MacDonnell, James (1763–1845), physician, benefactor, and savant, was born 14 April 1763 near Cushendall, Co. Antrim, the second of three children (all sons) of Michael Roe MacDonnell, kinsman of the earls of Antrim, and his wife, Elizabeth Jane MacDonnell (née Stewart) of Ballintoy, Co. Antrim. Raised in his mother's (protestant) religion, he attended Michael Traynor's hedge school in the nearby Red Bay caves, David Manson's (qv) liberal ‘play-school’, and the Rev. Nicholas Garnet's classics classes in Belfast. He learned the Irish harp and airs from the blind harper Art O'Neill (qv). He went to Edinburgh to study medicine and graduated MD in 1784 with a thesis ‘De submersis’ (‘On the drowned’). After returning to Belfast he lived at 13 Donegall Place and became a key figure in the evolution of the town's medical, educational, and philanthropic institutions as well as its cultural and political developments.
He married, first (9 September 1791), Eliza Clarke (d. 1798), daughter of John Clarke, a wealthy Belfast merchant, with whom he had three sons and one daughter: Randal; Alexander (qv) (1794–1875, later Sir Alexander MacDonnell, baronet, resident commissioner of the Irish Board of Education); John (qv) (1796–1892, the first surgeon in Ireland to use general anaesthesia); and Katherine Anne (1792–1869, who married, in 1814, Andrew Armstrong of Kilsharvan, Co. Meath). His second wife was Penelope (d. 1854), daughter of James Montgomery of Larne, Co. Antrim; their marriage was childless.
MacDonnell was the unchallenged doyen of Belfast medicine. He combined (extensive) clinical practice and (limited) clinical investigation (he used himself and even Thomas Russell (qv) as guinea-pigs, but published very little) with the development of medical education and charitable clinical facilities. Tall, broad-browed, and courtly in manner, if at times irascible and peremptory, the ‘gentle and hospitable’ MacDonnell was a familiar figure, in traditional knee breeches, doing his round on foot, on horseback, or in a carriage driven by his factotum Michael McCormick. He was unusually robust (he frequently rode a hundred miles to see his mother) until late in life, when he became severely physically handicapped, though he remained mentally alert.
After an uncertain start MacDonnell co-founded in 1797 the charitable Belfast Dispensary and Fever Hospital in Factory Row (later Berry Street); it had six beds, resident nurse and apothecary, and attending medical staff. It moved to three houses in West Street in 1799. In the early nineteenth century donations burgeoned thanks to Belfast's new prosperity, and the hospital's funds were augmented from 1807 (47 Geo. III, cap. 40) by public money for ‘fever’ provisions. In 1817 the institution moved again, this time to a 100-bed hospital in Frederick Street costing some £5,000, with associated district dispensaries, which was the forerunner of the Royal Victoria Hospital. The whole enterprise represented ‘throughout [MacDonnell's] active life all the energy and zeal which animated and cherished the charitable movement’ (Malcolm). He remained an ‘attending physician’ until 1837. Other, related achievements included the rescue from oblivion of the Belfast Medical Society (now the Ulster Medical Society) in 1822 and participation in the gestation and birth (in 1835) of the first Belfast medical school jointly with the RBAI. MacDonnell's true worth is embodied in the inscription on the charger of a ten-piece silver service of plate costing £700 and presented to him in 1828 by 133 of the ‘Nobility, Ladies and Gentlemen of Belfast and its vicinity’ (whose names are inscribed on the reverse); it reads:
The inscribed charger and two salvers are in the possession of Queen's University; the other pieces are either lost or in private hands.
To James MacDonnell MD who . . . has devoted his time and eminent talents to the work of humanity; whose gratuitous advice has been always at the service of the poor; and [to whom] this Town has been principally indebted for that invaluable Institution the Fever Hospital and Dispensary.
MacDonnell supported the foundation of the Belfast Academical Institution in 1810 (it acquired its ‘Royal’ status in 1831) as a non-denominational school and college; he was one of its founding proprietors and a member of the controlling joint boards (of managers and visitors) during much of the period 1810–35, and voted for many ‘enlightenment’ policies. The joint plan of the hospital and the RBAI to found a medical school was facilitated by MacDonnell, who, having a foot in both camps, was a catalyst in the protracted negotiations, organised appeals for money, helped to appoint the first professors, negotiated the purchase of the former army barracks in Barrack Street for hospital use, and saw the Faculty of Medicine established in October 1835 with his son John as professor of surgery. The last of his several gifts to the RBAI was of 200 books, provided they ‘could not be thrown out at the discretion of any particular set of Christians’ (minute book, joint boards of managers and visitors 1836–43, 347–9, PRONI: SCH/524/3A/V).
MacDonnell's cultural interests were literary, linguistic, antiquarian, and musical, and focused especially on Irish Celtic traditions. He was the founder (13 May 1788) of the Belfast Reading Society (later the Linenhall Library), served on its committee until 1817, and was a regular benefactor. On 23 October 1801 he founded the Belfast Literary Society and became its first president; he read twenty-three addresses to the society, the last when he was seventy-four. He helped to organise the national harp festival in Belfast in 1792 (11–14 July) and, with his surgeon brother Alexander, co-founded (17 March 1808) the Irish Harp Society, which ran a short-lived resident ‘academy’ for blind pupils at 21 Cromac Street; in July 1809 the brothers also established, at Pottinger's Entry, an offspring institution of the harp society ‘to promote the Irish language’. MacDonnell joined the Belfast Natural History Society in 1832 and supported many smaller, often transient, cultural enterprises.
MacDonnell's deep social conscience, extensive contacts, moral courage, and Celtic cultural proclivities inevitably involved him in Belfast's political turbulence of the 1790s. He knew the leading radicals and tories, and was host to Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv) during Tone's first (1791) and second (1792) ‘embassies’ to Belfast and at the time of his embarkation for America in May 1795; he appears sympathetically in Tone's journal and earned one of the sobriquets – ‘The Hypocrite’ (seemingly after the Greek physician Hippocrates) – that Tone reserved for his inner circle. He publicly supported catholic emancipation and signed the Volunteer declaration in 1792. For more than a year (October 1792 to February 1794) he lodged in his house the future republican insurrectionist, Thomas Russell; he obtained for Russell an appointment as librarian to the Belfast Reading Society and wrote to him when he was in prison in Newgate. Yet in 1803 he signed the public petition against Russell and contributed £50 to the £1,500 bounty for his capture, thereby incurring much contumely and some censorious doggerel as ‘a contemptible cold-blooded Judas’ (Agnew, Drennan-McTier letters, iii, 158) from Russell's supporters, many of whom were his own friends and colleagues. The opprobrium proved in the main short-lived. Nevertheless, despite his lofty ideals and subsequent correspondence defending his Russell ‘betrayal’, the episode clouded his image which had once seemed so uniformly flawless, despite the inherent antinomies and contradictions induced by his mixed background and instincts.
MacDonnell died 5 April 1845 at his residence, 13 Donegall Place, and was buried in the old churchyard at Layde near Cushendall under a tall Celtic cross. Among his memorials are an Irish elegy, Tuireadh an Doctuir Mhic Domnhaill, composed on his death by his namesake, Aodh Mac Domhnaill (qv), and an Irish commemorative plaque near Murlough, Co. Antrim. The best likenesses are a contemporary marble bust by Charles Moore in the Ulster Museum, and an unattributed portrait in the Royal Victoria Hospital, which also has copies of the bust. MacDonnell's surviving papers are in the James MacDonnell Archive in the PRONI (D / 3819).