MacDonnell, James (c.1501–65), lord of the Isles, commonly referred to in the records as ‘James MacConnell’, was eldest son of Alasdair Cahanagh MacDonnell, 5th lord of Dunyveg and the Glens (Glynnes) of Antrim, and his wife Catherine, daughter of John MacIan MacDonnell of Ardnamurchan. As heir to his father, chief of Clan Ian Mor, James was sent to Edinburgh to be educated at the court of James V.
On the death of his father (1538) James succeeded to the lordship of Dunyveg and the Glynnes, by then the most powerful branch of the MacDonnell clan. In 1545 Donald Dubh, grandson of John, 4th lord of the Isles, claimed the now illegal title (forfeit in 1493), and received support from several west Highland chiefs. He was immediately proclaimed by the Scottish council and the regent, James Hamilton, earl of Arran. James MacDonnell, alone of all the major Highland chiefs, declined to support Donald Dubh's claim and instead supported his brother-in-law, the earl of Argyll, in his defence of the interests of the infant Mary, queen of Scots. Nevertheless James remained popular among the Hebridean chiefs; and when Donald died, some months later, James was elected as his successor.
James earned the gratitude of the Scottish crown, and in 1545 he and his brothers were given a royal grant of certain lands in Kintyre and Islay. That year also, James was married to Lady Agnes Campbell (qv), daughter of Colin, 3rd earl of Argyll, and sister of Archibald, 4th (and current) earl, thus sealing the pact of friendship between the MacDonnells and their traditional enemies the Campbells, and giving James more lands in Ardnamurchan. Nevertheless, the strength of the house of Argyle meant that James could exert only limited influence in the western Highlands and in the late 1540s he turned to Ulster. He established a base on Rathlin Island, from where he and his brothers, Angus, Colla (qv), Alasdair Oge, Donnell Gorme, and Sorley Boy (qv), began intensive settlement in north-east Ulster. By the mid 1550s they had occupied the Glens of Antrim and the Dufferin, and finally in 1559, at the battle of Slieve-An-Aura (south of Ballycastle), overthrew the lordship of the MacQuillans in the Route. Thereafter, James established a permanent settlement in the area, building a mansion in Red Bay, said at the time to be the finest in Ulster.
Alarmed by the MacDonnell expansion, the English government under Sir James Croft (qv) made a number of expeditions against the Scots in the early 1550s. But Croft failed to dislodge the MacDonnells, and by 1555 they were sufficiently entrenched in the area to lay siege to Carrickfergus for several weeks. In July 1556 the new lord deputy, Thomas Radcliffe (qv), earl of Sussex, launched a further series of assaults against the MacDonnells, burning the castles of Glenarm and Saddell, devastating Arran and Kintyre, and forcing them to withdraw temporarily from the region.
James's strategy, however, was not to make war with the English but to acquire legal title to his acquisitions in Ulster. He therefore approached Sussex with offers of peace in return for royal recognition of his claim to certain lands: some to which he had no title, and some which he claimed as his patrimony. It was at this point that the expanding power of Shane O'Neill (qv) persuaded Sussex to look favourably on the MacDonnells as potential allies in the war against Shane. In 1559 a draft agreement was drawn up by the English crown in which the MacDonnells' territorial claims in the north-east would be recognised in return for their support, and James informed Sussex that on receiving his patent he would act as instructed. The indenture was signed on 20 January 1561. But in this murky triangular struggle no one force was committed to supporting the other, and throughout 1561–2 James failed to move against Shane, claiming to Capt. William Piers (qv) that the terms of the indenture were unsatisfactory and that he could not act without his brother Sorley Boy.
In June 1563 news reached the English court that James's wife, Lady Agnes Campbell, was in Scotland making overtures to the queen of Scots, and Elizabeth (finally frustrated by James's ambivalence) determined on using O'Neill against the MacDonnells while at the same time establishing a strong O'Donnell presence in Tyrconnell as a counterbalance. In a treaty in September 1563 she granted almost all Shane's demands, and relieved him of English pressure. In April 1565 Shane attacked the MacDonnells, first burning James's new house at Red Bay and then engaging them in battle at Knockboy pass. James was on Rathlin Island and – seeing the signal fires lit on Fair Head, Murlough Bay, and Torr Head – immediately gathered a few men and set sail, leaving his brother Alexander to follow with the main force. He joined Sorley at Cushendun, but O'Neill's forces outnumbered them two to one. The following day (2 May 1565) at the battle of Glentaisie, the MacDonnells were defeated and James and Sorley captured. James, who was badly wounded, was imprisoned at Castle Corcra in Tyrone (near Strabane). Although the English government tried to negotiate the release of the prisoners, they were unsuccessful, and James died at Castle Corcra on 5 July 1565.
James had pursued a policy of neutrality from 1560 to 1563 in the hope of gaining legal title to his lands in Antrim, but the MacDonnells were mistrusted by both O'Neill and the English, who considered them opportunists and who combined in trying to drive them out of Ulster. James's death now left the way open for Sorley Boy, for the moment still a prisoner of Shane O'Neill, to emerge as his powerful successor.
James MacDonnell had three sons with Lady Agnes: Archibald (d. 1569), Angus, who succeeded his father, and Ranald; and two daughters, Catherine, who married Shane O'Neill, and Fiona (qv), ‘Iníon Dubh’, who married Hugh O'Donnell (qv).