Siege of Dunboy

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


WELL might consternation fill the breasts of the Bear clansmen on beholding the resources now displayed against them; a well-appointed army of nearly four thousand men on the shore, and hostile warships encircling them by sea! Within the castle O'Sullivan had, according to the English accounts, exactly one hundred and forty-three men; there being besides these not more than five or six hundred of his clansmen available at the moment for fighting purposes. But his was not a soul to be shaken by fears into abandonment of a cause which, failing or gaining, was sacred and holy in his eyes—the cause of religion and country. So Donal, who knew that a word of submission would purchase for him not only safety but reward, undisturbed possession of his ancestral rights, and English titles to wear if he would, quailed not in this nor in still darker hours. He had "nailed his colors to the mast," and looked fate calmly in the face.

It seems to have been a maxim with the lord president never to risk open fight until he had first tried to effect his purpose by secret treason. While staying at Bantry he had addressed a letter to the Spanish gunners in Dunboy, offering them all manner of inducements to betray O'Sullivan, to desert the castle, first taking care, as he says, "to cloy the ordnance or mayme their carriages, that when they shall have need of them they may prove useless; for the which I will forthwith liberally recompense you answerable to the qualities of your merit." The infamous proposition was scouted by the men to whom it was addressed. Carew, unabashed, now resolved to try whether he could not corrupt the Constable of Dunboy, O'Sullivan's most trusted friend—a man whose memory is to this day held in worship by the people of Bear—Richard Mac Geoghegan, the impersonation of chivalrous fidelity, the very soul of truth, honor, and bravery! Thomond was commissioned to invite the Constable of Dunboy to a parley. Mac Geoghegan acceded to the invitation, came across to Bear Island (5th of June), and met the earl, in presence of, but apart from, their respective guards, on the shore. Of that memorable interview Carew has left us a brief but characteristic description. "All the eloquence and artifice which the earle could use avayled nothing: for Mac Geoghegan was resolved to persevere in his wayes; and, in the great love which he pretended to beare unto the earle (Thomond), he advised him not to hazard his life in landing upon the Mayne. . . . The earle disdayning both his obstinacie and his vaine-glorious advice, broke off his speech, telling Mac Geoghegan that ere many days passed hee would repent that hee had not followed his (the earl's) counsel."[1]

Carew had at first designed to cross over and land on the main at what seemed to be the only feasible point, a smooth strand at a spot now called Caematrangan. Within a few perches of this spot reaches one end of a small island ("Deenish") which stretches almost completely across the mouth of the inner harbor of (modern) Castletown Beare. Carew landed a portion of his army on this small island; but O'Sullivan had erected a battery faced with gabions at Caematrangan, and had, moreover, his small force drawn up at hand to meet the invaders at the shore. Whereupon Carew, while making a feint as if about to attempt the passage there, directed the remainder of his force quickly to pass to the other (or eastern) extremity of Deenish, and effect a landing on the main at that point. This they were able to accomplish unopposed, for the distance thereto from O'Sullivan's strand battery, owing to the sweep of the shore and a narrow arm of the sea intervening, was two or three miles, whereas directly across, by water or on Deenish Island, was a reach of less than half a mile. Nevertheless, O'Sullivan, discerning, though all too late, the skillful use made by Carew of the natural advantages of the ground, hastened with all speed to confront the invaders, and, unawed by the disparity of numbers against him—thousands against hundreds—boldly gave them battle. Carew himself seems to have been quite struck with the daring courage or "audacity" of this proceeding. After marveling at such foolhardiness, as he thought it, he owns "they came on bravely," and maintained a very determined attack. It was only when additional regiments were hurried up, and utterly overwhelmed them by numbers, that Donal's little force had to abandon the unequal strife, leaving their dead and wounded upon the field.

That night, however, there reached Dunboy news well calculated to compensate for the gloom of perils so great and so near at hand. A Spanish ship had arrived at O'Sullivan's castle of Ardea (in Kenmare Bay, on the northern shore of the Bear promontory) bringing to Donal letters and envoys from King Philip, and aid for the Munster chiefs in money, arms, and ammunition, committed to his care for distribution. More-over, there came by this ship the cheering intelligence that an expedition of some fifteen thousand men was being organized in Spain for Ireland when the vessel sailed! Here was glorious hope indeed! It was instantly decided that the chief himself should proceed with all promptitude to meet the envoys landed at Ardea,[2] and look to the important duties required of him by their messages; meanwhile intrusting the defense of Dunboy to Mac Geoghegan and a chosen garrison. Next morning Donal, with all his available force, exclusive of a garrison of one hundred and forty-three picked men left in the castle, set out for Ardea. The farewell cheers that rang out from the ramparts behind him, gave token of brave resolve to do or die, and doubtless helped to lighten the chieftain's heart with whispers of hope. But alas! Donal had taken his last farewell of Dunboy. When next he gazed upon the once proud home of his fathers, it was a smoking and blood-clotted ruin!

