The Retreat Of O’Sullivan Beara


By Jerry O’Sullivan (with additional

information by Donal MacSuibhne and Seán Ó Suilleabháin)




(I dtosach, nílim a rá gurb ainm Ó Súilleabháin atá nios tabhachtaí ná nios isle na aon ainm eile. Tá sé de dhulgas ar gach einne eolais a bheith aige faoin a ainm fein, Cad as a thanaig sé, cad is bri leis agus cad a dhein daoine airithe leis an ainm sin.

A moral judgement is not being made of the rights and wrongs of this period. There are no rights and wrongs in war just winners and losers. The writer’s feelings on this period are at best ambivalent. But in history the writing hand having written moves on. It remains to future generations to learn its lessons.)




ENGLISH: For the purposes of these articles, English will mean those fighting for Queen Elizabeth I of England, and to further English interests and policies in Ireland. Most of these people were indeed Irish – also known as Queen’s Irish.

IRISH: As a term used here more narrowly defined as anyone opposing the aims and policies of the English and their allies. Ireland in 1600 most closely resembled Afghanistan today or Bosnia in the early 1990’s, a shifting reality of fragile alliances – today’s friend being tomorrow’s enemy and a friend again on Thursday week.

The March: Donal Cam O’Sullivan Bere, Chieftain of the O’Sullivan Bere Clan, marched from the Beara Peninsula in County Cork to Breifne Castle in Leitrim village, County Leitrim, in 14 days. The march covered well over 250 miles, in the terrible cold, wet and snow of January and the marchers were harassed and attacked continually. The march, for the first 10 days at least, involved the vanguard punching their way through any and all resistance, which at least during daylight hours seems to have been continuous. The rearguard kept any pursuit at bay. In between these two groups were camp followers, baggage, supplies and civilians who seem to have suffered most during the march. Great clouds of gunpowder smoke usually obscured either side from seeing much of each other.

Gallowglass: These Irish wars were not the stuff of ‘Braveheart’. Donal Cam’s men were for the most part hired men called Gallowglasses. These men from the Highlands and islands of Scotland were of Norse-Scots blood and followed their trade well into the 1600’s – forerunners of the Wild Geese. They were paid about 3d a day, all found, following O’Neill’s reorganization of the Irish armies from about 1585 onwards. They were renowned as big men. A witness, Dymoke, commenting on them in the year 1600, described them as ‘picked and selected men of great and mighty bodies. Cruel without compassion.’ Dressed in coats of mail or iron-bar lined jackets with metal helmets, guns, swords, axes, pikes, even some bows and arrows, these men stood and fought and were the equivalent of the ancient shield wall. They were very proud of their tradition as violent power for hire.

KERN/BONNAGHTS: Irish light-infantry. Un-armoured, lightly armed with spears, darts, short swords and some guns, these troops were used for scouting and ambush and were usually a Chief’s personal retainers, extended family or Irish youth for hire or adventure.

GUNS: Large heavy, cumbersome early muskets called arquebases were in general employment in Ireland at this time. They were about 5 -10 kgs in weight and could be loaded and fired at about 1 shot every 1 – 2 minutes or 40 shots an hour. The cost of an arquebase was the equivalent of six cows.

VANGUARD: A portion of an army which precedes that army.

REARGUARD: A force which defends that army’s rear.

PLASHING: Weaving live tree branches together to create walls to stop or funnel your enemy’s movements.

AMPHIBIOUS: Moving men and supplies by ship to attack a land while bypassing its’ land-based defence lines.



The Period Leading Up To The March 1601- 1602


All Ancient peoples have a history replete with many confusing wars. In this, Ireland is no exception. The period involved in this article is the time after the Geraldine Wars and 9 Years War – also best known perhaps as the Wars of O’Neill and O’Donnell – which effectively ended Irish hopes with their defeat at the Battle of Kinsale in December 1601. King Philip of Spain had sent his Armada against England only 15 years previously. Elizabeth 1 was nearing the end of her long reign in England but her armies and their Irish allies were still seeking to impose English rule firmly throughout Ireland.


Kinsale had been a disaster for the Irish. Not so much because any important wing of the Irish had run away or that any of the armies there had been cowards, but because the Irish

Army had been sent on a night attack against the English lines and they had blundered about in the dark while the English, who had been warned, managed to find the Irish and slaughter them. It was a salutary lesson for the Irish who lost, some say, 4,000 and for the English who lost only 16. From now on, as advocated by Carew, Wilmot and Mountjoy, three of the ablest military commanders to ever play upon the Irish stage, the English would use deliberately induced famine (by burning crops, taking or killing cattle and sheep, and killing any who opposed them) as a tactic to fight their wars. The Irish starved while the English were supplied by ships. Campaigns would be fought in winter so as to avoid ambush as the trees would be bare and plashing or signs of it would indicate imminent attack, and the English would also use directed and surgical amphibious assault in Ireland.


