JAMES MACDONNELL,MD (1763-1845) by Peter Froggatt

This article first appeared in The Glynns Volume 9 (1981).  It is re-produced here with additional photographs and hyperlinks.


James MacDonnell, the “father of Belfast medicine”, was a polymath, kin to the Earls of Antrim. Co-founder of the Belfast Dispensary and Fever Hospital (in 1792), the direct ancestor of the Royal Victoria Hospital; first President of the Belfast Literary Society (in 1802); foundation committee member of the Belfast Reading Society (in 1788), now The Linenhall Library; member of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society (from 1833); reviver of the Belfast Medical Society (in 1822), now the Ulster Medical Society; co-founder and main inspiration of the Irish Harp Society (in 1808); variously Visitor and Manager of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (for 4 four-year terms from 1810 until 1837); friend of Wolfe Tone, Thomas Russell, and the leaders of the Belfast republican society and the United Irishmen; recipient of a 10 piece silver service costing (in 1828) £700 sterling to which 130 of “the Nobility, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Belfast vicinity” subscribed “as a tribute of their respect and esteem”; and much more besides.

It is impossible to describe his achievement in one lecture or article. The present article is a much shortened version of a lecture I was privileged to give to the Society. It deals only with the main details of his life especially those likely to interest members. I am preparing a fuller biography for publication elsewhere.

Dr 1 001

Signed silhouette portrait of MacDonnell.  (Reproduced with permission from Ulster Medical Journal (1967), vol. 36, p. 80).


James MacDonnell was born on 14 April 1763. He had two brothers: Randal, and Alexander who became a surgeon in Belfast. His father was Michael Roe, direct descendant of an elder brother of Sorley Boy; his mother was Elizabeth Stewart of Ballintoy. James married, firstly, Eliza Clarke of Belfast (died 1798), and secondly, Penelope Montgomery of Larne (died 1854). The first marriage produced 4 children, three sons and one daughter: Sir Alexander, Dr. John, and Randal (who seemingly died young); and Katherine Anne who married Andrew Armstrong of Kilsharvan, Co. Meath. There were many well-known descendants, one — Katherine Ann Stewart MacDonnell. — granddaughter of Dr. James, was foundress of the Cushendall Cottage Hospital. James and his 2 brothers were born on the sea side of the Cushendall-Red Bay road in a house then called Vawl Iska (Bheal an Uisge or ‘Ford of the Water’)  later (1880) shown as occupied by the coastguard, and might be the house now owned by Mr. Michael Brennan.

James was schooled by Michael Traynor in the Red Bay caves, and then at David Manson’s pioneer “play-school” in Donegall Street in Belfast and, in addition, took classics classes in the school house in St. George’s churchyard from the , the so-called “Belfast Latin Schoolmaster”.

Cave School Red Bay (2)

The Cave School At Red Bay where Michael Trayor taught the MacDonnell brothers. (From the Welch Collection at the Belfast Museum and Art Collection and reproduced with permission of the Trustees).







The brothers also learnt the harp from the blind Art O’Neill who stayed in the house for two years (1778-1780) until their father died.  Art O'Neill

O’Neill later wrote: “Randal made a tolerable proficiency for his time on the harp. James . . . made some proficiency also, but he then appeared to me to have a partiality for some other study and which, I am now happy to be informed, ranks him amongst the class of his profession. Alexander . . . made the best attempt of the three . . . his juvenile years being much in his favour, and before I left him he played very handsomely”.



James’s mother spent her time between Belfast and Cushendall: she was the dominant parent and brought the boys up Protestants like herself rather than Catholics like their father’s family. In 1780, the year his father died, James, aged 17 went to Edinburgh University to study medicine. We know nothing of James’s time in Edinburgh except that he took the MD degree in the minimum time and this included a thesis (in Latin) called “De Submersis” — “On the drowned” — and deals with methods of resuscitation. He returned to Belfast possibly direct, possibly after the continental wanderings then common, and set up in practice at 13 Donegall Place with the help of his mother and his friend Dr. Alexander Haliday, son of the Rev. Samuel Haliday who had been the first Presbyterian minister in Ulster to refuse to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith and was tried as a heretic by the Synod for his pains.

