Sorley Boy MacDonnell

MacDonnell, Sorley Boy, was descended from Fergus, son of Donnell, an Ulster chieftain, who, with his brothers Loarn and Angus, about the year 506, permanently laid the foundation of the Dalriadic kingdom in Scotland. He was born in Ulster about 1505, probably at Dunanney Castle, near Ballycastle, and was early trained as a soldier. We find little mention made of him until 1552, when he assisted in driving the English from Carrickfergus, declaring "playnly that Inglische men had no ryght to Yrland." Six years later his release from Dublin Castle, after a year's imprisonment, is noticed in the state papers. He had been appointed by his elder brother, James, to the lordship of the Route, a portion of the territory conquered from the Macquillans. A determined effort was made in 1559 by the latter to repossess themselves of their ancient inheritance.

Sorley was sustained by a number of MacDonnells he brought from Scotland, and one of the principal battles that ensued was at Bonamargy. The English favoured the MacDonnells, deeming it wise to secure as many alliances as possible in the north. On war breaking out between Shane O'Neill and the Anglo-Irish in 1560, Sorley and his brother James kept aloof from the conflict. After Shane had made his submission to the Queen, and was received into favour, he turned his arms against the MacDonnells. On 2nd of May 1565, he inflicted a crushing defeat upon Sorley and his brother James at Ballycastle. O'Neill's account of the transaction, in a Latin letter to the Lords-Justices, is still preserved amongst the state papers. James and Sorley were taken prisoners; the former soon succumbed to the cruel treatment he received; the latter endured a galling incarceration of upwards of two years, and after his release was somewhat instrumental in securing Shane's assassination.

The Government now prepared to possess themselves, not only of the territory of O'Neill, but also of that of the MacDonnells. Sorley collected large bands of adherents in Scotland, opposed the encroachments of the Government, and by the commencement of 1568 had repossessed himself of all the castles and strong places in the territories claimed by him, except Dunluce. A few months later he was the acknowledged leader in the Ulster league against the Government — a league strengthened and consolidated by alliances with O'Neill and O'Donnell. In 1572 Sorley made peace, and was granted "letters of denization" for the quiet possession of his lands; but not permitting himself to be made an instrument in Essex's hands for the spoliation of his Irish allies, he was before many months again in opposition to the Government.

On the invasion of his territory by the Earl of Essex in 1575, he sent part of his own family, and the women and children of many of his followers, with plate and other valuables, to the island of Rathlin for safety. Essex heard of their retreat, and on the 22nd of July sent a considerable force to the island under the command of John (afterwards Sir John) Norris. The castle soon submitted, and all, upwards of 200, were put to the sword, except the constable's wife and child, besides 300 or 400 more "that they have found hidden in caves and in cliffs of the sea." The Queen was delighted at the news of this slaughter, and wrote to Essex: "Give the young gentleman, John Norrice, the executioner of your well-devised enterprise, to understand that we will not be unmindful of his good services." Essex says in his account of the transaction: "Sorley then also stood upon the mainland of the Glynnes, and saw the taking of the island, and was likely to run mad for sorrow, tearing and tormenting himself, as the spy sayeth, and saying that he then lost all he ever had." For eight years after Essex's death in 1576, Sorley MacDonnell seems to have reigned without a rival on the northern coast, he and his followers being left in almost undisputed possession of their lands.

The increase in numbers of the Scottish settlers under his rule, and their prosperity, gave Sir John Perrot an excuse for an expedition against them in 1584. His troops numbered about 2,000 men, besides such "risings out of the Irishry " as he was able to command on his route. He was accompanied by the Earls of Thomond, Ormond, Clanrickard, Sir John Norris. Hugh O'Neill, besides the chiefs of the O'Conors and O'Mores. Sorley retreated behind the Bann; Dunluce was taken after a brave defence; and Perrot was able to boast that whereas Sorley had been "lord over 50,000 cows.. he now has scarce 1,500 to give him milk." MacDonnell retired to Scotland, and soon returned with large reinforcements; and the war dragged on for many months with varying success, and with little honour or profit to Perrot. The losses inflicted on the Anglo-Irish allies were considerable; Dunluce was ultimately retaken, and Government, sick of a contest in which it was possible to effect so little, was glad to leave Sorley Boy in possession of his estates on condition of his coming to Dublin, prostrating himself before a portrait of the Queen at the Castle, and expressing very great "contrition for his own reckless and ungrateful career." He performed this ceremony, 11th February 1585-'6, and was presented by Perrot with "a velvet mantle adorned with gold lace."

He engaged to hold his lands of the Queen by the service of homage, fealty, and two knights' fees. According to the Four Masters, Sorley's wife, Mary O'Neill, daughter of Con, first Earl of Tyrone, died in 1582, and he himself in 1590. He was buried in Bonamargy, in the County of Antrim. " The Irish caoine and the Highland coronach mingled in one wild wail" over his grave. He was succeeded by his third son, Sir James MacDonnell, who made himself peculiarly obnoxious to the Government by his active co-operation with Hugh O'Neill, and who died at Dunluce, 13th April 1601.


224. MacDonnells of Antrim, Historical Account: Rev. George Hill. Belfast, 1873.