May 11 – June 1, 1602 : Bantry to Beara


After The Battle of Kinsale in December 1601 the English gained control of all the castles along the south coast of Cork. By summer 1602 Beara was the only area holding out against them.


Bantry/Ballylickey was the staging area for the invading English armies who had come from the south and north between mid-May and June 1st. When the siege of Dunboy (Donal Cam O’Sullivan’s main fortress) began, the Irish waited and the English acted, foraging the countryside and taking all defensive outlying strongholds and islands while waiting for their siege cannons to arrive on ships. The Irish commander of Dunboy was Richard MacGeoghegan and his second-in-command was an Englishman named Thomas Taylor who was in the employ of the renowned mercenary leader Richard Tyrell. The English were commanded by George Carew, assisted by Charles Wilmot.


June 1 – June 16/17, 1602 : The Fall of Dunboy


By June 1st, the English besieging force numbered 4,000 and the Irish defenders of Dunboy 140. Carew had taken Bear Island and landed men on the mainland shore. Richard Tyrell had been wounded trying to repel this attack and had slipped away to Ardea in Kerry where Donal Cam was waiting for Spanish aid and Gold. Two weeks were taken while the massive English siege guns were set up where the current Puxley Mansion stands. On June 16th, the bombardment of Dunboy fortress began and a tower collapsed into the space between the fortress and an earthen bank, allowing a bridge to form. The sloping earthen bank had been built, on the advice of three Spanish gunners, who after the Battle of Kinsale, had been ordered to volunteer to remain behind in Dunboy and offer advice while the other Spanish soldiers were shipped home. The earthen bank was to absorb and deflect the pounding from the massive siege guns, but this bank proved a fatal mistake as it allowed English entry and obscured the defender’s view from the arrow slits allowing them to return fire only from the exposed top of the castle’s walls.


All the defenders were killed - most in the vicious hand-to-hand fighting, while the survivors were executed. The three Spanish gunners were the only men that Carew offered to pardon. They chose to be executed.


June 17 – December 30, 1602


The situation for the Irish in Beara was desperate. Having managed to hang on by hiding and moving and avoiding anything but small vicious guerrilla attacks when he got the opportunity, Donal Cam nevertheless was on his last legs. Richard Tyrell and his troops had deserted him and marched to the north in the autumn of 1602. His creagh of 2,000 cattle and 4,000 sheep (his people’s entire food supply) had been taken by the English and Wilmot had given him just enough time to get hungry before he moved in from Kerry to Glengarriff. The two armies camped about a mile apart and waited. Donal Cam called a meeting to decide whether to stay at home and fight or to run away and fight another day. It was decided to flee. Words are important. The difference between the words "retreat" is vast, so let’s call it a "fleeing retreat".




The March : Beara to Breifne –31/12/1602-14/01/1603


To Uibh Laoire and Ballingeary


New Year’s Eve, 1602, saw a fast moving column of O’Sullivan’s followers move towards the Pass of Ceim An Fhia. This column consisted of about 400 soldiers – 100 in front and 300 behind; and 600 to 800 in the middle - camp followers (including families and children of the hired soldiers). (Donal Cam left his own wife and infant son behind in Glengarriff on a mountain top to await his return. He never did and they were later reunited with him in Spain.)


As there wasn’t a road through the Pass at that time the group more than likely followed the Old Road up the side of the Pass and east along the side of Doughill Mountain. They then swung north to cross the River Lee at Insemore into Gortafluddig. They followed the track along Scrahanmore and on to Keimcorabhoula. The road at that time was behind Creed’s and led downhill through what later became Pat Ahern’s farm. They forded the Bunsheelin River into Gurteenakilla late in the evening of December 31st 1602 and headed for the even then, ruined church Tempeallín Aharas, two miles north of Ballingeary.


This church takes its name from the now neighbouring townland of Aharas. It’s present location in Gurteenakilla is more than likely the result of a boundary change after it’s construction. However there is also the local legend that the church moved across the valley from Aharas to its present location. This may sound implausible to many but there is evidence of such a move!. A holy-water fond can be found in the roadside stone wall just north of Aharas Cross, where it fell while the church made it’s journey across the valley. Who are we to say otherwise!?


Here O’Sullivan and his followers spent the first night of their forced march. This was McCarthy territory and they probably felt that an attack was imminent. However it would not come until the next morning in Ballyvourney. Already word must have been spreading of the movement of such a large number of people.


