Irish flora and fauna helped form a crucial part of the nation’s history, writes Fiann Ó Nualláin.
This is not my usual article about cultivating or harvesting something edible or medicinal. No, it is much more important than that. It is about cultivating resilience and harvesting the triumph of will. It is about endurance.
It is about a moment in Munster history that has literally had an impact on the physical Irish landscape, the economic viability of regional communities today and also upon academic recognition of this landscape’s natural treasures.
It is ultimately about lasting legacy. But bear with me — there’s a bit of a tale to set the context.
You may well know from your schooldays the ins and outs of the epic and harrowing plight of the O’Sullivan Beare clan that occurred following the Irish defeat at the battle of Kinsale.
If you don’t then you need to go back to that school and ask why. In brief, Donal Cam Ó Súilleabháin Béirre (1561–1613), chieftain of the region now known as Beare and Bantry in the county of Cork, was opposed to English rule and so on the losing side after Kinsale.
On the last day of December 1602, having had his castle razed, all of its defenders executed and any loyal locals harassed by the armies of Elizabeth I, he set out to join up with the remainder of the Irish resistance in Leitrim.
He took with him some family and surviving staff plus 600 local women and children and he also amassed 400 fighting men from Glengarriff and its environs.
What happens next is up there as one of the most poignant happenings in Irish history. So, there is a bounty on all their heads and on the heads of anyone giving them food or shelter or not reporting their whereabouts.
There is an army after them and the militias of British loyalists across Ireland are searching too. It is a hard winter, the Shannon and other rivers are swollen and places are flooded or frozen.
The 1000-plus retinue left their homes by stealth, with few belongings and with one day’s food supply.
They can’t light fires at night or risk being seen and they can’t risk implicating the locals of the counties they travel through for fear of them suffering reprisals too. There is little hope they will make it but resistance is everything.
Over the next 15 days, they marched in excess of 300 miles through the counties of Cork, Limerick, Tipperary, Offaly, Galway, Roscommon and Sligo to the boundary of Leitrim, living off wild berries and foraged roots, drinking from streams and all the while trying to keep quiet and unseen.
They sent scouts to light false campfires miles from where they were and others to mislead their trackers with false stories of sightings.
They gained some help at times but also had to fight numerous skirmishes and make many hasty retreats.
All in all, they lost many casualties to the enemy, to the harsh weather, the terrain and to starvation. A really tough march sometimes noted as our “trail of tears”.
That march is tangible today in the creation of the Beara-Breifne Way which commemorates and mostly mirrors the route of the 1603 march.
The Way was the brainchild of Cork local Jim O’Sullivan and Beara Tourism and has been supported by the Heritage Council since 2001. It has had a very positive impact on local communities and regional tourism.
The “Way” project was and is to date the largest community-based project ever undertaken in Ireland, involving more than 60 community groups at the start and inspiring many more over the subsequent years to participate and benefit.
Today that route is more a trail of optimism, a trail of the triumph of will — not just of the 1603 retinue but of the modern trail creators and supporters.
It has seen regional regeneration and local environmental projects prosper. It is a great preserve of our history and our heritage and there are plaques and map-boards along the way covering topics ranging from local mythology to local ecology.
Pathways have been restored, signposts installed, and there are cycle tracks and wheelchair access at parts. It truly is spectacular — so too are the views.
The Beara-Breifne Way is a hike or cycle well worth taking. It is our longest national way-marked trail and it brings you across six mountain ranges, over rivers and around lakes and through some of the most scenic spots Ireland has to offer.
I love that it offers a passport which along the way, rather like the Camino de Santiago, you can collect stamps to prove your journey.
Find out more at https://www.bearabreifneway.ie/
Back to 1603 and — spoiler alert — only a handful made it to Leitrim (just 35 in all) and by then the Flight of the Earls was already in motion.
The O’Sullivan Beara/Ó Súilleabháin Béirre clan and comrades where soon forced into fleeing to Spain. Now in this despairing situation comes another opportunity and the next resilient part — how that march impacted on the appreciation of Irish landscape and its flora and fauna, as found along the way.
One member of that clan, Pilib Ó Súilleabháin Béirre, a nephew of Donal Cam, came to distinguish himself in academic circles in Spain and across Europe.
Pilib did not lose his love of his native country and sought to combat the later Elizabethan propaganda around Irish customs and culture by writing on there topics.
He wrote a rebuttal to all the negativity and race hate of Spenser, Usher and Camden via his work Briefe relation of Ireland, and the diversity of Irish in the same and Ireland Under Elizabeth.
But he also came to write the first natural history book about Ireland covering not just flora and fauna but also place-names and local history. And he is partially responsible for not letting the Irish language names get lost.
That book would inspire generations to come to value our natural heritage and not loose pride or respect for our participations with the natural world.
The Natural history of Ireland by Philip O’Sullivan Beare, translated and edited by Denis C O’Sullivan (Cork University Press) is available from bookstores.
And yes another namesake. Go on, the Sullys — keep doing Munster and Ireland proud.