This Month in Celtic History
by Greg Douglas

May 2003



With the collapse of Clan Iain Mor, the Earl of Antrim attempted to fill the vacuum and gain back the lands lost to the Campbells. The first Earl of Antrim, through political maneuvering, attempted to purchase the lost lands in Kintyre. His son the second Earl of Antrim tried to strengthen his position with the king. He became a British subject and married the widow of the Duke of Buckingham, Catherine Manners, a Catholic and a favorite of the Stuart King. He won the trust of the King and was a favorite at Court. The Earl of Argyll was, however, also a Catholic and a favorite of the King.

The Stuarts, it must be remembered, were ardent Catholics, but staunchly anti-Gaelic. When they ascended to the thrown of Great Britain, upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I, they had to squelch their Catholicism publicly in that they now headed the Anglican/Episcopal Church. Yet they continued to worship as Catholics in private. This was significant in the unfolding political scene in Britain and Ireland in the 1630s and 1640s.

Paradox was the word of the day. The Stuart monarchy’s divided loyalties were met by challenges that were polar opposites. The 16th century saw the rise of a Protestant radicalism in Scotland that resembled in many ways the Islamic revolution in Iran that we saw just over 20 years ago. Legitimate issues of tyranny, class injustice and the aspirations of the petite bourgeois were funneled into an intolerant, puritanical, theocratic fanaticism which sought to replace one form of totalitarianism with another. This revolution carried a Bible in one hand and a musket in the other. Although this movement was rooted in the southwest of Scotland, a part of the Lowlands that had a strong Celtic tradition and where the Gaelic language continued to be present at the time, it was pathologically anti-Gaelic. The Stuarts, both as monarchs of Scotland and Britain tried to curtail this movement. Yet by not Addressing the issues of human liberty and poverty, like the Shah of Iran, were trying to fight the tide of history.

The defining event, as it related to the unfolding histories of Ireland, Scotland and the MacDonalds, was the attempt of King Charles I to imposes an Episcopal prayer book in standard English on Scots-speaking Presbyterians. The response of the Protestant revolutionaries of Scotland was the Solemn League and Covenant. Or more simply, the Covenant. Covenanters signed an oath of loyalty to the new faith. And they armed the spirit of faith. Long subject to persecution and sudden attack, they armed themselves and chanted Psalms as they drilled at arms. In 1639, Charles I attempted a military move against the Covenanters. In the nearly bloodless First Bishops War, the King was forced to back down and make concessions. The impression made on the Irish by these events were enormous. While dreading the antipathy towards Gael and Catholic that was inherent in said movement, as well as the powerful sway the Covenant had over Ulster Presbyterians, the Covenanters had demonstrated that the Monarchy could be confronted and terms extracted.

Tensions were high and conspiracy was in the air. The dispossessed clans of Ulster, the O’Neills and O’Donnells, were maneuvering to return and reclaim their lands which had been expropriated and given to the Protestant settlers. Likewise the native Irish resented the role of second class citizen which had been thrust on them. Ireland as a whole yearned for autonomy from a foreign regime which attempted to impose a foreign tongue, religion and social order on its ancient heritage. The Earl of Antrim had compromised with this regime in hopes of regaining the lost lands of Clan Iain Mor and challenging the Campbells. Additionally the Confederation of Killkenny had been established to pursue self-determination for Ireland as a whole. The various factions often had alternately compatible and incongruent interests. Division was inherent within some coalitions. Adversaries cooperated provisionally only part company later. Former foes found themselves sudden allies.

Most notably was the coming together of Stuart and Gael. This was the era in which the configuration of violence we now know in Ulster first flowered. It was also the root of what would come be known as Jacobitism was first established. Charles the first, while no enthusiast of the Gael, was less militant in his suppression of Highland culture. The rise of radical Protestantism and later of Cromwellian Britain would drive these factions increasingly together over time.

In this world Alasdair MacColla would find himself a penniless and landless refugee. Dependent on a relative, it had been rumored, whose father had poisoned his grandfather. Yet he was at home with his people. By blood both MacDonald and O’Cahan, he was charismatic and powerful warrior. His physical power was matched by military intellect. He led by personal valor and strategic and tactical acumen. He continues to remain an object of dread to those descended from his enemies and an inspiration to those descended from and aligned with his cause. Soon the crucible of history would forge a new Gaisgeach Nan Gael.

Griogair Dubhghlas, Am Fear Cathrach Albannach
Greg Douglas, Scottish Chair of the Celtic League American Branch.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2004 Celtic Calendar, soon available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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