The group would have risen early the next morning, January 1st 1603 . Shortly after leaving Tempeallín Aharas the first serious mishap happened. O’Sullivan’s valuable horse named the Cearc Ban – that he had received as a present from O’Neill at the Siege of Kinsale – was accidentally drowned in a bog hole which is called Poll Na Circe to this day.

They travelled upwards and northwards along the old road that lay at the west bank of the river, and soon reached the spot where the town lands of Cahir and Gortnabinna meet near a cascade know as Easach Circe. From here they headed for St. Gobnait’s Shrine in

Baile Mhuirne.


Baile Mhuirne


The old road stretched north-eastwards over the Gortnabinna Mountain, through peat bogs and wet terrain. A thousand people with horses and baggage would have difficulty in negotiating this route, so they apparently decided to circumvent the mountain rather than cross it.


Tradition has it that they split into two or more groups. One group travelled west to Beal a’ Mhama, and then east along the northern slopes of Gort Ui Rathaille, crossing the river Duglais near its source, and soon reaching the Bona Ban road and so to St. Gobnait’s. Another group travelled east as far as Gortanimill town land and then north, across the river Duglais, and over the hill, meeting the others at St. Gobnait’s. Very few, if any, travelled the old road.


It is well to remember at this point that in 1601 Pope Clement VIII imparted a special Indulgence of ten years and Quarantines to the faithful who would visit the parish church of Gobnait on her feast day, would confess and receive Holy Communion, and would pray for peace among Christian princes, for the expulsion of heresy, and for the exaltation of Holy Mother Church. St. Gobnait’s, now officially recognised as a place of pilgrimage, was obviously regarded by O’Sullivan as an important place in which to stop and pray.

Having made the Rounds, they set out on their journey once more. They crossed the Sullane River, and travelled north through Kippags. Here they were attacked by a group of the McCarthy’s, and in the ensuing skirmish the O’Sullivan’s lost much baggage, but did not, apparently, suffer any casualties.


One must remember that in the previous year O’Sullivan had equipped and army of mercenaries to ravage West Muskerry and Duhallow, so this was obviously a revenge attack by the McCarthy’s.


The O’Sullivan’s beat off the attackers and continued on their journey onwards to Clondrohid Parish and Carriganimmy. The marchers would have followed a route close to the current road to Glendav.,


Through North Cork, Limerick And Tipperary


O'Sullivan Bere travelled north east to ford the river Blackwater at Boinng Ford near Millstreet and was afforded food and hospitality by O'Keefe at Boinng Castle.

The next day (Jan 2nd 1603) some O'Keefes attacked them nearby at Flintfield and the McCarthys of Drishane and Kilmeedy tried but failed to ambush them.


They travelled north to Newmarket via Maher and Derrinaturbid and were welcomed by Mc Auliffe. On hearing of a threatened attack by Barrys of Buttevant they swung east to Freemount and to Ardfinnan and the Glen of Aherlow rather than a direct approach to the River Shannon.


Here they fought their first major engagement by an English garrison assisted by the Barrys when crossing a ford near Liscarroll. The Queen's army was forced to retire through hunger and fatigue.

The column had now to cross the Golden Vale to get to the safety of the Slieve Felims. At Kilmallock, the White Knight and his mercenaries attacked. They were then attacked at the rear by the previous day's assailants but succeeded in avoiding a clash. Chief town of the Golden Vale is Kilmallock, capital of the Earls of Desmond. Mercenaries of the White Knight, the Gibbons, men from Limerick City and some Englishry, in all making up more a mob than an army, came upon O' Sullivan's host, making for the mountains. This battle may have been in the region of Knockany, Hospital or Emly. It was by far the fiercest battle that the refugees had suffered thus far.


Slieve Felim

After their heavy losses O'Sullivan and his men reached Slieve Felim, where the Twelve Peaks are seen. They camped at Solohead - a famous place, made famous by Brian Boru, Dan Breen and Sean Treacy. Here they recovered themselves and set off for Donohill (Dun Eochaille, fort of the Yew Wood) where there was a considerable store of food. Their hunger gave them the courage to storm the place and gain access to the food supplies.

Onwards then towards Cappawhite. So numerous were their attackers that the fugitives feared complete destruction. Ormond left them no choice but to defend themselves by attacking. This they did with some success, but also with some losses. Out of O'Sullivans one thousand followers only two thirds now lived. On the way they marched the road which climbs the side of Knockafine, and on to the peak of Slieve Kimalta (Sliabh Coimealta, Keeper Hill) which is nearly the highest summit seen in all the march. That night they camped at Latteragh. Then onto Knockshegowna, Lackeen and towards the river Shannon where it enters Lough Derg, north of Portumna.


