Donnelly: Baby Name of the DaySurname names have become mainstream favorites, especially Irish imports. So how about Donnelly?

Thanks to A for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.

Donnelly: Son of Donnghal

Like many a Gaelic surname, Donnelly started out as a patronymic. It referred to the descendants of Donnghal.

Donnghal looks like a cousin to Donald, but that’s not quite the case. Domhnall serves as the preferred Irish form of Donald; I’ve seen Donal, too.

Instead, the given name comes from donn – brown-haired – and gal – valor. An eighth century Irish king answered to the name.

Donnelly: Niall of the Nine Hostages

Donnelly feels like a pretty common surname. And yet, Donnghal appears only sparingly in the historical record.

What we do know is this: the surname Donnelly is connected to Niall of the Nine Hostages. Niall became High King of Ireland around the late fourth century. Niall concentrated his power by demanding hostages from other families who might challenge his rule, hence the name.

While we believe a real King Niall reigned, much of his story is based on legend. We’re told that his prowess as a warrior was unmatched; that he captured the future Saint Patrick in a raid. What we know for certain is that he founded the O’Neill Dynasty, and fathered many children. Some have suggested that two to three million men living today may be descended from Niall.

At least some of his descendants adopted the surname Donnelly, possibly because Donghall/Dongall also claimed Niall as an ancestor.

Donnelly: Rarity

As a surname, Donnelly ranks among the 100 most common in Ireland. Plenty of surnames are borrowed as given names. And yet, we only see very small numbers of boys given the name during the twentieth century in the US.

The last year that even five boys received the name was 1986.

Donnelly: On-Trend

While it may be rare, this name fits nicely with current trends. Consider:

  • Irish names, from Ryan to Liam, have dominated the US Top 100 over the last several decades.
  • That’s even more true for surname names. Riley, Sullivan, and Sloane all chart in the current US Top 500. Others, like Finnegan and Flynn, feel fashionable, too.

Perhaps the most comparable choices are Donovan and Delaney – and that makes things interesting.

Donnelly: Boy or Girl?

Donovan serves as an update to Donald. Parents after something familiar, but not too common, might embrace this name. It feels masculine, probably thanks to easy nickname Van. Plus, longer surname names for boys make great substitutes for chart-toppers like Mason and Carter.

Delaney, on the other hand, leans feminine. In 2015, more than 1,300 girls received the name, compared to just five boys. We often adopt three-syllable, ends in -y or -ie surnames as girls’ names. Think of Kimberly and Avery, Mackenzie and Kennedy.

Overall, I think the trends dictate that Donnelly goes to the girls. And yet, it doesn’t feel especially feminine, either.

This uncertainty might be the reason the name remains rare.

Donnelly: Wearable

Despite the question of whether the name works best for a son or daughter, I think it wears well for either. It can update Donald or Donna, or just honor Irish heritage.

If you’re giving the name to a girl, built-in nickname Nell makes a surprising short form.

If you’re choosing the name for a son, it feels like a twist on Donovan and so many other Irish choices used over the years.

Overall, if you’re looking for a distinctive Irish heritage choice, this is one to consider.

Would you consider the name Donnelly? Do you like it better for a son or a daughter?

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. My middle name is Donovan! It was my grandma’s maiden name. I think Donnelly is great but wouldn’t use it for fear of it being shortened to Don, which I don’t like. For a girl it could easily be Nell or Nelly.

  2. I did consider it for my kids, husband did not care for it. Would have used it for my daughter. I tend to like 3-syllable girls names and I like this one a lot.

    Sidenote: I like the name Donner for a boy. Means “thunder” in German. Kind of appeals to me.