“John Mor MacDonnell, the second son of Eoin na h-Ile, or John of Isla, and grandson by his mother of Robert II, came to the Antrim Glynns for a wife. The lady [Margery Bissett] by whom he was attracted hither was young, high-born, handsome, and an heiress.” This is how Rev. George Hill described the arrival of the MacDonnells of the Isles in County Antrim. This description has been repeated by several authors (this writer included) and one almost gets the impression that John Mor MacDonnell came across in rowing boat on occasion to woo the fair Margery. It was left to well-known naval historian, Wallace Clark, to explode this glib story and to make us consider the realities of a journey from Islay to Red Bay in the closing years of the fourteenth century. Not content with describing this journey he has had a galley or birlinney built and intends to replicate the journey taken by John Mor in 1399.
The details are included in the article below by Michael Drake, which appeared in the Belfast Telegraph. It is reprinted with permission of the author. (Editor).
When a 40ft long Highland galley sails into Belfast Harbour for the Tall Ships gathering in July she will have completed an historic voyage.
The vessel, now being built by James MacDonald and Sons, Moville, Co. Donegal, will have been at sea for six weeks passing along the coasts of Galway and Mayo, Donegal, Derry, Antrim and the Scottish Isles. And on board, manning the 16-oared craft, which has a 400 square foot sail, will be a team of twelve young Irish and Scots men, sailing from Killary Bay, Galway to Stornoway. Isle of Lewis to commemorate two of the great medieval sealords, Granuaile, or Grace O’Malley, leader of Clan O’Malley and Somerled, founder of Clandonald and of nearly 400 years of nautical archaeology.
The Lord of the Isles Voyage is the brainchild of yachtsman and author, Wallace Clark (63), who is the project director and skipper. He and three Scotsmen have personally guaranteed the building fees and are currently seeking sponsorship funds of £60,000.
The galley, the first of its kind to be seen on Irish seas for 250 years, is ten feet wide with a high carved bow and stem. It has been designed by world-renowned naval architect Colin Mudie using research culled from funerary slabs and pillars from ancient Celtic settlements. Wallace Clark says: “Her high bow and stern and slim flexible hull will be reminiscent of a Viking Longship, perhaps the Greatship with 25 oars a-side which is etched on the gatehouse of Dunluce Castle.
“But observers should not be taken in. The Lord of the Isles galley will be descended from a Viking ship but she is not a Viking ship. She has a stem rudder instead of a steering oar and thwarts to row on instead of the movable chests favoured by the Norsemen.”
“Her planking will be riveted to her timbers, not lashed. These and other developments took place during the 400 years that these galleys remained in use after the Vikings had been driven out of the Isles.
“But not one galley has survived and this ship is the first ever replica. Her design has been arrived at after many years research into carvings on High Crosses, funerary slab and graffiti in Iona and other sites in Scotland.”
The voyage — May 25 to July 5 — comes on the 400th anniversary of a Scottish galley raid on Mayo which was recorded in English state papers.
After achieving some success the Scotsmen were chased back north by the famous female sea captain, Grace O’Malley whose castle on Clare island will be visited soon after the voyage commences.
The galley is also expected to call at Achill, Inishkea, Tory Island, Inistrahull and arrive at Church Bay, Rathlin on June 9.
“If the sea is calm enough we plan to take the galley into the ancient boat port in the cave below Dunluce Castle in Co. Antrim,” says Wallace Clark.
“This will be one experiment in a whole series to be undertaken during the trip to relearn, at the behest of historians, how a galley behaved at sea as a cargo or fighting vessel, taxi, mail boat or bus in days when it was the only form of transport between Ireland, Scotland and the Isles.”
He says the crew list is almost full but one important vacancy has to be filled —they need someone when he is not rowing to cook for the hungry all male crew.
Sadly it is not possible to take women on the voyage due to the primitive accommodation, although several have applied.
But it is intended an all female crew will take the galley to sea at a later date.