Clan Donald Magazine No11 (1987) Online
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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.
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