Mrs. McTier mentions MacDonnell in a letter to her brother, Dr. William Drennan, of February 1788, “Here we have many physicians [actually there were nine] . . . MacDonnell I suppose may stand on as good footing as Ross did, and there is little doubt of his getting fast forward . . . he is said to be sensible and modest, but these are not qualifications which generally gain the middling or lower sort of people — smart impudent fellows who rail at their seniors and their system, as Forsyth did, oftenest succeed; this MacDonnell avoided”. Three months later (on 13 May 1788) MacDonnell appears as one of the 18 founder members of the Belfast Reading Society, forerunner of the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge (better known as The Linenhall Library), and he was to be a committee member for 25 years (1792 — 1817).


(The original Linen Hall Library in 1888, shortly before its demolition and replacement with Belfast City Hall.)

He was now an established practitioner, promising savant, and cultural patron, and all at the age of just 25 years and one month. By the early 1790s he had become a leading figure not just in Belfast medicine but in three other activities and a peripheral figure in another: philanthropy — through his sponsoring of free medical care for the poor; literary and scientific interests; Irish language and music — through his revival of Irish harping and the formation of the Belfast Gaelic Society; while he was involved as a peripheral but not insignificant figure on the United Irishmen stage.

His cultural initiatives can be briefly summarised. He was a co-organiser in Belfast, in July 1792, of a national harp festival to replace the Granard Festivals. The circular of December 1791 reads: “Some inhabitants of Belfast feeling themselves interested in everything which relates to the honour as well as the prosperity of their country, propose to open a subscription which they intend to apply in attempting to revive and perpetuate the ancient Music and Poetry of Ireland. They are solicitous to preserve from oblivion the few fragments which have been permitted to remain, as monuments of the refined taste and genius of their ancestors. Etc., etc.,”.

Harp Festival advertisement 1792

The four-day Festival in the Exchange Rooms, Belfast, was timed to coincide (11-14 July 1792) with the great muster of the Irish Volunteers to celebrate the fall of the Bastille. His colleagues, perhaps significantly, were the radicals Henry Joy, Robert Bradshaw and Robert Simms. Art O’Neill, MacDonnell’s old teacher, was placed second of the ten.

exchange & assembly rooms

The Exchange Rooms, Belfast

Attendance by the “quality” was good, and MacDonnell entertained the harpists to a banquet in his house and had O’Neill as his house-guest for four days afterwards. Sixteen years later (on St. Patrick’s Day, 1808) he helped found, and was Vice-President of, The Irish Harp Society with its resident Academy at 21 Cromac Street for blind pupils the blind Art O’Neill as teacher-in-chief, and an offspring “Institution” to promote the Irish language, opened on 17 July 1809 under James Cody at 8 Pottinger’s Entry, James’s brother, Alexander, being also active in this latter. Neither flourished as interest in Irish culture waned in Belfast after the Union, but MacDonnell for much of his life pressed Edward Bunting, the folk culture anthologist, to greater efforts. In a letter of 16 August 1840, when he was 77, MacDonnell wrote: “you say nothing of the spirit of patriotism and the actual utility in a national point of view, of keeping alive all opinions, customs, and innocent prejudices, which bind mankind to their country . . . these when early cherished act like instinctive impulses and carry with them a magic charm; they are delightful in prosperity, console us in adversity, they accompany us in the city, or in the wilderness — when old, we dote on them. Now there are no associations or feelings of this kind so strong as those connected with music and language. I argue that the [Belfast] Harp School should be revived . . . ”

belfast harp school logo

These noble words were in vain; but they epitomise MacDonnell’s view of “patriotism” rather than in the political or physical action of many of his compatriots. This is important in understanding his political opinions and actions described below.  Political involvement

McDonnell was inevitably involved in the turbulence of Belfast politics in the 1790s. He was on terms with the leading Belfast radicals and had early been a friend of Alexander Haliday, a strong Whig and the “friend of Charlemont”, northern general of the Volunteers. He appears in Wolfe Tone’s Journal as early as 13 October 1791, during Tone’s first “embassy” to Belfast, and met Tone many times in the company of Samuel McTier, William Sinclair, Thomas Russell, Thomas Macabe, the American agent Thomas Digges, Samuel Neilson, Henry Joy, and other radicals and United Irishmen. Tone stayed with MacDonnell from 16 — 27 October while the Belfast Society of United Irishmen was being formed, and MacDonnell “sees us four miles on the road to Dublin”.


