The Irish MacDonnells by Seamus Clarke

History records that during the early years of the Reign of Elizabeth the great power in the Southern Hebrides and the Glynns (as they were known) of Antrim was James MacDonnell, who was often referred to as MacDonnell of Isla and Cantire. His wife was Agnes Campbell and later became the wife of Toirrdhealbhach Luineach O’Neill about the year 1569. His daughter was the celebrated Inghean Dubh who became mother of Aodh Ruadh O Domhnaill. He had several famous brothers, one of the most remarkable of whom was the great Antrim chieftain and military genius of the clan, Somhairle Buidhe Mac Domhnaill, or in the English, Sorley Boy. (Not a correct translation).

The MacDonnell family in Antrim was a branch of the great clan which was so powerful in the west of Scotland and the Isles. In the sixteenth century the lords of Isla and Cantire were possessed of a powerful chieftaincy on the Irish mainland and needless to repeat James MacDonnell was the most famous of them. Their family history about this time is connected equally with Irish and Hebridean affairs. Their pedigree is preserved in MacFirbisigh, in O Cléirigh and elsewhere. This James MacDonnell died as a result of wounds received in a great battle fought with Sean O Neill in 1565 at Gleann Taise near Ballycastle in County Antrim. MacDonnells are often referred to as Clann Cholla, the reference being to Colla Uais, one of the three Collas who destroyed Emania in remote antiquity.

“Our best genealogists,” writes Rev. George Hill, author of ‘The MacDonnells of Antrim’, “Mac Firbis and O Flaherty represent the MacDonnells as descended from an Irish prince called Colla and surnamed Uaish, or the ‘Noble’, the eldest of these distinguished brothers, who lived in the earlier part of the fourth century. These brothers were the sons of Eochaedh Duibhlen, brother of the king, and Aileach, daughter of Ubdaire, King of Alba. The coming of this Scottish princess to Ireland, and her subsequent residence in the palace of Aileach, so called after her name, are celebrated in a very ancient Irish poem. The poet describes the princess as ‘a mild true woman modest, blooming, till the love of the Gael disturbed her and she passed with him from the midst of Chind-Tiri (Cantire) to the land of Uladh’. Her palace of Aileach, in the present county of Donegal, became the residence of the northern Ui Néill princes, and continued to be occupied as such almost to the time of the English invasion. The names of her warlike and ambitious sons were Cairell, Miredhach and Aidh, although they are familiarly known in history as the three Collas. Assisted by their kinsmen and allies on the opposite shores of the North Channel they were able to form a powerful political combination which, in the year 327, placed the eldest brother Colla Uais on the throne of Ireland. He only held this position, however, for the space of four years, when he was compelled to give way before the claims of a more powerful cousin. Being soon afterwards reconciled to the reigning monarch, Colla Uaish and his brothers were commissioned to lead an expedition against the Ultonians, or men of Ulster, and were granted as much territory as they might be able to wrest from the enemy. In this expedition they were successful, having completely defeated the Ultonians at the great battle of Achaidh-Leith-Derg, in Fearumhaigh, now Farney, in the present county of Monaghan. Fergus, the King of Ulster was slain, and his shattered forces, pursued by ‘their victorious enemies, were driven over Glenrighe’ (the valley of the Newry water) into the district which now forms the counties of Antrim and Down, from which they never after returned. The Collas destroyed Emania, and then took the whole of that part of Ulster now forming the modern counties of Armagh, Louth, Monaghan and Fermanagh into their own hands as swordland; and it was held by their descendants, the Maguires, MacMahons, O’Hanlons, and others down to the confiscation of Ulster under the English king, James I.

“Of the descendants of Colla Uaish,” states Rev. G. Hill, “perhaps, the most distinguished were his great-grandsons Loran, Angus and Fergus, who about the year 506, permanently laid the foundation of the Dalriadic kingdom in Scotland. These leaders were the sons of Erc, ‘and partly possessors of Dalriada’, an ancient principality on the Antrim coast, which extended from the Bush-foot to the village of Glynn, near Lame, and from which the Irish colonists went.”

