Phillip O’Sullivan Beara (1590? -1660)

A lot of the detail of The Retreat of O’Sullivan Beare was published in a work by Philip O’Sullivan in 1621. This article takes a critical look at this and Philip’ other works and their position in 17th Century literature.




Philip O’Sullivan Beare, commonly known as Don Philip, son of Dermot O’Sullivan Beare and nephew of Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare, was born around 1590 at his father’s castle in Dursey Island. He was sent to Spain in 1602 as hostage to King Philip III in return for agreed aid to the O’Sullivans. He lived out his life there, with a career in the Spanish Navy and a second profession as a writer and ‘historian.’ A rumour that he returned to Ireland and died in a Franciscan Convent in Cork is without foundation; in fact, it’s the kind of thing he might have written himself.


Best Known Work


Historiae Catholicae Iberniae Compendium’ (Compendium of Irish Catholic History published in 1621) is Philip’s best known work, which showcases his own family, the O Sullivans, and has guaranteed legendary status to the winter-march led by his uncle, Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare, and his father Dermot. Other commentators attest many of the incidents in this epic event, and the march was so dramatic that it may have needed little embellishment from Philip’s partisan imagination.


Elsewhere in the work, his accuracy is more suspect. Philip couldn’t resist making a good story better – which is a virtue in a novelist, a flaw in a historian.


Philip’s famous description of the Irish people, written in exile in Spain, is worth quoting at length. (The original is in Latin, as is all of Philip’s writing.)


The Irish, he says, are ‘men of an ingenious and liberal disposition, who take honour in the scholarly and military side of their earthly life, who abhor servitude and mechanical labour, who are benign and hospitable to each other, and even more so to strangers, and most friendly. As they are of elegant build, so too they are of great physical and intellectual vigour, highly skilled in warfare, and most patient of cold, heat, thirst and hunger…’

Nothing wrong with that is there? Philip doesn’t let accuracy get in the way of propaganda. It’s a lot better than the comment Archbishop Lombard made at the same time, in which he describes his fellow-Irish as ‘…all too indolent, whence they are all the more prone to lapse into love-making and carousing.’


Philip, we might conclude, rather than the Archbishop, is the man to have on our side in troubled times. Don’t be too sure! Philip is not quite in control. In defending the honour of his uncle, Donal Cam O Sullivan Beare, he got into a duel with one John Bathe. Donal Cam, the innocent observer, was stabbed to death in the quarrel. Collateral damage! Philip of course remained unharmed. Be very, very careful around Don Philippo, as the Spaniards called him. If something nasty happens, the odds are it won’t happen to him. A born survivor, he outlived sixteen brothers and sisters.


Catholic Defender


The fiction of Cervantes, creator of Don Quixote, was published during his lifetime and its picaresque traits can be recognised in his prose, competing with the dogmatic tones of fundamentalist orthodoxy. An exile, Philip wore his heart on his sleeve and it dripped constantly onto the page. As a passionate writer in defence of Catholicism, his exaggerations and inaccuracies caused his Catholic colleagues at the time to wince and their successors have been cringing ever since.


He claimed as fact that an eyewitness account of the passion and person of Christ was given to King Conor Mac Nessa by a pilgrim. Also, that St. James, the Apostle, preached the faith in Ireland, and that his father, Zebedee, was our first bishop.


His ignorance of fact could be astonishing, destroying any credibility he might have strained for as an historian, (and yet he comments smugly on the esteem in which Irish historians are held by their people.) In castigating the English for disloyalty to the Church, he assumed that Frederick the First was king of England and he gave that king’s treatment of the Pope as an example of English infidelity.


Its Jesuit editor with admirable reserve describes part of his ‘Zoilomastix’ (A Lash for the Detractor) as a book ‘filled with rhetorical denunciations and inaccurate statements.’

‘Archicornigeromastix’ is a famously abusive attack on the Protestant Archbishop Ussher of Armagh, whose work Philip is unlikely to have read. That didn’t prevent him from heaping a volume of purely personal insults on Ussher’s unfortunate head. The very coarseness of the abuse has left commentators (usually academic priests) tight-lipped and whiteknuckled ever since. Ussher himself described Philip O Sullivan Beare as ‘the most egregious liar of any in Christendom.’


