The Marquis of Antrim: A Stuart Turn-Kilt?

By Ohlmeyer, Jane | History Today, March 1993 | Go to article overview

The Marquis of Antrim: A Stuart Turn-Kilt?


Ohlmeyer, Jane, History Today


Hated by many, mistrusted by all: a fair verdict on Randal MacDonnell the man who wheeled and dealed across Scotland and Ireland in the troubled era of Civil War and Commonwealth? Jane Ohlmeyer puts the man in his geographical and cultural context and re-evaluates his career and motives.

Arrogant, condescending, crafty, calculating, childish, fickle, greedy, haughty, headstrong, indiscreet, impatient, importuning, interfering, loudmouthed, manipulative, myopic, perfidious, pretentious, self-centred, unco-operative and whining: these are merely a selection of the adjectives used by his contemporaries and by later historians to describe the personality of Randal MacDonnell, 2nd Earl and 1st Marquis of Antrim.

The criticisms started at the top. Two of Ireland's lords lieutenant, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, and James Butler, Duke of Ormond, were his most vocal and malevolent critics. The former, who disliked Antrim's character and religion and questioned his competence and loyalty, denigrated and ridiculed Antrim at every opportunity. Many members of both the Protestant and Catholic Irish communities also shared Strafford's contempt for Antrim.

The marquis' abysmal reputation among his contemporaries -- and subsequently -- is largely the product of his disloyalty and treachery to the Stuart cause during the civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century. But to what extent did he deserve this appalling press? For whom was he a |patriot'? What did concepts such as |patriotism' or |treason' actually mean to Irish and British Catholics amid the warfare and political instability of the mid-seventeenth century? Why were |traitors' and |collaborators' tolerated in Cromwellian and Stuart Britain?

Randal MacDonnell, born in 1609, was the eldest legitimate son of Sir Randal MacDonnell, later 1st Earl of Antrim, and Alice O'Neill, daughter of Hugh O'Neill, 3rd Earl of Tyrone, and was heir to a vast estate of roughly 340,000 acres in County Antrim. Antrim enjoyed an illustrious pedigree. His Irish grandfathers -- Sorley Boy MacDonnell and Hugh, Earl of Tyrone -- had been great Gaelic war-lords who had dominated affairs in Ulster, and for a time in all Ireland, during much of the later sixteenth century.

On the Scottish side he was descended from Somerland, first Lord of the Isles, through his son Domhnall, the eponymous ancestor of the Clan Donald, and thus related to the MacDonalds of Dunnyveg and the Glens, of Clanranald, of Glengarry, of Keppoch and of Sleat. Moreover, he was recognised by his Scottish kinsmen as |leader of the hosts' and their |helping warrior' against the aggression of neighbouring Clan Campbell (led by the earls of Argyll) who had already laid claim to the hereditary lands of Clan Donald in the Western Isles.

In Ireland Antrim was chief of the Irish MacDonnells and, thanks to the discerning marriages of his siblings, he was related to the leading Old English families in the Pale and to the native Irish ones in Munster, in Connaught and above all in Ulster. In addition, the presence of his illegitimate brothers and exiled cousins in Flanders ensured that his ties with Catholic Europe were particularly strong. This heterogeneous, human pool from which Antrim was able to draw supporters (and sailors too) thus extended from the Hebrides in the north-west to Flanders in the south-east.

The geographical setting of Antrim's world was of paramount importance in his life. In the early modern period distance was |public enemy number one' and the marquis' territorial and political base was far from the centre of government: his traditional world stretched from the Hebridean islands of Uist, Skye, Rhum and Canna in the north, to Kintyre and Jura in the east and to County Antrim in the west, encompassing some of the most remote and inaccessible regions of Stuart Scotland and Ireland. Indeed Antrim's empire was almost totally inaccessible by land. Though there were |several high ways' linking Glenarm with the more northerly towns of County Antrim, overland travel was almost impossible without a guide since |the lower ways are deep clay, and the upper ways great and steep hills'. …

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