O’Sullivan Beare and Lorrha

O’Sullivan Beare March, Lorrha, 1996


The epic march undertaken by O'Sullivan Beare to Leitrim through the counties of Cork, Limerick, Tipperary, Galway, Roscommon, Sligo and, eventually, Leitrim arose as a result of the Irish and Spanish defeat at the Battle of Kinsale at the hands of the English. 

The battle of Kinsale began on the 17th of October, 1601 and, after the defeat of the Irish, Donal Cam, chieftain of the O'Sullivan Beara, rushed back to the family castle at Dunboy and began to fortify it against an English attack that started on June 6th and lasted eleven days before the English stormed the castle after bombarding it with cannonfire. 

Harassed by the English and having lost his lands and his herds of cattle and sheep, O'Sullivan Beare left the Beara peninsula and decided to travel to Leitrim to fmd sanctuary with the friendly O'Rourkes. Accompanying him were 1,000 men, women and children and this march through hostile country in the middle of winter stands beside many other great marches in history. 

In the middle of January 1603 the remnants of the party reached their destination with only 35 people remaining, many having starved to death, others killed and still more giving up and settling along the route of the march. Maybe the O'Sullivans settled in this parish on that occasion. Many of the localities where these people settled have been known since as the Bearas. 

The famous march entered County Tipperary at EmIy and continued on through Cullen, Solohead, Donohill, Annacarty, Hollyford, Upperchurch, Templederry, Latteragh, Toomevara, 

Cloghjordan, Knockshegowna before arriving here and then continuing on to Lorrha, Redwood and crossing the Shannon at White's Ford to Meelick. 

That is a general picture of what happened and the route the march followed. When O'Sullivan arrived in Toomevara he had done so by skirting the Slievefelim mountains and Keeper Hill. He was now through the hills and he had to make his way to some part of the Shannon before the river empties itself into Lough Derg in order to fmd a crossing. This journey took him through Cloghjordan and Knockshegowna. The latter hill had a castle on it at the time. From the top of it the Shannon is visible and the land in between is flat. Ballingarry, at its base, would have been a walled village at the time. 

The next stop was Lackeen. The castle was the chief seat of the O'Kennedy, who, together with the O'Mearas and the MacEgans, were he old rulers of this part of Lower Ormond. The O'Kennedys once owned eleven castles in two baronies, extending from Lorrha to the banks of the Shannon. They kept their independence until 1553, when they acknowledged the overlordship of the Butlers. Then, in the usual way, they lost their possessions after joining with O'Neill in 1600, forfeiting the last vestiges of their power to the Cromwellians. Donagh Kennedy of Lackeen, the son of the last chief of Lower Ormond was reported in the Civil Survey of 1654 as residing 'amidst the ruins of his father's greatness in the old ruined castle and bawne of Lackeen, the walls only standing and the mote an orchard and garden, a mill standing in a little brook running through the said land, and six thatch houses ... ' 

This description comes fifty years after O'Sullivan's visit to the place. And, to jump forward a little more into history, in 1725 the Stowe Missal, written on vellum, dating back to the earliest period in the Irish Church, was found here. It was wrapped in a dazzling metal shrine, refurbished by Philip Kennedy, Lord of Ormond, and his wife, Aine, between 1323 and 1350. The missal had once belonged to the abbey at Terryglass, but, after Terryglass declined, it came to Lorrha monastery. Later, during some war it was hidden in one of the walls of the castle, and forgotten until its accidental discovery. Since it was believed that no local man could translate it properly, the job was given to a West Clare poet named Aindrias Mac Cruitin, who was paid with expense money, a new suit and a horse.The missal's metal shrine is preserved in the National Museum but the missal itself is in the British Museum, as also is St. Ruan's Bell, which was preserved in or near Lorrha until the 19th century. 

Why did O'Sullivan Beara spend the night at Lackeen rather than Lorrha? Tradition has it that he camped beside an ancient church, which must have had very strong associations with the ecclesiastical stronghold at Lorrha. Possibly Lorrha was in the hands of the supporters of MacEgan at the time. The MacEgans were celebrated hereditary Brehons of the 0'Kennedys and professors of the Brehon Laws to all Ireland. Scholars, writers and teachers, Brehons had a lengthy education, which could take anything from twelve to twenty years and included learning a secret language of their own. In the fourteenth century, a MacEgan compiled a manuscript with the delightful title of Leabhar Breac, the Speckled Book': By the sixteenth century their scholarly talents were becoming rather run down although the MacEgans still kept up some of the old traditions of learning. In 1602 they were supporters of the English and, for this reason, 0'Sullivan may have preferred to stay out of Lorrha. 

It is, therefore, probable that O'Sullivan skirted the village of Lorrha on his way to the Shannon. There is conflict about the exact place the refugees camped before crossing the river. Philip 0' Sullivan wrote that the 0'Sullivans hid themselves in 'the thick and secure wood of Brosna'. This was an extensive forest situated between the loop of the Brosna river and the Shannon. A strong local tradition claims Portland, a surviving wooded ridge towards the present bridge of Portumna, as the actual camping site. Another view is that they camped quite close to Redwood castle, which was occupied by Donnchadh MacEgan, who was Queen's sheriff for this area. 

