reproduced by permission of the author

Irish historians tell us that the name MacQuillan originated in Northern Ireland. From time to time, historians have speculated upon the origins of this family who, by the late fifteenth century, became a powerful clan and claimed lordship over northwestern County Antrim where their territory came to be called “The Route.”

But where did the early MacQuillans come from? Were they descended from ancient Irish rulers of Dalriada, the kingdom which included parts of what is now Co. Antrim and parts of western Scotland? Were they originally Normans who took from their Norman lord the name MacWilliam, which, with time, became transformed to MacQuillan? Or, when English rule began to break down in fourteenth century Ulster, did the Norman family of de Mandeville adopt the Irish name MacQuillan?

These and other origins have been proposed for these people who fought tenaciously to hold their lands but eventually lost them to the Scots’ MacDonnells and their allies. By the mid- to late sixteenth century they had virtually disappeared from Irish history, Sean O’Faolain, for example, referring to them as “the lost tribe”.¹ Perhaps it is their sudden emergence and abrupt decline which has captured the interest of the occasional historian, prompting the formulation of these ideas.

Amongst the several theories of the origin of the MacQuillans, two seem to prevail. The first, advanced by Edmund Curtis, is that they were of Norman-Welsh descent.²

The Norman de Mandevilles

In 1333 Robert de Mandeville and others murdered William de Burgh, the Brown Earl of Ulster. This act, a reflection of disintegrating Norman rule, triggered a resurgence of Gaelic strength and power in Ulster. Curtis proposed that the powerful Norman family of de Mandeville prudently adopted an Irish name, MacQuillan, in the face of the Gaelic rebellion. MacLysaght popularized this idea in his series, “Irish Families…”³

The Bonnaght of Ulster

From about 1200 on, the Irish organized a military system of standing troops to combat the English invaders. These mercenary soldiers were maintained by all the leading Irish chiefs and were quartered on the chiefs’ people. This system was termed “bonnaght”.4 The Earls of Ulster too, in time, adopted this system, engaging the services of bands of mercenaries as bodyguards and to assist them in numerous battles. The Earl maintained his mercenaries, the “Bonnaght of Ulster”, by billeting them on the local populace who were expected to keep them and pay them. In 1323 Richard de Burgh, the Red Earl of Ulster, conferred command of the bonnaght on Henry de Mandeville, the seneschal of Ulster.5,6Later, in 1331, de Mandeville was implicated in the Earl of Desmond’s rebellion and was arrested.6 At this, a Stephen MacQuillan bound himself to the Earl of Ulster in the sum of 200 pounds for the office of ‘constable of the bonnaght’.2The original charter granted to Henry de Mandeville had been hereditary, leading Curtis to conclude “that the MacQuillans were a branch of the de Mandeville family, but there is no real evidence to this theory.” 5

“The name of McQuillan was connected with the Bonnacht of Ulster from” the early fourteenth century onwards, “as well as that of de Mandeville.”7 In 1310, William Liath de Burgh, a cousin of the Earl of Ulster, retained bonnaght under the command of Seanoc MacQuillan. The charter bestowed on Henry de Mandeville granted ” ‘the intendance of the satellites of our bonnaght of Ulster’, responsible to him as they were before to William McQuillan (McHulyn).”6 ( The term “satellites” here means soldiers.) Later, in 1346 a Richard de Mandeville, and in 1387 a Thomas de Mandeville were granted the Bonnaght.6 This service was apparently not the sole province of one family. One might say that MacQuillans or de Mandevilles held office at the Earl’s pleasure. While this does not prove that McQuillans and de Mandevilles were different families it certainly doesn’t prove that they were the same.

De Mandeville Lands

Curtis also argues that because MacQuillans took over de Mandeville lands after the murder of the Earl in 1333 therefore they are the same people. The focus of this argument is that region of northern Antrim, called Tweskard. This area was later called “The Route”, after MacQuillan’s Route, the band of mercenaries commanded by MacQuillans. (The word “route” here refers to a band of fighting men and not to a travelled way.6,7)

What is the history of Tweskard possession, and when did MacQuillan’s take over that territory?

