This Month in Celtic History
by Greg Douglas

August 2003



Early 1642 saw the ancient lands of Irish Dal Riada swept up in the vortex of Irish rebellion. The removal of British authority unleashed a tempest of Irish rage on the Protestant settlers who were inhabiting their confiscated lands. Under siege in Coleraine and defeated at Laney/Bendooragh, the encapsulated Protestants seemed doomed. Starvation, disease and losses sapped their strength and will to resist. Help from the Scottish Covenanters and the MacCailean Mor, the Marquis of Argyll, was promised, but seemed far off. For the Gaels of Ulster and their Scottish Gaelic allies, it seemed as if the silver chanter had been sounded and the ghosts of the Fenians had been resurrected to reestablish the hegemony of Gaeltachd. But the very fear of this had lit a fire under the Lowland Scottish government and its Protestant army to intervene before this spirit spread to the hills, glens and islands of the Scottish Gaeltachd.

The Marquis of Argyll, however, was delighted. Because MacDonalds/MacDonnells were pivotal in this uprising, he could justify and legalize his hounding and persecution of Clan Donald. The Lowland government now not only condoned Argyll’s imprisonment of Alsdair’s father, brothers and relatives, but granted him a stipend to continue their captivity. Argyll could now coordinate his forces with those of the Covenant Army to vanquish the last sparks of resistance to his control of Gaelic-speaking Scotland. Possibly he could even snatch the lands of the Earl of Antrim and extend his empire to Ireland.

When the rebellion spread to his estate, Antrim was in England conspiring with fellow royalists and Catholics to support his dream of invading Scotland and dispossessing Argyll of his lands. Sizing up the situation in the north, he saw not opportunity, but peril. If Argyll could coordinate his efforts with a Lowland Scottish Army, Antrim could lose everything. Anticipating this he hurried back to Dunluce and did everything he could do within his power, short of military intervention, to lift the siege of Coleraine. Prisoners were released and food and provisions were brought in. Having lost their momentum, the Irish rebels lifted the siege and a Protestant army relieved the garrison. Antrim went about decommissioning his tenants.

By April 1642 the Scottish Army had landed at Cerrickfergus. Initially they set about pacifying County Down. By May 25 an army of 2,500 under Maj. Gen. Robert Munro marched up the Bann, cutting the escape route of the rebels before occupying Dunluce. Antrim was somewhat hopeful of being given the opportunity to deal with Munro. For the roots of Clan Munro were also entwined in this region of Ireland. Clan Munro, along with the Beatons and the Roses, had gone to Scotland as part of a dowry in the days when Clan Donald ruled the west as the Lords of the Isles. Sent as compensation for the thousands of Gallowglasses which the Hebrides had given to the cause of Irish self determination, they took root in the northeast and established their own Clan power. Now a Munro returned to Irish Dal Riada at the head of a powerful Protestant army.

When Munro reached Dunluce Antrim treated him like a prodigal son, hoping to appease him. Antrim treated Munro to a sumptuous feast at the castle. Munro happily availed himself of his hosts hospitality, then had him arrested. Possibly Antrim hoped that this gesture would offer him protection behind the Gaelic law of hospitality, but Munro was a man who looked forward, not back.

At about this time Argyll’s forces arrived in Antrim. Rathin Island, a source of Irish resistance, to this day, was the first to feel the lash of MacCailean Mor’s wrath. Barely a soul survived the subsequent massacre there. The Marquis of Argyll was then handed the estates of the Earl of Antrim by Munro. While not a conventional Gael, Munro was not a man without honor. Seeing the nature of Campbell arrogance he did his best to protect his prisoner Randall MacDonnell, the Earl of Antrim, from Campbell justice. Munro only handed over Dunluce Castle after his prisoner had been sent by sea to Carrickferus. According to tradition, Antrim could hear the lamentation of his tenants over the hills and cliffs of the shore as he sailed away leaving them in the clutches a merciless and traditional enemy.

An unexpected outcome of Munro’s police action was a reconstituting of the Irish rebel army. Those who had escaped in County Down and County Antrim joined Phelim O’Neil’s main force in Donegal. Alasdair initially withdrew to the Glens of Antrim with his force of several hundred men and laid low.

