The Wild Geese of the Antrim MacDonnells, Hector MacDonnell. (Irish Academic Press, £25 ISBN 0-7165-2609-3

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 4 (Winter 1997), Reviews, Volume 5

The purpose of this book is to give an insight into the achievements and tribulations of an Irish family in exile—namely the descendants of Sorley Boy MacDonnell, a sixteenth-century County Antrim lord. The book is divided into three parts. Part I examines some prominent MacDonnells who made their homes in the Spanish Netherlands in the early part of the seventh century. Part II details the fortunes of the MacDonnell families in the court of Charles II and in the Irish regiments in France during the late 1600s and early 1700s. Many of the Irish gentry who lost their lands in the 1650s became officers in Irish regiments in France or Spain and swore allegiance to the exiled Stuart king, Charles II. Unswerving loyalty to the Stuart king seemed the best way to engineer the recovery of lost estates while at home there was little prospect of advancement for Catholic Irishmen. Part III covers 1710 to 1820 in Spain, examining the descendants of Daniel, an illegitimate son of the third Earl of Antrim and the epilogue gives us an insight into the fortunes of the MacDonnells in Austria.
The value of this type of book is that it provides us with a microcosmic view of the political and military intrigue of Irish exile communities from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Its genealogical contribution is tremendous both on the MacDonnells of Antrim as well as in the detail it provides on their family connections all over Ireland. Hector McDonnell combines the qualities of a good storyteller with a very good knowledge of military history. His book is an illustration of several important factors in the history of the ‘Wild Geese’.
Firstly, Hector McDonnell demonstrates very clearly how close-knit the Irish community (and indeed the English-speaking Catholic community) was in France and in Spain. Up until well into the eighteenth century they inter-married and lived in the same military and social circles. Interestingly these close ties were evident not just among the upper classes but among their servants, retainers and right down through the ranks of their regiments. Closely allied to this military community abroad is the surprising resilience portrayed of the power of the Catholic gentry in Ireland, a power which continued to the 1720s in the case of the MacDonnell family. Hector McDonnell builds up an interesting profile of Randal MacDonnell who became, by default, the greatest native landowner in Ulster after the plantation there. The author argues that Randal adapted more readily than other Irish native lords to the plantation while even the Cromwellian plantations did not destroy the power of the Earls of Antrim. After the Restoration, Randal’s son Alexander got back his inheritance which consisted of the barony of Glenarm, an estate that stretched 20 miles along the coast from Larne to Glendun.
Of particular interest in this book is how inter-dependent the fortunes of the MacDonnell family were at home and abroad. The author clearly shows that close ties continued to exist between family members in Ireland and those overseas. The wealth of families at home was often buttressed by a fortune made abroad. The naval captain Randal MacDonnell returned to England in 1686 having amassed £15,000 from plunder and trade. He bought several Irish mortgages and a thousand acres in County Antrim that had once belonged to his father’s estate. By the same token, it was common for relatives in Ireland to claim the remnants of a relative’s estate abroad. This also worked the other way around and financial assistance was also given by members of the family at home to those abroad. Hannah Roche, widow of General Randal MacDonnell lived at the court of St Germain in France and was a case in point. In 1711 when Randall died, she hoped to claim inheritance of the family home at Cross. Assisted by her Protestant cousin, James MacDonnell of Kilkee, the estate of Cross was nominally transferred to his son thus circumventing the legal problems caused by Catholic ownership. Of equal significance in this context was the common pattern of inter-marriage that occurred between ‘exiles’ and family members at home. Hannah’s daughter Mary, for example, came back to Ireland to marry her second cousin Christopher O’Brien of Ennistymon.
The author also details the continued political involvement by the MacDonnells and other Irish exiles, firstly in attempts to persuade Spain to invade Ireland and later in the Stuart cause. They were very typical of the exile community in that they remained proud of their birth right, many of them continuing to speak Irish, while those of noble background proudly retained their coat of arms. Above all, they continued to hope that their estates in Ireland would be restored to them, often disregarding political realities. Reynaldo MacDonnell who drew up his will in 1757, left all his possessions to his wife, ‘excepting the lands which belong to my family and were those of my grandparents in the Kingdom of Ireland. These, I leave to my children in proper order of succession’. He gave a tin box to his wife which contained the title deeds to an estate which had been granted to his family in the 1660s. These lands had, however, been confiscated after 1691 and now belonged to one of the London guilds, the Hollow-Blades Company. Finally, this book provides us with a rare insight into the everyday life of the Irish military community in Europe. One’s fortunes depended very much on one’s status and connections in life. Ordinary foot soldiers were simply abandoned on the street if companies were disbanded and many troops frequently deserted or changed sides to survive. The position of women was particularly insecure. With the death of a husband or male relative, wives spent years haggling for pensions from the French or Spanish authorities while their sons were often signed up for service before they had reached their teens. On the other end of the scale, Irishmen who could prove their ‘noble’ birth did remarkably well. These Irish were honoured with every position of trust and distinction, particularly in Spain. Richard Wall, a member of a gentry family who had followed James II into exile, became Prime Minister of Spain in 1754 before retiring to a royal estate close to Granada. Many other Irishmen acquired extensive properties in their adopted countries.
Unfortunately this book lacks historical context so that for the average reader the various references to kings, battles and treaties in the lives of the various MacDonnells can be very confusing. It would have been helpful to have given at least a summary of the historical background at the start of each of the three sections of the book. The author is inclined to give a very simplistic analysis of the complex socio-economic and political relations between Ireland and England at the time. A statement such as ‘the Irish had hoped for many years that Spain would help in their struggle against Queen Elizabeth’, seems to ignore the prevailing political and social divisions then within Irish society. The economic forces in Ireland which prompted many of the MacDonnells as well as other migrants to go to Europe are simply ignored while some of the terminology used in the book is vague. One feels that the ‘Wild Geese’ in the title only refers to the upper class migrant but this is never clarified while the term ‘exile’ with its negative connotations is used uncritically throughout the book.
A fairly good attempt is made to compare the early seventeenth century military community of Captain Sorley MacDonnell in Spain with that of the Irish military circles in France after 1660. However, the Restoration period is more sketchy than the earlier period and consists mostly of a list of the military and (admittedly very interesting) amorous adventures of the officers of Irish regiments on the fringes of Charles II’s court. The author does portray the autonomous nature of the British navy where Irish and English Catholics could flourish when the army was barred to them. However, there is little reference to the intricate European politics of the time or to the broader picture of these men’s status in a world that was coming increasingly to be dominated by a Protestant ascendancy. It is also disappointing that the author does not analyse how the constant contact of these ‘Irish exiles’ with Europe influenced their political and cultural perceptions of Ireland.
Finally, although there is reference to the political and social connections between Irish and English Catholics abroad there is little mention of the rivalry between the various factions and none at all to the rift between native Irish and Old English circles in Europe. To be fair to Hector McDonnell, he does not make any such claims for this book. It is a thoroughly researched and lucidly written genealogy and its real value lies in the information and insight it provides on a family and its survival in a rapidly changing world. It is up to other historians to draw any wider conclusions from it.

Gráinne Henry


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