The MacDonnell Family

MacDonnell family crest

(Crest No. 54. Plate 23.)

THE MacDonnells or MacDonalds, as the name is sometimes spelled, are descended from Milesius, King of Spain, through the line of his son Heremon. They belonged to the Hy Many tribe, and the family was founded by Colla Vais or Huais, King of Ireland, A. D. 315. The ancient name was Dubhnail, signifying “Dark Child.”

The MacDonnell chiefs had possessions in Antrim, Derry, Mayo, Monaghan, Tyrone and Limerick. The MacDonnells of Antrim went from Ulster to Scotland in remote times, and settled in Argyle and the Hebrides, and finally became the most numerous and powerful clan in the highlands of Scotland, where they were generally called MacDonalds.

In the twelfth century Sorley MacDonnell was Thane of Argyle, and his descendants were styled Lords of the Isles or Hebrides and Lords of Cantyre.

The MacDonnells continued for many centuries to make a conspicuous figure in the history of Scotland as one of the most valiant and powerful clans in that country.

In the beginning of the thirteenth century some of the McDonnell chiefs with a powerful following came at various periods to Ulster, which they plundered, and finally made a settlement in Antrim. They occupied chiefly those districts called the Routes and Glynns, in the territory of ancient Dalriada, in Antrim, and they had their chief fortress at Dunluce. They became very powerful, and formed alliances by marriage with the Irish princes and chiefs of Ulster, such as the O’Neills of Tyrone, the O’Donnells of Donegal, the O’Kanes of Derry, the MacMahons of Monaghan and others. They carried on a long and fierce series of contests with the McQuillans, powerful chiefs in Antrim, and vanquished them in the sixteenth century, seizing their lands and their chief fortress of Dunseverick, near the Giant’s Causeway. The McDonnells were celebrated commanders of gallowglasses in Ulster and Connaught, and make a remarkable figure in Irish history in the various wars and battles from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century, and particularly in the reign of Elizabeth.

The bravery of Sir Alexander McDonnell and his four hundred followers at the battle of Dungan Hill, in 1647, and his murder by Inchiquin after his surrender at the battle of Knocknanos, where he had performed prodigies of valor, are known to all readers of Irish history.

Many of the MacDonnells attained distinction in foreign service. Captain Francis MacDonnell, who captured the Marshal de Villeroy, commander of the French and Spanish armies, at the surprise of Cremona, was a member of the McDonnells of Mayo. McDonnell was offered high rank and a large pension if he would liberate his captive and enter the French service. To this attempt to corrupt him, he replied that he “preferred his honor to making his fortune,” and added that he “felt himself assured of attaining among the Imperial forces by his services what it was thought to induce him to purchase among those of France by an act of treachery or treason.” He was made a Major by the Emperor in reward for his fidelity, and was killed shortly after at the battle of Luzzara. Major MacDonnell’s father, Henry MacDonnell, also served under different sovereigns, and died at Madrutz, Croatia, in 1772, in the one hundred and eighteenth year of his age. It is related of him that on being interrogated by his friends as to how he managed to look so fresh and well in his old age, he would commonly reply that “the remembrance of the disinterestedness and fidelity of his son contributed greatly to prolong his days.”

Another member of the Mayo McDonnells, James McDonnell, died in the Austrian service in 1766, a Count, a General, Imperial Chamberlain, and Inspector-General of the Guard in Camp. His nephew, Francis MacDonnell of Ireland, succeeded to his title of Count. This Count James MacDonnell was very generous to his relatives in Ireland while he lived, and their descendants received pecuniary assistance under the provisions of his will as late as 1842.

This family has also contributed many members to the ranks of the clergy and hierarchy, among whom may be mentioned the Most Rev. Dr. Charles E. McDonnell, Bishop of Brooklyn, N. Y.