They are such idyllic places that it is hard to fathom the violence once meted out on Irish islands, writes Dan MacCarthy.

Of course why shouldn’t idyllic places attract violence as much as non-idyllic places? The facts of the attacks by the Vikings a thousand years ago on Skellig Mor and Scattery Island in the Shannon Estuary, for example, are lost in the mists of time. However, what happened on Scariff Island in the Iveragh peninsula is a matter of blood-curdling fact.

The island, from the Irish for rugged, scairbh, is in fact is similar in appearance to Skellig Michael, a pyramid of sandstone. It lies 7km off Hog’s Head and has as neighbours to the north the illustrious Skelligs and to the south Dursey Island of cable car fame. And like Skellig Michael it too has an ancient hermitage.

It is unpopulated now and was almost ever thus, a notable exception being the mother of the former Kerry football manager Mick O’Dwyer — Mary Galvin whose family grazed cattle on the island. There is little now to show any sign of human habitation. An empty jamjar in a ruin; incised steps at a small bay. Then there are the goats - hairy, horned and supercilious, commanders of the considerable cliffs.

Along with it’s immediate neighbour, Deenish Island, it is a special conversation area with significant numbers of fulmar, manx shearwater, storm petrel, lesser-backed gull and artcic tern.

And so to the grisly tale. When he was 12 years of age, Francis (Diarmuid) O’Sullivan would have been aware of the incident on Dursey Island in 1602 as the last remnant of the Gaelic chieftains was snuffed out in a massacre where 300, mostly women and children of the Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare clan were executed on the cliffs. He can hardly have imagined their fate. And yet.

Francis studied for the priesthood in Spain and was later ordained there before going to Rome where he was one of the first students of the Irish Franciscan College of St Isidore. He came back to Ireland around 1630 and began to work as a ‘missionary priest’ celebrating mass, hearing confessions and preaching. He was soon appointed guardian of the friary in Ardfert.

Around this time he carried a report by the persecution of Cromwell’s army to King Philip IV of Spain and returned to Ireland on a frigate with a cargo of muskets. However, now he was a marked man. In 1653 Francis aged 62, now known as Brathair Rua, was on the run from the Cromwellian forces who raced through Ireland like a conflagration leaving death and destruction in their wake.

The Franciscan historian Fr Patrick Conlon of Killiney, takes up the story: “[The Cromwellian] Colonel Nelson led a company of soldiers on a rampage through Kerry in June 1653. Local tradition says that Fr Diarmuid was captured while celebrating mass on the Island of Scarrif.

He was martyred on 23 June. Reliable evidence has it that rather than hanged, as was so often the case with clergy and religious, he was killed by the sword.” His fate was as bloody as that of the hanged, drawn and quartered Blessed Oliver Plunkett who was the last martyr of the popish Plot in 1681.

Plus ça change. His shrunken head can be seen in St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, Co Louth. Poor Brathair Rua’s skull was kept in the family home of Daniel O’Connell for more than 200 years just a few kilometres away from Scariff at Derrynane. It was later donated to the Franciscans.

Scariff Island, Co Kerry
Scariff Island, Co Kerry

Today, Brathair Rua’s skull is on display at the Franciscan Friary in Killarney. Father Liam McCarthy OFM says a steady stream of visitors comes to see his skull behind a glass case as well as a sculpture by the Franciscan sculptor Joe Walsh.

Immortality of a kind may await, as Brathair Rua is on a secondary list for beatification says, Fr McCarthy. The Franciscan martyr is still venerated by the people of south Kerry. An annual mass is held in his honour every year. When the sea is in storm, fishermen invoke his protection.

How to get there:

  • Scariff is private property and isn’t open to the public but for trips around the island check
    www.facebook.com/ribtrips.ie
  • Other:Franciscan Friary, Fair Hill, Killarney, Co Kerry ‘Discovering Kerry’ by TJ Barrington, Blackwater Press


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