The Earl of Tyrone in a letter of postulation referred to Edmund MacDonnell as nobilis ‘of the aristocracy of Ireland’, as of course, he was. In medieval times the much more noteworthy family of the Ulster MacDonnells were those whose ancestors were Norse-Hebrideans, and who became associated with this country from the thirteenth century onwards. The MacDonnells, like many other families, became men of much importance because they were leaders of mercenaries called in Irish gallógláigh ‘foreign warrior’ and great scope was to be found for their energies and employment for their followers for a period of nearly or exceeding three hundred years.

Dr Eoin MacNeill who drew from the most reliable and most ancient authorities, states that, “In 1164 a new power had arisen in the Hebrides and Argyle. In that year an embassy from Iona ‘at the instance of Somhairlidh and the men of Argyle and Inse Gall (the Hebrides)’ came to Flaitbertach Ua Brolcháin, abbot of Derry, and besought him to accept the abbacy of Iona, but ‘the successor of Patrick (the Irish primate, Gilla Maic Liag, archbishop of Armagh), and the King of Ireland, Ua Lochlainn, and the nobles of Ceníl Eóghain induced him to remain’ (Annals of Ulster). Here Somhairlidh is recognised as the chief man of Argyle and the Hebrides. Later in the same year Somhairlidh, at the head of great fleet, collected from many parts, including the Norse kingdom of Dublin, invaded the Scottish mainland near Renfrew, but, like Magnus of Norway having gone off on a foray, he was slain in a small engagement and his followers ‘the men of Argyle and Cantire, the men of Inse Gall and the Foreigners of Dublin’ were defeated with slaughter.

“Somhairlidh’s power did not end with his death. He was the founder of a dynasty and kingdom which lasted for more than three centuries. The Annals of Tigernach in a contemporary record of his death, entitle him ‘king of Inse Gall and Cantire.’ Another chronicle calls him Rex Ergadie, ‘king of Argyle’.

“The name Sornhairlidh or Somhairle, is a Gaelicized form of Sumarlidi, a Norse name which means summer leader. The Orkneyinga Saga tells us that in 1157 ‘Sumarlidi Holdr’ (‘the Freeman’) had kingship in the Dales, in Scotland’s Firths. Sumarlidi had to wife Ragnhilda, daughter of Olaf Betling, king of the southern Isles. The mother of Ragnhilda was Ingilyong, daughter of Earl Hakon, Paul’s son, Earl of the Orkneys.

“These were the children of Sumarlidi and Ragnhilda: Dufgall the king, Rognvald and Ergus; that is called the ‘Dale-dwellers kin (Dalverjaett)’.

“It was because the other Norse nobles of the Hebrides were islanders that the Saga lays stress on the fact, corroborated in the Irish chronicles, that Sumarlidi’s kingship extended to a part of the mainland, ‘the Dales in Scotland’s Firths’; and for the same reason Sumarlidi’s family became known as the Dale-dwellers’ kin. The dale and firths in the latter were those of Argyleshire.”

At the year 1211 we come into the Irish Annals tradition of Somhairlidh’s descendants: “Thomas, son of Uchtrach and the sons of Raghnall, son of Somhairlidh came to Derry Colum Cille with seventy-seven ships, and the town was greatly injured by them; O Donnell and they went together to Inishaven, and they completely destroyed the country. Annals of Loch Cé. The entry is under 1212 in Annals of Ulster.

Domhnall, son of Raghnall from whom all the MacDonnells acquired their surname may have been among those sons of Raghnall commemorated in 1211, otherwise nothing is known of him except the following remarks in the Book of Clanranald:

“There came from Tara messages that Domhnall son of Raghnall should take upon himself the supremacy of the Hebrides and of the greater part of the Scottish Gaels. He had good children, namely Aenghus Mór, the heir, and Alexander … and other sons.”

Aenghus Mór of lsla, son of Domhnall, it must be stated, was a man of great influence in the Hebrides at the time of the battle of Largs (1263) when Hakon, King of Norway fought hard to retain his island possessions and made successful peace terms with King Alexander III of Scotland. It is to Aenghus Mór that without break can be traced the leading branches of the MacDonnells ‘the lords of the Isles, and the MacDonnells of Antrim’.

