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MacDonnell – descended from unofficial ‘Lords of the Isles’

MacDonnell is a common surname in Ireland, particularly in Co Antrim, but it was actually originally a Scottish name.

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It is not to be confused with the Irish name O’Donnell. While both names have the same meaning, they have different origins. There are a number of variations including Donnel, Donnell, MacDonald, MacDonell, McDonald, McDonnel and McDonnell.

World Rule

History of the Irish name McDonnell. Image copyright Ireland CallingThe name MacDonnell comes from the older name Mac Dhomhnuill. This was a Gaelic name with the prefix ‘Mac’ meaning ‘son of’ and Dhomhnuill was a personal name which meant ‘world rule’. Dhomhnuill later became Donald.

In Scotland they were part of the McDonald clan. The septs, or branches of the clan, known as MacDonnell or Mc Donnell had a seat at Lochaber, which was in the Scottish Highlands. They were known as the Clan MacDonald of Keppoch.

Another was known as Clan MacDonnell of Glengarry. Glengarry was also in Lochaber, where the River Garry met Loch Garry to form a glen.

Lords of the Isles

The clan were known as ‘Lords of the Isles’. It was an unofficial title and made Scottish King David II extremely angry, especially as the McDonalds were taking taxes from the people.

David attempted to dispose of the McDonalds but they proved to be too powerful for him.

Over the centuries there was a lot of emigration across the Irish Sea in both directions between Ireland and Scotland. Many MacDonnells travelled to Ulster and settled in Co Antrim.

MacDonnells in Antrim

In Antrim the clan are descended from John Mor MacDonald. He was chief of the Clan MacDonald of Dunnyveg. Sorley Boy MacDonnell was a descendent of MacDonald. He helped to fend off attacks from both the O’Neill clan and the English, both of whom wanted to get rid of the McDonald clan.

Sorley Boy was too powerful and following his victories he set up his own MacDonnell clan.

MacDonnells around the world

After Oliver Cromwell’s troops had taken control of Ireland, people’s surnames became anglicised. The English wanted to eradicate Irish culture and clerks would write down Irish names with an intuitive English spelling. This led to many variations to the same surname as it depended on each individual’s different interpretation on how the name was spelt.

Many people also dropped the Irish prefix to their names as it became more difficult to find work with an Irish sounding name.

Following the 1798 Rebellion, many Irish people reinstated their Gaelic prefixes in a show of patriotic pride. Most maintained the English spelling as by then that was the language for most people in the country.

Irish names such as MacDonnell spread across the world in the mid-19th century as a result of the potato famine that devastated Ireland. Millions of people died and millions more had to leave the country to escape the horror.

Irish people emigrated to places like Australia, Britain, Canada and the USA. Names such as MacDonnell are common in each of these countries today.


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