The MacDonnell family
The earliest recorded use of the friary for burials was by the MacDonnell family. This family was part of the Clan Donald and could trace its ancestry back to Somerled, Lord of Argyll, in the twelfth century. The family chieftains were Lords of Islay and Kintyre situated not far from north-east Antrim on the other side of the narrow sea now called the North Channel. They became involved in the north-east Antrim area when their leader, John Mor MacDonnell, married Margery Bissett, daughter of Eoin Bissett, the Lord of the Glynns, in the 1390s.
James IV of Scotland absorbed the Lordship of the Isles into his kingdom in the late fifteenth century but the MacDonnells continued to resist in their remote area. However when their leader, Sir John Cahanagh, was seized and hanged in 1497 his immediate family and other MacDonnells and many of their kin-related septs, among them MacAllisters, MacKays and MacNeills, took refuge in the Glens of Antrim.
Throughout the sixteenth century the family made a series of judicious marriages with leading families in the Glens and alliances with major Gaelic chieftains in Ulster. They defeated the McQuillans, the Lords of the Route, at the bloody Battle of Orra in 1559 and took possession of their estate and castles. Despite the hostility of the English administration in Dublin and the O’Neills of Tyrone and some bloody defeats, Sorley Boy O’Donnell, Sir John’s famous grandson, preserved the family’s gains through the frequent Irish Wars during Elizabeth I’s reign by a combination of astute diplomacy, ruthlessness and savage fighting.
Sorley Boy was succeeded by his younger son, Randal Sorley MacDonnell. Despite having fought with O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, against the English forces at Kinsale in 1601, Randal managed to hold on to the large family estates in the Glens and the Route by helping King James defeat a rebellious clan and inviting lowland Scots to settle in the Route. He was created Viscount Dunluce in 1618 and first Earl of Antrim in 1620. Randal selected Bonamargy Friary for the burial place of the MacDonnell chieftains.
An inscription dated 1621 on a plaque on the south gable wall read, according to O’Laverty, ‘In Dei, Dei-Matrisque honorem Nobillissimus atque Illustrissimus Randulphus McDonnell Comes de Antrim Hoc Sacellum fieri curavit 1621’. It would seem that the original vault and perhaps a chapel above it were added to the friary in 1621 and both were extended around the mid 1660s. Fagan recorded that local people believed the oratory or chapel above the vault had been erected, later than the other buildings, by the Antrim family.
The vault contains the coffins of four earls – Randal, 2nd Earl (died 1682), Alexander, 5th Earl (died 1775), Randal, 6th Earl (died 1791) and Hugh Seymour, 7th Earl (died 1855) – and two of their countesses. In 1894 it was suggested, in the Memorials of the Dead, vol. 2, no. 3, that there was every reason to believe that the chapel contained the remains of the 1st Earl and, also perhaps, his father, Sorley Boy. More recently, it was suggested that the remains of Sorley, who had been buried in the original graveyard on the south side of the friary, may have been exhumed after the vault was built and that it is his remains which are contained in a lead box in the vault. It is thus possible that Sorley Boy’s remains were the first to be placed in the vault. The other burial place of the family is at Glenarm which became the seat of the family in the mid eighteenth century after Dunluce Castle was abandoned in the late seventeenth century and nearby Ballymagarry was burned in 1750.
Alexander, 3rd Earl, younger son of the 1st Earl, who had fought at Kinsale, put the family estates and titles at risk by espousing the cause of James II and VII. He was attainted of high treason but was subsequently included in the amnesty in the Treaty of Limerick and his land and titles were restored before his death in 1699. His grandson, Alexander, 5th Earl, who had assumed the title, aged 8, on the death of his father in 1721, conformed to the Church of Ireland in 1733 and took his seat in the House of Lords.