Documentary material for any of the Third Order Franciscan friaries in Ireland is scanty, and so we are fortunate in having a fair amount of information about the one at Glenarm. I think it would be helpful to say first a little about the development of this order.
St. Francis of Assisi founded three Orders before his death in 1226. The First Order consisted of priests and brothers, the Second Order of nuns and the Third Order of lay people or others living in their homes. Some of the lay people who were members of the Third Order used to come together in little groups to pray and to help or teach the poor. Gradually these little groups began to live together and lead a community life. These little communities were either male or female. As they developed about 1400 they came to be known as the Franciscan Third Order Regular because they each lived a life in accordance with certain rules and regulations, and the members took vows, and had regular times for prayer, meditation and various kinds of work.
This regular form of life among members of the original Third Order founded by St Francis began to develop in Ireland in the early 15th century, and communities were formed and houses built to accommodate them. These communities were closely associated with the Franciscan First Order, but were distinct from it. Such communities of Third Order Regular Franciscans flourished in Ireland during the century 1450—1550, but by 1620 they had disappeared. In all they had about 43 houses in Ireland, some 20 of which were in Ulster and 17 in Connaught. The friary at Killeenbrenan in Co. Mayo is the earliest Third Order Regular establishment in Ireland we know of. It was founded several years before 1428 and was followed by the building of several more. These early Third Order friaries were mostly in Connaught and were endowed by leading local families. By the early 1440s there were about five or six of them, one of the most important being at Rosserk1. This gradual spread of the order through Connaught was a natural and explicable process, but it has always been seen as perplexing that the next friary to be founded should have been in north-east Antrim.
In 1445 Pope Eugenius IV sent a mandate to the archdeacon of Connor allowing him to licence the erection of a Third Order Regular friary in the diocese so long as the facts tallied with the petition he had received from an individual in Connor who wished to set up a friary. The authorities in Rome had obviously found it difficult to decipher the outlandish names and quite possibly the equally outlandish script of this petition, so we have to cope with the somewhat garbled statement of the facts as they appear in the Pope’s mandate. It states that three laymen, ‘Semiquinus Machon, captain of his nation, Donald Ballack Machdonnell and Alexander Machdonnaill’ had recently handed over two parcels of land called Seraide Kaill and Bedamegcadab for the erection of a church dedicated to St Mary the Virgin. Some time later one Donald Macagaill petitioned the Pope asking permission to build a house of the Third Order at the chapel which he had built on the lands of Seraide Kaill and Bedamegcadab. He stated that he had already given the chapel and its lands to the friary at Rosserk. The archdeacon seems to have found no objections to this proposal, for twenty years later another papal document was issued, this time in response to a petition from one Robert Bisset who is described as Lord of Glenarm.
His petition stated that friars of the Third Order had been living in an ‘oratory’ which they had built there some years beforehand after permission had been given them by their own Order and also by the Pope. They now wanted to erect a regular friary at Glenarm, and to this request the Pope gave his consent3. What I presume to have happened is that the Franciscan establishment which was founded in 1445 was a very small affair and remained under the control and guidance of its parent-foundation at Rosserk and that it was only in 1465 that the friars of Glenarm felt themselves strong enough to set themselves up in a fully-fledged friary.
Up to now the document of 1445 mentioning ‘Seraide Kaill’ has been thought to be concerned with the foundation of some otherwise unknown and unrecorded friary in Connor quite distinct from the 1465 one at Glenarm. There are, however, many good reasons for regarding them as one and the same establishment in two stages of its development. On the purely negative side it is highly unsatisfactory to try and hypothesize the founding of such an early Third Order friary at one of the other ‘Straides’ in Connor. None of them has any known Franciscan associations, and none of them is in the right place for these two MacDonnells and a ‘Machon’ to be the likely patrons and founders of a friary.
On the positive side there are several points to be made. ‘Seraide Kaill’ is immediately recognisable as Straidkilly, which is now part of a townland less than a mile from the site of the Glenarm friary. ‘Bedamegcadab’, is more problematic but it has been suggested that it could be a clumsy transliteration of a Gaelic placename such as Badh Mhic Adhaimh (McAdam’s Bay). On this basis it is not difficult to discover where the piece of land referred to was situated, for Straidkilly is in the townland of Bay, which extends from Straidkilly itself as far as Glencloy River in Carnlough Bay. That Straidkilly and McAdam’s Bay was considered separate denominations of land in the 15th century need not surprise us, for townlands frequently changed their boundaries.
This petition was primarily concerned with the transfer of these two pieces of land to the Franciscans, and I presume that this was the reason why only the names of the lands donated were mentioned and not a more general name like Glenarm. It would have made no more sense to Donald Ballach to refer to these lands as Glenarm than it would to us to refer to Waterfoot as Glenariff4. Another interesting clue is that Seraide Kaill is the only Third Order establishment known which is described as being the subsidiary foundation of another house, and this would certainly encourage an identification with Glenarm, for the 1465 petition makes it plain that the ‘oratory’ at Glenarm had been just such a subsidiary foundation up to then, and that it had been in existence for quite some time.
On top of that we have the evidence of the donors’ names. These are exactly the names we would expect to find associated with a foundation in the Glens of Antrim. Donald Ballach was the son of Margery Bisset and John Mor MacDonnell, Alexander MacDomnaill was perhaps his prince, the Lord of the Isles, and Semiquinus Machon was the MacEoin of the Glens, as the chief of the Bissets was known to the Irish5. His odd first name is really Sinchin or Jenkin, a name also found amongst the MacQuillans and the Savages. To the story of the Bissets I shall return later in this article, so for the present I shall confine myself to what is relevant to the founding of this friary.
By 1260 the Bissets had been given a grant of Glenarm castle, Solar, Templeoughter and their associated church lands by the Bishop of Connor and since then Glenarm had been the principal centre of their lordship. It was therefore an obvious place for a friary to be founded. Indeed, as so much of the land around Glenarm was held from the Church the Bissets and MacDonnells may have been under some direct ecclesiastical pressure which obliged them to give some land to the Church so as to avoid any awkward property disputes. As will be seen later there was considerable doubt as to who was the rightful lord of the Glens in the 15th century, and there must have been some danger that the Church would use this confusion as an excuse to try and recover their property. The gift of Seraide Kaill and Bedamegcadab to the Church may therefore be a 15th century version of hush-money!
