The 25-year-old Leinster flanker will start his first international alongside David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip in the Ireland back row in the opening game of the 2010 RBS 6 Nations Championship.
The in-form Andrew Trimble also returns to the Ireland team for his first start since lining out against England at Twickenham in March 2008 and he is named on the left wing.
Gordon D'Arcy renews his centre partnership with team captain Brian O'Driscoll, while Ronan O'Gara will earn his 94th cap, linking up with his Munster colleague Tomas O'Leary at half-back.
The fit-again Jerry Flannery will start at hooker alongside John Hayes and Cian Healy, while Rory Best has been named in the replacements following his recovery from a neck injury.
Jonathan Sexton and Stephen Ferris were not considered for selection, due to dead leg and knee injuries respectively.
IRELAND Team & Replacements (v Italy, 2010 RBS 6 Nations Championship, Croke Park, Saturday, February 6, kick-off 2.30pm):
15 - Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster)
14 - Tommy Bowe (Ospreys)
13 - Brian O'Driscoll (UCD/Leinster) (capt)
12 - Gordon D'Arcy (Lansdowne/Leinster)
11 - Andrew Trimble (Ballymena/Ulster)
10 - Ronan O'Gara (Cork Constitution/Munster)
9 - Tomas O'Leary (Dolphin/Munster)
1 - Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster)
2 - Jerry Flannery (Shannon/Munster)
3 - John Hayes (Bruff/Munster)
5 - Paul O'Connell (Young Munster/Munster)
6 - Kevin McLaughlin (St. Mary's College/Leinster)
7 - David Wallace (Garryowen/Munster)
8 - Jamie Heaslip (Naas/Leinster)
16 - Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster)
17 - Tom Court (Malone/Ulster)
18 - Leo Cullen (Blackrock College/Leinster)
19 - Sean O'Brien (Clontarf/Leinster)
20 - Eoin Reddan (Lansdowne/Leinster)
21 - Paddy Wallace (Ballymena/Ulster)
22 - Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster)
Unavailable due to injury:
Jonathan Sexton (St. Mary's College/Leinster)
Stephen Ferris (Dungannon/Ulster)