Settlers ‘ethnically cleansed’ in Lee Valley

If your surname is McCarthy, O’Riordan, Twomey or Kelleher and your forebears came from the Lee Valley then they were probably a bloodthirsty bunch involved in ethnic cleansing in the 14th century.

Settlers ‘ethnically cleansed’ in Lee Valley

Research carried out by eminent historian Dr Paul MacCotter shows Gaelic clans in the valley rose up against Norman settlers with such ferocity that they butchered many of them and sent the rest scurrying back to the safety of Cork City. Some were so petrified they even decided to pack their bags altogether and flee back to England.

The Normans initially looked to have the area sewn up for themselves as the native Irish peasantry who remained in the Lee Valley toiled in semi-servile status on the land for their Norman lords. But infighting among the Normans added to their instability.

The new conquerors had initially driven out the Gaelic elite and forced many clans to the west and north-west of the county and across into Kerry.

But one branch of the MacCarthy clan, who were living in Kanturk, decided to drive the settlers out and they were soon “joined by the O’Riordans, O’Twomeys, O’Kellehers, Murphys and others, who no doubt saw an opportunity to enhance their reputation as defending the Gaelic tradition, while carrying out their own land-grabbing as well,” Dr MacCotter said.

He maintains many hundreds, if not thousands, of Norman settlers were murdered as part of the ethnic cleansing of the Lee Valley, a sizeable percentage of the settlers’ population at the time.

The Normans retaliated by twice sending an army to the region, but were unable to keep a permanent, sizeable garrison to contain the clans’ threat.

“Many of the rest of the settlers were driven out and retreated behind the walls of Cork City, bringing their cattle with them. After the armies left for the second time in 1365 many of the Norman settlers eventually refused to go out again from the city into the Lee Valley,” he said.

The Barretts were Normans settled in the Blarney area, but joined forces with the renegade MacCarthys and others to expand their territory around the 1360s and they probably helped to carry out another round of ethnic cleansing in the valley.

The Cogans (Norman lords in the area) attempted to recover their lands from the Barretts in court, but by this time the colonial court system had lost its teeth and could only fine the Barretts 1,000 cattle — a fine Dr MacCotter suspects was never collected. “And so the Barretts replaced the Cogans, who were driven southwards to the Carrigaline area, while the Barretts took over the great Cogan fortress at Carrigrohane.”

Before the ethnic cleansing, the Normans had developed a sophisticated agricultural economy centred on the market towns of Carrigrohane, Ovens, Grenagh and Moviddy (Crookstown), all of which were subsequently destroyed by the marauding clans.

“The Normans had a colony of a couple of thousand people in the area at the time which was destroyed by the 1380s. Many must have been killed because a lot of the settler surnames such as Haywood, Hayfield, Fleming and Russell disappeared from the region. A lot were killed, many kidnapped and ransomed as well,” Dr MacCotter said.

“A lot fled back to England. Many of them were small farmers and when they went back there they were known by the surname ‘Ireland.’ That’s where the surname Ireland comes from, like the soccer player Stephen Ireland.”

Eventually, the Normans decided that many colonies in Ireland were temporarily irreparable and abandoned them in terms of military protection.

“The Irish lost the country in the 1220s, but they got it back by the 1360s. By then the Irish had control of the Lee Valley and west Cork. The Normans, however, hung on in the city and parts of north and east Cork.”

* Dr Paul MacCotter, in association with Blarney & District Historical Society, will deliver a detailed, illustrated lecture entitled ‘Ethnic Cleansing in the Lee Valley — Medieval Style’ at Scoil Mhuire Gan Smál, Blarney at 8pm on Jan 9.

Watch towers

Ballincollig Castle was built by the Coll or Cole family, important Norman knights in the area. It was as part of a chain of castles featuring tall watch towers and was constructed around 1395, according to evidence which has recently come to light.

* Blarney Castle was originally another such tall watch-tower castle. Dr MacCotter believes it must have been built in the 1390s, this time by the powerful Lombard family who had been granted the area in the 1350s after Norman settlers refused to return unless given protection.

* Other castles which may have been built as part of this ‘encastellation’ of the western approaches to Cork were at Grange near Killumney (known as the ‘Stonhus’ or stone house) and at Cloghroe, but little or nothing of these survives.

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