The Islands of Ireland: Clan’s fate sealed in fort off the coast of Cork

An old map proves to be a clue to an amazing story. The old Ordnance Survey maps, which are available online, offer fascinating information about our history, writes Dan MacCarthy.

Photo credit: John Eagle.

There is a plethora of in-depth data on estates, old place names, churches, and castles. Ireland’s narrative. Dursey Island in the Beara Peninsula is well known as the site of the massacre by Queen Elizabeth the First’s commander George Carew of about 300 followers of the last Gaelic chieftain Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare — men, women, and children.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, his stronghold on Dursey Island was wiped out in June 1602 by Carew’s forces, which included Irish mercenaries. This precipitated the epic 550km march to the safety of a friendly clan in Co Leitrim shortly afterwards. Of 1,000 followers accompanying O’Sullivan Beare, just 35 reached the destination. O’Sullivan Beare was murdered in Madrid in 1618.

“A lot of the people didn’t actually live there; in seeking their safety they actually met their death. Once they were on the island they were trapped. It was like a Greek tragedy,” says the author of the definitive history of the island, Penny Durell.

Close examination of the 1845 Ordnance Survey map indicates ‘site of drawbridge’ on the south-eastern side of Dursey Island. Drawbridge to where?

To another island of course. Oileán Beag is just about 20m off Dursey Island at high tide, and this was Donal Cam’s garrison site at Dursey in addition to his fortress at Dunboy. Another map entry shows ‘site of garrison’ and, sure enough, on close inspection distinct stonework can be seen above one of the deep gullies that penetrate the island. It is possible to clamber over the rocks at low tide from Dursey to Oileán Beag.

The traces of the fort are visible — two towers enclosed by an outer wall built right on the edge of the precipice. From here the drawbridge crossed the 20m gully to Dursey itself and would have been raised in time of danger.

It is unclear how many people lived on or near the fort but an excavation by Dr Colin Breen from the Department of Archaeology at Ulster University in 2003 uncovered late 16th-century Spanish pottery which is consistent with the area’s trading links with Spain.

In her exhaustive study, Durell writes that Carew had one warship known as a pinnace at his disposal — the 50-ton Merlin. This vessel had been used in the infamous Smerwick Harbour massacre, Co Kerry in 1580. Carew appointed a Captain Bostock to assault “the last and surest refuge”.

Aided by a Lieutenant Downing, Bostock commandeered four local boats and “rowed about in search of a suitable landing place” before landing on the east of the island. Meanwhile a cannon was positioned on the rock known as the Can o’ Milk on the road above Oileán Beag to attack the fort.

“The defenders fought bravely, but soon had to retreat to the inner part of the fort,” writes Durell.

Donal Cam had 40 fighting men in the fortress. Some were killed in action and the rest were taken into captivity and hanged.

The massacre of the civilians was detailed in The Catholic History of Ireland by Philip O’Sullivan Beare, who had been sent to Spain as a young boy to the court of King Philip by his uncle Donal Cam.

The inhabitants were terrified by the sudden arrival of the enemy; some sought the protection of the altars, some ran to hide, some betook themselves to the fort, which the few armed men surrendered on the enemy’s promise of safety, as it had no cannon or fortifications

The English, after their wonted manner, committed a crime far more notable for its cruelty than their honour. Having dismantled the fort and fired the church and houses, they shot down, hacked with swords, or ran through with spears the now disarmed garrison and others, old men, women, and children, whom they had driven into one heap. In this way perished about 300 Catholics, the greater part of whom were mercenaries of my father, Dermot.

    How to get there

    Cable car to Dursey Island. Island adjacent to graveyard.

    Other: Discover Dursey, Penelope Durell, Ballinacarriga Books


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