A Narrow Sea - Episode 12
Sorley Boy MacDonnell
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon
During the sixteenth century the MacDonnells, Hebridean Scots possessing lands on both sides of the North Channel, created one of the most powerful lordships in Ireland. At the same time the Tudor monarchs, having made England a stable and prosperous state, were recovering lands in Ireland that had been lost by their predecessors.
Elizabeth, coming to the throne in 1558, decided she must go further – she must commit her treasure without stinting to the conquest of the entire island of Ireland. As a Protestant queen, she feared that independent Irish lords would make common cause with the Catholic kings of Spain, rulers of the world’s most extensive empire, intent on the destruction of England.
The most determined resistance to the extension of English power in Ireland came from the Gaelic lords of Ulster. Neutrality was not an option for the MacDonnells, particularly as Elizabeth’s advisors believed these Catholic, Gaelic-speaking Scots were just as treasonable as their native Irish neighbours. The Queen agreed to a scheme to drive them from the Glens to make way for an English colonisation of eastern Ulster. The Lord of the Glynns (Glens), Sorley Boy MacDonnell, felt he had no option but to build a Gaelic coalition to resist the English.
Sorley Boy made peace with the Campbells of the Hebrides and in 1569 he arranged the marriage of Lady Agnes, his brother’s widow, to Turlough Luineach O’Neill, the new lord of Tír Eóghain. Finola MacDonnell, Lady Agnes’ daughter, was married in turn to Hugh O’Donnell, Lord of Tír Conaill.
After England’s failure of a first attempt at colonisation in Ulster, made by Sir Thomas Smith in 1572, the Earl of Essex launched a fresh initiative the following year. This included a furious assault on the MacDonnell island of Rathlin in July 1575. It was led by the constable of Belfast, Captain John Norris, and Francis Drake, already famous for his seizure of a Spanish treasure fleet the year before. After being bombarded for four days, the garrison of the MacDonnell castle on the island surrendered - on condition lives were spared. But, as Lord Deputy Sir Henry Sidney reported
The soldiers, being moved and much stirred with the loss of their fellows that were slain, and desirous of revenge, made request, or rather pressed, to have the killing of them, which they did all … There were slain that came out of the castle of all sorts 200 … they be occupied still in killing, and have slain that they have found hidden in caves and in the cliffs of the sea to the number of 300 or 400 more.
Essex relayed to the queen information received from his spy that Sorley Boy had
stood upon the mainland of the Glynnes (pronounce as ‘Glens’) and saw the taking of the island, and was like to run mad for sorrow (as the spy saith), turning and tormenting himself, and saying that he had then lost all that ever he had.
But Essex’s attempt to colonise this part of Ulster did not succeed, and he died of dysentery in Dublin in September 1576 at the age of thirty-six. With the aid of more warriors brought south from the Hebrides, Sorley Boy recovered his Ulster lands – including Rathlin - but could he keep them?
In 1584 the new Lord Deputy, Sir John Perrott, launched a fresh assault on the MacDonnells. As his army advanced down both banks of the lower Bann, most of the Scots retreated in their galleys to the Hebrides.
Randal MacDonnell, however, held out in Dunluce Castle with forty men. The Castle was perched on a high, sea-tunnelled rock near Portballintrae, with a strong gatehouse and bristling with turrets. It seemed impregnable; but the Lord Deputy’s cannon, including a culverin considered the largest in the realm, pounded it for two days in September until the garrison surrendered.
Meanwhile, Sorley Boy MacDonnell held a meeting of Island chiefs on Bute and there won support for the retaking of his Antrim lands. On Hallowe’en night 1585 eighty Scots landed at Dunluce and (possibly with the help of the constable’s Scots mistress) scaled the cliffs and ramparts with the aid of ropes twisted from sally rods. Peter Carey, the constable, fought to the last of his men; he himself was hanged from the walls.
Queen Elizabeth, appalled by the expense of these expeditions to Ulster, agreed to make peace with the MacDonnells - so, in 1586, Sorley Boy travelled to Dublin. Now over eighty years old, Sorley prostrated himself before a portrait of Elizabeth, a small price to pay for his family’s right to the Glens and the Route.