Who was the Earl of Antrim? – Part 1

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A discussion on the possible influence of Scottish and Irish ceòl mòr on each other

By Frank Timoney

Whenever I would ask this question of any of the playing greats, I seemed always to get the same reply that he was a Scottish MacDonald and that the piece was of course written for him by a MacCrimmon. Various references to the piece in piping publications claim a link to Rory Mòr MacLeod, chief of the MacLeods of Dunvegan.

It has been said that this great piobaireachd contains virtually everything to inspire the player to master its lovely melody that is carried through from ground to crunluath. Research into this subject has led me to feel that this piobaireachd may have been transposed from an early Irish harp tradition.

The Earldom was created in 1620 by King James I (of England) and VI (of Scotland), upon Irish-born Ranald MacSorley MacDonnell. Ranald was descended from two famous families, one a Scottish Highland and the other an Irish Gaelic family. The earls however became naturally more involved with Irish matters, as their involvement in Scottish Highland affairs became less successful with each generation.

The Earl’s father, one Somhairle Buidhe MacDonald (Sorley Boy) came to Ireland and later on, found quite a lucrative trade in the braining of Spaniards who survived various shipwrecks off the Antrim coast. This was the time of the Spanish Armada and although those who made it to Scotland found a more friendly refuge, Sorley developed quite a taste for Spanish silken shirts and gold. (The Irish today love to explain shipwrecked Spaniards as having been the cause of dark complexioned people among them but the Irish of the time and their uninvited Highland friends put paid to that tale, long before it began. They made short shrift of any Spanish survivors.) In Ireland, Somhairle Buidhe prospered.

It wasn’t that he came penniless to Antrim. He came with the best credentials. His father, Alasdair MacIain MacDonald was chief of the MacDonalds of Colonsay. Sorley had married the unfortunate Mary O’Neill, daughter of old Conn Bacach O’Neill, the first Earl of Tyrone. His brother James (Seumas Colla Nan Capull MacDonald) married Agnes Campbell, daughter of the third Earl of Argyll. Things went well until Mary’s psychotic brother, the famous Shane O’Neill, (“friend to The Queen of England and cousin to St. Patrick”) put Sorley Boy in prison for quite some time. James came to Ireland to break Sorley out and Shane killed him and his brother Angus. James’ younger brother, Alexander, came over and literally cut Shane into pieces and sprung his brother Sorley.

Mary and Sorley’s son, Raonull MacSomhairle, was created the first Earl of Antrim probably because King James felt the need of a strong Scottish Gaelic presence in Ireland. The MacDonnells of Antrim were not part of Elizabeth’s “planters,” King James was himself Scottish. Raonull died in 1636, having held the Earldom some thirteen years. He was related to the Great Hugh O’Neill and was first cousin of Donald MacGilleasbuig MacDonald (James’s son) back in Colonsay.

James’ widow, Agnes Campbell, had by now married Shane O’Neill’s successor, Turlough Luineach O’Neill. These O’Neills had something having become a strong part in the family of the Lords of the Isles. The first Earl had married into them as well, having wed Alice, daughter of Hugh O’Neill.

The second Earl of Antrim, Raonull Arainneach MacDonnell (Ranald of Arran) became the first Marquis of Antrim in 1645 and died in 1682. He was the second native-born Irishman to hold the earldom. His second cousin, Colla Ciotach MacDonald, James’ grandson, was driven from Colonsay in 1639 by his uncle, Archibald Campbell, Marquis of Argyll, and went to Ireland to live with Ranald who himself had married into the O’Neills.

Dunluce Castle served as the seat of the Earl of Antrim until 1690, following the Battle of the Boyne.

The third Earl was Alasdair or Alexander, Ranald’s brother. He died in 1696 without attaining the title of Marquis. He was very active in Irish nationalism and commanded a regiment in the army of Owen Roe O’Neill at Benburb in 1646. His very famous cousin was the legendary Alasdair MacCholla MacDonald, James’s great grandson who had come to Ireland with his father in 1639. MacCholla went to Scotland with Irish regiments raised on the Antrim estates to serve under Montrose.

All of which brings us to our first flaw in the story.