Aenghus Og, son of Aenghus Mór, supported Bruce at the battle of Bannockburn and is said to have died in 1325.

Eoin, his son, ‘Good John of the Isles,’ married Margaret, daughter of Robert II the first King of Scotland of the Stuart line. The Annals of Ulster and those of the Four Mastcrs record his death at the year 1387.

Three sons of this lady Margaret are well known: (1) Domhnall a h Ile, Donnell of Isla, better remembered as Donnell of Harlaw, where he won a famous victory in 1411(2) Eóin Mór or Eóin a h Ile, who secured about the year 1400 great landed estates in Antrim through marriage with the heiress of the Bisset family; (3) Alastar Carrach. The Book of Clanranald- Reliquiae Celticae, ii. 158 goes onto add the following important words: ‘Eoin had still another son named Marcus, from whom were descended the MacDonnells of Knocknacloy, in Co. Tyrone.’ With those MacDonnells we are not concerned in this article.

Mac Firbhisigh gives the line of Eóin a h Ile, ‘John of Isla’ who was responsible for the formal incorporation of the lordship of the Isles in the kingdom of Scotland in 1493 [1]. It is from Eóin a h Ile that the Isla and Antrim branches of the family are descended and these branches during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries attained even greater power and influence than even the senior branch could attain.

Accordingly it is the line of Eóin a h Ile that Mac Firbhisigh turns to and it is that line we will now follow, and give in translation what he actually says.

  1. Eóin (or John), son of Aonghus Og, Aine, daughter of Cúmaighe O Catháin, was his mother.
  2. This Eóin had three sons, namely, Domhnall of Isla, Eóin and Alasdar (Alexander). The mother of these three was Margaret, daughter of Robert the first Stuart King of Scotland, and son of the daughter of King Robert Bruce.
  3. Now as for Domhnall he was Mac Domhnaill, and the senior of Eóin’s family. His wife was Mary Leslie, daughter of the Earl of Ross and it was in right of her that the earldom of Ross came to the Scottish family of MacDonnell.
  4. Eóin – other genealogical books call him John of Isla and John Mór – but anyway he was the second son of Eóin (John), who was the son of Aonghus Og
  5. Domhnall of Isla (the Mac Domhnaill aforesaid) and his brother Eóin (John) died about the same time, namely, 227 years before the present date 1649. And the Glynnes are in possession of the MacDonnells during 337 years to this present.
  6. Eóin above mentioned (4), son of Eóin, son of Aonghus Og – he had a son by Mary Bisset, who was Domhnall Ballach, who was heir to the Glynnes, to his share of the Scottish mainland, and to the Hebrides.
  7. Domhnall Ballach by Suibhán, daughter of O Domhnaill, had a son named Eóin. This Eóin was the father of Eóin Cathanach, whose mother was Sadhbh, daughter of Feilim mac Uí Neill.
  8. Alasdar (Alexander) son of Eóin Cathanach: he was Mac Domhnaill, lord of the Hebrides and of much other territory of the Scottish mainland. Síle, daughter of Mac an tSabhaisigh, was the mother.
  9. Somhairle, son of this Alasdar, was lord of the Route, and of the Glynnes, and of other territories in Scotland. His mother was Catherine, daughter of the Lord of Ardnamurchan. He had four sons: (1) Sir James; (2) Sir Randal, who was created Viscount Dunluce and Earl of Antrim by James VI King of Great Britain and Ireland; (3) Domhnall, and (4) Aonghus were two younger sons of the family.


Mary, daughter of Conn O Neill, chief of his name in Ireland and created Earl of Tyrone in London by King Henry VIII of England – she was the mother of Somhairle’s children, and the daughter of the Earl of Kildare was the mother of her father Conn.

(Although Mac Firbhisigh mentions only the great Sorley Boy here, we find that Alasdar had no fewer than eight sons Sorley included: Giolla Easbuig Daoineach, Domhnall Dall, Seamus (the great James MacDonnell of Isla, d. 1566), Aonghus Uaibreach, Alasdrann Og, Colla, Somhairli Buidhe and Domhnall Gorm.)