It was the same again in 1792 on Tone’s second Belfast “embassy”, and from 11 July MacDonnell acquired one of the famous soubriquets (“the Hypocrite”) which Tone reserved for his innermost circle — probably from Hippocrates (the historic Greek physician), possibly meant literally though I doubt it!

Tone came again to Belfast in May 1795 en route for America and MacDonnell presented him with “a small medicine chest with written directions” for use on the voyage, and he saw Tone off from Belfast quay. He was also involved with the Volunteers, signed the declaration in 1792, and subscribed £511319 on 26 June 1798 as a commutation fee in lieu of service. Furthermore, he spoke at the public debate on the “Roman Catholic question” in January 1792 supporting immediate emancipation. He later wrote to Madden that his connection with Tone fell somewhat short of “warm friendship”, though Madden thought that it was a good deal closer than that.

Host, friend, a member of Tone’s inner circle, the “gentle and hospitable” Hypocrite: all this spells something! So does his friendship with. Thomas Russell, Tone’s trusted lieutenant. Russell had been an active Republican in the early ’90s — he was the famous “P.P..Clerk to the Parish” of Tone’s Journal. He was a friend of MacDonnell, had lived with him for over a year (October 1792 — February 1794) and had used his house in Donegall Place as a base for his activities. He was penniless but MacDonnell had him appointed Librarian to the Linenhall Library at a salary of £30 per annum soon raised to £50 on MacDonnell’s advice. In September 1796 he was imprisoned in Fort George but wrote to MacDonnell regularly.


None of this makes MacDonnell an advocate of physical force. He was certainly sympathetic to the ideal of an Irish nation, and believed in full civil and religious liberty; but he stopped short of armed republicanism. “I had a high degree of friendship with many of them [United Irishmen] ” MacDonnell wrote years later, “and felt their calamities with the deepest pain and agony; but yet I never at any time entered into their peculiar views although I did not go against them, and took a great aversion to the oath which became . . . their bond of union”. “I was exceedingly, from the first to last, averse to the French connection”, he wrote in 1843 when aged 80, “and to democracy, and this ultimately produced a reserve on their part with respect to me . . . I was sure that a very moderate and rational reform, with suitable regulation of the popery laws, would instantly detach the most useful and efficient part of the United Irishmen from the wild republicans”.

Two events complicate the picture and had later repercussions. The first, perhaps partly apocryphal, concerns the execution of Henry Joy McCracken.    Henry Joy McCrackenGeneral Nugent agreed to forego decapitation after the hanging and McCracken’s sister, Mary Anne, sent for MacDonnell to try to resuscitate the corpse: resuscitation had been the topic of his MD thesis. He didn’t come: instead he sent his brother, the surgeon, Alexander. Maybe he no longer wished to be associated with his former friends; maybe there was some simpler explanation.

The second event is more important and better documented. When Russell was at large in 1803 a price of £1,500 was put on his head, £500 of which was to be subscribed by Belfast citizens. MacDonnell was early approached. He gave £50 and signed the public petition against his old friend. Why did he do it? Sympathisers said that he thought Russell out of the country (actually he was in hiding with the Todds in the hills behind Holywood). Others said that he wanted to show his loyalty to the Crown and his contempt for the unpopular 1803 rebellion. More likely he disapproved of physical force in these circumstances. He had stopped corresponding with Russell in Fort George in 1799 and in a letter to a third party Russell wrote: ” . . . having received no answer to that, or former letters, either he [MacDonnell] is not in Belfast or never received them, for I have no notion it is a want of friendship whatever difference there may be in our political opinons“. (My italics). Towards the end of his life MacDonnell wrote to Madden: “In signing that paper [public petition] I did what I then considered and what I now consider a solemn duty, but I had not done it an hour until I wished of all things it was undone”.

Russell was apprehended and executed in Downpatrick soon afterwards. MacDonnell was now stigmatised by Russell’s inner circle, his own former friends: John Templeton, the McCrackens, the Quaker John Hancock, Mrs. McTier, and others. Russell’s sister returned the small allowance which MacDonnell had been paying her. Templeton didn’t speak to him for over 20 years and resigned his membership and Vice-Presidency of the Belfast Literary Society in November 1803 to avoid meeting him. To Mrs. McTier, MacDonnell was now a “contemptible cold-blooded Judas”, the “Brutus of Belfast”, and she wrote a bitter little parody about him.


Stop, passenger, awhile attend; If business will allow. Here lives a man who sold his friend And lately lost a cow.

