Days of the Blackthorn: Faction fighting and brutal activity in Kerry

Faction fighting in Ireland lasted from the start of the 18th century to the end of the 19th, yet has received little attention from historians.

It consisted of mass brawls at Irish fairs, markets, funerals, race meetings and other gatherings.

In ‘Days of the Blackthorn’, folklore researcher Seán Moraghan provides a visceral sense of this brutal activity in Co Kerry.

In this exclusive extract, he recounts the enmity between two notorious families, the Cooleens and the Lawlers, that led to the Battle of Ballyeagh that took place on June 24, 1834, at Ballyeigh Strand, near Ballybunion

    ‘In Kerry, at least in the northern part of it, the cry of “Here is a Cooleen!” [at] a fair or any public place of meeting, was promptly answered by “hurroo, here is a Lawlor for ever!”’

    – The Tralee Chronicle, 11 September 1868

Of all the districts of the county, North Kerry had the greatest reputation for faction activity. There, fighting at fairs, pattern days and races was endemic.

Many of the fights in this wide area were carried out by the two most famous gangs of North Kerry, the Cooleens and the Lawlors (although there were also other factions at work, such as the Dillanes at Duagh and the Ballymacks at Ballylongford).

During the 1830s it was stated that the Cooleens and the Lawlors had been feuding for ‘above half a century’, so perhaps since the 1780s. The Lawlors fought in combination with their allies, the Mulvihills, also known as the ‘Black Mulvihills’.

Faction fighting between families was endemic across Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in North Kerry.
Faction fighting between families was endemic across Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in North Kerry.

The Lawlors and Mulvihills came chiefly from the northernmost barony of Kerry, Iraghticonnor, and their faction was sometimes known as the Iraghts, or the Iraght Men.

A writer in The Tralee Chronicle commented: “It was a very general thing to see a man of the Lawlor faction married to a woman of the Cooleens, and vice versa; and, to the credit of the ladies … rarely have they abandoned the principles of their youth.

Thus it was that many families were divided among themselves, and, in their eagerness to gain over the husband, the leaders did not hesitate to make the wife use that awful means of influence – a curtain lecture; and if she were unable to get him to fight for her party, to endeavor, at all events, to keep him at home the day of battle.

“It sometimes happened, too, that where the father of a family was not a fighting man, the sons took different sides, according as their affection inclined towards the paternal or maternal relatives.”

Limerick man Richard Denihan (speaking in the 1960s on the basis of his father’s recollections) observed: ‘There were laws too about servant-boys, as to whom they’d be with. Because very often a Black Mulvihill servant boy would be working with a Cúilín farmer.’

It was later observed that ‘sides were taken because of family connections and district affiliations but there was no specific territory completely sympathetic with either side.’

(Perhaps such anomalies are reflected in a fight of 1865 in which a number of men assaulted a man named Mulvihill, who, a policeman had to explain, ‘instead of being a Mulvihill happened to be a Cooleen’.

Despite their allegiances, both parties’ antipathy did not necessarily spill over into daily life; apart from their ‘dreadful fights’, commented a contemporary, he had known the two opposing parties ‘to meet and work at digging ground in the same field, converse together, and have no altercation whatever’.

Different issues were later suggested to have lain at the foot of the factions’ long-lived hostility towards each other.

There was the story of an attempted sale of a horse to a Lawlor man in a forge in Coolnaleen:

The buyer of the horse demanded a minimum height in his prospective purchase but the horse in question was a half inch short … seemingly, the buyer in the course of the bargaining stalked from the forge in the traditional manner of all dealers, but later, on persuasion and in keeping with tradition, returned.

At this stage the seller demanded that the animal be again measured and this time the horse’s height measured up to all requirements.

Faction fighting between families was endemic across Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in North Kerry.
Faction fighting between families was endemic across Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in North Kerry.

The astute buyer, however … had his eyes open and noticed a difference in the horse’s shoes. The dexterous smith had in his absence changed the shoes for ones with advantageous ‘cocking’ that lifted the horse the required half inch.

Alternatively, the conflict may have originated from an incident where ‘a man named Lalor was beaten by some parties from a district named Cool … and gradually large numbers of young men were enrolled on both sides’.

Another tale related that the rivalry started with a row at a May fair in Listowel between some Coolnaleen men and some Lawlor men from Maghera ‘over the comparative merits of potatoes grown in both districts’.

Colourful as these stories are, the factions’ great enmity may have had a more banal source. The Cooleens were Kerry natives, while the Lawlors and the Mulvihills were comparative outsiders.

