The MacDonnells in Irish History by Seamus Clarke

“This Ulster Land where upon we stand
I have won by my shining sword
And they who gainsay my princely sway
Must deal with Tir Owen’s lord.

“This Scottish chief shall with sorrow and grief
Rue that he ever crossed my path
By my sword so bright, he shall feel the might
Of Hy Niall’s Royal wrath.”

Thus a local poet versified the claim and declaration of Sean O’Neill – named the Proud.

“Impelled by such motives” writes Prof. G.A. Hayes-McCoy, “and stimulated towards such an end, it is no wonder that Sean O’Neil looked upon the presence of the Scots in Ireland with a jealous eye. He was never very friendly to the MacDonalds in Antrim or to their parent house of Dunyveg in the Isles for this reason that their Ulster pretentions rankled in his mind in just such a manner as did the claims of O’Donnell to Inishowen and that of the Bagrinalls to Newry. All alike were intrusions and infringements of the sovereignty of O’Neil. Thus it was that, although he did carry on extensive intrigue in Scotland in an endeavour to obtain aid in his military operations, now from Mary, Queen of Scots, and now from Argyll such manouvres were merely on the surface and from time to time; the current of active hostility to any and every Ulster rival ran strong beneath, and the desire to crush opposition was stronger than the hope of alliance.”

The Antrim Scots had grown numerous and powerful and Sean felt threatened. New bands of Islesmen had arrived from the Hebrides, and Sean decided that something had to be done in order to sustain his position. “He proceeded to London” we are told “with a gallant train of guards, bare headed, with curled hair (as if the statute of Kilkenny had never been passed) hanging down their shoulders, armed with battle-axes, and arrayed in their saffron doublets, an astonishment to the worthy burghers of London and Westminster.”

An alliance was for the moment concluded between the Queen of England and the Prince of Ulster. Sean, as proof of his good faith was to exterminate the Scots of Dalriada, who were declared enemies of England – a duty which he readily undertook, as he regarded these same Scots as enemies of his and, in his opinion, had grown too powerful to be tolerated. Yet it should be noted, these Scots of the Western Isles, MacDonnells and MacNeills, were his kinsmen and natural allies – were in fact, an Irish sept, of Irish speech and usages, and a branch of the great Clan Colla, from which had descended the O’Hanlons and Maguires of Ulster. They had for ages possessed the “Glynns” or mountainous part of Antrim and had been the mercenary soldiers of every chief in the island who required and could reward their services.

Terrible, indeed, was the slaughter inflicted by Sean on the MacDonnells. Red Bay Castle (Uaimhaderg) he burned to the ground, and afterwards plundered all the adjoining districts. The wide-spreading Glenariffe and the sheltered fields of Cushendale were reaped with his sword. In one day Shane marched from Cushendale to Ballycastle, passing Cushendun where but two years later his mangled corpse would be buried.

At Ballycastle all the MacDonnell clan had gathered here in Glentaisi with their Irish and Scottish friends. Warning fires on Torr and on the high hill of Ballyucan above the Bay of Murlough had warned the Scottish brethern to come and that quickly to the aid of their hard-pressed friends in the Glynns of Antrim, but they only came to their doom.

O’Neill utterly routed and defeated the whole clan, burning, sacking and plundering all before him, killing many of the MacDonnell chieftains, and taking others prisoners, including Sorley Boy.

The scene is pictured by a local poet thus:

Then away, away – all in wild dismay
Their broken columns reel. While fast on their track, like a vengeful pack
Dash the warriors of O’Neill. To the skies arise their exultant cries
As each foeman is laid low; Now Angus is slain, and Sorley is ta’en.
And slaughtered is John Roe. And sore wounded and captive, the Lord of the Isles.
James of predestined doom. Is borne away for a future day
To perish “mid dungeon’s gloom. The Red hand flies “mid triumphant cries
O’er the town of Sorley Boy. While the hills around re-echo the sound
Of the victors exultant joy. At the conqueror’s feet in dark defeat
Clan Colla lies crushed in gore. Their chieftains brave who have crossed the wave
Shall return to the Isles no more. On the breeze’s swell, hark! the tolling bell
From the Margies’ holy fane. Where the brown-clad brothers pray for the soul
Of the dead in the battle slain. Oh! the maids of the Isles, no more with smiles
Shall welcome them to the shore Where are Carrach’s sons, and Gallta’s sons?
They’ll return to dark Mull no more.
Where is Angus brave from Isla’s wave?
Nevermore shall his galley’s track Be seen on the foam, nor his island home
E’er welcome the hero back. And MacCrimmon may play “The Cunhadl na Cloinne”
For the chief of the eagle eye; His youthful lord who will ne’er return
To the misty hills of Skye.

Evil days soon fell on Sean-an-Diomas. Beaten by the O’Donnells, and mistrusted by the English he turned for assistance to his old enemies the MacDonnells. He released their old chief Sorley Boy. A meeting was arranged between O’Neill and the MacDonnells at Cushendun. Sean was accompanied by but fifty men and the Countess of Argyll a kinswoman of the Scots. Banquets were arranged and games indulged in. and all seemed in festive mood. A word or two premeditated, perhaps, upset the pleasant occasion, and the mood changed. The Irish were accused of spreading a report that O’Neill was seeking in marriage the widow of James MacDonnell; this, of course, angered the Scots. The Irish retorted that Sean was fit to marry Mary. Queen of Scots. This was unfortunate for Mary was then a widow. Words led to blows and swords were soon out and soon Sean was hacked to pieces and his body, badly mangled, was tumbled into a pit in a nearby burial ground. Thus but two years after his victory over the MacDonnells in Glentaisi in 1565 was that event avenged.