Here lives the man who could subscribe To hang that friend at last; Whom future history will describe The Brutus of Belfast.

Here lives a man whose country’s claim Has proved by such a test, Who felt affection a mere shame, And friendship but a jest.

Brutus, for father, and for friend, His feeling warm could smother, And here’s a man who for that end Could sacrifice his mother.

This is the man who wears no mask, Who serves no selfish end; Though the sly Quaker well might ask, Would’st thee like such a friend’.

Let this man live and mind his trade But in unbounded space Should he e’er chance on Russell’s shade 0 let him hide his face.                  

                                                        Martha(Mattie) McTier (nee Drennan)


Despite this pillorying the Russell affair did MacDonnell no lasting harm. Russell and his colleagues were a small minority and the physical force advocates in the north a dying breed. MacDonnell like many was suspicious both of the ultimate intention of the Catholic party and of Presbyterian republicanism. As a Protestant of Catholic stock he was, ironically, suspect in the eyes of Presbyterians, Catholics and Protestants alike! He expressed his patriotism through love for his native land and people, support for Irish culture, fostering of good works and enterprises, and philanthropy, and was respected for it. Even Templeton and the McCrackens were reconciled, though it took some time. But a small question mark still hangs over his behaviour which I leave to historians to clarify.


Fever Hospital

MacDonnell’s other great initiative at this time was to co-found the Belfast General Dispensary which produced his local soubriquet of “the father of Belfast medicine”. Before 1792 the Charitable Society in Clifton Street was the only secular society in Belfast for relieving the indigent sick. However, it gave no outdoor relief, only beds for the sick-poor. Belfast needed a free medical dispensary with domiciliary visits by charitably-minded doctors — or so charitably-minded doctors thought! MacDonnell thought he would catch this tide. A detailed Prospectus was issued on 13 April 1792, and wrapped up among its noble intentions were plans for a Humane Society — a society for resuscitation of the drowned. MacDonnell had smuggled his MD thesis in again!

The dispensary opened on 31 July 1792 in rooms in The Charitable Society. At first it flourished, then it struggled, then it failed mainly through disinterest: the tide of philanthropy was in fact flowing another way — in the direction of medicine administered not in foetid and fever-wracked hovels but in clean beds in cleaner hospitals. MacDonnell wisely learnt the right lesson and when he tried again in 1797 it was in a house with 6 beds in Factory Row with a nurse, a resident apothecary at £40 a year, and MacDonnell himself as one of the two attending physicians. He called it rather grandly “The Belfast Dispensary and Fever Hospital”. Despite his imaginative approach it was the story as before. At first patients crowdirig to get in but within 6 months it was closed — casualty of the political events of the times which overwhelmed fund-raising.

Undeterred, MacDonnell tried for a third time. In September 1799 he moved around the corner to West Street and this time opened with three houses; more beds; more money; and now backed by leading citizens with names still prominent in Ulster affairs — Bristow, Clarke, Bradshaw, Turnley, Thompson. It flourished and in 1817 it moved to Frederick Street as ‘The Belfast Fever Hospital and Dispensary”, later it became “The Belfast General Hospital and Dispensary” then the “Belfast Royal Hospital” and in 1899 it moved to its present site on the Grosvenor Road as the Royal Victoria Hospital. But until the early 1830s MacDonnell was its unchallenged doyen, almost by convention if not quite in fact the “onlie begetter”: “Amongst this noble band of [early] philanthropists” wrote Malcolm in 1851. “it cannot be considered invidious to distinguish the name of one who may, without exaggeration, be considered to have respresented them and throughout his active life all the energy and zeal which animated and cherished this charitable movement — James MacDonnell M.D.”

MacDonnell now settled to advance his professional position and further channel his energies into philanthropic and cultural affairs. Apart from the Russell hiccough interest in revolutionary politics and the national culture were rapidly declining, and MacDonnell’s Irish Harp Society and Belfast Gaelic Society declined with them much to MacDonnell’s disgust. More and more the burgeoning energies of the leading citizens of this vibrant and rapidly growing city turned to new outlets which reflected Belfast’s prosperity and importance: the foundation of the Belfast Academical Institution with its medical school, the rapid growth of the Fever Hospital; the founding of the Belfast Literary Society, The Linenhall Library, the Belfast Medical Society, the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society and many others. MacDonnell incredibly found the time to play a leading part in most of these including rescuing the Belfast Medical Society from oblivion in 1822, and as the Ulster Medical Society it remains with us and in good health to this day. All these disparate activities fully occupied him until he took to his last bed 40 years later. The most important, though not his only achievement, is his role in medical education and his professional and scientific work which I will now outline.

