Ulster and the Isles in the fifteenth century

Published in Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2005), Letters, Medieval History (pre-1500), Volume 13


—I feel bound to respond to Dr Katherine Simms’ review of my book,Ulster and the Isles in the fifteenth century, in your Autumn 2004issue. There are, as Dr Simms points out, a number of errors in thebook. These are largely in its index, where a number of peripheralindividuals are conflated, but on occasion they are compounded byconfusion in the text. It is helpful of Dr Simms to point these out inher review and I certainly regret them. It is unfortunate, though,that, having been so thorough on the margins, she makes no discernibleattempt to discuss the book’s core argument.
The principal case I set out in the book is that Clann Eoin Mhóir (theMacDonnells of Antrim, who in this period still held territory in theHebrides and were actively part of the wider MacDonald affinity inwestern Scotland) were significant players in the politics of Ulstermuch earlier than the standard accounts suggest. I argue that theirleaders are almost uniquely mobile for the period, sustaining alordship in Antrim while remaining important figures in the affairs ofthe western isles. In Dr Simms’ review this is not touched on, eitherto agree or disagree.
In her criticisms of my references to marginal figures, Dr Simms isbeing properly rigorous; but to argue that, consequently, my entireaccount amounts to ‘misinformation’ is surely to exaggerate. Closer tomisinformation is Dr Simms’ summary of my discussion of inaugurationrituals. I simply do not state, as she suggests, that the pre-Christianrite ‘normally’ involved a marriage of the king to ‘an actual woman’,neither do I cite her as an authority for this ‘novel idea’. I refer toDr Simms’ work in discussing later, explicitly secular rather thanreligious, ceremonies with which for obvious reasons I am moreconcerned in a book about the fifteenth century. A passing reference tothe tradition out of which aspects of later medieval culture emergedassumes an oddly disproportionate significance in her review. Even if Ihad made the assertion claimed, it too would be immaterial to mycentral argument.
In her, relatively brief, comments on my historical narrative Dr Simmscomes closest to actually addressing my case. Here she writes thatthere are ‘strange gaps’ in my account. While I concede that the roleof the Savages might usefully have been further highlighted, contraryto her assertion I do discuss the evidence of early MacDonnell attackson the Anglo-Irish settlers. For example, the 1404 raid that shesuggests I do not discuss at all features on pages 47 and 191. In fact,I argue that the independence of action that this implies is part of apattern, followed throughout the century.
I attempt, by combining sources from both sides of the Irish Sea, tosketch, however tentatively at points, a narrative for the family thatsees it moving back and forth between Ulster and the Isles. Hence myaccount of the aftermath of the battle of Inverlochy in 1431, which DrSimms finds ‘curious’. I make a case that it was Domnall BallachMacDonnell, victor at Inverlochy, who led a fleet in alliance with theO’Neills, against the O’Donnells and others, in 1433. In the context ofmy argument as a whole, I believe that this makes sense, as does theassertion that his activity in Ulster did not automatically imply totalremoval from the affairs of his kinsmen in the Isles.
My account of MacDonnell activity in Ulster and the Isles in thefifteenth century is certainly speculative in some instances, owing tothe paucity of source material. However, my purpose in publishing thebook was to raise some questions about the standard account of theperiod. Dr Simms is gracious in suggesting that the book may causeothers to consider ‘an area and period too often neglected’; it isdisappointing that she chose not to do so herself.

—Yours etc.,

I am very sorry if Simon Kingston feels that I have misrepresented him.To be honest, I had not realised that the central argument of his bookwas that Clann Eoin Mhóir ‘were significant players in the politics ofUlster much earlier than the standard accounts suggest’—his conclusionstates simply that ‘The central premise of this study is that thelordships of Tír Eoghain, the Glynns and the Isles were related in thefifteenth century by custom and experience’. He does indeed mention onpages 47 and 189–90 that the Scots of the Western Isles who attackedthe Ulster colony in alliance with the local Gaelic chiefs in 1404 wereprobably Clann Eoin Mhóir ‘engaging in local politics’. My point wasthat if he had given more attention to the role of the Savage family inbringing the MacDonnells into the Glynns in the first place, presumablyas a bulwark against the local Irish chiefs, there was a change ofdirection here that needed explaining.
I accept Dr Kingston’s assurance that he did not intend to cite me asthe authority for the idea that royal inauguration in early times mightbe enacted as a marriage to an actual woman, but I leave it to yourreaders to decide whether he made this clear in the passage on p. 143:

‘Simms discusses the changing view of lordship in terms of twostages.63 The first defined kingship as a religious phenomenon;inauguration was based around a pre-Christian concept of the marriageof the rightful king to an embodiment of the goddess of the country(sometimes simply the king’s chosen bride, sometimes, to the horror ofGerald of Wales, involving a
horse) . . .’

There is no further footnote reference to any other source in the restof this paragraph. Footnote 63 I share with Donnchadh Ó Corráin’sarticle on ‘Nationality and kingship in pre-Norman Ireland’, which hasno reference to inauguration.
I have no problem, nor to my knowledge has anyone else, with DrKingston’s central thesis that the MacDonnells played an active role inpolitics in both sides of the North Channel in the fifteenth century,or that Domhnall Ballach may have led the Scottish force allied toO’Neill in 1433. It is simply that ‘the devil lies in the details’.
Trinity College, Dublin

This letter was originally sent to the wrong address and so has onlyjust come to the attention of the editor, hence the time-lag.


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