O'Sullivan Beare sent scouts forward to discover what boats and ferries existed to transport the party across the river. They discovered that all boats and ferries had been removed and the ferrymen in the district had received warnings and threats that the fugitives were not to be helped. The man responsible for the order was Donnchadh MacEgan. 

Redwood castle was a relatively new building when 0'Sullivan camped in the neighbourhood in the winter of 1602-03, having been erected in 1580. After the wars, the MacEgans, continued to follow the family traditions, using it as a school for teaching history and law. Its most distinguished scholar was Michael O'Clery, the main compiler of the Annals of the Four Masters. By 1654 the Civil Survey described it as 'an old ruined castle, the walls only standing, and two thatched houses. ' 

It is probably true that the Shannon came much closer to the castle at that stage, with much swamp and thickets between it and the river. From it the MacEgans became aware of O'Sullivan Beare camped at the river's edge and prepared to attack the party as it crossed the water. 

So, 0'Sullivan Beare found himself and his party cornered with their backs to the river and an enemy about to bear down on them. They had to escape to safety across the river or fight the forces of MacEgan. And, their escape was hampered by the disappearance of the boats and ferries. They were also on the verge of starvation. 'Every heart was hereupon filled with giant despair,' Philip O'Sullivan wrote. 'In this critical state of things, my father, Dermot O'Sullivan, announced that he would in a short time make a ship and put an end to the soldiers' hunger.' This Dermot was seventy at the time of the march and, having survived the ordeal and gone to Spain, lived to be a hundred. He is buried in Corunna in Northern Spain. 

Tradition has it that the crossing was made at White's Ford, where the electricity pylons now cross the Shannon. The place is known as poll na gcapall, the field of the horses, and is supposed to be the place where O. Sullivan Beare's men killed and ate their horses and used the skins for making boats. 

Philip O'Sullivan's account of the building of these boats is interesting as it gives a detailed description of the traditional method of constructing boats with osiers and wet skins. Two boats were built, one under the direction of Dermot of Dursey, which must have looked very like the long black currachs, which are still seen today in the west of Ireland, and the second under the direction of the O'Malleys, some of O'Sullivan Beare's Connacht mercenaries, who were members of a seafaring clan, and obstinately insisted on building a boat of their own. It seems to have been more like a coracle and it was made 'of osier, without joinings, having a circular bottom like a shield, and sides much higher than the bottom suited. It was covered with the skin of one horse pulled across the bottom.' 

The currach was much more elaborate. 'Two rows of osiers were planted opposite each other, the thickest end being stuck in the ground and the other ends bent in to meet each other, to which they were fastened with cords. To this frame the solid planks were fixed and seats and cross beams were fitted inside. Outside the skeleton of osier and timber was covered with the skins of eleven horses, and oars and dowels were fitted on. The keel was flat, both by the nature of the material and also so that rocks and stones could be avoided. The boat was 26 feet long, 6 feet broad and five feet deep, but the prow was a little higher in order to stem the tide. ' 

When most of the horses were slaughtered, the refugees had their frrst proper meal since they left home. But O'Sullivan Beare, his uncle Dermot and a man named Dermot Huallachain declined the unaccustomed meat. Obviously they had some prejudice against horsemeat even though, according to one contemporary, Fynes Moryson, horsemeat was then relished in Ireland. 'Yea, they will feed on horses dying of themselves, not only upon want of flesh, but even for pleasure. ' 

The construction of the boats took two days.. They worked within a palisade which they had made on a bank inside a ditch fortified with timber. Although they were hidden in the heart of the woodland, the activities of hundreds of people cutting down trees, building frres, slaughtering, skinning and cooking horses, could not have passed unnoticed. Yet, they were not attacked by MacEgan. Perhaps he did not want to attack fellow Irishmen. He may have considered that depriving the refugees of ferries and boats was enough. More likely he did not consider his garrison strong enough to' face 0'Sullivan Beare's seasoned soldiers. He did not move against them until they were divided by the river. 

The flooded Shannon would have been as much as a quartermile wide when the first launching" of the boats took place as secretly as possible on the night of January 7, 1663 under the dim light of a quarter moon. The two boats were carried down to the river on men's shoulders. Then the big boat began to ferry soldiers over, thirty at a time, while the surviving horses were drawn after them, swimming. Disaster occurred with the coracle of the 0'Malleys into which ten of them were crowded. Trying to direct it with the paddles they had fashioned, it overturned as it swirled and turned in the swift current and, in the darkness, they all drowned. 