The 1465 petition states that the friary was founded by a Bissett, with no mention of any MacDonnell involvement. I do not think that this really weakens the case for identifying the 1445 foundation with Glenarm, for the 1465 document was a purely Bisset affair, and this may have led the petitioner to play down any MacDonnell connection. In any case the 1445 papal mandate firmly gave Semiquinus Machon pride of place in the business, placing him first in the list of donors and honouring him with a princely title — ‘Captain of his Nation’ — the MacDonnells were paid no such compliments.
The 1465 petition is only known to us through an early 17th century description of it, but there are good reasons for believing it to be reliable6. Two new characters are mentioned, Robert Bisset, the petitioner, and ‘Lord of Glenarm’ and another Robert Bisset who is not only a friar but also provincial of the Third Order in Ireland7. Here we have the most likely explanation of why the Third Order should have been involved with Glenarm at a time when it was otherwise exclusively associated with the far west of Ireland. A Bisset had become its provincial and so his MacDonnell and Bisset cousins donated their church and its lands to the order in his honour. The other Robert Bisset, the Lord of Glenarm, had presumably succeeded to Semiquinius as the MacEoin of the Glens subsequent to 1445, and appears to have been the only nobleman behind the move to create a fully functioning friary at Glenarm.
The description of the 1465 petition says that this Robert Bisset gave the friars a place to build their friary at Glenarm, and this raises another question. Does this refer in a slightly inaccurate form to the original 1445 foundation or should the statement be taken at face value? I am inclined to do the latter, particularly as this document draws a distinction between the earlier oratory and the new building. This would mean that the oratory must have been on some completely different site, most probably at Templeoughter (see note 4). But it needs to be emphasised that this point remains uncertain, and it is possible that the friary was built on the site of the earlier oratory. There is little information about the later history of the friary. Third Order friaries could be quite small, some having as few as half-a-dozen resident friars but it is difficult to say what size this one was.
They were primarily concerned with prayer and education, so it may well be that the Glenarm friary offered some sort of schooling to the people of the Glens. It is said that after the assassination of Shane O’Neill in 1567 his body was interred here. Shortly afterwards some friars were dispatched from Armagh to bring his remains home, but they were rebuffed by their Glenarm colleagues who said that as long as the friars of Armagh walked over the bones of MacDonnell (Sorley Boy’s eldest brother, who had died whilst being held captive by Shane O’Neill) they would continue to tread on the dust of O’Neill.
In the following year an English expedition reached Glenarm, stayed there for some time and actually housed their soldiery in the friary. This is the last datable reference to it, but it does have a 17th Century epitaph: — “Here there was a distinguished house of our Tertiary brothers, where a certain friar of that order was hanged by the English heretics when they were ravaging Ireland by fire and sword. Father Edmundus Cana, priest and confessor of our order, was an eye-witness to this.’ Father ‘Cana’ or McCann was one of the four friars based on Bonamargey who worked on the Franciscan mission to the Western Isles between 1619 and 1637, and was himself a historian of the Ulster friaries. As he was alive and active in 1647 the friary’s final destruction must have come quite late, perhaps during the 1584 raid8, perhaps during Tyrone’s rebellion. But although the friary had ceased to function by the 17th century its ruins remained until the present Church was built in the 1760s, and a gable wall was still standing 20 years later.
My research into the origins of this friary has forced me to realise that the standard account of the history of the Glens of Antrim in the 15th century is woefully inaccurate. We have been led to believe that after John Mor married Margery Bisset possession of the Glens, legal and actual, passed to the Macdonnells. It comes, therefore, as a considerable surprise to discover that it was the Bissets, not the Macdonnells who are described as ‘of the Glens’ throughout that century and that they were still ruling here as late as 1522. The Bissets were a Norman family who came to Co. Antrim in a most peculiar way. The Earldom of Ulster had been granted to Hugh de Lacy by King John in 1205, but five years later King John expelled him and various new grants were made, including the whole of the kingdom of Dalriada and more besides to three members of the de Galloway family, who were the Celtic lords of their semi-autonomous principality of Galloway. There is not much information about their settlement of Co. Antrim, but what little there is reveals that they took possession of at least some of the lands granted to them. Thomas de Galloway was the most active of the three. He built a stone castle at Coleraine and held the nearby fort of Mount Sandel and Antrim Castle. His brother Alan held more lands in the same area, while their uncle Duncan controlled and settled the country between Larne and Ballygalley. Exactly what was going on in the large area between Coleraine and Ballygalley is unclear, but much of it was still in Irish hands.
Hugh de Lacy returned to Ireland in 1223, and by 1228 he had become such a powerful figure in Ulster, thanks at least in part to help from the O’Neills, that Henry III was obliged to restore him to his earldom. Even so he refused to revoke the grants made to the de Galloways, and this in spite of de Lacy’s persistent attacks on them. Some attempt was made to patch up the feud between them, for Hugh de Lacy’s daughter was married off to Alan de Galloway, but this did not last long, and de Lacy even took the vendetta to Scotland, sending a military expedition to Galloway in 1234 when his son-in-law died, for on Alan’s death his illegitimate son was proclaimed prince of Galloway according to local Celtic law and was supported in his unsuccessful struggle by Hugh de Lacy.
It was at this stage that the Bissets entered the picture. Oral tradition states that the Bissets arrived in Ireland with Strongbow in 1167. This cannot be substantiated, but they certainly were here by the early 13th century, and from the first they were closely associated with the de Lacys, who did arrive with Strongbow. The earliest traceable Bisset was called Henry. He held estates in England and was sent to Ireland in 1204 by the King to supervise the transfer of John de Courcy’s Ulster conquests to de Lacy. Many of the Norman Knights on this expedition had long associations with Ireland, so it may be that Henry Bisset was no stranger to the country. He was a trusted royal official, had de Lacy’s confidence and was rewarded for his pains with lands around Dublin.
