O'Donnell, Charles James O'Cahan (1850–1934), civil servant, politician, and controversialist, was probably born 28 May 1850 at Port Louis, Mauritius, youngest son of Capt. Bernard MacDonald of the Northumberland Fusiliers, from Carndonagh, Co. Donegal, and Mary MacDonald (née Kain), from Co. Galway. Following the lead of his elder brother, the maverick nationalist MP Frank Hugh O'Donnell (qv), Charles altered the surnames of both his parents to the more Hibernic forms, ‘O'Cahan’ and ‘O'Donnell’. Educated at St Ignatius College, Galway, and at QCG, where he took an MA, after passing the Indian civil service examinations in 1870, and serving two probationary years in Britain, he was posted to Bengal and worked in India for twenty-eight years (1872–1900). While serving as assistant to the director-general of statistics in 1875, he compiled one volume (treating two districts) of the comprehensive survey A statistical account of Bengal (published in 1877), edited by Sir William Wilson Hunter. Pursuing a remarkably erratic and turbulent Indian career, marked by a penchant for criticising superiors publicly and in print, he was twice demoted and thrice transferred for insubordination. Casting himself as a champion of the Indian peasantry, he rudely and openly criticised the Bengal high court for reversing his decision to instigate proceedings against a landowner (1877), and was accused of ‘fomenting ill feeling’ between a maharaja and his tenants (1879). In two anonymous and vitriolic tracts, he derided the relief operations during the 1874 Bengal famine: The black pamphlet of Calcutta (1876), was published in India, while The ruin of an Indian province (1880), written as an open letter to the India secretary, was published while he was on home leave in Britain. Ascribing the alleged ‘ruin’ to failure to promote land reform, O'Donnell venomously excoriated named officials, and castigated the entire government of India as ‘more than the despotism of Caesar’. Even those sympathetic to certain of his arguments and prescriptions, deplored his intemperate invective, unfounded accusations and insinuations, and errors of fact.
O'Donnell intended to stand for parliament as a nationalist candidate in Galway, but arrived too late to contest the 1880 general election. A proponent of Indian and Irish home rule, he urged the maximum degree of appropriate self-government throughout the empire, under the matrix of a genuinely imperial parliament at Westminster. In urging the necessity in India of sweeping land reform, he drew parallels to conditions in Ireland, emphasising such common issues as tenant right and judicial limitation of rents. His appetite for controversy notwithstanding, he was safeguarded from outright dismissal by political connections and his acknowledged ability and energy. Reinstated two years after his second demotion as a district joint magistrate (1884), he was promoted to magistrate and collector (1889), served as provincial superintendent for Bengal of the 1891 census, and was appointed a division commissioner (1898). He was among several long-serving, middle-ranking civil servants to retire en masse in 1900 in protest at the zealous reforming policies of the new viceroy, Lord Curzon. Moving to England, he wrote two seething philippics, The failure of Lord Curzon (1903) and The causes of the present discontent in India (1908). Contradicting his earlier, scathing critiques, he now lauded the virtues of the Indian civil service as exemplifying the ‘old empire’, which he extolled as a benign, progressive, and humane institution, absolutely essential to human progress and geopolitical stability. Pro-empire, but anti-imperialist, he decried the transformation of the pragmatic, empirical business of administering a vast and polyglot empire into an ideological ‘ism’, seeking to systematise administration according to universal procedures and principles, and to reshape men and societies to fit theoretical concepts.
Serving a term as liberal MP for the London constituency of Walworth (1906–10), he was the most bellicose among a clique of old India hands who repeatedly flayed their own government's India policy, as vehement in his condemnation of the ‘liberal imperialism’ of Herbert Asquith as he had been of the ‘tory imperialism’ of Curzon. He supported radical reform in social and labour conditions, and opposed the 1908 Irish universities act for institutionalising the de facto sectarian divisions in third-level education. After failing to secure the nomination to contest the January 1910 election, he was adopted as a candidate by North Hampshire, but was defeated in the December 1910 election. Thereafter he urged an alliance of Irish nationalists and British conservatives, the parties of ‘order and religion’ on the two islands, as the best safeguard against the twin evils of socialism and republicanism.
O'Donnell continued to publish tracts expounding eccentric views on British, Irish, and international politics: The lordship of the world (1924), The Irish future, with the lordship of the world (1929), and Outraged Ulster (1932). Opposing the first world war, which he ascribed to the British liberal government's alliance with French Germanophobia and Russian pan-Slavism, he described France as Britain's ‘ancestral enemy’, and argued that world peace and prosperity depended on harmonious relations among Britain, the USA, and Germany. While condemning unionist government in Northern Ireland in the 1920s as ‘an outrage on a catholic population’, he continued to advocate a self-governing united Ireland within the British empire.
O'Donnell married (1882) Constance Langworthy; it is not recorded that they had children. During his tenure in parliament he had residences at 24 Park Side, Albert Gate, London, and Great Copse House, Eversley, Hampshire. Subsequently he resided in town at 50 Hans Crescent, and at Waverley Hill, Camberley, Surrey. He died 3 December 1934 at his London residence. He bequeathed an annuity of £500 to found annual lectures in the universities of Oxford, Wales, Edinburgh, Dublin, and the NUI. Under the terms of the will, the O'Donnell lectures in the British universities deal with the Celtic element in the English language and British population (a recurring theme of O'Donnell's polemic); the inaugural lecture in the Oxford series was delivered by J. R. R. Tolkien (1955). In the Irish universities, where both series commenced in 1957, the lectures are on Irish history since the time of Oliver Cromwell (qv), with special reference to the history since 1641 of ancient Irish families.