INTERPRETING ISLANDMAGEE

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2014), Letters, Volume 22

Island Magee map

Sir,—I have noticed belatedly the interesting article by John Gibney on Islandmagee in 1641 (HI 21.1, Jan./Feb. 2013). I am a direct descendant of Bryan McGee (1624–80), who, as the 1641 Depositions on-line show (http://www.1641.tcd.ie/), gave evidence at Lisnegarvey on 21 April 1653 regarding the murder of his family at Islandmagee on 8 January 1642. On being asked to give more evidence, on 14 May, he had relocated to somewhere in County Armagh (TCD, MS 838, folio 198). I know that he settled in farmland close to Lough Neagh, a few miles north of the modern-day town of Portadown, where a McGee family remained, more or less, until the early twentieth century. Family folklore has it that Bryan McGee served with Owen Roe O’Neill at Benburb in 1646 (his cousin Turlough McGee had certainly been a colonel) and, after his retirement as a soldier, his sword was kept as a family heirloom. If there were a connection with Owen Roe O’Neill, in the light of the latter’s broken pact with Oliver Cromwell in 1649, this could explain McGee’s hesitancy in giving evidence to a Cromwellian court. In addition, as other testimonies before the Cromwellian hearing confirm, McGee’s father Owen had protested regarding the murders before the authorities in Carrickfergus on the night of 8 January 1642 but, despite a promise to investigate, he was murdered before he could leave the town gates and his son barely escaped alive.

The 1641 Depositions indicate that the Islandmagee killings resulted in a couple of dozen deaths, not a few thousand. This is no doubt correct. The motive was the believed connection of the McGee clan (led by an Owen and a Donnell McGee respectively) with Phelim O’Neill, the renegade Antrim politician, and there probably was some slight connection. Aside from some local offices held by the clan (a magistrate and a constable), this would have been rooted in their fellow connection, according to Gaelic law, to the MacDonnell (the earl of Antrim, according to English law). Curiously, a year after he gave evidence at Lisnegarvy, Bryan McGee named his first son Phelim (1654– 1723), perhaps after Phelim O’Neill (d. 1652), although it was also a very common Gaelic name. The names of Phelim McGee’s descendants—Edmond McGee (1686–1762), James McGee (1729–69), Edward McGee (1755–1828), James McGee (1779–1845) and John McGee (1812–82), all buried in a family plot in Maghery, Co. Armagh, and their names documented in a Catholic family bible—indicate that a cultural Anglicisation of the family took place over time, although they seem to have retained a preoccupation with their Islandmagee legacy. For instance, an original first edition of John Curry’s book, published in London in 1747, was kept in the family and has two sections of the text highlighted in an old secretary hand, one mentioning Carrickfergus (Islandmagee) and the other suggesting that a parliamentary inquiry should be held regarding all atrocities committed in the 1641 rebellion (pp 52–3). The family were impoverished, however, by the early nineteenth century.

I had not heard before about the 1660 Catholic royalist publication that John Gibney mentioned in his article. His point about people’s ongoing willingness to use the story of Islandmagee in political folklore is valid. This might have been expected into the eighteenth century owing to the Jacobite legacy, but not thereafter. Witness, however, Anna Johnston’s hate-filled ballad ‘Brian Boy Magee A.D. 1641’, first published in the Belfast Shan van Vocht in the late 1890s and later reproduced by Seamus MacManus of the AOH in The Four Winds of Éirinn (Dublin, 1902), which went through several editions. It is a ridiculous by-product of what the McGee family referred to disparagingly at the time as the ‘Green Order’ tradition. Incidentally, it also confuses Bryan McGee with a ‘Brian Boy’, younger brother of Turlough, who was slain in a particularly notorious manner. Bizarrely, my great-grandfather James McGee (1853–1913), who was a justice of the peace in Portadown during the final eighteen months of his life, believed that he saw Bryan McGee’s sword in the Drumcree lodge of the Orange Order when asked to investigate disturbances there in 1912, although this seems unlikely.

Islandmagee was reputedly the first massacre committed in the intrinsically linked 1641 rebellion and War of the Three Kingdoms. Caused by a militarisation of British society that had begun during the late 1630s, its fame as a massacre was evidently so denoted to indicate that the Ulster Catholics were attacked first. That may have been true, although I would suggest that neither it nor any other localised attack should be allowed to obscure other political dynamics at work. In the case of Antrim, this meant MacDonnell’s relationship with Scotland (the final erosion of the Ulster-Scot Catholic dynasties, going back to medieval times) and, of course, the Crown (surrender and re-grant, et al.). That is at the apex of the question of interpretation. Events like Islandmagee (or, indeed, the attack upon the MacDonald clan at Rathlin Island, an event sometimes confused with Islandmagee and as notorious as the massacre at Glencoe) are much closer to the base of the question, but they cannot be understood outside the context of the former and have no real significance beyond that. The McGhee clan of Balmaghie in lowlands Scotland, a historic offshoot of the Islandmagee clan, also fizzled out around this time.

My own father, Donard McGee (named after the mountain, although not a northerner), died in February 2013 at the age of 77, around the same time as John Gibney’s article appeared, and as I first heard about the Islandmagee story from him I now pass this information on to your readers in his memory. One last piece of family folklore regarding the Islandmagee story is that one member of the historic McGee clan was allowed to remain in Islandmagee because he had converted to Protestantism. This seems incredible, however, because the clan sept system had no practical meaning in civil law. I strongly suspect that that story simply originated with my grandfather Edward McGee (1888–1981), who, aside from being extraordinarily fond of telling tall tales, was a little bit of a ‘papist’, having been awarded a medal by Pope Paul VI for 50 years’ service to church music in Ireland.—Yours etc.,

OWEN McGEE
Greystones
Co. Wicklow

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