It was his two sons, Walter and John, who turned the Glens into a Bisset fief. John became a prominent figure in England, being given many grants of lands and royal posts during the 1220s and 1230s, while his son John junior, and his brother Walter went on to Scotland where Walter’s father had also been active. They did equally well, and were granted large tracts of land at Aboyne, near Aberdeen, and much larger ones around Inverness. John junior founded Beauly priory in 1230, they held several castles and maintained bodies of armed retainers. They were, in fact, major Scottish magnates. Walter Bisset married Alan de Galloway’s sister in 1233 (an indication, I imagine, that their de Lacy connection remained strong) and then, in 1242, murder was done.
By then there was only one legitimate de Galloway left, Patrick, who was Walter’s nephew by marriage. Patrick killed a Bisset cousin at a tournament, and so Patrick was in turn killed by John junior with the help of Walter Bisset’s retainers. Walter was entertaining the royal party at the time and tried to use this as an alibi, but they were both judged guilty and banished, though they were allowed to sell their possessions and take their retainers with them on condition they made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to atone for their crime.
Instead Walter went to England and John junior to Ulster, and they were both well received. Henry III was by now glad to see the end of a family which had become the mightiest in Scotland, while also holding enormous estates in England and Ireland, while Hugh de Lacy at last had the chance to reincorporate the de Galloway portion of county Antrim into his earldom.
The two Johns were soon in possession of the Glens, which were probably granted to them by de Lacy before he died in 1243, and essentially their lands consisted of the de Galloway settlement around Ballygalley, the castle, mill and lands of Glenarm, which they held from the Church, and further settlements around Ballycastle and on Rathlin. Glencloy and the Middle Glens remained as ‘waste places where the Irish dwell’, while they also held some lands west of the Bann, as the de Galloways had done.
Walter Bisset, though, had other ambitions. With Henry Ill’s help he fought a border war against the Scots for two years, and after that he fortified himself on Kintyre and Arran, remaining there until he died in 1251. This move is particularly interesting, for it shows the Bissets uniting the essential parts of the Scotto-Irish Kingdom of Dalriada, and also suggests that they were already closely involved with the recently formed MacDonnell Lordship of the Isles, which had its original centre in Argyll. John senior died in 1257, and must have been a much feared figure in Ireland, for he was described as a ‘destroyer of churches and the Gael’. John junior died three years later, leaving only three daughters, with the result that the Glens were ultimately inherited by the male descendants of John senior’s younger sons, while their English lands passed out of the family through the female line.
The Bissets are frequently mentioned in the records of the 13th and early 14th centuries. They settled down into the framework of the Norman earldom as a locally powerful but otherwise unexceptional family, and their tenure of the Glens was officially recognised, despite the dubious way in which they had acquired it. One of them became a trusted supporter of Richard de Burgh, who was the Earl of Ulster in the late 13th century. Hugh Bisset witnessed many of his charters and helped defend Carrickfergus from O’Neill attack. The family, however, almost came to total ruin in the early 14th century. This was the period when Edward I was trying to conquer Scotland. He frequently called on the Irish to provide him with men, and the Bissets are recorded as having served him there on several occasions. Not only that, but when an Irish parliament was called in 1310 four Bissets were summoned to sit in it, so outwardly they gave every appearance of being loyal and valued supporters of the English crown.
Reality was somewhat different, for the Bissets became deeply involved with Robert Bruce. There was considerable sympathy for his cause in Ireland, not least from Richard de Burgh, whose sister he had married, and it would seem that the Bissets, like their de Burgh overlords, were playing a double game. The most extraordinary result of this came in 1307, when the Bissets were commissioned to command a fleet to try and sieze Robert Bruce from his supposed hiding-place in the Western Isles, just when the Bissets were themselves hiding him on Rathlin. It is worth noting that Bruce had been passed on to them for safe keeping by the Lord of the Isles, the first instance we know of Bisset/MacDonnell co-operation. I do not believe that this was an isolated occurrence,but to this matter I shall shortly return.
Edward, Robert Bruce’s brother, landed in Ulster in 1315 to claim the kingship of Ireland for himself, an issue which was only finally settled by his defeat and death at Dundalk in 1318. Sir Hugh Bisset, who had been Lord of the Glens since the 1290s, is recorded as having fought against Bruce initially, but Sir Hugh must have changed sides, for in 1319 all his lands were declared forfeited for his involvement with the Scots. Sir Hugh was the only Irish magnate to be so harshly punished, even though many others had thrown in their lot with Bruce, so Sir Hugh’s actions must have been regarded as particularly reprehensible. He may have been singled out because of his long-standing association with Bruce and possibly as a warning to Richard de Burgh, his feudal superior, but I think there was more to it than that.
The Bissets had been a considerable local naval power for many years, just like the Lords of the Isles, and what little information we have suggests that the two families were already deeply involved with each other. What we know for certain, apart from the Rathlin incident, is that the Bissets and the Lords of the Isles were already closely related to one another by marriage and that Edward Bruce relied heavily on the MacDonnells during his three years in Ireland. When he was killed at Dundalk two leading MacDonnells died fighting alongside him, and one of these was the then Lord of the Isles.
After Dundalk the immediate concern of the English king was to secure Ulster from any further Scottish invasions, and so the Glens and Rathlin were handed over to John de Athy, the remarkably successful commander of Edward II’s naval forces in the Irish Sea. He had already captured the Isle of Man and defeated the forces of a powerful Scottish privateer in 1317, while in 1318 he had recaptured Carrickfergus from the Scots. He remained an important naval figure in the north until Robert Bruce re-invaded Ulster in 1327, after which Athy is never heard of again, though whether he died or was removed for failing to prevent this second Bruce invasion I do not know.
Robert Bruce landed at Larne in the spring of 1327 (see footnote) with the apparent intention of organising an uprising in favour of the deposed king Edward II. Bruce spent many months on the Ulster coast, and several references to him place the centre of his activities in the Glens of Antrim, which suggests that the removal of the Bissets had created a power vacuum which Bruce was able to exploit. There are many traditions describing the activities of Bruce in the Glens, and these must surely refer to this invasion rather than the earlier one of 1315—18, particularly as these traditions make no mention of the Bissets even though many battles and events are described as happening in the Glenarm area. They have only been ascribed to the earlier invasion because the one of 1327 has been largely forgotten. Bruce was finally persuaded that the time for an uprising in Edward II’s favour had gone and in the autumn of 1327 he signed a treaty promising to leave Ireland in peace for a year, with Sir Henry de Mandeville, seneschal of Ulster. The treaty was signed in Glendun.
