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
Dún An Óir witnessed a horrific massacre of Italian and Spanish troops and Irish men and women at the hands of the English. 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 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. They were quickly surrounded by an English force of 4,000, and after a three-day siege including heavy artillery onto the fort by sea which ultimately destroyed the fort they surrendered.
According to oral tradition, the English, over the course of two days, beheaded all but the commanders, and lined up the heads in a nearby field. Their bodies were thrown into the ocean. The field of the massacre is now known locally as Gort a Ghearradh (the Field of the Cutting) while the field where the heads were buried bears the name Gort na gCeann (the Field of the Heads). An odd monument with twelve heads has been erected to honour those unjustly slain. In spite of the monument, the small sadly-eroding peninsular point and the water-logged fields seem hushed into silence by what they had seen.
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.
Photo: Dún An Óir, Ballyferitter, Co Kerry, Rohan Reilly Photography