FEW PARTISAN RESIDENTS of this community look back with much fondness on the years when the District was entirely under the colonial thumb of Congress, with three presidentially appointed commissioners installed in city hall to mind the store as well as their municipal Ps and Qs. But if ever there was an exciting respite in the District Building back then, it was the two-year run of F. Joseph (Jiggs) Donohue as a commissioner and eventually as president of the board of commissioners. Mr. Donohue, who died here Tuesday at the age of 78, promptly won the hearts of Washingtonians with a nonstop barrage of blarney, boosterism and remarkably gutsy speeches in behalf of this city and its rightful desire for a measure of self-determination.

Mr. Donohue never was content to be a mere caretaker in the District Building. He plunged in quickly - making more than 400 speeches in his first year, initiating weekly radio and television reports to the people on the doings of government and encouraging citizen participation in their restricted local franchise. There was the time in February 1953, for example, when Mr. Donohue was sitting as a spectator at a session of the Senate District Committee, listening to members rattle off their ideas on how the city should be run. Afte they had finished, he was asked if he had anything to say. He proceeded to accuse Congress of "studied neglect" of the city, noting that the burden had become one that taxpayers could "no longer continue to endure."

Mr. Donohue also spoke bluntly to the senators about the racial makeup of the city and its connection with the denial of voting rights here: "We look like Americans and dress like Americans. We pay taxes like Americans. When war comes we fight like Americans. But we have no rights as Americans either to vote for our local minucipal officers, or to vote for the president or vice president of the United States."

With characteristic fervor, Mr. Donohue campaigned for larger federal payments to the city, improved personnel procedures, an end to segregated schools, greater economic development and home rule. Though his interest in home rule later turned to opposition, he will be remembered most for his stout devotion to the city at a time when it counted a great deal - and for bringing to the District Building the vitality it needed to press on for better local government.