From Béarra to Bréifne: The Epic March of O'Sullivan Beara

On New Year's Eve of 1602, Donal Cam O'Sullivan Beare (Domhnall Cam Ó Súilleabháin Bhéara), Chieftain of the great O'Sullivan clan of west Cork and 1,000 others from the area over which he ruled set out on one of the most harrowing and brutal treks in the history of Ireland.  Of this 1,000-member group, 400 were soldiers.  The rest were made up of civilians, many of them women.  They were literally running for their lives.

The events that brought O'Sullivan's flight from his stronghold on the Beara (Béarra) Peninsula in west County Cork had stretched out over several years.  The Nine Years War (1594-1603), and O'Sullivan Beare's involvement therein, precipitated the need for such a dire and dramatic flight into the unknown for these 1,000 desperate people.  This was a march consisting of 300 miles (480 kilometres) of rough terrain and brutal winter conditions, but it was the only hope any of them had of survival.

When O'Sullivan Beare (pictured at left in a portrait) realised that the promised Spanish reinforcements were not coming, it became evident that all had been lost in Munster.  Famine conditions now existed and though he had considerable Spanish gold, there was little food available. He and approximately one thousand followers began a journey to Leitrim to the castle of his friend, Brian óg na samhthach Ó Ruairc (Brian O'Rourke). He believed that he could hold out longer amongst his northern allies, the O'Donnells and O'Neills.

George Carew, the Lord President of Munster, declared O'Sullivan Beare and his group outlaws, and decreed that anyone that aided them would be dealt with as outlaws as well. Throughout the 300-mile trek they were attacked by the English and by Irish forces that were loyal to Elizabeth. The countryside had already been ravaged by war and famine; the people living along the way were trying to stay alive themselves.  This meant that O'Sullivan Beare and his people would have very few friends along the 300-mile journey.

This epic march enjoys a proud place in Irish history due to the detailed account of it provided by Philip O'Sullivan Beare, a nephew of Dónal O'Sullivan Beare.  In the end, just 35 of the 1,000 souls who set out from Dunboy Castle on the extreme southwestern tip of Ireland arrived safely at Leitrim Castle to be taken in by O'Sullivan Beare's friend and ally, Ó Ruairc.  

14 days of desperate journeying through brutal conditions had taken an immense toll on this brave band of people who were determined to continue the fight against their English oppressors.  As two of the last remaining Irish Chieftains who had not bowed the knee to the English crown, O'Sullivan and Ó Ruairc would thenceforth be pursued by enemy forces with even more vigour.

I have included a very fine re-enactment video below; but first, the following numbered entries are from "A Concise History of Ireland," written in 1909 by P.W. Joyce:


492. After the capture of Dunboy, Donall O'Sullivan the lord of Beare and Bantry had no home; and finding that he could no longer maintain himself and his followers where he was, he resolved to bid farewell to the land of his inheritance and seek a refuge in Ulster. On the last day of the year 1602 he set out from Glengarriff on his memorable retreat, with 400 fighting men, and 600 women, children, and servants. The march was one unbroken scene of conflict and hardship. They were everywhere confronted or pursued by enemies, who attacked them when they dared; and they suffered continually from fatigue, cold, and hunger.

493. They fled in such haste that they were able to bring with them only one day's provisions, trusting to be able to obtain food as they fared along; for O'Sullivan had plenty of money, which had been sent to him from Spain. But they found the country people too much terrified by Carew's threats to give them help or shelter or to sell them provisions. As they could not buy, they had either to take by force or starve, which explains much of the hostility they encountered; for no man will permit his substance to be taken without resistance. Scarce a day passed without loss: some fell behind or left the ranks overcome with weariness; some sank and died under accumulated hardships; and others were killed in fight.