That the MacDonnells still maintained their hard won place is proved by reference to a few of that great clan and the part they played in directing or being associated with events. Sorley Boy’s nephew Hugh Roe O’Donnell, his mother being a sister of Sorley’s. her mother was a Campbell, was to become an outstanding figure in Irish history. After his escape from Dublin Castle, where he was held for some years as a hostage by the English, he joined with Hugh O’Neill and other chiefs and in the Nine years war almost drove the English out of Ireland. A force of MacDonnells were present at Kinsale when they were defeated. O’Donnell sailed from there to Spain to seek help. It is generally believed he was poisoned there by an English agent.

In 1614-15 charges were laid against certain Gaelic families in the province of Ulster that they were engaged in a conspiracy or plot to seize certain fortresses: to take prisoners of Sir Richard Hadsor. Governor of Lifford, and other functionaries: to secure the freedom of Sir Niall Garve O Donnell and his son. Sir Donnell OCahan. and SirCormach mac BarowO Neill. then confined in the Tower of London; and to attempt the rescue of Con O Neill, son of the Earl of Tyrone, and Henry O Neill. son of Cormac macBaron, who were in the hands of the English since the Flight of the Earl in 1607.

A list of alleged plotters was drawn up by the Government in Dublin and forwarded to London. There were thirty four names on the list, which included three of the Antrim MacDonnells:

Alexander MacDonnell, eldest son of James MacDonnell, grandchild of Sorley Boy and nephew to Sir Randall MacDonnell.
Sorley Mac James McDonnell, brother to Alexander.
Lother MacDonnell, base brother to Sir Randal MacDonnell.

The Sorley MacDonnell mentioned here escaped to the continent where he joined and became a Captain in the Regiment of the Earl of Tirone. He covered himself with glory in a battle before the gates of Prague in Bohemia. Captain Sorley is best remembered by scholars for his saving for posterity some manuscripts which but for him would have perished forever.

However Dr. Douglas Hyde conjectured that as many as twenty-eight of the poems have been lost as the folios numbering 26,28,40, 234-6, and 414-422 are not now in the book. Dr Bergin edited many of the poems from this manuscript in various learned journals. Miss Knott edited those of Tadhg Dall O Huiginn; Father MacKenna those of Philip bocht O Huiginn, Aonighus O Dallaigh etc., but as late as thirty years ago a number of poems, both religious and historical still awaited translation. So Sorley’s name still survives and his work and labour is of interest to scholars.

The MacDonnells were of ancient Irish stock. They transferred to Scotland but returned to Ireland and in time possessed themselves of the Antrim Glens. They fought for them “through centuries against the MacQuillans, O Cahans and O Neills. These were enemies, indeed”, writes Sean OTaslain, “the greatest of them Sean the Proud who slaughtered them at Glentaisi in the sixteenth century and was duly killed by them, in revenge, at Cushendun two years after…. But as with so many settlers, they had a far greater enemy – the abortive power of Ireland herself. The O Neills and the O Donnells were glad to use them as professional fighters. Two thousand of these Scottish gallow-glasses were drowned in the Moy, over in Connacht, while fighting on the side of the Burkes. They stiffened the great Ulster Rising. They fell at Kinsale when all Ireland fell, by the hundred. Sir Randall MacDonnell was granted the greater part of Antrim by James and later made the first Earl.

“The whole record of the Antrims” O Faolain tells us “is enough to raise a surge of national emotion in any man’s heart. Think of that massacre of MacDonnell women and children on Rathlin Island by the elder Essex, while Sorley Buie MacDonnell 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 thought this piece of work a brave adventure and complimented Essex on it. Or how can Antrim folk forget the story of how Alistar Mac Colquitto MacDonnell fell, sword in hand, fighting under Inchiquin in Munster against Cromwell? Do they not know that if it had not been for the Restoration there would be no Earl of Antrim today? Against whom did the apprentice boys of Deny close their gates that autumn of ’88 but against an Antrim? The Antrims sat in the last Parliament of the native Irish race – that which James called in Dublin.”

Then there was the Bard John MacDonnell of Munster. He was surnamed “Clarach” from the place of his birth near Charleville in Co. Cork. He was a “rank” Jacobite, and on more occasions than one he saved his life by hasty retreat from his enemies, the Bard-hunters. He moreover inherited all the hatred of his race for the “Saxon Churls” who had so basely murdered at Knockanas, near Mallon in 1648 the brave Irish General, Alister Mac Colquitto of his name and race. He was the author of many Jacobite pieces and had hoped had he lived to translate Homer into his native Gaelic, but he died in 1754 aged 63 years.

A descendant of Alister, Dr James McDonnell, was to a great extent responsible for saving the ancient music of Ireland. Assisted by others interested in the project he gathered together the last of the ancient harpists and employing Edmund Bunting to note down the music saved much of Ireland’s ancient music. Dr James, a native of the Glens of Antrim, where his house is still pointed out, was reared by his father Michael Roe in the Irish tradition. He as a lad attended a hedge school and in due course went to Edinburgh where he qualified as a medical doctor. He returned to Belfast where he did great work and even to this day his contribution to the progress of Belfast is recognised on all sides. His contribution to the cultural life not only of Belfast but to Ireland was immense. Ireland, indeed, owes much to the MacDonnells.

The Harpers Festival was held in Belfast in July 1792.