Rory Mòr MacLeod went to Ireland in 1595 (and gave us our first clear reference to the belted plaid being worn by Highlanders) possibly with a train of MacCrimmon pipers who must have had nothing to do, because the Earl of Antrim wasn’t created until 1620! Dead in 1636, there was no one to write for until another 41 years had passed! We must imagine that if Rory went to Antrim, he went under heavy guard because we all know how the MacDonalds and the MacLeods were hitter enemies. Antrim was thick with MacDonells and their kinsmen the O’Neills and the O’Neills’ kinsmen, the O’Donnells. The life of a MacLeod or a MacCrimmon must have been very precarious to say the least. What MacLeod would ever have a piobaireachd written after a MacDonald or a MacDonnell or an O’Neill? And here were these McDonnells already adopting the O’Neill motto, Lamh dearg Eirin (red hand of Erin) and all that. What MacCrimmon would ever compose it? Perhaps Rory Mòr went home leaving his MacCrimmon pipers alone in Ireland. If they composed for the first or the second Earl, they could have only done so between 1636 and 1645 when the second Earl became the first Marquis.

Perhaps the MacCrimmons stayed in Ireland for a hundred years and composed a piece for the third Earl in 1696. This would be impossible because modern day authors remind us that they were back in Skye busily composing. Could the Irish have composed the piece? It’s obvious that the earls were as much O’Neill’s as anything else.

The fourth Earl of Antrim was Randal, the son of Alexander who became Earl in 1696. The fifth Earl, Alexander, was the son of Randal, and he became Earl in 1721.

Glenarm Castle, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, the ancestral home of the Earls of Antrim.

If the piece was written in Ireland after 1636, it was written for the harp because as we have seen, the loud mouth blown pipe had gone out of style in that country just as the sixteenth century ended. It’s unlikely to have been written for the soft, mouth blown English pastoral pipe (later to become bellows fed) that was now being introduced in its stead. Could there be a piece of harp music extant that is similar to the Lament for the Earl of Antrim? Harpers of the Earls of Antrim were in great demand in Scotland. The old order was collapsing there and harpers were becoming scarce in the Highlands. MacKenzie of Applecross was especially praised by one of them as having a most generous hand because he filled the one hand of the harper of the Earl of Antrim on a visit to Scotland, with gold and the other hand with silver. Perhaps the grateful harper left MacKenzie with a gift in kind, a lament! Irish harpers were especially known for their laments, some of which were said to be possessed of magical qualities. In certain Irish families, the profession of harper was hereditary and many of these belonged to important literary families and were drawn from the stratum of Gaelic society that provided literate professionals. This was in direct contrast to the family pipers of Scotland, with the one possible exception of Clann An Sgeulaiche, the MacGregors of Ruaro in Glen Lyon, Perthshire.

It is difficult, therefore, to understand why piobaireachd is not found in Ireland today. Certainly, all the conditions were right for it. Until sometime in the early 17th century, both Irish music and Highland music were one and the same. The mystery is that in Scotland, piobaireachd is found in its completed form. There is no missing link to indicate that the music emanated from a more simple or experimental art form. We have seen that Irish culture; poetry, music, language, dance etc was devastated by change after 1600.

Take for instance dancing and an account by one Fynes Morison c.1598. He had seen Irish soldiers dancing around a fire in the middle of a room to the strains of a mouth blown bagpipe. “They dance the MATACHINE DANCE with naked swords which they make to meet in divers comely postures.” This certainly does not resemble the stiff like Irish dancing we see today (the product of Rome and London) with hands held rigidly by the sides. We have also seen that poetry declined after 1607 with the loss of syllabic Gaelic verse.

In 1185 we are given a startling look at Irish harp music by Gerald of Wales in this abridged account:

“The melody is always begun in a soft and delicate manner and ended the same. They enter on and again leave their modulations with so much articulation and brilliancy faultless throughout the most complicated modulation, the most intricate of notes, by a velocity so pleasing, rapid and articulate.”

Gerald went on to say that the Scots and Welsh played the same stuff, the Scots the better all around! If this isn’t a ceòl mòr format, it’s difficult to know what is! But it’s certainly a far cry from the songs and melodies that sprung up in the early 18th century that are today looked upon as being authentic Irish music.

• Part 2 tomorrow

• From the November 1997 Piping Times.