In 1806 some prominent citizens decided to found a non-denominational school-cum-college-cum-continuing education centre; a sort of Scottish university in embryo but without authority to award degrees. MacDonnell immediately subscribed the £22/15/0 necessary to be a Proprietor. The appeal was successful and the (Royal) Belfast Academical Institution (Belfast `Inst’) was incorporated under Act of Parliament in 1810 and opened in 1815 with a stirring “patriotic” address by Dr. William Drennan, medical man, poet and former United Irishman. Robert Simms, a leader of the northern ’98 and “The Tanner” of Wolfe Tone’s Journal, was the first stipendiary secretary.


                                                                          The Belfast Inst.

The College part of Inst was to have two Faculties, Arts and Medicine. Government granted £1,500 p.a. to pay staff. All was ready for the first Medical School in Ireland outside Dublin. Then tragedy. At the St.Patrick’s Day dinner in Gillet’s Hotel the very next year (1816) some proprietors proposed seditious toasts, e:g. the memory of Marshal Ney (Napoleon’s Chief-of-staff at Waterloo). Government now had their worst suspicions realised — Drennan as opening orator, Simms as stipendiary secretary, some former republicans as Proprietors, and now seditious toasts! Government withdrew their subsidy which effectively set back the creation of a Medical School, in fact for 20 years.

MacDonnell had taken a keen interest in Inst and was a member of the Board of Visitors from the very beginning, in 1810. He was initially a poor attender: the move of the hospital to Frederick Street, and his own practice and cultural activities, absorbed his energies. When the Medical School plan fell through in 1816 MacDonnell’s interest fell through with it. However it was re-awakened when Inst actively campaigned for restoration of the grant. In 1823 and 1824 he stood unsuccessfully for re-election as a Visitor, but was elected in 1825 for the usual period of four years. For a busy man he now attended well: of some ninety meetings of the Joint Board of Managers and Visitors (hereinafter “the joint boards”) in the next four years he attended thirty-one, took the chair occasionally, and did sub-committee stints. He was therefore actively involved in the management of both Inst and the hospital during the crucial period of their negotiations for a joint medical school which I will now outline.

On 14 June 1824 government announced a special commission on education in Ireland. Evidence on Inst was taken in October 1825 at the Royal Hotel, Belfast. By the autumn of 1826 it was clear that the £1,500 grant would be renewed, perhaps even increased. The earlier medical school plans were now quickly unshelved. But times had moved on: the Apothecaries Act of 1815 had changed the face of medical education. It was now possible to get credit for classes at recognised provincial medical schools and the student need only attend hospital in, say, London for six months, before being allowed to sit the licensing examinations of the Apothecaries’ Society and later the Royal Colleges of Surgeons. A joint clinical school between Inst and the hospital was now more essential than ever and could, if “recognised”, monopolise aspiring Ulster doctors. James Lawson Drummond, later to be the first dean of the medical school, saw this very clearly and set out a plan for the development of such a school, in the Belfast Newsletter of 7 November 1826.

This letter was widely read. Inst and the hospital, the prospective partners, were enthusiastic with the proviso that they could reach agreement on their own terms. They were far less enthusiastic if they couldn’t. Both wanted final control. Inst were the first to agree: they had the most to gain and Drummond’s proposals would place the level’s of power in their hands. They would appoint the professors, arrange the syllabus, and enrol the students; the hospital doctors, Inst presumed, would merely do some bedside teaching, have pupils walk the wards, give some clinical lectures at Inst’s behest, re-arrange their normal admission and clinical arrangements to suit the teaching, and furnish their own honoraria from student clinical fees which they would raise themselves. MacDonnell was on the Inst joint boards but had only attended two meetings that year (1826); but from now on he missed very few. In the next six months he attended no less than seven times. The hospital staff were also keen on the joint school; though not so keen as Inst. They also wanted to grasp the levers of power but didn’t know how to get them! They also wanted to select the professors but from their own fraternity, not by open advertisement in the national or British press: they didn’t want outsiders demanding beds in the hospital and competing for patients. Moreover as Inst staff they would have 5-year contracts; appointments to the hospital staff were annual. The hospital staff wanted the joint school but not as Inst surrogates. On 18 February 1827 they accepted the principle but rejected the proposals.