After this the Glens were granted to Sir Henry’s brother Richard, who held them until he was imprisoned for his part in the murder of the Earl of Ulster in 1333. Richard’s lands were then confiscated and the Glens became Crown property. As the de Mandevilles had an association with the Bissets dating back to the middle of the thirteenth century, and as Sir Hugh Bisset was actually a co-signatory with Sir Henry de Mandeville to an official document in 1328, which suggests that they were then on friendly terms, it seems plausible that the Bissets would have been kindly treated by the de Mandevilles once they became the new grantees of the Glens. The de Mandevilles would have found it difficult to control much more of the Glens than the area around Glenarm, so they might well have re-instated the Bissets as their sub-tenants in the rest of the lordship. This would at least explain why the Bissets were already back in the Glens in the late 1330s even though they had no official permission to be there.
In 1338 the Bissets were restored to their lordship. Edward III had mounted several expeditions against Scotland, frequently with the help of the Lord of the Isles, who put his ships at Edward’s disposal. Needless to say there was a price to be paid for this, part of which was the reinstatement of the Bissets, as King Edward’s grant makes clear:
“John de Insulis made petition to the King that certain lands in Glenarvie of the inheritance of Hugh Byset his kinsman which lately came into the King’s hands by forfeiture of Richard de Mandeville his enemy should be vested to the same Hugh. The King in consideration of the many perils to which the petitioner has exposed himself in repelling his enemies has granted the lands to Hugh to hold of him and his heirs… by doing liege homage and fealty for them.”
A similar document gave “protection during pleasure for John Byset of Rathlin out of regard for John of the Isles whose kinsman he is, and his men, lands and goods in Ireland.” This second document gives us the clearest indication we have that the Bissets were powerful figures in the Glens during at least some of the period between 1318 and 1338. That their status was not officially recognised is demonstrated by a survey of the Earldom of Ulster of 1333, which lists only two Bissets, neither of them being men of power or wealth and neither of them living in the Glens.
After 1338 there is little mention of the Bissets for another forty years, but a couple of observations may be usefully made. By engineering their reinstatement John of the Isles had restored the Glens to their natural sphere of cultural and political influence, namely, the maritime province over much of which he ruled as Lord of the Isles. Whereas the Bissets had been a rival maritime power to the MacDonnells in the thirteenth century they became a purely land-based family in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Lords of the Isles were now the undisputed masters of the seas between Scotland and Ireland and so the Bissets would have depended upon the MacDonnells for naval protection just as the MacDonnells would have depended upon the Bissets for safe havens on the Ulster coast.
One document exists which sheds a little light on the Bissets in the mid-fourteenth century. It is a seventeenth century genealogy, which refers to “Eoin (Bisset) who assembled a company of 160 mounted men of his own blood and family. The Sweet Well of the Saddles is so named from the formation this company of men took up around him to drink the water”.
This is the only historical incident detailed in the genealogy, so it must have been of considerable importance. No reason for the assembly is given, but I can guess what was going on. The grant of 1338 makes it clear that “Hugh of Glenarvie” (Glenariff?) was considered by the English authorities to be the legitimate heir to the Bisset lordship. He must have been the senior male descendant of the Sir Hugh Bisset who was lord of the Glens until 1319. Feudal rules of inheritance through primogeniture seem, however, to have played no part in the assumption of power by the Eoin who brought his 160 kinsmen together at the Toberwine Burn a generation later.
This Eoin descended from John Bisset senior through a junior branch of the family, none of whom had been lord of the Glens. Eoin’s claim to the lordship was therefore tenuous as far as English law went, and it would have needed a confirmatory royal grant to legalise his possession of the Glens. There is no record of any such grant, or of any application for one, so it would seem that Eoin ignored all feudal niceties and relied instead on some form of Irish custom as a means of asserting his supremacy. My guess is that the assembly at the Burn was part of this process and was called either to elect or else to acknowledge Eoin as leader of his people and lord of the Glens. That the representatives of the Crown accepted Margery Bisset, who was probably Eoin’s descendant, as the legitimate heiress to the lordship need not surprise us. In their impotence to alter the Irish status quo, the English turned a blind eye on many breaches of feudal law committed by these hibernicised families, particularly if they showed any inclination to recognise the English king as their overlord.9
In 1383 the MacEoin Bisset, as he was by then called, led his men in Niall O’Neill’s attack on the Savages in Lecale and committed a most unsportsmanlike crime. O’Neill’s son and Raibilin Savage challenged each other to single combat and in the course of the duel ran each other through. Then, ‘mortally wounded, Raibilin went to Bisset’s house, where MacEoin Bisset killed him outright. Aedh O’Neill also died with the Bissets on the third hour after the combat, and Seinicin MacEoin Bisset was killed by Raibilin’s people in revenge’.
This left the Bissets without an effective leader, for Seinicin’s only child was his young daughter Margery. His widow was a sister of the king of the Clannaboy O’Neills10, and deference to them seems to have inhibited any Bisset cousins from trying to seize control of the clan. No doubt the O’Neills would also have protected Margery from outside interference had O’Neill’s next son not been captured and taken prisoner to Dublin. This brought pressure to bear on them and Margery was handed over to become the ward of the Savage family. For the Savages this gave them some reparation for Raibilin’s murder, as the income from Margery’s land now came to them, but it may also have had some advantages for the O’Neills. By Irish custom it would have been normal for one of Margery’s male cousins to become head of their sept, whereas by feudal law Margery could claim to be sole heir to the Glens. Therefore, by letting Margery pass into the control of the officials of the earldom, the Clannaboy O’Neill was actually protecting his niece’s interests, and thus his own influence in the Glens.
