MacDonnell, Sir Randal mac Sorley (d. 1636), Gaelic lord and 1st earl of Antrim , was fourth son of Sorley Boy MacDonnell (qv) and as such was born into a resilient dynastic offshoot (known as the MacDonnells) of the MacDonalds of the Western Isles of Scotland, which had established itself on the east coast of Co. Antrim during the sixteenth century. During his childhood, he was fostered out to a Scottish presbyterian lowland family, the Stewarts on the isle of Arran, hence his sobriquet ‘Arranach’.
War and diplomacy in Ulster and Scotland In February 1595 he was being held in Dublin Castle as a pledge for the good behaviour of his brother James (qv), who was the head of the MacDonnells in Ireland. He was released around June 1596 after James had paid £200 to government officials. James's eagerness to secure his brother's release indicates that he regarded him as a valuable ally, probably due to his connections in Scotland. This was a period of great upheaval – both in Ulster, where a rebel confederation led by Hugh O'Neill (qv), earl of Tyrone, opposed the English crown, and in the Western Isles, where the MacDonalds under Angus MacDonald of Dunyveg were being undermined by internal divisions, feuds with the Campbell and MacLean clans, and the hostility of the Scottish crown. In 1596 James exploited Angus's weakness to seize control of the Glens of Antrim, bringing all the MacDonalds’ territory in Antrim under his control. Clearly he hoped either to overthrow Angus as head of the MacDonald clan or, failing that, to secede from his Scottish cousins. Randal, due to his links with lowland Scots hostile to Angus, could play a key role in furthering these ambitions.
In Ulster he and James broadly supported Tyrone's rebel confederation during 1597–1601, and Randal took part in a number of military engagements against royal forces. The most significant and consequential of these was the battle of Knockross (October 1597), where the MacDonnells routed an English force based at Carrickfergus and killed the commander, John Chichester. However, James was determined to keep his options open and used Randal's diplomatic skills in order to do so. During his imprisonment in Dublin, Randal had established a friendly relationship with an unknown member of the Irish privy council and had been released, in part, because he had promised to assist the English. Once freed, he occasionally provided royal officials in Ireland with military intelligence, and in early 1599 even relieved the royal garrison at Belfast when it was besieged by rebels.
While his assistance of the English was covert and probably somewhat disingenuous, he was more prominent in his capacity as James's envoy in Scotland, making frequent and lengthy visits to that kingdom during 1598–1601, and speaking at least twice with King James VI. At this time the Scottish king cultivated good relations with the MacDonnells, as he was engaged in military action against Angus and his supporters. For their part, the MacDonnells benefited from this relationship which further isolated Angus while giving them more leverage with both the rebel confederation and the English, both of whom desired Scottish assistance.
Meanwhile, the slain John Chichester was succeeded as commander of the Carrickfergus garrison by his vengeful brother Arthur (qv), a development that greatly complicated the MacDonnells’ efforts to come to terms with the English crown. With Chichester harrying the MacDonnells relentlessly and with the crown finally gaining the upper hand on the rebels elsewhere in Ireland, Randal signed a truce with Chichester in December 1600. Although James MacDonnell was not a party to this truce, this did not signify a breach between the brothers. Most likely Randal's truce was a confidence-building prelude to James's own submission to the crown. Indeed, immediately after this he visited Scotland, where he persuaded King James to dispatch an envoy to London on James MacDonnell's behalf. However, it may have had completely unintended consequences as there are grounds for believing that the English, perceiving Randal to be the dove to James's hawk, had the latter assassinated in April 1601.
Head of the MacDonnells and rebel Randal, who was still in Scotland, hurried back to Ireland on hearing of his brother's death and, after brushing aside the challenge of his younger brother Eneas Ultagh, was proclaimed head of the MacDonnells. James's death came at a very inopportune moment as Angus MacDonald's son, Sir James, happened to be in Ulster at the time with his men and sought to restore his family's control over the Glens. After a tense standoff lasting several days, a battle broke out in which Randal was victorious and captured Sir James. In July he consolidated his position by signing a truce with the English on behalf of the MacDonnells and maintained a neutral stance for a time. However, the landing of a Spanish expeditionary force at Kinsale to support the rebels in autumn 1601 led him to rejoin the rebellion.
