Randal Macdonell (Macdonnell), Earl of Antrim

BORN A. D. 1609——DIED A. D. 1682.

From The Irish Nation: Its History and Its Biography

By James and Freeman Wills

Of the ancestry of the Macdonells we have already had occasion to take notice. The person we are now to commemorate is one of the many whom fortune rather than any inherent merit has made eminent, more by the conspicuous display of the ordinary passions and weaknesses incidental to our nature, than by wisdom, courage or virtue.

He was educated in England, where he early recommended himself at court by the specious attractions of person, manner, and imposing pretensions. These advantages were greatly improved by his marriage with the widow of the celebrated George Villiers, duke of Buckingham, by means of which he was enabled to appear with great splendour at the English court, and was introduced to the favour of the queen.

When the troubles in Scotland broke into war in 1639, this lord was forward to offer his services, which were accepted by the king, who was about to march into Scotland, against the covenanters with the duke of Argyle at their head. The earl was in the habit of speaking in lofty terms of the power and influence which he possessed in Ireland, and proposed to levy a considerable force of Ulster men, and make a descent on the Scottish Isles; over which he presumed that his own descent from the "lords of the Isles" gave him no small influence. He was thus to effect a diversion, so as to occupy the attention of the duke of Argyle on one quarter, while the king's army should make their approaches on the other. He was sent into Ireland to make his levies; but whatever service might have been thus effected by a more discreet and capable person, Antrim was utterly devoid of all the essential qualifications. His very forwardness to embark in a great design appears to have been but the effect of the want of all conception of the real difficulties to be encountered, and like many sanguine and shallow persons he was rather actuated by a blind self-confidence than by any distinct conception of his design. His imposing language which deceived the king, and it is probable himself, had little weight with the penetrating and masterly intellect of Strafford, then the lord-lieutenant of Ireland. Besides other objections, which we here omit, to his plan, Strafford on conversing with the earl at once discerned his entire ignorance of military affairs, and his incapacity for any service that needed forecast, prudence, discretion and experience in the conduct of affairs. The earl had, he found, entered upon an extensive and hazardous undertaking without any consideration of the means by which it was to be effected, and strongly remonstrated against both the project and the man. But Antrim's friends at court were all powerful at the time; the weighty influence of the queen was exerted for him, and the earl of Strafford was strongly pressed by the king to forward the undertaking. On this, every thing was put in train, and every assistance was given to the earl of Antrim; the organization of his army was projected and officers appointed, and emissaries were sent off to the Isles to concert a rising with the Macdonalds. After all this pomp of preparation, it was but too apparent that the earl had overrated his power in the north; he was only enabled to attend the king's expedition with a force small in point of number, but fortunate in not being put to the proof. The English and Scottish armies having come in sight of each other, the king was prevented by his generals, who had no great wish to fight for him, from offering battle; and the reputation of Antrim was allowed to continue untarnished for other trials.

After the treaty of peace (signed on this occasion), the earl accompanied the king to Oxford, and returning to Ireland sat in the parliament 1640. After this he continued to live in Ireland, sustaining the character for which he was by nature best fitted, by magnificent and popular hospitality, until the growing troubles rose to a height incompatible with the peaceful pomps and vanities of life. His countess was compelled to take refuge in England, and again filled a distinguished place in the favour of queen Henrietta and her court. The character of the earl was assailed by the scandalous aspersion of having joined with the rebels, but this malicious charge was repelled by the strong testimony of Parsons, who was the witness of the harmlessness of his deportment in Dublin. In the commencement of the rebellion, his lordship is honourably to be distinguished for the humane and active assistance he gave to the distressed protestants, whose condition was then more deplorable than it afterwards came to be in the further stage of the war. Nor can we trace his lordship in any overt proceeding of a political tendency, till the spring of 1642, when having visited his property in the north, he was probably worked upon by the enthusiasm of his own dependents to form high expectations from the favour of the northerns. With the facile and prurient inflammability of a warm fancy and over-weening self-confidence, he at once began to reckon on the effects of his own authority and influence, by which he hoped to convert a rebel multitude into a royal army devoted to the interests of king Charles. In this expectation he was doomed to meet with disappointment; the rebels were pleased at the accession of a name so well suited to give speciousness to their favourite pretence of royal authority. But they saw easily through the ostentatious and feeble spirit that tried in vain to assume an ascendant over their minds. He was indeed too good for them, and too incapable either of going the whole length in atrocity which they uniformly sought in their leaders, and without which no one long continued to have any authority among them; neither had he the craft necessary to temporize, or to suppress his own temper and opinions. Disgusted with their cowardly massacres, which fell entirely on the unarmed and defenceless, upon whom they wreaked vengeance for the severe and often too sweeping justice of military judges; he was loud in the expression of his horror, and condemned their entire conduct, in a tone that plainly manifested an entire unconsciousness of all their peculiar objects and passions. He was prompt and liberal in relieving the distressed and hunted protestants, and it was but too plain that however desirable the accession of the rebel army might be to his lordship's private views, he was not exactly the person they wanted, An instance of his meritorious activity in this character occurred during the time when Coleraine was besieged by the Irish army in 1641, when he prevailed with the Irish officers so far as to allow the people of the town to graze their cattle for three miles round; and was permitted to send in large supplies of corn to the starving inhabitants.

