Retreat of O'Sullivan Beare to Limerick

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


On the last day of December, 1602, was commenced this memorable retreat, which every writer or commentator, whether of that period or of our own, civil or military, English or Irish, has concurred in characterizing as scarcely to be paralleled in history.[1] Tyrrell and other of the confederates had drawn off some time previously, when sauve qui peut evidently became the maxim with the despair-stricken band; so that O'Sullivan's force when setting out from Glengarriffe consisted exactly of four hundred fighting men, and about six hundred non-combatants, women, children, aged and infirm people, and servants.[2] Even in our own day, and in time of peace, with full facilities of transport and supply, the commissariat arrangements necessary to be made beforehand along the route of such a body—a thousand souls—would require some skill and organization. But O'Sullivan could on no day tell where or how his people were to find sustenance for the morrow. He had money enough,[3] it is true, to purchase supplies; but no one durst sell them to him, or permit him to take them. Word was sent through the country by the lord president for all, on peril of being treated as O'Sullivan's covert or open abettors, to fall upon him, to cross his road, to bar his way, to watch him at the fords, to come upon him by night; and, above all, to drive off or destroy all cattle or other possible means of sustenance, so that of sheer necessity his party must perish on the way. Whose lands soever O'Sullivan would be found to have passed through unresisted, or whereupon he was allowed to find food of any kind, the government would consider forfeited. Such were the circumstances under which the Lord of Bear and his immortal four hundred set out on their midwinter retreat on December 31, 1602.

That evening, Don Philip tells us, they reached and encamped at "a place on the borders of Muskerry, called by the natives Acharis."[4] Next day, January 1, 1603, they reached "before noon," "Balebrunia" (Ballyvourney), famed as the retreat of St. Gubeneta, whose ruined church and penitential stations are still frequented by pious pilgrims. Here O'Sullivan and his entire force halted, that they might begin their journey by offering all their sufferings to God, and supplicating the powerful prayers of His saint. Donal and several members of his family made gifts to the altar, and the little army, having; prayed for some time, resumed their weary march. The ordeal commenced for them soon. They were assailed and harassed all the way "by the sons of Thadeus Mac Carthy," several being wounded on both sides. They cleared their road, however, and that night encamped in "O'Kimbhi" (O'Keefe's country: Duhallow) "but," says Philip, "they had little rest at night after such a. toilsome day, for they were constantly molested by the people of that place, and suffered most painfully from hunger. For they had been able to bring with them but one day's provisions, and these they had consumed on the first day's march."

Next morning they pushed forward toward the confines of Limerick, designing to reach that ancient refuge of the oppressed and vanquished, the historic Glen of Aherlow, where at least they hoped for rest in safety during a few days' halt, but their path now lay through the midst of their foes—right between the garrisons of Charleville and Buttevant, and they scarcely hoped to cross the river in their front without a heavy penalty. And truly enough, as. the faint and weary cavalcade reached the bank, a strong force under the brother of Viscount Barry encountered them at Bellaghy Ford. The women and children were at once put to the rear, and the hunger-wasted company, nevertheless all unflinching, came up to the conflict like heroes. It was a bitter fight, but despair gave energy to that desperate fugitive band. They literally swept their foes before them, and would not have suffered a man to escape them had not hunger and terrible privation told upon them too severely to allow of a pursuit. Dr. Joyce chronicles this combat for us in one of his ballads:

"We stood so steady,
All under fire,
We stood so steady,
Our long spears ready
To vent our ire—
To dash on the Saxon,
Our mortal foe,
And lay him low
In the bloody mire!

'"T was by Blackwater,
When snows were white,
'T was by Blackwater,
Our foes for the slaughter
Stood full in sight;
But we were ready
With our long spears;
And we had no fears
But we'd win the fight.

"Their bullets came whistling
Upon our rank,
Their bullets came whistling,
Their bay'nets were bristling
On th' other bank.
Yet we stood steady,
And each good blade
Ere the morn did fade
At their life-blood drank.

"'Hurra! for Freedom!'
Came from our van;
'Hurra! for Freedom!
Our swords—we'll feed 'em
As but we can—
With vengeance we'll feed 'em!'
Then down we crashed,
Through the wild ford dashed,
And the fray began!

"Horses to horses
And man to man—
O'er dying horses
And blood and corses
Our general, thundered;
And we were not slack
To slay at his back
Till the flight began.

"Oh! how we scattered
The foemen then—
Slaughtered and scattered
And chased and shattered,
By shore and glen.—
To the wall of Moyallo,
Few fled that day—
Will they bar our way
When we come again?

"Our dead frères we buried—
They were but few—
Our dead frères we buried
Where the dark waves hurried
And flashed and flew:
Oh! sweet be their slumber
Who thus have died
In the battle's tide,
Innisfail, for you!"


[1] "We read of nothing more like to the expedition of Young Cyrus and the Ten Thousand Greeks than this retreat of O'Sullivan Beare."—Abbe Mac Geoghegan.

"One of the most extraordinary retreats recorded in history."—Haverty.

"A retreat almost unparalleled."—M'Gee.

"The most romantic and gallant achievement of the age."—Davis.

[2] "Historiae Catholicae Hiberniae," Haverty, M'Gee, MacGeoghegan.

[3] Even on the last day of this terrible retreat, we find him able to pay a guide very liberally in gold pieces.

[4] I am not aware that any one hitherto has identified this spot; but it is, nevertheless, plainly to be found. The place is the junction of some mountain roads, in a truly wild and solitary locality, about a mile north of the present village of Bealnageary, which is between Gougane Barra and Macroom. In a little grove the ruined church of Agharis (marked on the Ordnance maps) identifies for us the locality of "Acharis." It is on the road to Ballyvourney by O'Sullivan's route, which was from Glengarriffe eastward by his castle of the Fawn's Rock (" Carrick-an Asa"), where he left a ward; thence through the Pass of the Deer ("Ceam-an eih") northward to Agharis.