MacEOlNS OF THE GLENS AND MacDONNELLS
In 1395 Richard II visited Ireland and came to Drogheda in an attempt to restore order to the disintegrating earldom of Ulster. The Savages had become the most powerful Norman family in Ulster in the early 14th century, but since 1360 their vast estates in north Antrim and Co. Down had been under constant attack, and though they continued to be appointed seneschals of Ulster, their actual areas of power and influence were diminishing. It was therefore a major coup for Richard II when he managed to get the most powerful Irish leaders threatening the earldom to do homage to him at Drogheda.
Most importantly the two O’Neill kings submitted to him, and with them came John Mor MacDonnell11. He was the younger son of John, Lord of the Isles, by his second wife, Margaret, the daughter of King Robert II of Scotland. John Mor had been driven out of Scotland after he had tried to raise a rebellion against his elder brother, who had become Lord of the Isles after their father’s death in 1387. In coming to Ireland John Mor had taken a path followed by many of his clan over the previous hundred years.
By the 1390s there were MacDonnells to be found in all the provinces of Ireland, where they had established themselves as commanders of bands of Mercenaries, gallowglasses as they were called, attached to various Irish ruling families. The Cenel Eoghan O’Neill appointed John Mor constable of the Scots in Ulster, in other words commander of O’Neill’s gallowglasses, and, therefore, a man of great power, for these gallowglasses were the professional backbone of the native Irish armies. John Mor wrote to Richard II before going to Drogheda, relating his misadventures and saying that he was ‘sojourning with O’Neill in dire hardship,’ but this should not be taken too seriously, as he was not only the right-hand man of the most powerful Ulster King,but also the acknowledged ‘tanist’, or heir to the Lordship of the Isles.
His half brother Sorley had been in exactly the same position, tanist to the Lordship of the Isles and constable of the Scots to the O’Neill at his death in 1368. (This Sorley, incidentally, founded the important Franciscan friary at Armagh, in 1366). When John Mor paid homage to Richard II at Drogheda he proposed ‘to be your liegeman, captain and constable throughout all Ireland with as many armed men as you wish me to have with your Royal Majesty.’ These were hardly the words of a desperate or impoverished exile, but rather the subtle phrases of a successful man who saw an opportunity of extending his power into the Pale, knowing full well that the English could not afford to keep much of an armed presence in Ireland.
John Mor married Margery Bisset shortly after this and it is possible to think of many reasons for the match. The MacDonnells were cementing an alliance with the Bissets which had already existed for nearly a hundred years, Richard II and the Savages would have hoped to gain the friendship of the MacDonnells and the O’Neills so as to create a little stability in Ulster, and O’Neill would not only have been protecting his niece’s inheritance but also rewarding John Mor for his services. I can well imagine that all these considerations played a part in the marriage negotiations.
This marriage was little help, however, to the Savages who lost their Antrim lands to the Irish over the next thirty years. Worse still, in 1433 the MacDonnells brought a fleet-load of highland flghting-men over to Co.Down to help O’Neill devastate the Savages’ lands there. After that catastrophe two direct marriages were arranged between the MacDonnells and the Savages, and, presumably as part of this agreement, a body of fighting-men led by a Macdonnell was maintained on the Savage lands in Co. Down. This stabilised the situation somewhat and the Savages managed to hold onto some of their remaining lands.
In order to understand the curious relationships between the Bissets and the MacDonnells after 1400 we must go further back in time. When John de Courcy made his conquests in Ulster he found himself vigorously opposed in what is now County Antrim by the O’Flinns, kings of Ui Tuirtre. This kingdom had originally been situated in Central Ulster but it had been pushed east of the Bann by the growing power of the O’Neills and by the 12th century it covered an area now represented, more or less, by the baronies of Carey, Dunluce, Kilconway, Lower Antrim, Lower Toome and Lower Glenarm.
The O’Flinns lost their northernmost territories to the Normans but they were strong enough to prevent any further major erosions to their kingdom. They seem to have built strongholds and mottes on the Norman model, they supplied money and soldiers to the English kings for their wars in Scotland and France, and the deanery of Turtrey was created so that the kingdom could have its own ecclesiastical organisation.
All this was of great importance to the Bissets, who became the Norman neighbours of the Irish O’Flinns. The border between their territories dissected Glenarm, which explains why the more southern of the Glenarm parishes, Glore, was in the Deanery of Turtrey while Templeoughter was part of a Norman controlled deanery which extended down the coast to Carrickfergus. The Glens between Carnlough and Ballycastle lay within the kingdom of Ui Tuirtre which is why they were described as ‘waste places where the Irish dwell’ in 1270.
The Bissets apparently established amicable relationships with the O’Flinns quite early on, for already in the 1250s the Bissets were cattle raiding as allies of the O’Flinns, and there is no record of any conflict between the two families. It would seem that the Bissets accepted O’Flinn control over much of the Glens, though the oral traditions linking Red Bay Castle and Court McMartin at Cushendall with the Bissets, suggest that they made inroads at some date into the Middle Glens. The last known king of Ui Tuirtre, Thomas O’Flinn, died in 1368. By then Ui Tuirtre was under severe pressure from the O’Neill expansion into the area and the kingdom must have collapsed soon thereafter.
The importance of the O’Flinn story to that of the Bissets is that it demonstrates they had always shared control of the Glens with another ruling family, and so the new division of the Glens between the MacDonnells and Bissets demanded little or no surrender of real power or loss of face by them. It is also interesting that it should have happened so soon after the collapse of the O’Flinns, for it looks as though the arrival of the MacDonnells was a response to the need to fill a local power vacuum. This notion of a power vacuum seems to be particularly appropriate for about the time of the final collapse of the Ui Tuirtre, the Savages handed over to their old allies the O’Flinns, a considerable territory in the Ards which was known thereafter as “the Turtars”. It would seem therefore that what was left of the ruling hierarchy of the Ui Tuirtre was removed to the Ards and that we have here yet another indication of a radical reorganisation of the remaining territories of the earldom of Ulster by the Savages at the close of the 15th century in response to expanding O’Neill power.
