This book is a powerful example of Faulkner’s wisdom that the past isn’t dead—it isn’t even past. Mortar shells falling on Heathrow’s runways, even when they fail to detonate, effectively remind us of the Troubles they are designed to remind us of by causing so much trouble. And they recall for us Joyce’s Stephen, who saw history as a nightmare from which he was trying to awake. The laser-like focus of Professor Hill’s book does not, despite its intense particularity, prevent us from broadly applying its vision as far afield as Sarajevo and Hebron. Nor does the darkness of the period Hill illumines altogether dim to our eyes the ambiguity of our inheritance—political, religious, military, ethnic, etc.—from the British Isles.

Sorley Boy MacDonnell was the leader of a Gaelic family descended from the lords of the Isles whose destiny it was to protect and expand his clan’s position in Ulster during the days of Queen Elizabeth. He was a contemporary and rival of Shane O’Neill, the great rebel whose father Con had submitted to Henry VIII in 1542. The MacDonnells supported the pro-French Scots, including Mary, the doomed Queen—we are reminded that 6,000 French troops landed at Leith in 1548—and reinforced their Antrim holdings with redshanks from over the water. But because the Protestant Fad of Argyll was a brother-in-law to Sorley Boy as well as the controller of access to the redshank recruiting grounds in the West Highlands, the situation was always complicated. The English indeed had cause for sensitivity to the Irish “back door.” During the Desmond Wars, 800 Italians sent by the Pope were besieged at Smerwick and massacred after their surrender (1579); there was a Spanish landing in the next year. One of Hill’s emphases is the role of the MacDonnells of Antrim and Dunyveg in the conflict between London, Edinburgh, and Dublin, as well as in the enveloping Machiavellian religious and dynastic struggles in Europe.

Sorley Boy’s first great victory was over the MacQuillans at Slieve-an-Aura (1559), where he and his hardy men mixed oatmeal and water in the heels of their boots and assured their domination of the Route and the Glynnes, though it would be many years before Sorley Boy, playing both ends against the middle, would attain his goal: recognition by Queen Elizabeth of his family’s position in Ulster. MacDonnell pushed back O’Neill at Culrath (1564) but was defeated at Knockboy and Glentalsie the next year. Indeed, he was taken prisoner for two years. During that time, Shane O’Neill, ostensibly allied with the English, promised Charles IX the crown of Ireland in return for 5,000 French troops.

Shane O’Neill was defeated at Farsetmore (1567) by Hugh O’Donnell and subsequently killed during negotiations with the MacDonnells at Cashendun in an episode that Professor Hill has done much to clarify. Thereafter, Sorley Boy MacDonnell was free to restore the power of his elan without the powerful rivalry of Shane O’Neill, whose head adorned a pike outside Dublin Castle—but not without the stress of the welter of conflict and confusion of that time and place.

Policies of plantation and aggressiveness by the English were new Elizabethan priorities. Walter Devereux, the first Earl of Essex, double-crossed Sir Brian MacFelim O’Neill near Belfast and had him, his wife, and his brother butchered in DubHn. Essex then surprised the Clan Ian Mor’s women and children, sheltered at Rathlin Island in 1575, and killed them all. But even so, Essex had not shaken Sorley Boy, who had to watch the massacre from the coastal cliffs. Sorley’s victory near Carrickfergus showed the English that he still had to be dealt with. As Hill says, “Me was characterized as a lawless freebooter, but Sorley, in truth, was an honorable man who sought redress outside English law only when forced to do so by Elizabeth’s Irish lieutenants. He could be hard and merciless when dealing, say, with the MacQuillins of the Route, Shane O’Neill, or Essex. But for the most part, Sorley only reacted to aggressive policies designed to thwart his very reasonable goal of holding the Glynnes and the Route by royal patent.”

Foiling the invasion of Sir John Perrott, Sorley Boy MacDonnell in 1586 achieved his goal: royal recognition of his family’s position. But when he rode into Dublin, he saw the head of his son Alexander MacSorley gracing the walls of the castle. Such was the reward of a violent life. Later, the Antrim MacDonnells would play a role in Scotland, as Alasdair MacColla joined the marquis of Montrose to fight for the Royalist side in “the War of the Three Kingdoms”—the English Civil War. After that, the fate of all the players spiraled into the unforeseen establishment of modern politics.

From the contemporary angle, Sorley Boy MacDonnell can be seen as an obstreperous nonprogressive, but that is not the view of Professor Hill. Rather, he shows him as a defender of private interest, as a responsible head of an extended family, and as a skilled survivor in a treacherous world. “Though four centuries past, Sorley Boy MacDonnell’s struggle reflected the same desire for local self-rule that we increasingly see in today’s world. It was firmly grounded in the concept of private community—a tribal unity based on kinship (both blood and fictive), hierarchy, honor, and land. The MacDonnell family’s primary nemesis was the Tudor state, the modern, formal, bureaucratic, and imperialistic nature of which was rooted in the contrary concept of public society.” Thus Professor Hill relates his study of a slice of Scottish, Irish, and English history to our unfolding world, in which Leviathan looks more like the Clinton Cabinet than the Elizabethan Court.

Along the way, he documents the subtleties of the correspondence and the historiography in a most readable way. Once again, as in his Celtic Warfare 1595-1763, he has in effect extended the “Celtic thesis” of Forrest McDonald and Grady McWhiney backwards into that period which we can see, following Immanuel Wallerstein, as the coalescence of “the Modern World-System.” The American Civil War thus seems a rehash of British conflicts, as Faulkner implied when he related Cuiloden to Shiloh—and as Alasdair MacColla reminds us of Ben McCulloch. Professor Hill has fortified our knowledge and fired our imagination—and you can’t ask more from history than that.


[Fire & Sword: Sorley Boy MacDonnell and the Rise of Clan Ian Mor, 1538-90, by Michael Hill (Fort Worth: The Aegis Press) 321 pp., $22.99]