  1. Randal aforesaid (2) Earl of Antrim, had two remarkable sons by Alice, daughter of Aodh O Néill, Earl of Tyrone by creation of Elizabeth, Queen of England, and daughter of King Henry, the said Earl of Tyrone having borne also the Irish dignity of 0 Neill. The sons of Randal referred to were Randal the Younger, Earl of Antrim, and Alexander.

(Alexander became third Earl of Antrim in succession to Randal Og in 1683. He died in 1696.)

The first Earl of Antrim was son of Sorley, son of Alexander, son of Eóin Cathanach, son of Eóin, son of Domhnall Ballach, son of Eóin of Isla, son of Eóin, son of Aonghus Og, son of Aonghus Mór, son of Domhnall, who gave name to the MacDonnells.

While the Earldom of Antrim is still in existence the following extract from the writings of Francis Joseph Bigger cast much light on the passing of the title. “The Lord Londonderry, who was one of the defendants in the Bradshaw law suit, was made a marquis in 1816 through the influence of his son, Lord Castlereagh of union fame. This is confirmed by Viceroy Cornwallis’ letter to Portland, the English minister, dated 17th June 1800, after Castlereagh had carried the union, when he said he felt Lord Londonderry was entitled to a British peerage ‘on account of the eminent services of his son’. It was also done to avoid the likely extinction of the title had it been granted to Lord Castlereagh, who was childless. The latter only held the rnarquisate from April 1821, when his father died, until his own tragic end in August 1822. His half-brother, Charles, then became third marquis. He won fame in the peninsular War, and it is to his memory the ever dominant tower on Scrabo was erected. He had married Frances Anne, a daughter of the Countess of Antrim in her own right, the last of the MacDonnells. This alliance brought about the building of Garron Tower by the Vane Tempests on the MacDonnell estate on the Antrim coast. The present holder of the Antrim title is of the Kerr family, just as the holder of the O Neill title is of the Chichester family. Ulster undertakers did not hesitate to jump the old Irish titles with their estates.”

But the MacDonnell line is not yet dead. Those bearing the name may not be earls or marquises or lords or viscounts, no they are ordinary Glensmen who can trace their line back to Coil whose namesake Coll Keitache mac Gilaspic vic Coll of Colonsay was an outstanding and fearless man, who was destined to take a prominent part in the history of Scotland and Ireland – through the deeds of his second son Alasdar Mac Coll Kitto [2]. He distinguished himself in many a hard-fought battle under Montrose in the wars of the Covenanters in Scotland. For his bravery he was knighted on the field of battle by Montrose acting under orders of the king, Charles I. In later days Alasdar has been denied the justice due him. While he served under the banner of Montrose, but when they separated Montrose was no longer successful.

Scottish writers from Sir Walter Scott to John Buchan have agreed to make little of the Irishmen and have failed to notice the outstanding fact that Montrose failed when denied the Irishman’s co-operation. No one suggests that Alasdar was a better strategist than Montrose, but the truth is he had that marvellous gift of leadership, not given to everyone, the type of leadership the clansmen loved and would follow into any danger. The abounding legends on both sides of Struth na Maoile attest to the ability, dash and confidence the clansmen badin their great leader.

When Alasdar went recruiting through the glens, the clansmen flocked to serve under such an outstanding fighter. The man who once caught the blows of several pikes on his shield and then sheared off the pike heads with one sweep of his sword, was a man who inspired awe. The story is told how he was once outnumbered by Covenanters, but was rescued by an unknown fighter as powerful as himself, who hewed down the foe. After the battle, Alasdar (himself a son of the Lord of the Isles) sent for the stranger and enquired as to his identity.

“I’m only a tinker,” said the stranger, ‘I’m not fit to be named among your nobles.” “Cá n uaisle duine ions’ a céird,” was Alasdar’s comment. “No man is nobler than his deeds.” Could a better tribute be paid to anyone than Alasdar’s compliment to the tinker?