That John Mor MacDonnell calls himself “of the Glens” after his marriage to Margery may suggest that he took his feudal claim to the entire Bisset lordship seriously, (a claim for which he might have expected the backing of the Savages as the upholders of feudal law in Ulster) but if he did he must soon have discovered that the Bissets were not to be subdued. There is mention in 1408 of a William Bisset who was pardoned for acts of rebellion against the king, but as there are no further references to MacDonnell-Bisset unrest we must presume that their partnership in the Glens was fairly harmonious from the beginning. Throughout the 15th century there was a continuous succession of MacEoins of the Glens’ but the Irish Annals never honour the MacDonnells with any such territorial titles, referring to them instead as gallowglass leaders or as captains of the Scots in Ireland.
The Bissets retained their original power base at Glenarm, so we must imagine the MacDonnells as being stationed, as the O’Flinns had been, in the Middle and Upper Glens and probably in Rathlin too. That said, there is no evidence to link the MacDonnells with any fort or building in the Glens at this time, with the notable exception of Glenarm Friary, and this documentary silence imposes a severe limitation on our understanding of the period.
The apparent harmony of the two families was born of necessity. There were always jealous neighbours at hand waiting to exploit any signs of weakness, and the MacDonnell and Bissets had particularly bitter enemies in the O’Donnells, who wanted to extend their power over north-east Ulster. There were twenty years of tranquility in the Glens after the Bisset-MacDonnell marriage, but John Mor’s quarrel with his brother dragged on, and, presumably taking advantage of John Mor’s Scottish distractions, O’Donnell marched into their territory. The Irish annals simply state that he attacked MacEoin Bisset and burnt and plundered his land.
John Mor seems to have learnt his lesson, for he made his peace with his brother, and for the next sixty years the two branches of the family remained staunchly loyal to each other12. In 1425 John Mor was assassinated after his brother’s death. Alexander, the new Lord of the Isles then waged war against the Scottish King and was captured by him. This might have been a total catastrophe for the MacDonnells had it not been for the audacity of John Mor’s son Donald Ballach, who raised a new army and inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Scottish army at Inverlochy.
Just a few months later the Scottish King released Alexander, feeling, no doubt, that a more or less friendly Lord of the Isles was a safer bed-fellow than a lot of warring and uncontrollable clans. Thereafter Donald Ballach became Alexander’s chief minister, and between them they ruled their empire most effectively13. The Battle of Inverlochy happened in 1431, so it is a remarkable demonstration of their strength and self-confidence, that only two years later they were sending an invasion fleet to Lecale to help O’Neill against the Savages, and if further evidence of their power is wanted it should be noted that after they had humbled the Savages they re-embarked the army and sailed it round to Inishowen where they devastated O’Donnell’s lands. The MacDonnells were a force to be reckoned with, and it is no wonder that there are no records of any attacks on the Glens for the next 60 years. It was in this period of strength and stability that the friary at Glenarm was founded.
The only relevant documents we have from this period are the two concerning the friary,14 and little though that is, they do give us some small insight into the intricate relationships between the MacDonnells and the Bissets. In 1445 it required the arrangement of all three men, the Lord of the Isles, Donald Ballach15 and MacEoin to transfer these two parcels of land to the church. It would seem that none of them had an outright and unquestioned title to the lands. Donald Ballach would appear to have been the prime mover in this affair, for it seems to have been his decision to transfer the lands to the Franciscans and his decision to petition the Pope. This would suggest that he was the more important man in the Glens at the time, but even so his petition to the Pope acknowledges MacEoin as ‘captain of his nation’, which would suggest that the MacDonnells not only recognised the Bisset claim to be Lords of the Glens, but that their position was in some way subordinate to them.
Circumstances seem to have changed considerably by 1465, for then Robert Bisset felt able to call himself the sole Lord of Glenarm, and to petition the Pope without any MacDonnell countersignature. Does this represent a resurgence of Bisset power? It may well be so, for by then Alexander of the Isles was dead and his weak and foolish son was steering the Lordship of the Isles towards its destruction. Moreover in that very year the MacDonnells and the Clannaboy O’Neills came to blows and a leading MacDonnell was killed, so it is not altogether surprising that a MacEoin of the Glens was able to act alone.
In the 1490s the Lordship of the Isles began to disintegrate and once again the O’Donnells took advantage of MacDonnell weakness16. Con O’Donnell, the annals say, ‘marched to MacEoin of the Glens, for he had been told that MacEoin had the finest wife, steed and hound in his neighbourhood. O’Donnell had sent messengers for the steed but was refused it… so he made no delay, but surmounting the difficulties of every passage he arrived at night at MacEoin’s house without having given any previous notice or intelligence of his designs and immediately took MacEoin prisoner and made himself master of his wife, his steed and his hound.’ He plundered the Glens, but as he left Glenarm with his booty he magnanimously returned to MacEoin’s wife ‘all such property as was hers.’ MacEoin he kept with him, releasing him only when he reached the Bann. History does not relate what sort of a temper MacEoin was in when he arrived back at Glenarm!
Shortly after this Sorley Boy’s father, Alastair, brought his surviving followers over from Scotland and no doubt these extra forces helped protect MacEoin from further depredations. They allied themselves as usual with the Clannaboy O’Neills, but this led to further disasters. In 1512 an English expedition was sent against the O’Neills, and burnt both O’Neill’s castle at Belfast and MacEoin’s at Glenarm. Ten years later the O’Neills decided to wage war against the O’Donnells and led a considerable army into Donegall, including MacEoin of the Glens and a ‘vast number of Scots’, led by Alastair MacDonnell. They were ambushed by O’Donnell and of O’Neill’s army, ‘many of his followers, both Scotch and Irish were killed, most especially the Galls, the Leinster gallowglasses, the MacEoin of the Glens, many other Scots and a great number of Clandonnel… O’Neill went away that night a defeated man.’
This tragedy seems to have destroyed the Bissets for once and all, and there is never a mention of a MacEoin of the Glens again. Alastair MacDonnell, however, saved himself and his people by changing allegiances. For at least the next ten years he was in O’Donnell’s service, mustering and leading on three occasions large numbers of Scots for O’Donnell’s military expeditions17. It was the price of survival, and from then on the Lordship of the Glens seems to have been genuinely in the MacDonnell hands. That was not the end of the story, however, for the English authorities continued to describe the Glens as a Bisset lordship throughout the 16th century. This was no pointless anachronism. The English were trying to prove their title to all Irish lands, and were therefore keen to acknowledge only those claims to lands in the old earldom of Ulster which were based upon grants from either an earl of Ulster or the Crown.
