland government than were sought by his more intransigent successor, Joseph MacRory (qv); given the political and religious pressures on both sides this must remain speculative. It should be noted that O'Donnell also endorsed a campaign for the release of internees in 1924 and on several occasions openly complained about anti-catholic discrimination in the Northern Ireland public service.
In August 1927 O'Donnell chaired a plenary synod of the Irish catholic hierarchy at Maynooth (the first for twenty-seven years), which carried out numerous reforms of administration and regulations. While bathing at Carlingford, Co. Louth, soon afterwards, he injured his knee and contracted pneumonia; after a severe illness he appeared to be recovering when he died suddenly from an embolism on 22 October 1927.
O'Donnell can be seen as an unusually effective and successful example of the catholic cleric as social entrepreneur and political advocate, roles which underlay the profound influence of the church in the Ireland of his day. An old opponent, the Irish Times, paid tribute to his success in keeping the esteem of all classes and parties, because ‘his nature was free from any trace of pettiness; his patriotism always was ready to credit political opponents with motives not less sincere than his own’ (29 Oct. 1927), and protestant as well as catholic spokesmen paid tribute to him as a man of peace and a promoter of the gospel.