Clan Donald Magazine No 12 (1991) Online
The MacDonnells in Irish History by Seamus Clarke
"This Ulster Land where upon we
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
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
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
Dash the warriors of O'Neill. To the skies arise their exultant
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
O'er the town of Sorley Boy. While the hills around re-echo the
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
From the Margies' holy fane. Where the brown-clad brothers pray for
Of the dead in the battle slain. Oh! the maids of the Isles, no more
Shall welcome them to the shore Where are Carrach's sons, and
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
E'er welcome the hero back. And MacCrimmon may play "The Cunhadl na
For the chief of the eagle eye; His youthful lord who will ne'er
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
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
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
"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
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
The Harpers Festival was held in Belfast in
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