The Shannon Crossing


Here boats were built on 7th – 8th of January under the direction of Dermot O’Sullivan from Dursey. The Beara men had to kill their horses and use the skin to make a twenty –six foot boat. The Connaught soldiers in O’Sullivan’s group made a smaller boat which sank under it’s first load. A crossing was affected in the early morning of the 9th of January while under attack from McEgan of Redwood Castle. It became necessary to kill McEgan since he would not cease his pillaging and killing of the weakened West Cork civilians. It is claimed that McEgan’s men found it so easy to kill these civilians that ‘they just did’. On the Connaught shore, the Maddens did likewise.


Aughrim, Co Galway


Straight northward again the following day, where the major battle of the march occurred at Aughrim. It is recorded that here Donal Cam gave his most stirring speech (off-the-cuff) and it is for this rhetoric he is best and justifiable remembered. He told his people the truth, to the effect that they were are all going to die and the only way to avoid it was to fight like tigers.


You can only imagine what they thought of this, and all for 3d a day’s pay! This was a battle which should have been a foregone conclusion. Some 800 well-armed, rested, English troops under Malby and Sir Thomas and Richard Burke, faced some 120 rearguard Irish mercenaries under Donal Cam (his vanguard of 80 soldiers had run away). His speech having properly motivated his soldiers, Donal Cam then sent 40 of his available 120 men to his rear to hold off his enemy’s allies (other Irish clans) who were already plundering his meagre baggage. He was left to face the 800 English soldiers with 80 men of his own. O’Sullivan was on low, boggy ground; the English advancing and beginning to encircle him.

He ordered his men to run away out of the low, wet ground to a grove of Sally bushes growing a few hundred yards to his rear. Seeing the retreat, the 800 English soldiers gave chase, trying to race each other, vying to be first to get to the available 80 victims. Upon reaching the grove, with the English horse floundering and making heavy-going of the chase in the low, wet ground, Donal Cam ordered a quick about-face, a volley and a charge. His men reacted with clock-work precision and Dermot O’Sullivan of Dursey Island and O’Connor Kerry (both 70 years old at the time) led the charge going in to kill Richard Burke and other English officers. Donal Cam himself was said to have ridden straight into the enemy and beheaded Malby. Sir Thomas Burke ran from the field and leaderless, the English paused. Hesitation means death in war.


Donal Cam’s vanguard, who had run away without orders, now returned, and trying to wipe out their disgrace, hacked into the English. An hour later Aughrim was strewn with English dead. Donal Cam had lost 14 – all of them from the 40 who had gone to protect his rear and baggage.


Northwards, the march continued. Since many of his remaining troops were from Connaught originally we can only assume that some of them stayed here and returned to their homes. Donal Cam, 35 men and one woman reached Leitrim village 6 days later on January 14th 1603, having suffered great privation on the Bricklieve and Curliew Mountains but having evaded further major conflicts.


Donal Cam’s Final days in Ireland


Donal Cam only stayed in Leitrim village a few days. He hired another army – Richard Tyrell and his 300 men again – and going from island to island on the Lakes of Fermanagh he sought out and deliberately hunted for any English garrison or man and put them to death.


When he reached O’Neill’s camp on the northern shore of Lough Neagh O’Neill had already gone to surrender to the English and be re-granted his title and lands. Ironic that O’Neill surrendered to a dead Queen – the news of Elizabeth’s death being withheld from him ‘till after his abject grovelling.


Towards the end of 1603 Donal Cam sailed for Spain, never to return to Ireland. Brian Og O’Rourke died soon after, while besieged. These two friends remained the only two unpardoned Irish leaders.



Another School of Thought


Having gained his Chieftaincy through the English Courts, Donal Cam O’Sullivan’s behaviour during this time leaves him open to much criticism: – his decision to join the O’Neill Campaign against the English; his treatment of the neighbouring areas bordering Beara; his post-Kinsale Battle decision to continue to fight; his refusal to send any relief to Dunboy; and when he eventually lost the means to feed his army with the loss of his creagh (cattle and sheep), his compounding of that debacle with a decision to march more than a thousand people, over half of which were non-combatants, across Ireland in the heart of a severe winter. That so many survived the Crossing of the Shannon River is a credit, not only to his determination as a war leader and the professionalism of his hired army, but also to the stamina, industriousness, ingenuity and bravery of the people of West Cork.


Donal Cam rode a horse on much of the journey and 20,000 Ducats of Spanish Gold reached Brian Og at Breifne – somewhere in the region of 1,000 people did not.


His decision to march through a country laid waste first by O’Neill’s army heading south to the Battle of Kinsale in 1601and then by the remnants of that same defeated army heading north to home; through a Munster famished and deliberately wrecked by Carew and Wilmot that previous summer; and through other people’s lands with whom he was still at war; would beg the question – Was Donal Cam a fanatic?