No wonder a descendant of his, a Dr John MacDonnell, was, although his family had abandoned the faith of Alasdar for that of his enemies, constrained to write a book in vindication of his great ancestor. This work has long been out of print and is very hard to come by. I was loaned the book by an old schoolmaster over fifty years ago, at a time when I did not fully appreciate the gold dust which had been placed in my hands. Alasdar’s branch – the senior branch – of the family, is represented today by the Dublin MacDonnells (which was represented in its day by Dr John MacDonnell, already referred to), the Kilmore, Glenariffe MacDonnells, and the Ballycastle family of whom John P. MacDonnell BSc., was the senior representative until his recent death. Being unmarried he is succeeded by his brother Archibald.

The whole record of the MacDonnells in Ireland is enough to rouse a surge of national emotion in any Irishman’s heart. One has but to think of that massacre of MacDonnell women and children on Rathlin Island (where they had been sent for safety) by the elder Essex, while Somhairle Buidhe looked on from the mainland at the flames rising, and the little, black racing figures fleeing from the soldiery, and he himself, as the story says, “like to run mad with sorrow”. Elizabeth was much pleased with this adventure and its outcome and complimented Essex on it. How can Antrim folk or Irishmen generally forget the story of how Alisdar Mac Collquitto MacDonnell fell, sword in hand fighting in the province of Munster against Cromwell?

What the MacDonnells had to withstand is described by Chichester (who hated the MacDonnells) in a letter to Cecil in November 1601,

“On the seventeenth, in remimbrance of the daye, I undertook my journeye into the Roote, marchinge by neight untyll I came thither to avoyde discoverie; I founde Randall (McDonnell) gone with Tyrone towardes Munster with 120 foote and 24 horse, leavinge his nephewe with the rest of his force for the garde of that countrie. But I, cominge unlooked for among them, made my entrance almost as far as Dunluce, where I sparde nether house, come, nor creature; and I brought from thence as much prie, of all sortes as we could well drive, beinge greatly hindered by the extreme snow fallen in time of my beinge abroade. Upon my return they kept passages and straytes, upon which they fought two days with us; we lost some few men, horses and foote, but they a farr greater number, for I brake them several tymes, and made them often rune, in which consyste all their saftie. I HAVE OFTEN SAYDE AND WRITEN YT IS FAMINE THAT MUST CONSUME THEM: OUR SWORDES AND OTHER INDEVOURS WORKE NOT THAT SPEEDIE EFFECT WHICH IS EXPECTED FOR THEIR OVERTHROWS ARE SAFTIES TO THE SPEEDIE RUNNERS, UPON WHICH WEE KYLL NO MULTETUDES.”

So as he could not butcher the Irish-and in this case the MacDonnells he would rather, if he could, consume them by famine.

It was in the face of a MacDonnell that the apprentice boys closed the gates of Derry in 1688, and the MacDonnells sat in the Parliament called by James II which sat in Dublin – the last Parliament of the native Irish race until Dail Eireann, which the British declared illegal, met in January 1919. That the influence of the MacDonnells was widespread in Ireland can be gleaned from the fact that the attainder of 1642 included six MacDonnells in County Wicklow, three in County Cork, two in Dublin and one in Kildare. The Outlaweries of 1691 included Six MacDonnells of Antrim, four of Mayo, two of Leitrim and one each in the counties of Roscommon and Clare.

Editor’s Footnotes:

[1] Mac Firhbisigh here confuses John or Eóin Mor, progenitor of the Clan Donald South (Islay, Kintyre and Antrim) with John, last Lord of the Isles, forfeited in 1493. The dates when the two men flourished are apparent in the above article.

[2] Sir Alexander MacDonald or MacDonnell was the third son of Coll Mac Gilleasbuig (Colkitto) of Colonsay. Coll’s grandfather, also named Coll, was the third son of Alexander MacDonald of Dunnyvaig and the Glens, son of John Cathanach, The descendants of this line are now the senior representatives of Clann Iain Mhoir or Clan Donald South, i.e. Isla, Kintyre and Antrim.