McDonells of Antrim, Ireland

The crest of the MacDonnells (or McDonells) of Antrim is a clenched fist rising out of the crown. The crown represents the Earldom of Antrim granted Randal McDonell in 1620. The slogan is Old Latin meaning “Perhaps there is Worth in Unity”. Perhaps a reference to their finding a clenched fist more valuable than an open hand when dealing with their enemies. Certainly, it is representative of the fight in this branch of Clan Donald who struggled to retain their place in Ireland just as their clansmen had struggled in Scotland. Clan Donald is usually thought of as a Scottish clan like the hundreds of others that gather along “clan row” at Highland Games all over the world. It is a Scottish clan, but Clan Donald also has an Irish history in Antrim that predates the 17th century Ulster Scots plantation that brought so many other Scots to Ireland.

Donald of Islay (pronounced eye’ la) from whom the clan takes its name, was the grandson of Somhairlidh (Somerled) who was born in County Down, Ireland. Somhairlidh was born during the time his father had returned to his ancestral Ireland seeking help from his relatives to drive the Viking raiders out of ancient Argyll called Dalriada. Dalriada is thought of as the beginnings of Scotland, but Dalriada was actually an Irish kingdom that began in what is now Antrim, Ireland and included what is now Argyll, Lorne, Morvern, and the islands between. Six generations and almost 250 years after Somhairlidh was born in Ireland, his descendant Iain Mhòir (Gaelic =John the greater) established his own kingdom back in Northern Ireland in 1386 AD. His brother, Dhomhnaill, was Lord of the Isles and granted Iain Mhòir lands including the southern isles and Antrim, Ireland. Antrim is the current spelling of what was originally aon troim in Gaelic meaning “one farm”. Iain Mhòir took as his wife Margery Bisset of the Glens of Antrim, Ireland. Throughout most of Clan Donald history the Antrim branch of Clan Donald actually maintained the largest land holdings of any of the Clan Donald branches.

Somhairlidh (Somerled) established a traditional Celtic Kingdom as had been done in Ireland for the previous millennia. He expanded his Kingdom of Argyll to include the Western Isles. For over 200 years the Kingdom of the Isles was an autonomous kingdom forming alliances with Norway, England, Ireland or Scotland to suit its own purposes. Angus Og formed such an alliance with Robert the Bruce that ensured Scottish independence from England. The Bruce acknowledged the Kingdom of the Isles right to govern and granted additional Scottish lands to what the Scottish Kings called the Lordship of the Isles (rather than Kingdom). By accepting the land grants from the Bruce and the title “Lord of the Isles” the independence of the Kingdom of the Isles began to erode. For the next 200 years the Lordship of the Isles continued to act as an independent Kingdom that stretched from Antrim Ireland to the Isle of Lewis in what is now northern Scotland. For hundreds of years the efforts of the Scottish crown to confirm their rule of the Highlands and Islands were mostly unsuccessful. In 1493 the Scottish crown forced the Lord of the Isles to forfeit his right to rule the Lordship. Even after the forfeiture of the Lordship Clan Donald still thought of Antrim as a part of Clan Donald rather than another country. The men of Clan Donald rallied to support the interests of their Celtic cousins whether it be in Scotland or Ireland. British histories that refer to Irish who fought in Scotland and Scots who fought in Ireland are usually referring to Clan Donald men who responded to aid their kin without regard to country. The Ulster Irish saw Clan Donald’s power came from its ties with its Scottish kin just as the Scottish crown knew it had to contend with the Irish Clan Donald joining forces with the Highland clan. The Irish clan warrior chief Sorley Buy stands out as the primary example of Clan Donald bridging the Irish sea.

Current Events In and About Antrim

The 1st major Scottish Highland Games anywhere in Ireland were hosted by the Earl of Antrim and his son the Viscount Dunluce in June, 2001 on the grounds of Castle Glenarm. Approximately 30,000 attended the Glenarm Highland Games establishing a firm foundation for them to continue. The 2002 “Open Days” at Glenarms Castle July 15th & 16th was an equal success. The International Federation of Strength Athletes held their ” World’s Strongest Man” competition at the games in addition to the traditional stone put, hammer throw, caber toss, and weight throws for height & distance has become the “Highlander Challenge”. Link to the 2015 Highland Games at Glenarm in July is found at (click on “What’s on”).

David K. McDonnell recently published “Clan Donnell, A Storied History of Ireland” that is a beautiful compilation of the history of those of our clan who lived in Ireland. I recently purchased a copy from and anticipated a small paperback similar to other historical novels I have enjoyed. I was delighted to receive a voluminous work with his sources identified in a very unique manner. I am just commencing my read and have already found it hard to set down. I recognize several of the concepts expressed in his work came from the ancient sources I used for this web site. Though I agree with the author that the absence of footnotes (well he does have one footnote) makes for smoother reading, I will confess some occasional frustration with not being able to verify an exact source for a specific idea. He listed all his sources in the last chapter in an easy-to-read paragraph format. Neither the author nor I are historians by profession, but we share a common desire to present our family history in a way that non-historians will find entertaining as well as informative. I find his work very entertaining and informative and highly recommend “Clan Donnell, A Storied History of Ireland”. I am one of those in the clan whose roots go through Ireland to Scotland so David McDonnell’s work really intrigues me.