Frank Hugh O’Donnell was an Irish politician and journalist, known as a fierce opponent of British imperialism and the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. He was born Francis Hugh MacDonald at a barracks in Devon to a sergeant in the British Army. He was educated in Galway at a Jesuit high school and then at Queen’s College, where he rapidly earned a reputation as an orator and controversialist.
In 1874 he was elected Member of Parliament for Galway but, in a judgment probably influenced by political bias, was convicted of electoral malpractice and removed from office. Undeterred, he returned to the Commons three years later as Member for Dungarvan, Co. Waterford, and held that seat until its abolition in 1885. A provocative and popular figure within the Home Rule League, he served the party with champion filibustering and in 1888 he launched the historic libel action against The Times which led to C. S. Parnell’s exoneration from conspiracy in the Phoenix Park Murders.
In Parliament he often spoke on British imperialism in India in analogy with Irish matters. He received a schooling in Indian nationalism from his friend G. M. Tagore, with whom he, J.C. Meenakshya and four other Irish MPs joined in 1875 to form the Constitutional Society of India. Further information was gleaned from his brother Charles J. O’Donnell, an civil servant in Bihar who earned the nickname ‘the enfant terrible of the ICS’ for his public criticism and exposure of government policy. In 1882 he told Parliament that the Irish Party were ‘the natural representatives and spokesmen for the unrepresented nationalities of the empire’ and in 1883 he threw his weight behind a premature campaign to have Dadabhai Naoroji elected to Parliament. In 1905 he sent a message of support to Shyamji Krishnavarma upon his inauguration of India House.
Defeated by Parnell in his bid for the party leadership, O'Donnell abandoned parliamentary politics and, after joining the Irish Republican Brotherhood (Fenians), pursued a chequered career of furious pamphleteering. During the Boer War he secured funds from the Transvaal Government to militate against Irish enlistment, but he was later accused of pocketing the money and condemned by the United Irishman. He spent much of his later career campaigning for secular and mixed education in a series of determined sallies against the political might of the Catholic clergy. He died unmarried at London, and is buried at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.