Mourners also heard how Alexander McDonnell, who died after a short illness on July 21 in Somerset, spent his formative years in the east Antrim coastal village before going on to carve out an impressive professional life.
Due to pandemic restrictions the morning service in Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church was by invitation only.
Delivering the funeral homily, the main celebrant Father Eugene O’Hagan said: “Speaking on behalf of my fellow clergy gathered here in this Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, which owes a large part of its artistic patrimony to the generosity and artistic talent of Alexander’s mother, Angela, and especially on behalf of Fr McKay, the Parish Priest of this Parish of Tickmacreevan, I offer the sincere sympathies and condolences of parishioners, neighbours, friends, and people near and far to the McDonnell family and the family of the Glenarm Estate, to friends gathered here, to those who cannot join us because of current Covid restrictions but who are with us in spirit and, indeed, those to whom this service will be available on a digital platform.
“Alexander - or Xander as he was sometimes called - spent his formative years here in Glenarm. He was indelibly marked by a carefree childhood here in the Glens where he made life-long friendships and a close personal friendship with the gardener’s son, Jackie Wilson. A subsequent close friendship and a partnership of equals with Robert Morrow happily developed not only on a personal level but to the benefit of the Glenarm Estate. Without that dynamic the estate would not have been viable when it was handed over to his 25-year-old son in 1992.
“Alexander’s love of landscape, nature, the history of the Glens, the sea and all it had to offer, including his early desire to grow up to be a lobster fisherman on the Sea of Moyle, were nurtured here and his memories and experiences as a child always sustained him in later life.
“Happy childhood days in Glenarm during the Second World War were, however, replaced by the larger school experience of Downside in England which was challenging because, in those days, no one understood anything about dyslexia apart from the obvious inability to spell correctly no matter how many times it was drummed into you. A less resilient child and young adult would have been easily dejected, but, not Alexander, he went on to thrive at Oxford and later at the Ruskin School of Art.
“His professional life is well documented and is impressive. From Restorer at the Ulster Museum in 1969 to Keeper of Conservation at the Tate Gallery in London for twenty years to his directorship of Ulster Television when he returned to his beloved Glens, his self-effacing personality, which was a hallmark of his professional and personal life, endeared him to everyone. His talents in conservation and restoration were literally hidden in plain view - if his work as a restorer was noticed he would have considered it a failure for his work as a conservationist was not to draw attention to his work but to the painting.
“He did this with consummate skill which, thankfully, helped fund several projects on the Glenarm Estate to ensure its survival in very difficult and challenging economic times. Notwithstanding the commercial headaches and worry of making the estate pay for itself and make some profit when no one was visiting Northern Ireland he remained focused and interested in people and, of course, the Lagondas. His headlamp glasses often matched those of his beloved vintage cars which were more to him than complex beautiful machines - they were almost members of the family.”
Fr O’Hagan went on to highlight the enduring influence of the Glenarm area on the 86-year-old Earl even as his health declined.
“With a noticeable humility of spirit Alexander wore his formal position as head of the McDonnell family, Earl, and a member of the High Council of Clan Donald with a mixture of duty and disarming informality. He had no airs and graces, preferring a fun-loving spontaneity to any polite aloofness that people sometimes mistakenly expect. He was, you could say, unconventional in many ways but at heart, and as many have described him, he was a true Glensman and a real gentleman.
“In the last eighteen months, with the restrictions imposed as a result of the Covid pandemic, he was unable to return to Glenarm to nestle here and ride out the storm of the current contagion. In declining health he contented himself with the simplest of things but still eager to engage with whomever happened to be doing a bit of gardening or maintenance work around the house.
“His mortal remains and accompanying memories are now brought home to rest and as we gather to celebrate Alexander’s long life we, as Christians, gather to pray that Alexander will be welcomed into the house built by God, the house that is to be his eternal dwelling.”
After the service, members of the community joined the funeral procession as the Earl’s coffin was taken by horse and cart from the church to the castle. Family, friends and estate staff then proceeded to the family burial site in the Glen.
As a mark of respect to the late Lord Antrim, Glenarm Castle had previously announced its businesses would remain closed today.