The O Connor Kerry Kingdom

28Oct09

Published in the Irelands Own magazine, a historical article relating to Carrigafoyle castle and the downfall of the O Connor Kerry chieftains.

Carraigafoyle castle

Carraig castle

This year marks the 425th anniversary of the downfall of Carrigafoyle castle. For more than four hundred years it was the stronghold of the O’Connor Kerry clan.
The O’Connor’s have had a turbulent history. In the 13th Century the MacCarthys, kings of South Munster granted much of the O’Connor’s territory to Thomas Fitzgerald, the first Lord Kerry. The O’Connor’s were then pushed back into the extreme north of the county.

The remains of their stronghold is a stark reminder to us of our ancestors turbulent past. For the last three years the castle has been under renovation and it is hoped it will soon be re-opened to the public. The present day Carrigafoyle castle was built in 1490 on the site of an earlier castle.
From the peak of the castle it is possible to look out over Carrig island and to view Scattery island beyond nestled on the river Shannon. On Scattery island are the ruins of seven churches ; all were built by the O’Connor Kerry family.
The strategic position of the castle along with its prime vantage point were definite advantages to its success in staving off attack. It rests on a rock between the high and low water marks on the shore of the Shannon Estuary. Observing it now in its picturesque and peaceful surroundings it is hard to imagine the bloodshed in its past.
The tower of the castle was originally about seventy feet high and on close inspection it is interesting to note the intricate stonework that adorns its walls. It was built with thin pieces of limestone which appear almost like bricks.

At the height of its power the tower was protected on the landward side by two square bawns. There was an inner one with rounded turrets and an outer one with square towers at the corners. These bawns extended into the water and enclosed a small dock, making it possible for boats to sail directly up to the castle.
The O’Connor Kerry’s were in control of this area of the Shannon. They intercepted cargo ships which sailed past their stronghold on the way towards Limerick docks. It was their practice to board these ships and demand a percentage of their cargo’s before allowing them to continue on their journey.
Amongst England’s state papers of 1580 is a map and notes about Carrig Island. Queen Elizabeth had become most concerned about the apparent power that the Irish Clan’s held in Ireland. It was her policy to confiscate their lands and to hand them over to the English gentry who were in her favour.
The Earl of Desmond was very unhappy with Queens Elizabeth’s policies. She knew he was a powerful chieftain and he could be an obstacle to her plans for Ireland The Earl had strong associations with many of the Irish Clan’s who had promised allegiance to him.
A plan was devised up by the English to quash the Earl of Desmond’s power. Carrigafoyle castle was seen as the strongest of his castles and as such was the one that the Elizabethans most wanted possession of. They knew by successfully bringing down this castle that the others would fall like a deck of cards.
Two days before Palm Sunday in 1580 Elizabethan forces were seen sailing up the Shannon towards Carrig Island. They cast their anchor at sea directly opposite their intended target and then they waited.
It wasn’t long before further forces arrived on foot. There were two separate armies; one was commanded by Sir William Pelham the Lord Chief justice in Ireland at the time, the second was commanded by the Earl of Ormond. They reached Carrig Island simultaneously and the castle was now surrounded by land and sea.
It had been previously believed that Carrigafoyle castle was impenetrable due to its advantageous location and the strength of its walls. This was before the advent of artillery fire-power. The English intended to storm the castle with five of their strongest canons. They were put into position directly across from the castle in the grounds of Carrigafoyle church, which now lays in ruin, with only parts of its wall remaining.
The castle was under the command of an Italian Engineer known as Captain Julio. There was also one English man present, sixteen spaniards and approximately fifty Irish including women and children. Unfortunately for them they were unaware of the traitor who lurked among them.
There was a naïve young servant girl who had fallen for the charms of one of the English Officers. The English knew they needed to concentrate their firepower on the weakest point of the castle walls if they were to penetrate the strong fortress. The servant girl had been persuaded to place a light in the window where the wall was at its weakest. She did this and the English concentrated all their energy on breaching the castle at this point.

For two days the roar of the canons resounded throughout the Kingdom of Kerry and beyond. They instilled fear into all who could hear them. The western wall of the castle was bombarded repeatedly and eventually it began to weaken. It started to crumble from its very tip to its foundations. The warders within were crushed to death when the wall collapsed.
Through the breach in its walls Captain Mackworth and his men gained entrance to the castle. Initially almost everyone in the castle was put to death, including the unfortunate girl who had believed her officer would spare her life.
A couple of the garrison along with Captain Julio were not immediately executed. Records show that Captain Julio was initially spared. ‘Captain Julio was preserved for two or three days for certain considerations’, ..’then not complying with the Lord Chief Justices expectations, he was hanged’. The Earl of Desmond’s plate was taken from the castle and sent to Queen Elizabeth as a symbol of their victory.
When the warders of neighbouring castles heard of the fall of Carrigafoyle they were gravely concerned. ‘When the warders of Baile-Ui-Cheileachain and Askeaton heard the tremendous and terror-waking roars of those unknown guns, they proceeded to demolish their castles.’
Having secured Carrigafoyle Pelham’s forces marched onwards through the village of Ballylongford towards Lislaughlin Abbey. This is a monastery of historical significance. The abbey was constructed in 1470. John O’Connor a powerful Chieftain at the time built it.
Most of the monks had fled by the time Pelham’s forces arrived. For the few
that remained they came to an untimely end. They were hung in front of their high alter.

The Abbey was stripped of all its valuable possessions and desecrated
Lislaughlin Abbey is still open to visitors today. The remains of the Abbey include the fine east window which still remains intact. The walls of this Franciscan Abbey also remain and two of the O’Connor Kerry chiefs are buried within the grounds. The impressive Lislaughlin cross was recovered and is now on view in the National museum.
The O’Connor’s were devastated by their defeat but were determined to recover from it. Sean O’Connor was chieftain in 1600 when he was left with no alternative except to surrender what remained of the O’Connor Kerry Kingdom. He did later manage to regain some of his former territory, including Carrigafoyle.
The O’Connor’s lost this territory again during the 17th century when a changing political scene marked the death knell for the Irish Chieftains. Today countless descendants of this once powerful and proud family remain in Kerry and throughout the world.
The O’Connor’s are still a resounding force in modern times and have been immensely successful in the Arts, Literature and politics. Their Kingdom may be no more but their powerful presence and scholarly origins still assures their place in today’s society.

THE O’CONNOR KERRY KINGDOM.
A 1320-word feature
by
MARY KELLY-GODLEY

FIRST IRISH
SERIAL RIGHTS. (Photos enclosed)

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One Response to “The O Connor Kerry Kingdom”

  1. 1 Maureen O'Connor

    Thank You Mary, I have just read your article, and although I have learned a lot about our ancestors (O’Connor/Connor’s from Kerry), like all the others, I am always interested in learning more, I have enjoyed reading your article, Thanks again
    Maureen O’Connor from New Zealand


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