McDonnell was born in Belfast in 1947. He was educated at Eton and later at Oxford. From 1965- 1966, he studied painting in Munich and Vienna. Essentially, a realist painter, McDonnell is one of the finest figurative Irish artists of his generation. Best known for his observations of daily life, he captures the mundane and ordinary with an extraordinary quality. McDonnell lives and works in Northern Ireland and New York.