In the early 1600s, the Lawlors (or Lalors) had been among seven strong families (‘septs’) transplanted from Queen’s County where they had been regarded as too hostile to the English plantations established there; they were subsequently settled around Tarbert, in Iraghticonnor.

Similarly, in the mid-1600s, the O’Briens, lords of Co. Clare, who owned the lordship of Tarbert, settled many Clare families in North Kerry, including the Mulvihills; this created resentment among several local families, and ‘led to many bloody fights’.

The Cooleen faction mostly comprised ‘representatives of old Kerry families’, chiefly the Flahertys, as well as the Ahernes, the Bání O’Connors and the Sheehys. Another account also numbered the Houlihans, the O’Callaghans and the Roches in their ranks.

On the other side, the Lawlors and Black Mulvihills were supported by the Walshs, the Keanes, the O’Briens, the Sullivans and the Enrights.

The Cooleens and the Lawlors often met at Listowel.

Indeed both groups were characterised in 1826 as ‘Listowel factions’.

In January 1828, they arrived there shouting and roaring and wheeling their cudgels, ‘and with genuine whiskey courage, driving men, women, children, pigs, cows, goats, and sheep before them in sad dismay’.

Afterwards, The Kerry Evening Post stated that the assistant barrister and local magistrates were determined: ‘to suppress the horrible and demoralising spirit of faction and outrage which has long been the curse and disgrace of this country, and which in almost every instance, proceeds from an immoderate use of whiskey: and to such a pitch has this savage spirit arisen in Listowel and its neighbourhood, that a very respectable Magistrate of that vicinity, declared it was impossible with safety to carry on the ordinary business or intercourse between man and his neighbour at fairs or markets.’

At Listowel bridge, in December 1831, Maurice Shea, a servant, was attacked by Patrick Sullivan, William Bourke and John Bourns.

While returning from the town fair, Shea was ‘hurraing for the Sheas, Cantys, and Coolheens’, and in what may have been a sequel to a previous fight, he used his stick to hit a cart on which a sister of one of his assailants was sitting.

A fight ensued which finished when the woman held him down on the ground while Sullivan ‘gave him the last fatal blow with a two-handed stick’.

After the inquest into his death, The Kerry Evening Post observed: ‘It is very generally the consequence of faction and party feuds, among the lower orders of the people, that the defeated faction will seek every opportunity of waylaying and murdering individuals of the victorious party.’

Sullivan was very quickly apprehended, but Bourke and Bourns went on the run. Sullivan was sentenced to transportation for seven years, while the other two men, who were eventually captured and later stood trial, were acquitted.

In 1834, it was said that ‘scarce a fair day passed at Listowel without a serious fight’.

In other episodes in Listowel, John Stokes, described by a policeman as ‘one of those who did bad work in the country’, was arrested with stones in his hands and ‘in the act of calling out for Cooleens and factions’ at the fair held in August 1836.

In February 1848, both parties fought at a fair in the town. Ten years later, five men were sent to prison for violent assault and faction fighting in the Listowel area, ‘arising out of the old Cooleen and Lawlor feud’.

Their feud was not just centred in Listowel, however. Ardfert too ‘was, for many years, the theatre of bloodshed between rival parties known as Cooleens and Lalors’.

It was a Cooleen stronghold and included an area called Cuil, which was remembered as ‘the largest street in Old Ardfert, and the brigade headquarters of the old faction fighters’ – it may have contributed to the faction nickname.

A fair there in June 1832 ‘was very much impeded by a fight between two well-known factions, the Lawlors and Cooleens’, which was ‘at length put down with difficulty by the persevering efforts of William Collis … a magistrate of the County’.

At a fair a month later, there was a ‘barbarous riot’ in which a number of men were ‘irrecoverably maimed and rendered forever unable to earn support for themselves or their wretched families’.

At a fair in 1846 ‘skirmishes commenced between the old rival factions, the Cooleens and Lawlors’, with their mobs on this occasion amounting ‘to several thousands’. Among the participants was a woman ‘who supported the assailants with stones from her apron during the assault’.

During the event, after handcuffing a man, a policeman became separated from his fellows and was trapped and beaten by the crowd: ‘Leahy [the policeman] was down in a saw pit and many assaulting him, still holding with a death grasp his manacled charge.’

Faction fighting between families was endemic across Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in North Kerry.
Faction fighting between families was endemic across Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in North Kerry.

A farmer from the neighbourhood of Ballyheigue intervened and, ‘with persevering exertions, and at great personal sacrifice warded off the foolish people’.

