Donal O'Sullivan Beara

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


CONFESSEDLY for none of the defeated chiefs did the day's disaster at Kinsale involve such consequences as it presaged for the three southern leaders—O'Sullivan, O'Driscoll, and O'Connor Kerry. The northern chieftains returning homeward, retired upon and within the strong lines of what we may call the vast intrenched camp of the native cause. But the three southerns—who alone of all their Munster compeers had dared to take the field against the English side in the recent crisis—were left isolated in a distant extremity of the island, the most remote from native support or co-operation, left at the mercy of Carew, now master of Munster, and leader of a powerful army flushed with victory. The northerns might have some chance, standing together and with a considerable district almost entirely in their hands, of holding out, or exacting good terms, as they had done often before. 3ut for the doomed southern chiefs, if aid from Spain came not soon, there was literally no prospect but the swift and immediate crash of Carew's vengeance; no hope save what the strong ramparts of Dunboy and the stout heart of its chieftain might encourage!

O'Neill, as I have already remarked, had a high opinion of O'Sullivan—of his devotedness to the national cause—of his prudence, skill, foresight, and courage. And truly the character of the "last lord of Beara," as writ upon the page of history, as depicted by contemporary writers, as revealed to us in his correspondence, and as displayed in his career and actions from the hour when, at the call of duty, with nothing to gain and all to peril, he committed himself to the national struggle—is one to command respect, sympathy, and admiration. In extent of territorial sway and in "following" he was exceeded by many of the southern chiefs, but his personal character seems to have secured for him by common assent the position among them left vacant by the imprisonment of Florence MacCarthy, facile princeps among the Irish of Munster, now fast held in London Tower.

In manner, temperament, and disposition, O'Sullivan was singularly unlike most of the impulsive ardent Irish of his time. He was a man of deep, quiet, calm demeanor; grave and thoughtful in his manner, yet notably firm and inflexible in all that touched his personal honor, his duty toward his people,[1] or his loyalty to religion or country. His family had flung themselves into the struggle of James Geraldine, and suffered the penalties that followed thereupon. Early in Elizabeth's reign, Eoghan, or Eugene, styled by the English Sir Owen O'Sullivan, contrived to possess himself of the chieftaincy and territory of Bear, on the death of his brother Donal, father of the hero of Dunboy. Eugene accepted an English title, sat in Lord Deputy Perrot's parliament of 1585, in the records of which we find his name duly registered, and took out a "patent" in his own name for the tribe land. His nephew, young Donal—Donal Mac Donal O'Sullivan, as he was called—vehemently disputed the validity of Sir Owen's title to the lands, and after a lengthy lawsuit, a letter of partition was issued under the great seal in January, 1593, according to which Donal was to have the lordship, castles, and dependencies of Bear, while Sir Owen was to possess those eastward and northward of the peninsula. It is highly probable that by this decision the Pale authorities hoped to enthral Donal without losing Sir Owen, to make both branches of the family, as it were, compete in loyalty to the English power, and in any event, by putting enmity between them, cause them to split up and weaken their own influence. In this latter calculation they were not disappointed, as the sequel shows; but their speculations or expectations about Donal were all astray. He was indeed averse to hopeless and prospectless struggles against the power of England, and on attaining to the chieftaincy, directed his attention mainly to the internal regulation of his territory, and the bettering of the condition of his people in every respect, not by forays on neighboring clans, but by the peaceful influences of industry.

But Donal, grave and placid of exterior, truly patriotic of heart, watched attentively the rise and progress of O'Neill's great movement in the north. For a time he believed it to be merely a quarrel between the queen's protégé and his royal patroness, sure to be eventually adjusted; and accordingly up to a recent period he displayed no sympathy with either side in the conflict. But when that conflict developed itself into a really national struggle, O'Sullivan never wavered for a moment in deciding what his attitude should be; and that attitude, once taken, was never abandoned, never varied, never compromised by act or word or wish, through all. that followed of sacrifice and suffering and loss. O'Neill, who was a keen discerner of character, read O'Sullivan correctly when he estimated all the more highly his accession, because it was that of a man who acted not from hot impulse or selfish calculation, but from full deliberation and a pure sense of duty. In fine, it was not lightly the Irish council at Innishannon selected the lord of Dunboy for such honorable but perilous prominence as to name him one of the three men to whom was committed, in the darkest crisis of their country, the future conduct of the national cause.[2]

We may imagine the memorable scene of the morn succeeding that night of sleepless consultation at Innishannon over "hapless Erinn's fate"—the parting of the chiefs! Wildly they embraced each other, and like clutch of iron was the farewell grasp of hand in hand, as each one turned away on the path of his allotted task! O'Neill marched northward, where we shall trace his movements subsequently. O'Donnell took shipping for Spain, and O'Sullivan at the head of his faithful clansmen marched westward for Bantry and Bearhaven. Had Don Juan D'Aquilla been a true and steadfast man—had he been at all worthy and fit to command or conduct such an, enterprise—had he been at all capable of appreciating its peculiar exigencies, and duties—the defeat at Kinsale, heavy and full of disaster as it was, might soon have been retrieved, and the whole aspect of affairs reversed. Had he but held his ground (as not unreasonably he might have been expected to do, with three thousand men within a fortified and well-stored town) until the arrival of the further reinforcements which he must have known his royal master was sending, or would quickly send, and thus co-operated in the scheme of operations planned by the Irish chiefs at Innishannon, nothing that had so far happened could be counted of such great moment as to warrant abandonment of the expedition.