The halls where mirth and minstrelsy
Than Beara's wind rose louder,
Were flung in masses lonelily,
And black with English powder!

For eleven days Mac Geoghegan fought Dunboy against Carew and his surrounding army of four thousand men! Eleven days, during which the thick white cloud of smoke never once lifted from battery and trench, and the deafening boom of cannon never once ceased to roll across the bay. By the 17th of June the castle had been knocked into a ruinous condition by an incessant bombardment from the well-appointed English batteries. The lord president devotes several pages of his journal to minute and copious descriptions of each day's labor in a siege which he declares to be unparalleled for obstinacy of defense; and his narrative of the closing scenes of the struggle is told with painful particularity. Mr. Haverty condenses the tragic story very effectively as follows: "The garrison consisted of only one hundred and forty-three chosen fighting men, who had but a few small cannon, while the comparatively large army which assailed them were well supplied with artillery and all the means of attack. At length, on the 17th of June, when the castle had been nearly shattered to pieces, the garrison offered to surrender if allowed to depart with their arms; but their messenger was immediately hanged and the order for the assault was given. Although the proportion of the assailants in point of numbers was overwhelming, the storming party were resisted with the most desperate bravery.

From turret to turret, and in every part of the crumbling ruins, the struggle was successively maintained throughout the livelong day; thirty of the gallant defenders attempted to escape by swimming, but soldiers had been posted in boats, who killed them in the water; and at length the surviving portion of the garrison retreated into a cellar, into which the only access was by a narrow, winding flight of stone steps. Their leader, Mac Geoghegan, being mortally wounded, the command was given to Thomas Taylor, the son of an Englishman, and the intimate friend of Captain Tyrrell, to whose niece he was married. Nine barrels of gunpowder were stowed away in the cellar, and with these Taylor declared that he would blow up all that remained of the castle, burying himself and his companions with their enemies in the ruins, unless they received a promise of life. This was refused by the savage Carew, who, placing a guard upon the entrance to the cellar, as it was then after sunset, returned to the work of slaughter next morning. Cannon balls were discharged among the Irish in their last dark retreat, and Taylor was forced by his companions to surrender unconditionally; but when some of the English officers descended into the cellar, they found the wounded Mac Geoghegan, with a lighted torch in his hand, staggering to throw it into the gunpowder Captain Power thereupon seized him by the arms, and the others dispatched him with their swords; but the work of death was not yet completed. Fifty-eight of those who had surrendered were hanged that day in the English camp, and some others were hanged a few days after; so that not one of the one hundred and forty-three heroic defenders of Dunboy survived. On the 22d of June the remains of the castle were blown up by Carew with the gunpowder found therein."

Few episodes of Irish history have been more warmly eulogized than this heroic defense of" Dunboy; nor would it be easy to find in the history of any country one more largely calculated to excite sympathy and admiration. Dr. Robert Dwyer Joyce, in his published volume of "Ballads, Romances, and Songs," contributes a truly graphic poem on the subject. Subjoined are the concluding stanzas:


Nearer yet they crowd and come,
With taunting and yelling and thundering drum,
With taunting and yelling the hold they environ,
And swear that its towers and defenders must fall,
While the cannon are set, and their death-hail of iron
Crash wildly on bastion and turret and wall;
And the ramparts are torn from their base to their brow;
Ho! will they not yield to the murderers now?
No! its huge towers shall float over Cleena's bright sea,
Ere the Gael prove a craven in lonely Dunbui.

Like the fierce god of battle, Mac Geoghegan goes
From rampart to wall, in the face of his foes;
Now his voice rises high o'er the cannon's fierce din,
"Whilst the taunt of the Saxon is loud as before,
But a yell thunders up from his warriors within,
And they dash through the gateway, down, down to the shore,
With their chief rushing on. Like a storm in its wrath,
They sweep the cowed Saxon to death in their path;
Ah! dearly he'll purchase the fall of the free,
Of the lion-souled warriors of lonely Dunbui!

Leaving terror behind them, and death in their train,
Now they stand on their walls 'mid the dying and slain,
And the night is around them—the battle is still—
That lone summer midnight, ah! short is its reign;
For the morn springeth upward, and valley and hill
Fling back the fierce echoes of conflict again.
And see! how the foe rushes up to the breach,
Toward the green waving banner he yet may not reach,
For look how the Gael flings him back to the sea,
From the blood-reeking ramparts of lonely Dunbui!