Quoting McNeill again: ” The first de Mandeville we hear of in an Ulster context is Robert, who came over to Ireland with King John… in about 1224. The family flourished. They provided a number of officials for Walter and Richard de Burgh in particular. Henry was Sheriff of Twescard in 1259-62″6 and, when a new Seneschal of Ulster was appointed in 1271, Henry refused to hand over Tweskard to him. However, by 1327 Robert Savage was Sheriff of Twescard. The Savage lands seem to have been centred on Twescard. In 1333 and 1343 Robert Savage was Seneschal of Ulster and received land in Antrim county to add to his Twescard estates.6 The point here is that at the time of the murder of the Earl of Ulster in 1333 Twescard was no longer a de Mandeville possession. After Robert Savage died in 1360 his lands were overrun, but the Savage family continued to lay claim to the Twescard estates.

By the 1390’s the McQuillans were “changing from galloglas captains of their Route, in part at least based on the old Bonnacht of Ulster, into territorial chiefs of specific lands. In a far flung series of campaigns (see below) we find McQuillans and Savages in alliance … McQuillan lands appear to have been in Dufferin, the area west of Strangford Lough, while the Savages controlled the Ards.”6“There seems little sign of Irish pressure on Twescard until the mid-fifteenth century. We find O’Cahans and McQuillans fighting in 1442, the first indication of McQuillan interest in Twescard…”6

It seems that the name, “The Route”, was, by this time, applied to whichever territory that McQuillan’s Route occupied. McNeill notes that in the Annals of Ulster for 1470, when Magennis attacked McQuillan, the ‘Rout’ was located in Lecale (in present day Co. Down, the area around Downpatrick) whereas, by 1472, “The Route”6 can be applied to north Co. Antrim.

Twescard, or “The Route” in northern Co. Antrim, was out of de Mandeville hands for more than a hundred years before the MacQuillans acquired it. It was Savage territory. There is no known record of how the MacQuillans came to possess it. McNeill has suggested that possibly the Savage family made over their interests there to the MacQuillans.6

We can conclude that neither the records of service with the Bonnaght of Ulster, nor the history of Tweskard possession appear to be strong arguments for the identity of MacQuillans and de Mandevilles.

Ancient Irish Origins

The second prevailing idea on MacQuillan origins is that they were descended from Fiacha MacUillin, youngest son of Niall of the Nine Hostages. These people are described as “kings or princes of Ulidia from the fifth century until about the twelfth century, and from then until the sixteenth century, as kings of Dalriada.” This history of MacQuillans was related by Webb in 1860.8 She adhered to a MacQuillan family private manuscript which can trace their lineage from that time back to the early sixteenth century and the last MacQuillan Lords of the Route. However, Mrs. Webb continued, the full ancient genealogy of the MacQuillans was lost forever in the 1760’s by an Ephraim MacQuillan. He had gone to France to claim an inheritance, taking with him family papers, including the genealogy document, to prove his claim. His misadventures there led to the seizure of all his documents, which were never returned.8

Tracing MacQuillan genealogy, from these latter Lords of the Route to the time they emerge as holders of that title, is a difficult and uncertain task.2 Webb also admits that she can find no certain proof of who the ancient Fiacha MacUillin was, nor any historical evidence of his settlement in North Antrim.8 To make the connection then between these ancient native Irish rulers of Ulidia or Dalriada and the MacQuillan Lords of the Route is probably not possible.

Given that there was an ancient MacQuillan genealogy, referred to above, which was lost, it is likely that it was written to strengthen the territorial claims of the MacQuillan chiefs. This practice was not uncommon in early Ulster to confer a respectable ancestry on peoples whose histories were perhaps something less than flattering.9

MacQuillan’s Route

Recent accounts have described MacQuillan’s Route as “a band of mercenaries about whom we know or can reconstruct rather more than usual.” 5After the murder of the Earl of Ulster in 1333, rebellion and war ensued. Stephen MacQuillan and his mercenaries hired themselves out to various chiefs as opportunity arose. However, the MacQuillans, “probably Scots mercenaries in the late thirteenth century,” were, by the end of the fourteenth, “a distinct clan with lands in Co. Down and (particularly in the fifteenth century) in north Antrim”.10 McNeill reviews the activities of the MacQuillans between 1433 and 1444 as recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters. In 1433 they were driven from Dufferin, their home in County Down, by O’Neill of Tyrone aided by MacDonnells. They went to Meath where the English settlers made provision for them. In 1434 they took part in a war among the O’Donnells in Tyrconnell. In 1442 MacQuillans were fighting O’Cahans, though the Annals do not say where. And, in 1444, they are again in Dufferin helping the O’Neill of Clandeboye defeat an army led by O’Neill of Tyrone.10 As McNeill points out, this history emphasizes “the mobility of the MacQuillans, perhaps a hundred fighting men and their immediate dependents, not a whole nation of people.” Such a group could move rapidly from place to place as ‘circumstances of war dictated.”10 These records describe the activities of mercenary troops, a “dedicated warrior family”,11 not those of settled de Mandeville descendants.