The Glens of Antrim had been granted to the Bissets, and so anyone who claimed, as the MacDonnells did, to have inherited this lordship from the Bissets was unwittingly admitting, in English eyes, that he held these lands of the Crown. It was a simple and effective legal ruse. What remains unexplained is why the Bissets collapsed so completely after 1522. They did not die out, as the many McKeowns living today demonstrate, but they appear to have become powerless and insignificant. Irish families were extremely tenacious of their claims to lost lands and power, so it is odd that there is no record of any attempt by the MacEoins to re-establish themselves after 1522, particularly as there are genealogies extant which prove the descent of 17th century Bissets from MacEoins of the Glens. It is equally odd that the English, so insistent upon the Glens being Bisset land, never tried to oppose the MacDonnells by setting up some MacEoin whom they could claim had at least as good a right to the Glens as any MacDonnell. I can only presume that the MacEoins were too reduced in circumstances by Queen Elizabeth’s reign for anyone to think this line of argument worth pursuing.
Finally it should be remembered that Sorley Boy was about 17 in 1522, and therefore old enough to bear arms. It is quite possible, therefore, that he was present with his father at the battle at which the last MacEoin of the Glens was killed. Fifty years later, faced with increasing Elizabethan aggression, he justified his possession of the Glens by his descent from Margery Bisset, while his son, Randal Arranagh, was to use the same argument when he was involved in various legal wrangles in the early 17th century and even had detailed genealogies drawn up to support his claims. Needless to say, neither of them mentioned any Bissets after Margery. I do not suppose there was any deliberate intention to falsify history in all this, but Sorley Boy and Randal Arranagh had a case to prove and did so as well as they could, giving the simplified version of events which best corroborated their claims. In the process the curious symbiotic relationship of the two families which had ruled the Glens in tandem for 120 years became an historical irrelevancy18.
Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, (ed. O’Donovan) 1848—51 Dublin
Annals of Ulster (ed. Hennessy & MacCarthy). 1887—1901 Dublin.
Calendar of Close Rolls. 1892 London
Calendar of Documents relating to Ireland (ed. Sweetman).
London Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland (ed. Bain). 1881—88
Edinburgh Calendar of Patent Rolls. 1891
London Calendar of State Papers Domestic.
Calendar of Papal State Papers.
Calendar of State Papers Ireland.
Curtis E. Richard II in Ireland. 1927. Oxford
Frame R. English Lordship in Ireland 1318—61 (O.U.P.)
Gwynn and Hadcock. Mediaeval Religious Houses in Ireland. 1970 London
Hill G. The MacDonnells of Antrim. 1873 Belfast.
McNeill T. E. Anglo-Norman Ulster. 1980 Edinburgh
O’Laverty. History of the Diocese of Down and Connor
Reeves. Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Down, Connor and Dromore. 1847. Dublin.
Walsh P. Irish Chiefs and Leaders. Dublin
1. Rosserk, near Ballina, Co. Mayo. Its roofless buildings are still remarkably intact.
2. The papal document states that Donald Machagaill, a layman, had been given the lands by Donald Ballach, Alexander and Semiquinus Machon. Who Donald Machagaill was, -or why he was made trustee of these lands we do not know, but presumably he was considered trustworthy by all concerned and was therefore given custody of Seraide Kaill and Badamegcadab. It would be attractive to argue that he might have been a lay member of the Franciscan Third Order, and that we have here the original link between Glenarm and the Third Order, but this would be pure speculation. His name may be a form of Magill.
3. The petition stated that they wanted to build a ‘domus conventualem’, a conventual house. It is not clear whether they were intending to extend the old premises or build on a new site.
4. The 1445 petition states that this chapel was dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin. The church of Templeoughter, is known to have been dedicated to St. Mary in the Middle Ages, and it would be logical to assume that the chapel mentioned in 1445 is identical with Templeoughter. Any other argument leads one into all sorts of complications, for it means suggesting that there were two medieval churches dedicated to St. Mary in the small parish of Templeoughter and also that the site of the 1445 one is unknown and unrecorded. Two fragments of dressed stone from Templeoughter are known. They have been examined by Chris Lynn, who says they could well belong to a 15th century building. They are part of a mullion and a rounded window head.
5. Other commentators have tried to identify Semiquinus Machon with a Senchin McQuillan who was ‘Lord of his nation’, overlooking the fact that Senchin McQuillan died in 1358, nearly a hundred years beforehand. The chief of the McQuillans in 1445 was called Richard, and there is anyway no indication of MacQuillan — Macdonnell co-operation at this period. This identification also leaves one with the uncomfortable problem of where this Seraide Kaill would be.
6. The commentator was the well-known Fr. Luke Wadding, O.F.M., who states that he saw the original Bull in the Vatican archives, in ’liber 3 de Regulareibus, anno I,f. 11.’ The Bull has since gone missing.
7. He is described as ‘Minister’, which means that he was the ‘minister provincial’, the overall governor of the Third Order Franciscan province of Ireland. As Rosserk was an important friary of the order at this time it may well be that he was based there.
8. This was when the MacDonnells burnt the roof off Bonamargy to immolate English soldiers lodged inside it. Bonamargy was the other Third Order friary in the territory and was founded by the MacQuillans c. 1475—1500. Monasteries and church were frequently used as strongholds during Ireland’s wars, and so consequently were often the subjects of attack and damage.
9. Toberwine is a corruption of the original Irish name — Tobar Bheinne na nDiallaid —, which translates as the ‘Sweet Well of the Saddles.’ The genealogy also states that this well was near ‘Leathadh’ or Layde, which seems to have been an old name for a large area of the Glens. The Eoin Bisset of this story descended from the original John Bisset through a junior line, for none of his subsequent ancestors had been head of the family.
10. The Clann Aodh Buidhe or Clannaboy O’Neills were a junior branch of the Cenel Eoghan. After a period of time during which the O’Neill kingship alternated, the two families split with the Clannaboy O’Neills establishing their own kingdom in north-east Ulster.