In 1857, magistrates meeting to decide the allocation of police to different districts still considered that ‘the people of the neighbourhood were very much addicted to drinking in the public houses in the village, and to rioting and disorder’.

Various other villages of North Kerry also provided platforms for the feuding parties. Fighting took place in Newtownsandes (later known as Moyvane):

Long ago people used to fight with blackthorn sticks … That fighting used to be going on in Newtownsandes between people called the Cooleens and the Black Mulvihills.

They fought after Mass on Sundays, and when they met at fairs and markets they fought also. The parish priest of Newtownsandes often tried to stop the fighting but it was of no use.

One Sunday they met to fight a terrible battle. They were fighting from about nine o’clock in the morning [until] about five o’clock in the evening, and at that time one of the Cooleens was dead.

At Lisselton, on Christmas Day 1828, Maurice Flaherty was attacked by three men of the Mulvihills and a man named Fitzgerald, and ‘cruelly beaten’ with sticks and stones.

‘It appeared that a drunken fellow [,] one Fitzgerald, infuriated with whiskey, brandished his cudgel and halloed for one faction; he was instantly replied to, and a most bloody affray soon commenced.’

It was asserted that Flaherty was killed ‘under circumstances of the

most shocking and unmerciful cruelty’.

John Mahony Mulvahill, ‘a young man’, was convicted of manslaughter, and, seemingly based on the terrible nature of the killing, sentenced to transportation for life, ‘amidst the deafening shrieks and lamentations of his male and female friends’.

At Ballyheigue, on the evening of St Patrick’s Day 1839, a crowd of about 20 people, whom a policeman believed to be Cooleens and Lawlors, struck each other ‘as hard as they could pelt’.

At Beale, Ballybunion, the pattern day ‘was usually marked out for a faction fight between the two great factions then in North Kerry — the Cooleens and the Mulvihills’, said a later folklore interviewee.

A recollection of Beale fair, which was held on 21 September, written in 1928, stated: ‘It was the battle ground of the old faction fighters and next to Ballyeigh ranked as North Kerry’s biggest event. Many and sanguinary were the fights that took place there between the rival factions that held sway in North Kerry and old men still tell tales of broken heads and bones.’

The two parties also met at the pattern days held annually in Knockanure on 15 August.

In the earlier part of the nineteenth century this Pattern was the scene of many a faction-fight between what were known as the Couleens and the black Mulvihills; young and old assembled there to see the fight; the contending parties being armed with black-thorn sticks … Hard strokes were given and received, and many a young man was maimed for life.

The fortunes of war varied from year to year, the defeated party always turning up the next year with fresh men, and attacked their opponents with renewed vigour.

We must suspect that some of the earliest faction fights in North Kerry involved the Cooleens and the Lawlors–Black Mulvihills, even if there is no definitive proof.

Perhaps they were the ‘two contending parties’ who fought in Listowel in 1806, or the two factions who entered the town and engaged in a furious attack on each other in 1814.

Not surprisingly, at various times and places attempts were made to put a stop to the activities of the two gangs.

This was often, though not exclusively, undertaken by the clergy, such as at Newtownsandes following the day-long fight which left a man dead: ‘Every other Sunday after that the priest came out in the street after Mass, and ordered all the people to go home, and not to fight any more.

The two sides were advised by him, and they never again fought.’

In December 1828, ‘to reconcile contending factions’, a priest had a large crowd of people from Ballylongford, Lisselton, Tarbert and the Galey walk, as a penance, from Tarbert to Tralee.

In 1832, there was an effort to persuade the two parties to cease fighting by a gentleman from Brandonwell, Ardfert, and it was reported that ‘a cordial and sincere reconciliation has taken place between the factions of the Couleens and Lawlors.

That honest and ardent patriot, Mr J O’Connor … has been chiefly instrumental in effecting this good work.’ Such reconciliations did not last.


Over the course of the two gangs’ long existence several notable fighters stood out, and stories about them continued to be remembered among the people of North Kerry long after the factions had ceased to exist.

By far the most famous of these men was John, known as Seón, Burns, who fought with the Cooleens. He was ‘a well-to-do farmer’ from Coolaneelig, Duagh.

According to a folklore source from the Listowel area, he was ‘a powerfully built man’, standing ‘about five feet eleven inches high with shoulders like a gint [giant] and weighing about 17 stone’.

It was from his mother that Burns got ‘the terrible strength’, said another. ‘She was a Kenny from Castle Island known here as old Mammy Kenny. Her people were known to be terrible strong.’

