Fire and Sword

Just finished Fire and Sword: Sorley Boy Macdonnell and the Rise of Clan Ian Mor, 1538-90, by J. Michael Hill. Highly recommended. Sorley Boy (Somhairle Buidhe MacDhomhnaill) was the central figure in the establishment of Clan Ian Mor, the southern branch of Clan MacDonald/MacDonnell in 16th century Ulster, even as its lands in Scotland came under increasing pressure from the Campbells. At the same time the English government was reasserting its effective authority in Ireland, which the prior two centuries had shrunk to a small area (The “Pale”) around Dublin. The result was a triangular power struggle between the MacDonnells, the Irish O’Neills (and sometimes also the O’Donnells), and the English for control of Ulster. Ultimately the MacDonnells were able to hold their lands, and Sorley’s son Ranald became the first Earl of Antrim.

In the course of this struggle alliances among the Scottish and Irish Gaels came and went at a bewildering rate–yesterday’s mortal enemy might be tomorrow’s valued ally. While the antagonism between the MacDonalds and the Campbells is something of a cliché of Scottish history, in fact in this struggle Sorley Boy was often on good terms with the Campbells, and his brother James married Agnes Campbell, the Earl of Argyll’s sister.

James died in captivity after Shane O’Neill (Seán an diomas–“Sean the Proud”), who figures prominently in much of Fire and Sword, defeated the Scots at Glentaisie in 1565. Later Agnes married his successor, Turlough Luineach O’Neill, Shane’s successor. With her Campbell and MacDonnell family connections she controlled Turlough Luineach’s access to Scottish mercenaries, and thereby became the most powerful woman in the Gaelic world, regarded with great respect in Dublin, London, and Edinburgh.

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