Egregious is a fine word for ‘blatant’. And Archicornigeromastix means ‘A Lash for the Arch-horned One.’ (Of course it shouldn’t be forgotten that Ussher was the man who calculated the birth of the universe at 4004 BC)


In another lapse, Philip’s research on the life of St. Ailbhe, submitted for publication to the Catholic scholars at Louvain, was criticised and rejected for errors ‘likely to damage the author’s reputation.’ And everyone else’s reputation too. No doubt his Irish contemporaries on the Continent, keen to make an intelligent case for their homeland, were aware of the danger posed by Philip’s scattergun style of propaganda.




Philip’s religious writings were a small part (fortunately) of an Irish crusade-in-exile designed to reaffirm Ireland as the true and original ‘island of saints and scholars.’ The broader purpose was to establish Ireland’s credibility and reputation in Catholic Europe, and also of course to influence attitudes and events at home.

The response of the Roman Church to the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s was the Counter-Reformation. The Jesuits, founded by Ignatius of Loyola, aggressively led a campaign to support Catholic doctrine. The members of the order acting behind the scenes in the Catholic monarchies, exercised a strong influence in political spheres. Jesuit priests often acted as confessors to major political leaders. One of Philip’s teachers was Father John Synnott, an Irish Jesuit


This Counter-Reformation lobby was based in the Irish colleges and monasteries abroad. (By 1600, forty priests were returning home each year from these seminaries. By 1611, there were twelve colleges, with Franciscans and Jesuits as the most influential.)

Catholicism in Ireland was under severe attack by the Protestant Reformation. It must be remembered though that the Catholic Church in Ireland had been a peculiarly Irish institution with strands of paganism, secularism, and corruption comfortably overlapping.

Pro-English writers – propagandists – were stripping away Ireland’s dubious claims to a history of pure and ardent piety. All the saints for example, including St. Patrick and St. Brigid, were temporarily kidnapped and declared, not Irish, but Scottish, in a stunning coup that left the country spiritually exposed without a shred of official sanctity to clothe its naked soul. The loss of the Irish saints was the single biggest religious controversy of the early 1600s, (to the Irish of course.)


The scholars of the Irish colleges responded with a flurry of research and publication, a successful wave of counter-propaganda that won back the saints for Ireland. (It was as if Greece reclaimed the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum.) The effort was to lead directly to the compilation of all Irish history, at the instigation of the college at Louvain, culminating in the Annals of the Four Masters, completed in 1636.


While many of these Irish writers in the Counter-Reformation were as judicious and balanced as it was possible to be in that period, Philip O Sullivan Beare was less troubled by scruples. His purpose was to outpropagandise his opponents, and if argument didn’t do it then he would shout them down. His writing shows more of the trowel than the pen, with zeal and emotion plastered onto a lattice of prose.


He was of course attempting to influence European Catholic opinion in favour of Ireland’s cause, as is evident even from the title of his best known work: ‘Historiae Catholicae Iberniae Compendium.’ He presented a dramatic image of the Gael, noble by nature and ancestry, Catholic by conviction, cruelly besieged by the heretical invader. (The peasants of course had no role other than as rabble.)


The underlying message to the Continent was that the same Reformation-heretics would undermine Catholic Europe, and that only the defeat of the disease in Ireland could stop its cancerous spread. Catholic Europe paid very little heed.


Philip’s view of the Irish and of Irishness was genealogical and exclusive. Although Irish society by the early 1600s was composed of many strands (which would have to be accommodated somehow), Philip’s sense of Irishness was reserved for the Gaelic Gael, Catholic by definition. He was not alone in this, and the influence of that perspective, articulated into the bloodstream then, can be traced right through to modern Ireland.


Further, the true Gael as represented by Philip, was understood to have arrived in Ireland originally from Spain, (the Milesian theory), an argument which helped secure pensions and status for noble Irish exiles to Spain, chief among them Philip’s own family.

A case in which it paid, literally, to have Philip on one’s side…