Smerwick sowed with the mouthing corpses
Of six hundred papists, ‘as gallant and good
Personages as ever were beheld.’ –Seamus Heaney, from “Ocean’s Love to Ireland,” 1974
There is today little left to see at the Ard na Caithne (Smerwick) headland known as Dún An Óir. Scant evidence remains of the original Iron Age fort occupying this spot. The earthworks—remnants of the hastily constructed 1580 fortification—have become eroded by weather and the waves until only a barely-recognisable outer bank and two bastions (bulwarks) are to be noted by the visitor. The bank is 25.6 m (84 ft) long, with one bastion projecting 1.5 m (5 ft) and the other one 5.8 m (19 ft). Only a treacherous foot-wide path, where once there was a drawbridge, connects to the inner part of the fort. This off-limits path has a 15-meter (50-foot) drop to the sea on each side.
The other name for this headland, “Fort del Oro,” (Fortress of the Gold) stems from the fact that a ship holding what was thought to be “black gold” foundered in the bay here two years before the fort was built. In September of 1578 a vessel with 110 tons of “golden eyore” entered Smerwick Harbour after barely surviving the storms of the Canadian Arctic. The explorers aboard came back with botanic samples, an Eskimo (who didn’t survive the voyage) and the ore, which turned out to be worthless iron pyrite (fool’s gold). In later years, rumours that the “black gold” was used in the construction of the fort may explain why trenches were gouged out of some of the embankments: prospectors were trying to make the fort into a gold mine.
In 1969 gold-seekers of a different kind were at work with their metal detectors at the base of the cliffs at Dún An Óir. The items they found, all confiscated by the government, included four fragments of a bronze gun. This likely belonged to the force of 600 besieged Irishmen and their foreign supporters who all died here on the 11th of November in 1680 in what was to become known as the Massacre of Smerwick. This ignominious moment in the history of Anglo-Irish relations is commemorated in the sculpture, located in the nearby field called Gort na gCeann, “The Field of the Heads.”
On the 10th of September in 1580, the mendacious and inept Italian captain Sebastiano di San Giuseppe sailed into Smerwick harbour with his force of 600 Italian, Spanish, and Basque troops, recruited with funds supplied by Pope Gregory. These forces, “fine, handsome men, but the scum of Italy,” were attempting to come to the aid of the Second Desmond Rebellion, one of many efforts by the native Irish to counter the continued expropriation of their lands and the replacement of their traditional domination of Munster by the Elizabethan English.
At first this ragtag band of foreigners enjoyed their control of this little slice of Ireland; they even hanged a few of the English messengers sent to meet them. But soon many became ill from the unfamiliar food and the climate, as the weeks progressed into the start of Ireland’s season of wet, dark, and cold. They waited for the anticipated thousands of Irish reinforcements, of whom only 17 were to join up with them.
General Arthur Grey, Baron de Wilton, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, was sent by Queen Elizabeth with a force of 6,000, to quell the Second Desmond Rebellion. His first battle, in August of 1580, ended in an embarrassing defeat for Grey with the loss of 800 of his men at the Battle of Glenmalure, Co Wicklow. In October of that year he was about to avenge his losses as he surrounded the Catholic forces at Dún An Óir.
Grey’s troops, 4,000 in number, laid siege to the invading foreigners and their Irish allies at their sparsely fortified headland. There, at the tip of the Dingle Peninsula, there was no escape for the Catholic forces, with a mountain blocking them behind Grey’s army, and the guns of three British ships under the command of Richard Bingham pounding them from the sea.10 After three days of a one-sided battle, “at last they hoisted a sheet, with cries of Misericordia [mercy], and craved a parley.”