The Antrim McDonnells – The Descendants of Alasdair MacColla by Seamus Clarke

It is essential for any student of McDonnell history and genealogy to visit the ancient graveyard at Layde, not far from Cushendall in County Antrim. Many, many years ago that’s what Aodh de Blacam (“Roddy the Rover”) did, and he left us these wonderful lines as he describes his visit as he was conducted by a Glensman:

“He took me to Layde graveyard,” he wrote, “where Dr McDonnell was buried a hundred years ago; for my purpose was to pay a tribute to that patriot’s memory.

“The ruins of a red-stoned church or abbey hung on a shelving piece of green land between cliffs, with the burning green sea far below, and the mountains of Scotland away against the sky.

“To this silent, lovely spot, MacDonnell was brought at the end of his distinguished life to lie with his race.

“On his gravestone, and on several others, there were the Arms of the MacDonnells, the salmon, the deer, the lymphad (long fada), the hand grasping the cross-crosslet; and inscriptions called to mind great Alasdair MacColla and Coll Ciotach his father, and other mighty warriors of that illustrious clan.”

His guide told him that until then and in perpetuity Mass is said and would continue to be said once a month and the graves kept in order by a legacy which a later MacDonnell gave for the pious purpose.

“So,” mused Aodh, “as I stood in that cliff-locked graveyard, near the dust of heroes whose tales I have heard all my life, I wondered how many other of our old Gaelic families bring their dead back thus to the ancestral holy place.”

We shall now examine a few of the headstones pertinent to our investigation and the first is that of the noble doctor himself:

Erected in Memory
Of James McDonnell of Belfast and of Murlough, in this
county — a Physician whose great abilities and greater
benevolence made him venerated in the Glens of Antrim, where
he was born: and in Belfast where he died in A.D. 1845,
in his 82nd year.
Also in memory of Eliza, daughter of John Clarke, Esq., of Belfast, and wife of the said James McDonnell; she died A.D.
Also of Penelope, daughter of James Montgomery, Esq., of Larne, and second wife of the said James McDonnell; she died
A.D. 1854.
Also in memory of Michael, father of said James; and of
Alexander, father of Michael; and of Coll father of Alexander,
and son of Major-General Sir Alexander McColl MacDonnell,
knight of the field, whose other son Captain Archibald, likewise
rests in this churchyard.”

The inscription on another stone reads as follows:

Here lyeth the body of Captn. Archd. McDonnell of
Glassmullin, son to Alexander McDonnell, Major-General and
Knight of the Field, who departed this life Septr. 28th, 1720
aged 73 years. “Also Anne Stewart, spouse to the said Captain, who departed
this Life April 6th 1714, aged 68. “Likewise, their son, Coll McDonnell of Glassmullan who
departed this Life June 6th, 1737, aged 49.
And also his son, Alexander McDonnell, who died July 26th,
1782, aged 48 years.

By general consent the medical doctor who contributed most to the cultural life of Belfast was he whose bones lie in the old graveyard at Layde, none other than James McDonnell, a descendant of the great Alisdar MacColkitto. Being a Glensman James identified with the Gaelic way of life which surrounded him.

He had even in his youth attended a “hedge school” in the caves at Rod Bay before going to continue his medical studies in Edinburgh. His home, Bheal an Uisge, always had, it is said, a warm welcome for the seanchai and the traditional musicians and his father Micheal Ruadh while he lived (he died while his boys were yet young) was most anxious that his sons would be reared and continue to carry on the traditions of the country.

On graduating in medicine from Edinburgh in 1784 McDonnell set up practice in Belfast and there became one of the most famous physicians the city has ever known. No wonder Sir William Whitla was moved in his presidential address to the BMA in 1909 to refer to him as “an intellectual giant”, paying him tribute thus:

“If any one name is to be singled out from amongst the founders of the Belfast Medical School, as we look backward at the present momentous stage of our progress, it must be that of MacDonnell. To him we owe the origin of the first hospital established in Ireland for the treatment of fevers, and to him is due the honour of founding the Belfast Dispensary… He was the leading spirit in the campaign that called into existence the Belfast General Hospital.”

I don’t propose to deal with Dr McDonnell’s cultural activities, activities anticipating Drs Hyde and McNeill and the Gaelic League nearly a century later. These activities left Ireland very much in his debt – but that is another story.

The purpose of this article is to trace the representative of Clann Iain Mhoir or Clan Donald South (Isla, Kintyre and Antrim). It will become obvious, or it should have from the headstone inscriptions in Layde why Dr James MacDonnell is an important link in the chain.

On 15.3.84 the obituary columns of “The Irish Times” (Dublin) carried the following item, headed “Count Robert McDonnell of the Glens”

“The death has occurred in Cheshire of Count Robert Jarlath Hartpole Hamilton McDonnell of the Glens. He was the descendant of the MacDonalds, Kings and Lords of the Isles, and of John McDonnell, second son of John, Lord of the Isles and his wife, Princess Margaret of Scotland, who founded the clan Ian M6r of Islay, Kintyre and the Glens of Antrim in about 1370.

“Born in Dublin in 1909, he was the only son of Randal McDonnell, the Irish historical novelist, and Kathleen Milbanke Hamilton, and was educated at Belvedere, Clongowes Wood College and Trinity College, Dublin. He joined the BBC in 1935 and Granada Television in 1955, where he became the director of sound. He retired in 1974.

“He succeeded his uncle in 1959. He married firstly Joan Hiscock and had one daughter Joan, now Mrs Edmund Alexander. He was widowed in 1936 and married secondly in 1950 Kathleen Dolan of Radio Eiriann, the presenter of Hospitals’ Requests. He had two sons Randal and Peter.

“The funeral was at Clongowes Wood College. Co. Kildare, by permission of the rector and headmaster and the Requiem Mass was celebrated by the Rev. Roland Burke-Savage, S.J., an old school friend. He was created a Knight of Honour and Devotion of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and was the last senior surviving Knight of Malta from the re-establishment of the Order in Ireland. He is survived by his widow, his two sons, daughter, and his three grandchildren.”

The inheritor of this ancient title passes now to his son Randal McDonnell, K.M., who is proud – very proud – of his family’s history and tradition. “You’ve read about us in the history books,” he told an interviewer, “but we do exist, we’re still here. We have been here since before Caesar. While the Ascendancy were evicting the Irish and squeezing the life’s blood out of them, my family were founding the national schools, were friends with Wolfe Tone (Dr. James McDonnell). One of my ancestors was the first to ever use an anaesthetic for operating, another invented blood transfusions.” Needless to say his claims and credentials are recognised by the Chief Herald.