But D'Aquilla's conduct was miserably inexplicable. He could not act more despairingly if his last cartridge, had been fired, if his last gunner had perished, if his "last horse had been eaten," or if assured that King Philip had utterly abandoned him. After a few sorties, easily repulsed, he offered to capitulate. Carew, who hereby saw that Don Juan was a fool, was, of course, only too happy to grant him any terms that would insure the departure of the Spanish aids. By conceding conditions highly flattering to D'Aquilla's personal vanity, the lord president induced that outwitted commander not only to draw off to Spain the entire of the expedition, but to undertake to yield up to the English all the castles and fortresses of the Irish chiefs in which Spanish garrisons had been placed, and to order back to Spain any further troops that might arrive before his departure. This imbecility or treason ruined the Irish cause in the south, and ruining it there at such a juncture, ruined it everywhere. Such a capitulation was utter and swift destruction to the southern leaders. It "took the ground from under their feet." It reft them of bases of operations, and flung them as mere fugitives unsheltered and unprovisioned into the open field, the forest, the morass, or the mountain, to be hunted and harried, cut off in detail, and pitilessly put to the sword by Carew's numerous, powerful, and well-appointed field corps or scouring parties.

Don Juan's capitulation was signed January 11, 1602 (N.S.). Seven days afterward the lord deputy and the lord president drew off to Cork. "The day following the captains received directions to repair to sundry towns in Munster appointed for their garrisons; and the same day Captain Roger Harvie and Captain George Flower were dispatched with certain companies to go by sea to receive the castles of Castlehaven, Donnashed and Donnelong at Baltimore, and Dunboy at Bearhaven." On the 12th of February the Spanish officer in command at Castlehaven gave up the castle to Harvie. On the 21st he proceeded to Baltimore, the two castles of which the Spanish officers therein gave up in like manner; and in a few weeks all the coast district castles of the southwest, those of the Bear promontory alone excepted, were in the hands of the English. A month later (March 16th) Don Juan sailed for Spain, most of his forces having been shipped thither previously.[3]

O'Sullivan heard with dismay and indignation of Don Juan's audacious undertaking to deliver up to his "cruel, cursed, misbelieving enemies," his castle of Dunboy, the key of his inheritance.[4] With speed, increased by this evil news, he pushed rapidly homeward, and in due time he appeared with the remnant of his little force [5] before the walls of the castle, demanding admittance. The Spaniards refused; they had heard of D'Aquilla's terms of capitulation, they regretted them, but felt constrained to abide by them. Donal, however, knowing a portion of the outworks of the place which afforded some facilities for his purpose, availed himself of a dark and stormy night to effect an entrance, mining his way through the outer wall, and surprising and overpowering the Spaniards. He then addressed them feelingly on the conduct of D'Aquilla and the present posture of affairs, stating his resolution to hold the castle till King Philip would send fresh aid, and offering a choice to the Spaniards to remain with him or sail for home. Some of them decided to remain, and were among the most determined defenders of Dunboy in the subsequent siege. The rest Donal sent to Spain, dispatching at the same time envoys with letters to King Philip, urgently entreating speedy aid. Moreover, in charge of these messengers, he sent to the king, as guarantee of his good faith and perseverance, his oldest son, a boy of tender years.

Well knowing that soon he would have the foe upon him, Donal now set about preparing Dunboy for the tough and terrible trial before it. He had the outworks strengthened in every part; and another castle of his, on Dursey Island (at the uttermost extremity of the peninsula dividing Bantry and Kenmare bays), garrisoned by a trusty band; designing this latter as a refuge for himself, his family, and clansmen, in the event of the worst befalling Dunboy.


[1] Nothing strikes the reader of Donal's correspondence with King Philip and the Spanish ministers more forcibly than the constant solicitude, the deep feeling, and affectionate attachment he exhibits toward his "poor people," as he always calls them. Amid the wreck of all his hopes, the loss of worldly wealth and possessions, home, country, friends, his chief concern is for his " poor people " abandoned to the persecution of the merciless English foe. In all his letters it is the same. No murmur, no repining for himself; but constant solicitude about Ireland, and constant sorrow for his poor people, left "like sheep without a shepherd when the storm shuts out the sky."

[2] "These high Irishmen, namely, O'Neill and O'Donnell, ordered that the chief command and leadership of these (the Munster forces) should be given to O'Sullivan Beare, i.e., Donal, the son of Donal the son of Dermot; for he was at this time the best commander among their allies in Munster for wisdom and valor."—"Annals of the Four Masters."

[3] "On his return to Spain he was degraded from his rank for his too great intimacy with Carew, and confined a prisoner in his own house. He is said to have died of a broken heart occasioned by these indignities."—M'Gee.

[4] "Among other places which were neither yielded nor taken toe the end that they should he delivered to the English, Don Juan tied himself to deliver my castell and haven, the only key of mine inheritance, whereupon the living of many thousand persons doth rest that live some twenty leagues upon the sea coast, into the hands of my cruell, cursed, misbelieving enemies."—Letter of Donal O'Sullivan Beare to the Kingof Spain.—"Pacata Hibernia."

[5] O'Sullivan's contingent, we are told, "was among those who made the most determined fight on the disastrous day of Kinsale, and when the battle was lost it bravely protected some of the retreating troops of the northern chieftains, who but for such protection would have suffered more severely than they did."