He accompanied Tyrone on his march south into Munster and led 400 foot and forty horse into the battle of Kinsale in December. One report suggested that barely forty of them survived that catastrophic defeat for the rebels. In his absence, Chichester wasted his territory, killing many of his followers. Worse still, Sir James MacDonald escaped from imprisonment, seized control of Randal's chief fortress, Dunluce, and opened negotiations with Chichester to hand over the castle to him. Had MacDonald done so, Randal's position would have been irretrievable. However, MacDonald distrusted the English and rather surprisingly was persuaded by Tyrone both to join his rebellion and to hand Dunluce back to Randal in January 1602. MacDonald's ill-advised belligerence proved to be Randal's salvation because it deprived the crown of its only realistic alternative to him in north-east Ulster.
As soon as he was back in possession of Dunluce, he offered his submission to Chichester, who reluctantly concluded that the war-weary government would have to accept his surrender on terms in order to focus its depleted resources on reducing Tyrone. He was pardoned by the lord deputy of Ireland, Charles Blount (qv), Lord Mountjoy, in May 1602 and agreed to serve against his former ally Tyrone, who finally surrendered in spring 1603, ending the war.
Royal patronage, rivalry with Chichester Although King James of Scotland had briefly supported James MacDonald's claim to the Glens in summer 1602, one of his first acts on becoming King James I of England was to arrange in May 1603 for MacDonnell to be granted by royal patent all of the Route and the Glens, a massive territory comprising nearly 340,000 acres. MacDonnell also appears to have been knighted at this time. The king had decided that stability could best be preserved in east Ulster by the creation of large territorial units under powerful but loyal magnates. Given his rebellious past, MacDonnell does not appear at first glance to be suitable for that role, but the king had already established a good personal relationship with him during the 1590s and his judgement was vindicated by events. Possibly benefiting from years of manipulating the internecine rivalries of unruly Highland clans, James realised that MacDonnell was now dependent on the crown due to the hostility of many of his neighbours, tenants, and immediate family. The Route and the Glens had been seized very recently from the MacQuillans and from Angus MacDonald clans respectively; but even after disregarding this, his nephew Alexander (son of his older brother James) was the rightful owner of his property under a strict application of the law of primogeniture. The king acknowledged his vulnerability by stressing that the royal patent for his land was necessary to defend him from his ‘bad kinsmen’.
Tyrone, for one, was pragmatic enough not to hold a grudge against MacDonnell for switching sides and married his daughter Ellis, who was renowned for her beauty, to him in 1604. Although militarily defeated, the former rebel lords in Ulster were determined to preserve as much of their power as possible and formed a united front against the government. Indeed, MacDonnell used his influence with the king to assist Tyrone and Sir Cahir O'Doherty (qv) in resisting intrusive royal officials. Mountjoy was prepared to accommodate them in this, but the appointment of Chichester as lord deputy in late 1604 heralded a shift in government policy and meant that MacDonnell's most bitter enemy now headed the Dublin administration. Chichester had opposed the granting of so much land to MacDonnell, criticised him at every opportunity, advised the king to break up his estates, and signalled his predatory intent by acquiring in 1604–6 large tracts of land in Co. Antrim immediately south of his territory.
In 1605 MacDonnell became embroiled in a series of disputes with the commander of the local royal garrison at Toome, Sir Thomas Phillips (qv), who was egged on and supported by Chichester. In summer 1606 he travelled to the royal court and succeeded in reassuring the king of his loyalty, but on his return to Ireland he found that Chichester had deprived him of his right to one quarter of the fishing rights of the River Bann, a lucrative prize said to be worth £800 a year. During 1606 this dispute led to violence between MacDonnell's tenants and Phillips's men.
The plantation of Antrim During c.1606–7 lowland Scots began to settle in large numbers in Co. Down. Perceiving that this could be turned to his political and financial advantage, MacDonnell invited lowland Scots to accept leases on his estates in Antrim. Aside from the example of his neighbours in Down, the king or one of his ministers may have hinted to him that his assistance in establishing a sizeable British protestant presence in Ulster would be appreciated. In summer 1607 he travelled to court in order to highlight his efforts in this regard and was rewarded by being temporarily restored to the Bann fisheries. However, the crisis caused by the ‘flight of the earls’ in autumn 1607 and the subsequent O'Doherty revolt strengthened Chichester's hand, and in 1608 he wrested the fishing rights to the Bann permanently from MacDonnell.