Referring to the possible origins of the MacQuillans as Scots, suggested by both Nicholls710 the name first appears in the Irish records at about the time when hiring Scottish mercenaries was becoming a common practice in Ulster. The Annals of Ulster, in 1310, record the killing of an Aedh O’Connor by a Seonag MacUibhilin, a mercenary. Orpen states “this is the first mention of a family afterwards famous in Tweskard.”12 If we may take Orpen at his word, the name is not found earlier in the Irish Annals. We might have expected an occasional reference to the name had the MacQuillans been rulers in the north of Ulster. But there is no trace of them there before the late thirteenth century. At about that time MacQuillan chieftains were recorded in the Scottish peninsula of Kintyre. There, they were engaged in endeavours both for,13 and against 14 Robert Bruce in his struggles against Edward I and Edward II of England. Western Scotland and the Hebridean Isles were regular sources of mercenary troops for the Ulster chiefs during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. Recall too, that Edward Bruce landed in County Antrim with a Scottish army in 1315.The emergence of the MacQuillans in Ulster during this period is unlikely to have been a coincidence, and probably points to their Scottish origin.

Since the year 2000, when the material below was written, some further evidence has come to light which strongly supports a Welsh rather than Scots origin for the McQuillans. An updated discussion of this issue is being prepared for this site. In the meantime, we have provided this article which otherwise remains an excellent brief introduction to the controversies surrounding the origins of the McQuillans of the Route.


  1. O’Faolain, S., An Irish Journey, Longmans, Green and Co., London, p.256, 1937.
  2. Curtis, E., The MacQuillan or Mandeville Lords of the Route. Proc. R. I. A. vol. XLIV, sect. C, 99-113, 1938.
  3. MacLysaght, E., Irish families, their names, arms and origins. H. Figgis, Dublin, 1957.
  4. Curtis, E., The Bonnaght of Ulster, Hermathena, XX1, 87-105, 1931.
  5. Simms, K., Gaelic warfare in the middle ages, in A Military History of Ireland, eds. Bartlett, T., and Jeffery, K., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 99-115, 1996.
  6. McNeill, T. E., Anglo-Norman Ulster, The History and Archaeology of an Irish Barony, 1177-1400, John Donald Publishers Ltd., Edinburgh, p. 70, 1980.
  7. Nicholls, K., Gaelic and Gaelicised Ireland in the Middle Ages, Gill and Macmillan Ltd., p.134, Dublin, 1972.
  8. Webb, M., The Clan of the MacQuillins of Antrim, Ulster J. Archaeology, 8, 251-268, 1860.
  9. Doherty, C., Ulster before the Normans: ancient myth and early history. In Ulster an Illustrated History, eds., Brady, C., O’Dowd, M., and Walker, B., B. T. Batsford Ltd., London, pp. 13-43, 1989.
  10. McNeill, T. E., Lordships and Invasions: Ulster 1177-1500. In Ulster an Illustrated History, eds., Brady, C., O’Dowd, M., and Walker, B., B. T. Batsford Ltd., London, pp. 44-76, 1989.
  11. Bartlett, T., and Jeffery, K., An Irish military tradition, in A Military History of Ireland, eds. Bartlett, T., and Jeffery, K., Cambridge University Press, p.10, 1996.
  12. Orpen, G. H., Ireland under the Normans, vol., iv p. 123, Oxford, 1911.
  13. Barrow, G. W. S., Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, pp. 80, 209 and 240, 1965.
  14. Frame, R., English Lordship in Ireland 1318-1361, Clarendon Press, Oxford, pp.134-135, 1982.

A. M. M., December, 2000

Revised: November, 2002