The Retreat of O’Sullivan Bere



After the destruction of Dunboy Castle, on June 22, 1602, Donal O’Sullivan, Chieftain of Bere, retired to his stronghold, the romantic and beautiful region of Glengarriff. Here for many months he defied the efforts of the English to dislodge him, but gradually his position became more desperate, and he resolved to fly from his native home, and seek shelter among the kindly and yet unconquered people of the north. The prospect of the retreat, even under the most auspicious circumstances in mid-winter, was not a cheerful one, but to make conditions worse, Sir George Carew, anticipating his hazardous enterprise, had sent forth orders broadcast, threatening all and sundry, on peril of being punished as O’Sullivan’s covert or open abettors, to harass him in every way, and the petty chieftains, dreading the wrath of the cruel president, were prepared to embarrass the march of the chieftain of Bere as far as lay in their power. However, O’Sullivan recked not the dangers that lay before him, and on December 31, 1602, he left Glengarriff, and faced on his perilous journey to the north. His force consisted of four hundred fighting men and six hundred non-combatants, including women and children, servants, aged and infirm people.


(This poem was recited by Stephen Quill of the USA in community halls, on roadsides and pubs all along the route during the Re-enactment of The Retreat in December 2002and January 2003. )



Dunboy lay in ruins, no shelter was there

For it’s dauntless chieftain, O’Sullivan Bere,

Betrayed by his kinsmen, harassed by his foes,

Troubles and dangers before him arose;

With no home but the mountains, no roof but the sky,

Surrounded by foes he determined to fly.

But where could he face? Alas! it was true,

All Munster was held by the cruel Carew.



But Ulster, brave Ulster, unconquered and bold,

Would give him a refuge from hunger and cold;

And thither he’d lead__himself in the van__

The famed but depleted O’Sullivan clan.

Though winter was come, all dangers he’d brave;

His true-hearted followers’ honour to save;

While his arm had strength his good sword to wield,

To the cold-blooded Saxon he never would yield.



The crafty Carew had an order sent forth

To impede O’Sullivan’s retreat to the north,

And who’er dared to succour the bold rebel chief,

Would mourn his action__his triumph would be brief.

Was there e’er such a plight for a chieftain to face?

But cowardice and fear was unknown to his race;

Though death lay before him, he’d venture and dare,

And Carew would not capture O’Sullivan Bere.



O’Sullivan knew that no time could he waste,

And soon all his clan were assembled in haste;

A thousand brave souls replied to his call,

Resolved with their chieftain to conquer or fall,

And out of that number, oh! pitiable sight,

But a scanty four hundred were able to fight;

The rest of the force, six hundred all told,

Were women and children, and feeble and old.



Ah! Sorrowful day, the last of the year,

When the brave clan commenced that journey so drear;

Then fond ties were sundered, fond memories arose

To darken and deepen the fugitives’ woes.

But dangers that threatened o’ershadowed their grief,

And sobbing and wailing and crying were brief;

Yet say was each heart and wet was each eye,

As they bade loved Glengarriffe a lasting good-bye.



Onward, right onward, the fugitives hied,

And Acharis they reached that same even tide;

Through famed Ballyvourney they next took their way,

At the shrine of St. Gobnat they tarried to pray;

And soon their misfortunes in earnest began,

When the faithless McCarthy attacked the brave clan.

But fiercely they fought and defeated the foe,

Then marched by Duhallow to Green Aherlow.





At Bellaghy’s ford they met the attack

Of Barry’s retainers, and soon drove them back;

Then over the river and forward again,

With patience they pushed into Aherlow glen.

From Aherlow’s refuge they marched the next day;

And many succumbed to the hard, toilsome way;

Still on they advanced__despite every snare__

The brave faithful clan of O’Sullivan Bere.



On the sixth day of January, the clan camped beside

The great, lordly Shannon, flowing deeply and wide__

Too wide! For alas! No boat could they find,

While the enemy’s forces approached from behind.

Were they caught in a trap? Where could they go?

With the river before them, behind them the foe?

O’Sullivan’s followers were filled with despair,

But hope filled the heart of the chieftain of Bere.



His genius conceived a most far-seeing plan

To safeguard the lives of his hapless clan,

With branches and saplings and soft undergrowth,

He hastily fashioned the frame of a boat.

He next killed some horses and soon had them flayed,

And with their strong skins, a currach he made,

And their flesh, served as meat, seemed dainty and rare,

To the famishing clan of O’Sullivan Bere.



On the newly-made currach the fugitives crossed

O’er the waves of the Shannon by wintry winds tossed;

MacEgan of Redwood, attacking their rear,

Was killed in the fight and the clansmen got clear.

Then onwards and northwards the fugitives fought,

And every new furlong fresh enemies brought,

And their numbers decreased with each desperate fight,

Till now scarce three hundred take part in the flight.




At Aughrim a force of eight hundred men lurk,

Commanded by Malby and Sir Thomas Burke;

But the brave men of Bere a great victory gain,

And Malby and Burke lay dead on the plain.

Next crossing Slieve Muire, their progress is slow,

For the ground is here covered with deep drifts of snow;

MacDavid pursues them, but soon he retires,

Their valour that coward with terror inspires.



And now the brave fugitives’ patience is tried,

The pathways are strange, and they have not a guide;*

But the Great God of Mercy provides one, and lo!

No longer they suffer attacks from the foe.

The castle of Brefney next day is espied,

And the toil-worn fugitives hail it with pride.

To heaven their voices they joyously raise,

In Prayers of thanksgiving and accents of praise.



With a cead mile failte O Ruairc Brefney’s Chief,

Gives the staggering fugitives food and relief.

But, alas and alas! the great fearless clan

Have sadly grown small since the journey began.

Of a thousand brave souls, but a bare thirty-five,

Along with their chieftain, at Brefney arrive;

Some fifty or more reach safety next day.

All the others are dead or have strayed on the way.



Men talk of young Cyrus and his famous retreat,

Have they ever e’en heard of O’Sullivan’s feat?

And yet can we read a more heart-stirring tale,

Than this story of bravery of old Innisfail,

When rather than fawn to the harsh conquering foe,

The gallant O’Sullivan faced hardship and woe.

Such deeds should inspire us to do and to dare,

Like the gallant intrepid O’Sullivan Bere.


*A woman believed to be Our Lady strangely appeared as a guide.

Taken from "WEST CORK AND IT’S STORY" by J. O’Mahony.