The currach did better. F or the rest of the night it went back and forth taking its full load every time. By daybreak the majority of soldiers were over in Galway. On the Tipperary side the resourceful Thomas Burke, commanding about twenty pikemen and twenty musketeers, was detailed to look after the women, the non-combatants and the baggage. The motto of women and civilians last may seem unchivalrous but it was merely a repetition of the way they moved throughout the march -- vanguard, followed by non-combatants, followed by the rearguard. Over on the Connaght bank there were unpleasant surprises for the troops who had completed the crossing, since they would soon be attacked. The camp followers seemed to be in good hands guarded by Burke and his picked men. 

At dawn, after the currach had made at least six or seven crossings, Burke was arranging another load consisting of civilians and baggage, when MacEgan suddenly appeared with a small force. At first his men did not wish to inflict real harm on those left behind, merely to rob them and destroy their supplies, demonstrating their energy in the Queen's service. However, as they seized the packs, they found it too easy to kill the wretched sutlers who were guarding them and drive the shrieking women across the reeds into the river to drown. 

Apparently, Burke did not interfere with MacEgan and his men initially and by the time he did it was too late because, by then, the attackers were involved in robbery and slaughter. So, Burke attacked them and his fine soldiers soon routed them. Fifteen MacEgans were killed, including Donnchadh MacEgan himself. The Four Masters, in their account of the crossing, felt it was a tragedy that should not have happened and that MacEgan had brought his own death on himself. 'Donnchadh, son of Cairbre MacEgan, began boldly to attack and fire on O'Sullivan and his people, so that at length he was obliged to be slain ... ' 

By this time the noise of the firing had attracted hordes of people to the river, partly to sightsee but also partly to plunder anything that might come their way. Burke now decided escape 

was the best for him and the rest of the party. He herded his charges on the boat, which was much overloaded and sank close to the bank. A few of the men waded ashore. Some were caught by the mob while others went into hiding. Still more performed the astonishing feat of swimming the icy river. The survivors were able to relaunch the boat and make the crossing safely. 

It was a dreadful episode and I can only attribute it to the greed of man. Those who try to defend MacEgan claim he would have lost his castle if he had not proven himself an active Queen's man. Which may be true. As well the struggle to live was particularly difficult that winter and O'Sullivan was seen as an enemy consuming scarce resources of food. Conversely, he may have been perceived as an extra source of supply to eke out scarce resources. Overall, I'm inclined to see his actions as those of a man, who saw an easy target and the old tribal instincts got the better of him. Donnchadh does not come out of the episode with much credit and, of course, he paid the price of his folly and his greed with his death. 

And so, O'Sullivan Beare passed through Lorrha and continued his journey to Leitrim, From the perspective of over 393 years it was an epic journey, endured· with great hardship and starvation. The extent of this hardship and suffering can be gleaned for the fact that in the course of fourteen days his party was reduced form 1,000 to 35 persons. The episode represents an incredible level of decimation. On a beautiful July evening in the shadow of this castle it is difficult for us to comprehend the episode. The country has changed so much, communications have improved so greatly, our creature comforts have been satisfied to such an extent, that it is well nigh impossible to imagine a body of men and women, poorly clad by our standards, cold and wet and hungry, plodding on to an unknown destination in the depths of winter and so much at the mercy of the inhabitants that death stared around every corner and from behind every tree. It is right and fitting that we should recall their plight and remember that these inhabitants of Ireland passed this way all those years ago and left their mark on our landscape and, perhaps, left the O'Sullivans, who have been so much a part of the parish for so long, behind them. 

But, the epic journey has an added significance and a relevance to all who live in rural Tipperary. The way of life in many of the parishes is threatened by emigration or by migration to bigger centres of population. Fewer and fewer people chose to live in rural Ireland and many of the things that rural Ireland stands for and its way of life are under threat. Do people lie down and say this is inevitable because of an unstoppable impetus to urbanisation? Or, do they say this need not be if we stand up and be counted and make an attempt to stop what appears to be a tide of inevitability? 

I believe that the Slieve Felim Holidays organisation is a gesture in that direction. This group of people have said that something can be done, albeit small, to stem this tide of rural depopulation. They have organised this series of walking and clans festivals around the historic march of 0'Sullivan Beare and for that reason we are here this evening. I think it is a marvellous gesture, a sign of resilience and a defiant no to any inevitability in the course of things. I believe also that the organisation could not have taken a more suitable inspiration for their effort than the march of O'Sullivan Beare. He and his clan found themselves facing inevitable extinction back in 1602. They were not prepared to die. The instinct to survive was strong and the only way to survive was to undertake a perilous march to a friendly castle in Leitrim. The group endured incredible hardship, suffering and death and few survived to tell the tale. But the clan survived. I believe their action can give rural Ireland the kind of inspiration to take initiatives which will help its people to continue living in our parishes. We have a scenic land, we have mountains and valleys, vistas and streams, walks and scenic routes and many of the things that modern tourists are in search off. The Slieve Felim Holidays association is trying to develop this potential to bring people into the area and by doing so give employment and help revive it. It may be a small gesture but it represents a fine intent and a much nobler pursuit than sitting down and doing nothing. Let us all take inspiration from what O'Sullivan Beare and his people did so many years ago and translate it into practical endeavours for the future of rural Ireland.