MacDonnell was now in a strange position: he endorsed the proposals as a member of the Inst joint boards and at the same time rejected them as the senior member of the hospital staff! He now worked for a compromise though in a strange way. While Inst dallied from want of money the hospital pushed ahead vigorously with its own preliminary plans towards a joint school: they made it easier for pupils to attend the wards and the dispensary, and on 3 June 1827 they instituted the first clinical lecture. This was given by MacDonnell as the undisputed doyen of the staff. It was a modest yet historic occasion and is commemorated each year at the Royal Victoria Hospital in the formal annual address and lecture by a senior consultant which opens the teaching session each October.

The hospital staff now waited for movement from Inst. They waited in vain. Inst were hovering on the brink of bankruptcy: the restored government grant, though promised, was not to be paid for another two years. In March 1829 it duly arrived, the first government money for 12 years. Speedy action was now expected. Nothing happened; or very little. Inst was chronically in debt and the grant was for “additional buildings, apparatus and outfit” and not for additional staff salaries which should, government said, be met from non-public money. The joint clinical school seemed as remote as ever. Ironically, at this very time MacDonnell’s four-year term on the Inst joint boards terminated and he had now no direct influence over events at Inst.

MacDonnell and his hospital colleagues now decided on a bold stroke; they found the soi-disant “Faculty of the Belfast School of Medicine and Surgery” complete with professorships and appointments (from among themselves!) to it. This was a manoeuvre: it was not a “Faculty” and there was no “School”, it was simply nine hospital doctors acting as a ginger group on Inst and a negotiating group for the hospital staff. After months of negotiations it was to serve its purpose and dissolve. But MacDonnell also wanted to influence the thinking at Inst and he decided to stand at once for re-election as a Visitor, failing narrowly in 1830 but topping the poll in 1831.

Ironically, he was too late: the negotiations were now more or less complete thanks in large measure to his activities from his hospital base. Inst and the hospital were now in harmony and over the next few years his talents and reputtion were put to good use by both despite being 70. He attended the joint board meetings fairly regularly, did much to plan the joint course and design the original medical school building (behind the north wing of Inst and which still stands), organised appeals for money, and in 1835-1836 he led the Inst negotiators in the purchase of the Old Barracks (in Barrack Street) from the Board of Ordnance to serve as a wholly- owned teaching hospital for Inst — an unsuccessful venture which he had previously opposed. In July 1835, when this third term as Visitor expired, he was so invaluable that he was at once elected a Manager and it was as an Inst Manager and senior consultant physician to the hospital, that he saw the. Faculty of Medicine formed in October 1835 and his second son John installed as first professor of surgery, a post he vacated three months later to go to the Richmond Hospital in Dublin.


During these 30 years, from the Russell affair (1803) to the start of the Medical Faculty (1835), MacDonnell was one of the best known citizens in Belfast. He was seemingly tall with a large forehead and aquiline nose. Everyone commented on his impeccable manners, modesty, and altruistic philanthropy. He was esteemed by rich and poor alike and in his profession. His energy was proverbial: his son John recalls his father’s frequent week-end horse-back visits to Cushendall to visit his mother and return to Belfast, all within 24 hours! He was driven in a carriage by his factotum, Michael McCormick, who in MacDonnell’s employ amassed enough money to buy Cloneymore, Cushendall, with 26 acres, for L1,020 sterling by auction on 21 November 1833. MacDonnell never moved house but practised from 13 Donegall Place for 60 years. No professional or cultural development in Belfast passed him by and he was active in many societies. His political views had seemingly changed with the times and he now supported the Union as did his sons. The man who had housed Tone and Russell and entertained many of Belfast’s leading republicans was in 1831 top signatory on the petition calling on the Inst proprietors to send thanks to William IV on his gracious accolade of “Royal” to Inst; and he moved the vote of thanks at the joint boards to Lord Belfast for “his exertions” in bringing this honour about. Perhaps he had been a political unionist all along! His colleagues still revered him and over many long years they only had one serious difference of opinion: MacDonnell characteristically thought that the hospital doctors should be rewarded only with the moral dignity of service, while most of them thought that their moral dignity would be none the weaker if fortified by lucre! MacDonnell’s will prevailed until infirmity removed him, and modest honoraria followed.