The earl failing to turn the rebels to his own purposes was not induced to embrace their motives or adopt their cause. So far from this, he raised a regiment of his own tenantry; but these plain proofs of loyalty were not in these uncertain times sufficient to protect him from becoming the object of suspicion. Monroe having entered the county of Antrim, considered the reports which had circulated of his commerce with the rebels and the fact of his being a papist, sufficient excuse to commit an outrage upon him not unworthy of Sir Phelim O'Neile.

Dunluce castle was the stronghold and residence of the ancient family of M'Quillan, the ancient chiefs of that district, and it was as leader of a Scottish army that the ancestor of the earl of Antrim had expelled these ancient proprietors, and obtained possession of their rock and domain. Here the earl was residing when he received a visit of seeming compliment from Monroe, the general of the Scottish force in Ulster. Monroe was welcomed with all the frank hospitality, and entertained with all the splendour of his generous but unobservant host. The entertainment was not well over when the signal was given, and the astonished earl seized and hurried off a prisoner, while the castle and domain were plundered by his cold-minded and plotting captor.

He was so fortunate as to escape from Monroe and fled into England, where he waited on the queen at York. It was at the time when the king's friends were labouring to procure a cessation of arms in Ireland; Antrim was, as was natural to him, soon led to put forward his notions of his own efficiency to promote this design, and was presently sent into Ireland with instructions ; but he was taken on his landing and imprisoned by Monroe in Carrickfergus, where he lay for some months, his enemy all the time drawing his rents and remaining master of his whole possessions, without the slightest heed of the king's letters to command restoration. Once more the earl succeeded in escaping from his enemy and reached Oxford again, December, 1643.

It happened then, as is known to the reader, that the marquess of Montrose was endeavouring to raise an army to create a diversion in Scotland, so as to draw back the army which had marched into England, and was at the time in treaty with the parliament. Antrim was consulted, and engaged "that if the king would grant him a commission, he would raise an army in Ireland, and transport it to Scotland, and would himself be at the head of it; by means whereof, he believed all the clan of the Macdonells in the Highlands might be persuaded to follow him."[1] To this a ready consent was given, and the king by privy seal created him marquess of Antrim, 26th January, 1644.

The marquess with his characteristic disregard of circumstances, adopted the means which must be admitted to offer some specious advantages for his purpose. His conduct was in principle the same which had on the previous occasion, already mentioned, involved him in the proceedings of the rebels; but circumstances had widely changed, and the confederates of Kilkenny might well be assumed to be sincere in their allegiance against a common enemy. Rebellion had changed sides: a confusion of parties had now arisen which admitted of the utmost latitude of construction, and it must have appeared to the marquess a happy expedient to take the oath of association and become a member of the supreme council of Kilkenny. The device had the common justification of such measures, and it was successful. By the favour of the council he was enabled to raise 1500 effective men, whom he sent to Montrose under the command of colonel Alexander Macdonell; and who distinguished themselves very highly in all his battles.

The next appearance of the marquess is in 1647, when he was with two others sent by the council of Kilkenny to the queen and prince Charles, to desire that a lord-lieutenant might be sent to govern the country. The marquess of Ormonde landed soon after and concluded a treaty of peace, but Rinuncini being, as the reader is aware, pertinaciously opposed to peace; he was joined by O'Neile and the marquess of Antrim.

In 1651 he appears engaged in Cromwell's party and in his pay; he is mentioned at this time to have received £500 a-year from him, which was afterwards, in 1655, increased. This liberal allowance appears to have been for no other purpose but for the use of his influence in the north, and for the countenance of a name. His active services were not required, and he took no decided part on the parliamentary side: his own motive was probably no more than to save himself by a passive acquiescence; while, considering the party with whom he had to deal and the weakness of his own character, it is equally to be presumed that he was as useful as was in any way desired to Cromwell This connexion did not prevent his using his best exertions to serve the royal cause. When the prince came into England he supplied him with arms and ammunition, and after the battle of Worcester assisted in procuring ships for his escape.

On account of these services, he afterwards obtained the restoration to his estates by the act of settlement. He was twice married, but had no children, and when he died in 1682, he was succeeded by his brother.


[1] Lodge.