494. The first day they made their way to Ballyvourney, after a journey of about twenty-four miles over the mountains. Here they rested for the night. On next through Duhallow, till they reached Liscarroll, where John Barry of Buttevant attacked their rear as they crossed the ford, and after an hour's fighting killed four of their men, but lost more than four himself. Skirting the north base of the Ballyhoura Mountains, they encamped one night beside the old hill of Ardpatrick. Their next resting place was the Glen of Aherlow, where among the vast solitudes of the Galtys they could procure no better food than herbs and water: and the night sentries found it hard to perform their duty, oppressed as they were with fatigue and hunger. For the first part of their journey they made tents each evening to sleep in; but they were not able to continue this, so that they had to lie under the open sky, and they suffered bitterly from the extreme cold of the nights.

495. Next northwards from the Galtys across the Golden Vale, over the great plain of Tipperary, fighting their way through enemies almost every hour. While one detachment of the fighting men collected provisions, the others remained with the main body to protect the women and children; and the whole party were preserved from utter destruction only by the strict discipline maintained by the chief.

496. O'Sullivan's wife, who accompanied the party, carried and nursed so far through all her hardships her little boy, a baby two years old; but now she had to part with him. She intrusted him to the care of one of her faithful dependents, who preserved and reared him up tenderly, and afterwards sent him to Spain to the parents. We are not told how it fared with this lady and some others; but as they did not arrive with the rest at the end of the journey, they must, like many others, have fallen behind during the terrible march, and been cared for, as they are heard of afterwards.

497. The ninth day of their weary journey found them beside the Shannon near Portland in the north of Tipperary; and here they rested for two nights. But their enemies began to close in on them from the Tipperary side, and no time was to be lost; so they prepared to cross the broad river opposite the castle of Kiltaroe or Redwood. Among them was a man, Dermot O'Hoolahan by name, skilled in making curraghs or hide boats. Under his direction they constructed boat-frames of boughs, interwoven with osier twigs in the usual way. They then killed twelve of their horses, and carefully husbanding the flesh for food, they finished their curraghs by covering the skeleton boats with the skins. In these they crossed the river; though at the last moment their rearguard had a sharp conflict with the sheriff of Tipperary, Donogh Mac Egan the owner of Redwood Castle, who with his party came up, and in spite of O'Sullivan's earnest expostulations, attacked them, and attempted to throw some of the women and children into the river. But O'Sullivan turned on him, and killed himself and many of his men.

498. Nothing better awaited them on the other side of the Shannon. Pushing on northwards through O'Kelly's country, they had to defend themselves in skirmish after skirmish. As most of the horses had by this time quite broken down, O'Sullivan had to abandon the wounded to their certain fate; and their despairing cries rang painfully in the ears of the flying multitude. Sometimes when they came near a village, a party was despatched for provisions, who entered the houses and seized everything in the shape of food they could lay hands on, satisfying their own hunger while they searched, and bringing all they could gather to their starving companions.

499. At Aughrim they were confionted by captain Henry Malbie with a force much more numerous than their own. O'Sullivan, addressing his famished and desperate little band of fighting men in a few encouraging words, placed them so that they were protected on all sides except the front, where the assailants had to advance on foot through a soft boggy pass. Malbie, despising the fugitives, sprang forward at the head of his followers, but fell dead at the first onset. On rushed O'Sullivan and his men: it must be either victory or destruction; and after a determined and bitter fight, they scattered their assailants, and freed themselves from that great and pressing danger.

500. Onwards over Slieve Mary near Castlekelly, and through the territory of Mac David Burke, where the people, headed by Mac David himself, harassed them all day long to prevent them from obtaining provisions. Near Ballinlough in the west of Roscommon they concealed themselves in a thick wood, intending to pass the night there. But they got no rest: for a friendly messenger came to warn them that Mac David and his people were preparing to surround them in the morning and slay them all. So they resumed their march and toiled on wearily through the night in a tempest of sleet, splashing their way through melting snow, and in the morning found themselves pursued by Mac David, who however was cowed by their determined look, and did not dare to come to close quarters.