Nonetheless, MacDonnell managed to avoid being implicated in Tyrone's flight and in the ensuing uprisings and conspiracies, and kept his territory more or less quiet while the rest of Ulster fell into chaos during 1607–8. As a result, he proved a conspicuous exception to the elimination of the Gaelic leadership of Ulster in those years and proceeded to flourish thereafter despite Chichester's hostility. The reason for this lay in the growth of a thriving Scottish colony on his estates. He contributed to this process by granting the newcomers long leases at low rents and by trying to recruit tenants of substantial means, both of which made it more likely that these tenants would develop their holdings. Indeed, he led by example in this regard, investing heavily in the construction of castles, towns, mills, roads, and bridges, and in introducing modern agricultural practices into his domain. Despite being an ardent catholic, he built three churches for the use of his protestant tenants and made no attempt to convert them to his faith.
In 1630 there were 814 Scottish and 142 English adult males on his lands, and most of this immigration would have occurred in the decade after 1606. His British tenants were concentrated mainly on the coast, which was where the best land lay. The depopulation caused by the nine years’ war meant that there was plenty of land available for his pre-existing tenants and followers, who were reassured by receiving long and generous leases. His embrace of a type of market economy based on the landlord–tenant relationship proved a success. Unlike virtually every Gaelic lord, he avoided bankruptcy and became enormously wealthy. His foresight in this regard was probably due to his knowledge of and contacts with Scottish society, which enabled him to appreciate that the new socio-economic climate could be turned to his advantage.
Although Chichester continued to snipe, the king, by and large, supported MacDonnell, and by the early 1610s was praising him for promoting ‘civility’ within his domains. In order to consolidate his position, he surrendered 2,000 acres to facilitate the plantation of Londonderry in July 1610 and was rewarded with a new patent guaranteeing his title to the remainder of his lands and a reduction in the rents he owed to the government. His title to his estates was rendered virtually impervious to any further questioning when the Irish parliament of 1613–15 passed an act guaranteeing him in possession of his lands.
In 1618 he was created Viscount Dunluce, paying an exorbitant £5,000 for the privilege, and in 1620 earl of Antrim. His elevation to the peerage provoked outrage among Ireland's emerging British protestant elite. Regardless, this honour merely reflected the manner in which he had established himself as an indispensable component of the new colonial system in Ulster. As a peer of the realm, he was occasionally compelled to attend the royal court in London, where he appeared in the guise of an English aristocrat. Nonetheless, he cut an incongruous figure in this setting and his embrace of English culture was far from absolute, being heavily conditioned by political realities.
The limits of anglicisation Despite his modernisation of his estates, MacDonnell remained deeply attached to his Gaelic catholic heritage, raised his children in the highland fashion, patronised Gaelic bards, and maintained a traditional Gaelic retinue. He continued to identify strongly with the MacDonald clan and hoped to preside over a revival of its power in west Scotland, particularly after the final collapse of MacDonald power in its traditional heartland in 1615 left him as the undisputed leader of his clan in both Ireland and Scotland. He had inherited from his brother James property in Kintyre, but the Scottish authorities had deprived him of this in 1607 and also of a lease he had acquired of the island of Islay in 1615. Later the crown foiled further attempts to purchase Kintyre (1627) and Islay (1635).
He is often described as making the transition from being a Gaelic clan warlord to being an anglicised landlord, but he never entirely relinquished his former role. Indeed, the revenues he earned from his more productive British tenants were used to subsidise his patronage of his Gaelic followers. While he accepted some English customs, he stoutly resisted the extension of the English administration into his territory, being assisted in this by the wide powers vested in him by the king and by the sheer inaccessibility of his lands. As well as his rents, he also levied semi-feudal dues on his tenants, who were reluctant to complain against him due to the manner in which he largely controlled the judicial system in Co. Antrim. Local crown officials who did not bend to his will were likely to be chased away or even imprisoned for their impertinence.
Nonetheless, these gestures of cultural solidarity did not reconcile many of his clan to his support for the British colonial project in Ulster. This was particularly true of his nephews Alexander and Sorley, who were alienated by his refusal to make good an earlier promise to grant them land. In 1614–15 they conspired with discontented Irish elsewhere in Ulster and with the MacDonalds in the Western Isles to overthrow both the English and MacDonnell. Although this plot was foiled, its very existence served as a timely reminder to MacDonnell that he could not take his traditional followers’ support for granted.