(The Glens of Antrim were, up until 1835 when the first road was run through the district, a largely remote and inaccessible region. Heavily forested and surrounded by high moors, most travel was done by sea. Contact with Hebridean Scotland was more facile than with the rest of Ireland. Thus a unique Hiberno-Scottish culture developed there. Fiercely Gaelic and Catholic, this was the last region of the six occupied counties of Ulster to maintain a Gaeltachd status. The singular Hiberno-Scottish dialect of Gaelic survived as a community language there until the 1950s. The last elderly native speakers died out in the early 1980s! When one travels through the Glens today, above Glenarm, Irish Tricolors festoon the utility poles and young people sport about with hurley sticks.)

After a tiff with Phelim O’Neil, possibly as a result of his criticism of the ways in which the Irish rebels conducted themselves with their captives and subject civilians, Alasdair parted ways with the main rebel force. In the Glens he was amongst his own people. Yet he knew he was surrounded and could only hide out for a limited amount of time. Alasdair was forced to slip across the Bann and rejoin the rebel army, in spite of being snubbed by Phelim O’Neil. While O’Neil would not officially recognize Alasdair’s status with the prestige of rank, the two still needed each other and would coordinate their efforts.

Having fallen back and regrouped, the rebel army now moved on the famous Lagan Army, which had been defending the district around the City of Derry. The two armies met on June 15 and the Protestant army, which was numerically inferior, fell back. The Lagan Army, however, was under a keen and resourceful commander who was an equal to the task, Sir Robert Stewart. He apparently studied his opponents style of fighting and had devised tactics to neutralize it. During the night Stewart had his forces advance to within a half mile of the rebel army at Glenmaquin, near Raphoe Co. Donegal, and prepared entrenched positions on a hillside facing the rebel army. During the night the Protestants lay quietly listening to the rebels carry on gregariously in their camp. In the morning the two forces lay on opposite hillsides facing each other.

In order to draw the rebels out, Stewart sent forth a strong force of Musketeers and cavalry to the low ground between the hills. The rebels took the bate. Led by Alasdair’s Highlanders and Hiberno-Scots, the rebels charged. As they came within range, the British loosed a volley and fled. The rebels thinking they had routed the foe, now prepared to destroy them in flight, the usual tactic of the Highland Charge. They chased the British across the low ground and then up the slope where the rebels ran into the hedgehog of sharpened stakes and trenches bristling with pikes. The charge was broken and the rebels lost their momentum. Though the rebels fought furiously, they were stopped and subject to the firepower of their enemy. Alasdair was shot through the thigh. As the six foot five giant fell, Phelim O’Neil’s force, which made up the second echelon, turned and fled. O’Neil desperately tried to rally his men, but to no avail. O’Cahan quickly put together a horse litter and as Alasdair was dragged away, his men joined the flight. It was now the turn of the rebels to run for their lives. The rebels were pursued for several miles. Stewart estimated that their losses were between 600 and 800. Stewart stated that many died “being burst from running.”

(It was not until 1689 that the Highland Charge would again be so successfully defeated. There, after the success of the charge at Killiecrankie, the Highlanders were stopped at the town of Dunkeld. Here the Cameronians, a famous Covenanting unit, entrenched themselves behind a stone wall in front of the cathedral. As the Highlanders climbed over the stone wall they were attacked from below with pikes. This was one of the few cases where occupying low ground gave advantage. The spiked targe and dirk could not be effectively coordinated with claymore against a man in a hole. Fortunately for the Highlanders the lack of mass communication kept such tactics from being widely disseminated at the time.)

Alasdair’s force had sustained heavy casualties. Among the dead were Alasdair’s cousin Donald Gorm. The Highlanders and Hiberno-Scots of the Glens were defeated and dispirited. It was rumored among the British that Alasdair had succumbed to his injuries. He was, however, in hiding in the the care of a local Catholic priest, the Cistercian abbot of Newry, Father Patrick O’Crilley. Yet his period of convalescence was a dark night of the spirit for Alasdair. The rebels were broken and scattered and the Earl of Antrim was a prisoner of the enemy. He seemed farther than ever from his most basic goals - the freedom of his father, brothers and other kinsmen from the chief of Clan Campbell - no less any greater goals of resurrecting the glory of Clan Iain Mor. Soon, in his despair, Alasdair was to commit an act of treachery that could have made him the Benedict Arnold of Gaeldom. Yet another turn of fate would restore him as Gaisgeach nan Gael, a hero of the Gael.

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

For more information on Scotland, see the Scotland Nation Page.

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, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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