Night cometh again, and the white stars look down,
From the hold to the beach, where the batteries frown.
Night cometh again, but affrighted she flies,
Like a black Indian queen from the fierce panther's roar,
And morning leaps up in the wide-spreading skies,
To his welcome of thunder and flame evermore;
For the guns of the Saxon crush fearfully there,
Till the walls and the towers and ramparts are bare.
And the foe make their last mighty swoop on the free,
The brave-hearted warriors of lonely Dunbui!

Within the red breach see Mac Geoghegan stand,
With the blood of the foe on his arm and his brand,
And he turns to his warriors, and "fight we," says he,
"For country, for freedom, religion, and all:
Better sink into death, and for ever be free,
Than yield to the false Saxon's mercy and thrall!"
And they answer with brandish of sparth and of glaive:
"Let them come: we will give them a welcome and grave;
Let them come: from their swords could we flinch, could we flee,
When we fight for our country, our God, and Dunbui?"

They came, and the Gael met their merciless shock—
Flung them backward like spray from the lone Skellig rock;
But they rally, as wolves springing up to the death
Of their brother of famine, the bear of the snow—
He hurls them adown to the ice-fields beneath,
Rushing back to his dark norland cave from the foe—
So up to the breaches they savagely bound,
Thousands still thronging beneath and around,
Till the firm Gael is driven—till the brave Gael must flee
In, into the chambers of lonely Dunbui!

In chamber, in cellar, on stairway and tower,
Evermore they resisted the false Saxon's power;
Through the noon, through the eve, and the darkness of night
The clangor of battle rolls fearfully there,
Till the morning leaps upward in glory and light.
Then, where are the true-hearted warriors of Beare?
They have found them a refuge from torment and chain,
They have died with their chief, save the few who remain,
And that few—oh, fair Heaven! on the high gallows tree,
They swing by the ruins of lonely Dunbui!

Long, long in the hearts of the brave and the free
Live the warriors who died in the lonely Dunbui!
Down time's silent river their fair names shall go,
A light to our race toward the long coming day;
Till the billows of time shall be checked in their flow
Can we find names so sweet for remembrance as they!
And we will hold their memories for ever and ay,
A halo, a glory that ne'er shall decay,
We'll set them as stars o'er eternity's sea,
The names of the heroes who fell at Dunbui!

During the progress of the siege at Dunboy, Carew had dispatched a force to Dursey Island, which, landing in the night, succeeded in overpowering the small and indeed unwary garrison left there; "so that," as a historian remarks, "no roof now remained to the Lord of Bearhaven." Donal, collecting his people, one and all, men, women, and children, as well as all the herds and removable property of the clan, now retired eastward upon his great natural stronghold of Glengarriffe. Here he defied and defeated every attempt to dislodge him.[3] For three months he awaited with increasing anxiety and suspense the daily-expected news from Spain. Alas! In the words of one of our historians, "the ill-news from Spain in September threw a gloom over those mountains deeper than was ever cast by equinoctial storm." But here we must pause for awhile to trace the movements of O'Donnell and O'Neill after the parting at Innishannon.


[1] "Pacata Hibernia."

[2] These were the Most Rev. Dr. McEagen, Bishop of Ross, and Father Nealon. "They brought," says Carew, "letters to sundry rebels and twelve thousand pounds. The disposition of the money by appointment in Spaine was left principally to Donnall O'Sulevan Beare, Owen McEggan, James Archer, and some others." This same Bishop McEgan was subsequently killed near Bandon fighting gallantly, with his sword in one hand and his beads in the other. His remains were buried in the Abbey of Timoleague.—(See the "Pacata Hibernia;" also, "Dunboy," by T. D. Sullivan.

[3] On one occasion a fierce and protracted battle ensued between him and the combined forces of Wilmot, Selsby, and Slingsby: "A bitter fight," says Carew, "maintained without intermission for sixe howers; the Enemy not leaving their pursuit untill they came in sight of the campe; for whose reliefe two regiments were drawne forth to gieve countenance, and Downings was sent with one hundred and twenty choisse men to the succour of Barry and Selby, who in the reare were so hotly charged by the Rebels that they came to the Sword and Pike; and the skirmish continued till night parted them." Notwithstanding their immense superiority in numbers, night was a welcome relief to the English; for it not only saved them from a perilous position, but enabled them to get off an immense spoil of cattle, which early in the day they had taken from the Irish. Brilliant as was the victory for O'Sullivan in other respects, the loss thus sustained must have been most severe—two thousand cows, four thousand sheep, and one thousand horses, according to Carew; a store of sheep and kine which even in these days of "cattle shows" and "agricultural societies," it would be difficult to collect in the same locality.