Donaghy was born in New York to Irish immigrant parents and grew up in the Bronx. After earning a BA from Fordham University and an MA from the University of Chicago, he moved to London in 1985. In England he won an Arts Council Writers Award and was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; his work was recognized with the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and the Whitbread Prize. In addition to writing and teaching, he played the flute and the bodhrán, specializing in traditional Irish music.

Donaghy’s collections of poems are Shibboleth (1988); Errata (1990); Dances Learned Last Night: Poems 19751995 (2000); Conjure (2000), a Poetry Book Society Choice and Forward Poetry Prize Winner; Safest (2005); and Collected Poems (2009). He is also author of The Shape of the Dance: Essays, Interviews and Digressions (2009) and editor of 101 Poems About Childhood (2005).

Adept at using traditional forms, as well as what poet Joshua Mehigan called “free verse organized by some rhetorical or syntactical principle,” Donaghy often employed conceits, extended metaphors, puns, paradoxes, and stories. Reviewers have called him a metaphysical poet, and Mehigan noted that “a poem’s conceit might be as much an organizing principle as its formal structure.” Witty and erudite, the poems reference literature, science, and the oddities and losses of contemporary life.

Donaghy taught at City University and Birkbeck College, London.  He was married to the musician Maddy Paxman. Donaghy died of a brain hemorrhage in 2004.