Another Cooleen hero was Neanntanán Sheehy. ‘[He] was famed far and wide for his strength. There was only one person stronger than him and that was Seón Burns,’ recalled Richard Denihan, whose father had been a member of the Cooleens:

“Neanntanán Sheehy was engaged in very many factions and he was never brought to his knees by any man, but he met his doom in the end and I’ll tell you how he did because I was witness to it. We were living below in Athea at that time.

“Myself and my brother Tom were only garsúns about seven or eight at the time. We were sent to bed early in the night and the window of our room looked out in the street. About eleven o’clock we heard some skirmish in the street and faith we jumped up to the window.

“Who should be in the street but Neanntanán Sheehy — we knew his voice well— and two other men. My mother, God rest her, came down to us. ‘Who are they, Mother?’ says Tom. ‘Oh,’ says my mother, ‘that’s Neanntanán Sheehy and two men from over in Knockanare.’ With that the fight started and one of them must have hit Neanntanán and knocked him for we heard one of the men saying to the other ‘Hit him down on the head.’

“My mother told us to leave the window and she went away.

“Next morning Neanntanán was over inside the wall and he covered with blood. He died later on in the day. My mother warned us on our life not to cough a word as to what we saw or heard. ‘For,’ says she, ‘we didn’t see anyone, only heard them, and so we can’t be sure.’ … My mother the poor woman didn’t want to come into any trouble if she could avoid it.

The harm was done and she didn’t want to bring the wrath of the others upon her. The place was full of police for a few days but they never took anyone for the murder, and it all passed away.

The Lawlors and Black Mulvihills also had their champions. Gearóid Mulvihill was descended from the Mulvihills of Knockanira, Co. Clare, who ‘had the reputation of being great fighters and men of splendid physique’.

He ‘led the Black Mulvihills in many a bloody contest. Gearóid used to stuff his hat with hay so as to lessen the impact of the blows on his head.’ The following story about him also features ‘a formidable fighter’ for the Cooleens, Seán Sheehy, from Coolaneelig, who was known as the Dailc (‘the hulk’).

Gearóid Mulvihill had many notable victories and was held in high esteem even by his enemies. At that time the champions of different factions used to challenge each other to fight in order to see who was the better man … Big Jim Hartnett of Abbeyfeale sent a challenge to Gearóid, which he accepted. He took none of his followers with him.

It was a long hard fight which Gearóid eventually won. When the Abbeyfeale men saw their leader stretched on the ground they rushed at Gearóid and almost killed him.

The Dailc and his followers, who were present, went to his rescue and beat back his attackers. The Dailc took him to his own home and got two doctors to attend him. After a long illness Gearóid recovered, but he fought no more.

Daniel Keane was another strongman. ‘It is told of him that he often took a sack of meal on his back from Duagh village to his home in Lybes nearly half a mile away.’ He was ‘Second only to Shone Burns … he often measured his strength against Shone.’

Another folklore interviewee remembered: ‘One Sunday the Cooleens wanted to prevent the Mulvihills of going to Mass. Shone (Seón) was not there that day.

The Cooleens lined up at each side of the road and Daniel Keane led his party, and the Cooleens striking him at each side, his head was turning from side to side with the blows of blackthorn sticks, [but] he cleared the way and every man he struck fell to the ground.’

Seán Doody, known as Shawn Láidir (‘the strongman’), also fought for the Mulvihills. A tall tale was told to convey his strength: ‘Beale strand was crowded with people as well as the usual tents & apple carts seen at a race meeting’, reported a folklore interviewee of the local pattern day.

‘Shawn Láidir [,] wishing to clear a space for the opposing parties [to] meet on, went over to an apple cart and took the donkey which was unharnessed by the side of the cart.

Days of the Blackthorn: Faction fighting and brutal activity in Kerry

Catching the donkey by the tail he raised him up & swung him around & flung him right over a tent and into the midst of the crowd scattering the people in all directions.’

Women also took part in fighting for both these factions, but some of them had another role, that of bainfhile, partisan songwriters who could quickly conjure up verses to celebrate the heroes of their own faction or mock their rivals.

The pride and the passion of the Cooleens, the Lawlors and the Mulvihills, so well demonstrated in these verses, was most fiercely and fatally expressed on the field of battle at Ballyeagh strand, near Ballybunion, on Tuesday 24 June 1834.

There a huge number of men and women amassed for a conflict which transformed into a rout and left between eighteen and twenty-nine people dead, scandalised the local and national press, required two official inquiries, and resulted in transportation or imprisonment for a number of North Kerry men.

From Days of the Blackthorn — Faction fighters of Kerry by Seán Moraghan, published by Mercier. Now available nationwide @ €16.99.

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