His robust health was now failing though paradoxically it was in 1835, when he was 72, that he read his only medical paper extant: this was to the British Association at its meeting in Dublin that August. He read 23 papers to the Belfast Literary Society over 36 years on a diverse range of subjects including several on medical matters, but none survive: neither does his paper on “The Differential Pulse” which he read at the British Association meeting in Edinburgh in 1834. His main medical interest throughout his life was on differences in pulse rates with posture both in health and disease including self-experiment when he descended 26 I, ‘t in a diving bell and tested his heart/lung physiology under different air pressures just as J.B.S. Haldane was to do in a submarine a century later. He made thousands of observations on pulse and respiration in man and quadrupeds both in health and disease, at rest or at exercise, and in babies and adults including “placing different persons in an apparatus so constructed that the body could be placed in all postures without any muscular motion”. Many of the findings were original and the arguments ingenious, but he correctly never claimed any great pre-eminence as a medical researcher though his investigations are not negligible.

Dublin 1835, was his last appearance at a large medical meeting and surviving letters show that his interests were turning increasingly to those of his earlier days, mainly to the preservation of Irish culture and music. He rarely now visited the hospital and his last attendance at the Inst joint boards was on 15 August 1837 when he was 74. He attended his great love, the Belfast Literary Society, only twice that year and his last meeting was on 5 February 1838 held in his own house as a gesture of his increasing infirmity though characteristically he was the main participant reading a paper on medical charities. By now he was suffering debilitating attacks of some sort which prostrated him physically but kept his mind clear. His letters to Edward Bunting date from this time and are full of life and enthusiasm: Bunting in fact was hounded by MacDonnell’s pen and his Irish music anthologies are the better for it.

But though no longer active MacDonnell still continued to support Inst though now with gifts of books. He had given some as early as 1831 and he gave more in 1844, the year before he died. His love for freedom of conscience and religious liberty remained strong to the end. He was distressed at the new intolerance of the Ulster Presbyterian Synod which had indirectly forced the closure of the Inst Faculty of Arts in 1841, and he feared lest Inst lost its hard-won and vigorously defended independence. In a letter to Inst of 13 April 1841 he wrote words of considerable nobility and beauty. He said that he wished his gifts of books to remain under his own or his sons’ control so that, as he put it “we might be empowered to transfer them to [the public] library” if one were ever opened in Belfast. He then went on: “My motive for making this request is that I perceive a tendency of late among some of the Proprietors to narrow their noble Institution into a sectarian establishment . . . might not [my books] be counteracted by an “Index Expurgatoricus”, excluding works not considered orthodox to some predominant sect. Whereas my object is to lay knowledge open to all like the water, the dew, the view of heaven, and not circumscribed by the boundaries of any particular sect .. . And yet I am not assuming that all books should be indiscriminately placed in such a public collection, I only claim the privilege of placing my donation so that it could not be thrown out at the discretion of any one particular sect of Christians”. Fine words at any time, finer still for an invalid of 78. He got the assurance he sought, and donated some 200 volumes including 109 volumes of the Transactions of the French Academy of Science, 21 volumes of Parliamentary Reports, and various miscellaneous titles including works on the Tibetan language!

This was his last known act. He was now housebound, but continued to see the sick poor who throughout his life had continued “to crowd around his door, [and] to fill his hall”. He died on Saturday, 5th April 1845, a few days short of his 82nd birthday. The following Wednesday, 9th April, the funeral cortege left for Cushendall. It was, to the Belfast Newsletter, “Unusually large and included the principal gentry, clergy, members of the medical profession, and respectable citizens of Belfast and its neighbourhood. The Mayor, the ex-Mayor, and several Members of the Corporation were also in attendance to pay a just tribute of respect to departed worth”. He was interred in Layde Churchyard, at Cushendall, under a Celtic cross.


The celtic cross in the foreground marks the final resting place of  Dr James Mac Donnell at Layde Churchyard, Cushendall.


Layde Churchyard, Cushendall.  Location of the grave of Dr James Mac Donnell marked by raised celtic cross (just visible in the left foreground of the picture close to church ruins.)