11. John Mor’s eldest brother was bom about 1352—5. John Mor married Margery — whom we know to have been a minor in the 1390s — some time before 1399. The anecdote related by Hill about Margery recognising the deposed Richard II when he was wandering through the Western Isles is the only evidence we have for Margery meeting the King on one of his two visits to Ireland (1395— 1399). However, Edward Savage was in attendance on the King in his capacity as Seneschal of Ulster, and would most probably have been present at the submission of O’Neill and MacDonnell. It is also likely that his ward, Margery, would have been with him at the King’s Irish court.
12. John Mor’s last rebellion took place in 1415—16. After he was driven back to the Glens he would have been cut off from supplies of fighting men from the Isles upon whom he and the Bissets depended for their own defence. O’Donnell invaded the Glens in 1422.
13. Contrary to what Hill says, Alexander was in considerable favour with the King and was even given control over Inverness and much of northern Scotland as the King’s justiciar there.
14. It was a known practice for churches and monasteries to be founded on lands demarking the edge of two territories or where there was a degree of uncertainty about ownership. It was, in effect, a way of trying to settle territorial boundaries. The founding of this friary may have been part of some such arrangement, or else it may simply have been a means of cementing an alliance between the two families.
15. Donald Ballach died in 1480 and was succeeded by his son Eoin Mor, who was nominated tanist to the lordship by the Lord of the Isles in 1484. There then started a fierce power-struggle between Eoin Mor and his cousins, the son and nephew of John, Lord of the Isles. This feud greatly added to the increasing problems of the lordship. In 1490 the Lord of the Isles’ son was murdered by his Irish harper, in 1493 the lordship was declared forfeited by the Scottish king (though this forfeiture was not actually put into effect and represented little more than a legal threat) and in October 1494 Eoin Mor’s son, John Cahanach, who was Sorley Boy’s grandfather, killed the Lord of the Isles’ nephew Alexander in Ireland. Alexander regarded himself as the rightful heir to the lordship and had also been appointed ‘representative of MacDonnell in Ireland’ stated bluntly, he had been attempting to oust Eoin Mor from his pre-eminent position both in Ireland and in Scotland, and was killed for his pains. Eoin Mor actually deposed his cousin shortly after this and was the acknowledged Lord of the Isles at the time of his execution in 1499 although John of the Isles did not die until 1503. This was not the end of the matter. Donald Dubh, John of the Isles’ grandson, was the acknowledged and effective Lord of the Isles at his death in 1545. Thereafter Sorley Boy’s eldest brother stated that the clan had recognised him as Lord of the Isles, but he does not seem to have had widespread support. He appears to have been the last claimant to the title.
16. This alliance with the O’Donnells lasted for several decades, and Alastair’s son Colla was still supplying them with Highland troops in the 1550s. As a result the MacDonnells of the Glens found themselves in frequent conflict with their old allies, the O’Neills. This was a dramatic and important volte-face in Ulster politics.
17. The only evidence we have for this being the case of the final destruction of Bisset power is the negative one that they are not mentioned in any later documents. It is possible that the MacEoins survived as a family of some consequence, but in the face of such total documentary silence this seems unlikely. One can only definitely say that they had disappeared as an important family by the time the Elizabethan authorities became interested in the Glens in the 1560s. As the feud between the O’Donnells and the Bissets was such a long-standing and bitter affair it may well be that part of the price Sorley Boy’s father had to pay to the O’Donnells for his family’s survival was the eradication of the Bissets as these have had considerable influence on the development of the Glens. They maintained a chain of castles and length of their territory: Carncastle, originally built by the de Galloways, Glenarm, also apparently predating their arrival. The court house is built on the site of this castle, Red Bay Castle, whose motte is an obvious Norman structure, Court McMartin, at Cushendall, traditionally built by a Martin MacEoin, Bruce’s Castle on Rathlin. There must have been another one in the Ballycastle area but I know of no reference connecting any of the possible sites with the Bissets. A 1278 Inquisition states that they also had three mills on their lands: — Drouach near Drains Bay, Carncastle and Glenarm, where it is noted, they had valuable woods and meadows, an orchard, a fishery, a kitchen garden and their manorial court. Glenarm was the only place to be described in such detail, an indication of its importance.
John Bisset junior had been an impressive builder in Scotland before he arrived in the Glens, for he founded Lovat Castle and Beauly Priory, both near Inverness, while his uncle Walter held Aboyne Castle. It is extremely interesting that when he tried to establish himself in Argyll in the later 1240s, his main fortress was Dunaverty, for this was one of the most important strongholds of the lordship of the Isles and was essential to the effective defence of Kintyre. It looks as though the symbiotic relationship between the Bissets and the MacDonnells may date back to the 1240s rather than the 1390s.
The only account of the later Bruce invasion of 1327 is given by R. Nicholson, Scottish Historical Review, 1963. There are three contemporary references to Robert Bruce’s whereabouts, two stating that he landed near Larne, and one that he met de Mandeville at Glendun. The oral traditions about Bruce’s activities around Glenarm are to be found in O Laverty, Vol. III. According to these Bruce was unsuccessfully opposed at Glenarm by the McQuillans. Up to now these traditions have received scant attention, as they do not fit into any of the known movements of the Bruce armies between 1315 — 18. These traditions could fit, however, into the pattern of events of 1327 with Bruce landing at
Larne and then making his way to the Middle Glens. That he would have been opposed by the McQuillans is also plausible, for they were at this time employed by the officials of the Ulster earldom to control their fringe territories.
It is intriguing that Bruce should have gone to Glendun. It may indicate that he had allies in those parts and the Bissets are the most likely people to have been those allies. They had become a numerous clan by the fourteenth century and even with Sir Hugh Bisset dispossessed most of them could have remained in the Glens, particularly in the more inaccessible parts of them. Robert Bruce returned to Ulster once more in 1328 when he accompanied the young de Burgh earl of Ulster to Carrickfergus in order to ensure that de Burgh received his inheritance.
I would particularly like to thank Chris Lynn for all the help he gave me in the preparation of this article and also Fr. Cathaldus Giblin O. F. M., who supplied me with nearly all the information on the Franciscan Third Order Regular and also most of the documentary references to the friary at Glenarm. Without this help this article could not have been written.