In a bid to mend fences, he used his influence to ensure that most of those who plotted against him were treated leniently, and granted Alexander about 15,000 acres of land after his release from prison. In 1624 he connived at Alexander's seizure of land from a protestant settler in Antrim and successfully shielded him from the government's attempts to punish him for this. He also raised Sorley's son as one of his own after his younger nephew fled abroad in 1615. Ultimately the failed 1615 plot greatly enhanced Randal's stature, as it highlighted the futility of further armed opposition to the crown, while reminding the crown that his authority was the main guarantor of order in the north-east. His post-1603 career can be viewed as a skilled balancing act between the conflicting demands of the royal government and those of his traditional MacDonnell supporters, in which he played an indispensable role in mediating between these irreconcilables.
Catholic figurehead One way of legitimising his leadership in the eyes of his followers after the 1615 plot was in his patronage of the catholic clergy. Previously, he had maintained priests in his residences but was not particularly active in promoting catholicism. In 1621, with the government slackening its persecution of catholicism, he rebuilt the ruined friary at Bonamargy near Ballycastle for use as a catholic chapel. This chapel could only be entered by a ladder as its entrance was six feet (1.8 m) below ground level, but hundreds must have attended mass there. That year, the government briefly arrested him for harbouring priests, but he was released soon after and no attempt was made to suppress the congregation at Bonamargy. Encouraged, he built chapels at the catholic shrines of Brideswell, Co. Roscommon, and Lough Derg, Co. Donegal, and undertook pilgrimages to both of them. More ambitiously, in 1624 he allowed the Franciscans to use Bonamargy as a base for their mission to the Scottish Highlands and the Western Isles. This spiritual expansion into the region complemented his political ambitions there. Large numbers of catholics in the Western Isles appear to have come to Bonamargy to hear mass and receive communion.
He also forged links with the Irish catholic diaspora on the Continent through his four illegitimate sons, three of whom studied at the Irish college at Louvain and became Franciscans. One of these, Daniel, served as guardian of the Irish college at Louvain and was briefly made head of the Franciscan mission to Scotland in 1628 before MacDonnell had this promotion rescinded for fear that it might cause problems for him with the government. A fourth illegitimate son, Maurice, served as a captain in the Irish regiment within the Spanish army in Flanders.
Closer to home, he married his five legitimate daughters into the leading Old English catholic families of the Pale, such as the Nugents, Flemings, Dillons, and Plunkets. This connected him with the powerful constitutionalist opposition to the crown that grew increasingly assertive during the 1620s, and signalled his emergence as a leading representative of catholic Ireland. However, he intended remaining loyal to the royal establishment and sought to marry his two legitimate sons within the English or Scottish nobility.
His status, power, and connections made him an obvious focus for disaffected Irish who hoped to overthrow English rule of their country, and during the mid 1620s it was rumoured that he pledged his support to a Spanish invasion of Ireland. These reports appear to have been untrue and the government trusted him sufficiently to authorise him to raise a company of soldiers among his tenants to oppose a possible invasion of Ireland in 1625. The crown did insist that his heir, Randall MacDonnell (qv) (1609–83), remain permanently at the royal court for much of the 1620s and 1630s, partly to integrate him into the British aristocracy but also as a pledge of MacDonnell's loyalty.
As relations between the Dublin administration and the catholic landowners deteriorated in 1626–7, due to the catholics’ refusal to pay extra taxes for the defence of Ireland, MacDonnell was charged with treason, and the government investigated the arbitrary manner in which he governed his estates. However, an agreement in 1628 whereby the catholic nobility of Ireland consented to the taxes, in return for a number of political and legal concessions from the crown, led the government to desist from harassing him. In October 1628 the king ordered his officials in Ireland to find and punish those who had slandered MacDonnell by questioning his loyalty.
The final coup of his career occurred in April 1635 when his heir, Randal, married the most eligible woman at the royal court, Katherine Manners, widow to George Villers, duke of Buckingham and royal favourite. However, he quickly fell out with his daughter-in-law and refused to fulfil a promise to settle an estate on the newly weds. His final years were spent resisting pressure from the autocratic lord deputy Thomas Wentworth (qv) to pay fines due to the crown totalling some thousands of pounds. He died 28 May 1636 at Dunluce and was buried at Bonamargy abbey in Ballycastle.