Inscription Reads

“Erected in memory of James MacDonnell of Belfast and of Murlough in the county — a physician whose great abilities and greater benevolence made him venerated in the Glens of Antrim, where he was born; and in Belfast where he died AD 1845 in his 82nd year. Also, in memory of Eliza, daughter of John Clarke, esq., of Belfast, and wife of the said James MacDonnell; she died AD 1798. Also of Penelope, daughter of James Montgomery, esq., of Larne, and second wife of the said James MacDonnell. She died AD 1854. Also in memory of Michael, father of said James, and of Alexander, father of Michael; and of Coll, father of Alexander, and son of Major-General Sir Alexander McColl MacDonnell, knight of the field, whose other son, Captain Archibold, likewise rests in this churchyard”.


MacDonnell had an active, fertile, and acute intellect, and a lofty nobility of thought and motive including a true love of country and his fellowman. His complete sincerity of purpose and gentle manner allowed him to survive turbulent times winning and holding the respect of all. His friendship with Tone and behaviour over Russell I leave to historians to assess. He was soon forgiven by all but the McCracken circle, and they forgave him later. A near contemporary, Dr. Andrew Malcolm, who was a student during MacDonnell’s later days and joined the hospital staff the year after MacDonnell died, wrote of him in 1851: “Friends flocked around him in admiration of his talent and he . . . became celebrated as one of the first physicians not alone in Belfast but in the whole country around . . . He gathered around him the great spirits of the age, and no contemporary of any note in Britain was ignorant of his profound learning and distinguished name. It would seem indeed that so great and varied was his intellectual capacity, that he was enabled, almost single-handed, to stamp a literary face upon the entire locality . . . he spared neither his time, his pocket, nor his labour in his devotion to the charitable institutions of the town; and to the very latest period of his protracted life, his heart was filled with that love that wearies not in well-doing . . . So long as health permitted, he was to be seen working in the districts like a very slave, or toiling in the wards for hours. It is recorded that his devotion to the poor occasionally interfered with his attentions to the solicitations of the rich; but however this may be, while he gained the gratitude of the one, he lost not the respect nor admiration of the other.”

mcdonnellbustBust: Dr James McDonnell


The bibliography and additional notes are too extensive to particularise in an article of this type. The minute books and other documents of the organisations and societies named supply relevant primary source material (for medical school development see also my fully documented article in Ulster Medical Journal (1976), vol. 45, pp. 107-145, and Medical History (1978), vol. 22, pp. 237-266). Much information on MacD,onnell is in his obituary notices particularly Dublin Medical Press (April 30, 1845), pp. 271-2 and scattered throughout numerous sources most importantly in History of the General Hospital . . . , by A. G. Malcolm (Belfast, 1851); I mBeal Feirste Cois Cuain, by Brendan 0 Buachalla (Dublin 1968); The United Irishmen . . . , by R. R. Madden (Dublin: 2nd series, edition 2, 1858; 3rd series, 1846); Life of Theobold Wolfe Tone . . . (Washington, 1826); The Drennan Letters . . . , edit. D. A. Chart (Belfast, 1931); Belfast Politics . . . 1792 and 1793, and Historical Collections . . . , by Anon (Henry Joy) (Belfast 1794 and 1817); and Life and Times of Mary Anne McCracken, 1770-1866, by Mary McNeill (Dublin, 1960).. His activities with the harpers are in Annals of the Irish Harpers, by Charlotte Fox (London, 1911) and Ulster Archaeological Journal (1894-5), vol. 1, pp. 120-127, 302-3; and his work on “the differential pulse” is in Dublin Journal of Medical Science (1836), vol. 8, pp. 173-177. David Manson and his school are described in Belfast Monthly Magazine (1811), vol. 6, pp. 126-132. I must acknowledge references to MacDonnell’s work by former medical colleagues — Dr. Samuel Simms [Ulster Medical Journal (1932), vol. 1, pp. 34-8] , Dr. Robert Marshall ibid (1936), vol. 5, pp 14-24] ; Dr. R. H. Hunter [ibid (1937), vol. 6, pp. 158-169] ; and Sir Ian Fraser [ibid (1952), vol. 21, pp. 114-129] , among others. The three main items (waiter and two salvers) in the “10-piece silver service” presented to MacDonnell in 1828 were recently acquired by Queen’s University.


I am grateful for the help of many people though I am responsible for the basic searches and research. I must mention Hugh A. Boyd who told me much and encouraged me more, and Malachy McSparran showed me the deeds of Cloneymore where he lives and which MacDonnell’s factotum Michael McCormick bought in 1833.

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