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OTD: 10 November 1580: English Army beheads 600 Papal soldiers and civilians at Dún an Óir

On this day in 1580, a horrifying massacre of Irish, Spanish and Italian soldiers at the hands of English forces took place during the Second Desmond Rebellion in Dún an Óir in county Kerry.

The Second Desmond Rebellion was launched in July 1579 against English rule in Ireland. It was the more far-reaching and bloodier of the two Desmond Rebellions in Ireland, spearheaded by the Fitzgerald Dynasty of Desmond and Munster against English Rule. 

The second of the rebellions began when James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald arrived in Ireland accompanied by a force of Papal troops, provoking an insurrection across Southern Ireland on behalf of the Desmond dynasty, along with their allies and others who were rebelling against the English government of the country. 

The rebellion was triggered in part as an act of protest by feudal lords against the interference on the part of central government in their domains; a reaction on the part of the Irish who were unhappy about English policies which were eroding Gaelic society; and a religious conflict, with the rebels insisting their actions were upholding Catholicism against a Protestant Queen who had been declared a heretic ten years previously by the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis, with Elizabeth and her officials excommunicated by the Pope.

The rebellion was fuelled by cultural and religious tension, owing to the actions of English Lord Deputy, Sir John Perrot. He had outlawed aspects of traditional Gaelic culture, including bardic Irish language poetry, Irish dress, and Brehon law. To add fuel to the fire, the English had imposed Protestantism as the state religion in Ireland, despite the fact that the majority of the Irish were Catholic. Fitzmaurice, who spoke only Irish and wore Irish dress, was a champion for the counter-reformation.

The terrible massacre at Dún an Óir, near the tip of the Dingle Peninsula, occurred when Papal soldiers were sent to the area by Pope Gregory to lend their help to the Irish in the rebellion. 

According to oral tradition, the brutal slayings took place over the course of three days, with the English army beheading all but the commanders during the battle. 

The 600-man strong army,  a coalition of Irish, Spanish and Italian soldiers, had their ships blockaded within the bay of Smerwick, with the mountainous terrain and English forces blocking their escape, meaning the men had to garrison themselves within the promontory, hastily built fort. 

However, they were swiftly encircled by Lord Grey’s army, a force numbering 4,000. Following a short-lived siege which destroyed their fort, they had no choice but to surrender.

After the men were killed and beheaded by the English, their bodies were thrown into the ocean, while the heads of the dead were lined up in a field close by. The field where the massacre unfolded is now known locally as Gort a Ghearragdh (the Field of the Cutting), while the field where the heads were buried is referred to as Gort na gCeann (the Field of the Heads).  

To this day, visitors can find the errie historic site of Dún an Óir (the Fort of Gold), situated on a rock promontory of Smerwick Harbour, which is north of Ballyferriter Village in County Kerry. 

C: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://bit.ly/3TpRvwW
C: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://bit.ly/3TpRvwW

A commemorative monument was unveiled on the site in 1980. The unique monument with twelve heads honours those who were savagely slain in the infamous massacre.  

C: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://bit.ly/3UDtqE4

The first and the second Desmond rebellions brought about the destruction of the Desmond dynasty, and the Munster Plantations subsequently followed. This led to Munster becoming colonised with English settlers. 

Additionally, the fighting wreaked devastation upon a large part of southern Ireland; war-related famine and disease is estimated to have killed up to one third of Munster’s pre-war population in the years that followed. 

In his 1974 poem, “Ocean’s Love to Ireland,” the late Seamus Heaney likens the invasion and occupation of Ireland by the Elizabethans as an act of rape – England being the male conquerer, and Ireland being the ruined maid. Referencing the massacre at Dún an Óir, he writes:

‘Smerwick sowed with the mouthing corpses

Of six hundred papists, ‘as gallant and good

Personages as ever were beheld.’ 

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