501. Arriving at another solitary wood, they found the people friendly; and they lighted fires and refreshed themselves. They next crossed the Curlieu Hills southwards to Knockvicar, beside the river Boyle where it enters Lough Key, and here they took some rest. For days past they had undergone unspeakable sufferings. Avoiding the open roads, they had to cross the country by rugged, rocky, and unfrequented ways, walking all the time, for horses could not be used. The weather was inclement, snow falling heavily, so that they had sometimes to make their way through deep drifts; and many of those who continued able to walk had to carry some of their companions who were overcome by fatigue and sickness.

502. Their hope all through had been to reach the territory of O'Ruarc of Brefney; and next morning when the sun rose over Knockvicar, their guide pointed out to them, a few miles off, the towers of O'Ruarc's residence, Leitrim Castle. At eleven o'clock the same day they entered the hospitable mansion, where a kind welcome awaited them.

They had set out from Glengarriff a fortnight before, one thousand in number; and that morning only thirty-five entered O'Rourke's castle: eighteen armed men, sixteen servants, and one woman, the wife of the chief's uncle, Dermot O'Sullivan. A few others afterwards arrived in twos and threes; all the rest had either perished I or dropped behind from fatigue, sickness, or wounds.

503. How it fared with South Munster after the capture of Dunboy may be told in a few words:

Though the province was now quiet enough, yet several of the rebels were still at large, and there were rumours of other intended risings. Against these dangers Carew took precautions of a very decided character; he had the country turned into a desert:—"Heereupon "—says Carew —"Sir Charles Wilmot with the English regiments overran all Beare and Bantry, destroying all that they could find meet for the reliefe of men, so as that country was wholly wasted. . . . The president therefore [i.e. Carew himself], as well to debarre those straglers from releefe as to prevent all means of succours to Osulevan if hee should returne with new forces, caused all the county of Kerry and Desmond, Beare, Bantry, and Carbery to be left absolutely wasted, constraying all the Inhabitants thereof to withdraw their Cattle into the East and Northern parts of the County of Corke."


Here is a video which brings alive this amazing segment of Ireland's history:


Completed earlier this year (2013), the Beara-Breifne Way follows the fourteen-day march taken by Donal O’Sullivan Beara and one thousand supporters.  The Way, the longest of its kind in Ireland, runs almost the length of the country and takes the walker and cyclist to some of its most beautiful and least explored areas: Along the coast of the Beara Peninsula, across six mountain ranges, along the banks of the River Shannon, and through the lake regions of Roscommon and Leitrim. The landscape consists of an extraordinary variety of heritage sites – many of which bear witness to the march of four hundred years ago.



The Otherworldly Reach of the O'Rourkes


Views: 6523

Tags: Beara, Breifne, Cork, History of Ireland, Leitrim, Military History, O'Rourke, O'Sullivan, On This Day, Travel

Comment by Ryan O'Rourke on December 30, 2013 at 1:56pm

A traditional tune called "O'Sullivan's March" has been recorded by many Irish traditional music groups.  Here's a video featuring the audio from The Chieftains take on the tune:

Comment by Jean Sullivan Cardinal on December 31, 2013 at 2:41pm

Thank you for posting this.  Very interesting!

Comment by mary mc ginnis on January 1, 2014 at 4:47am

Really enjoyed this.

Comment by James McNamara on January 1, 2014 at 12:41pm

Thank you, awesome presentation.

Comment by jean kaniecki on January 2, 2014 at 9:17am

What a great piece  of Irish history that is unknown to many.  Thanks


Comment by jean kaniecki on January 2, 2014 at 2:13pm

A sad "what if" for Ireland

Comment by Gerry Regan on January 4, 2014 at 12:26pm

Mary and I must try to navigate this -- a veritable working vacation! 

Comment by Living the Sheep's Head Way on January 14, 2014 at 5:26pm

Wonderful! And of course, we'd be delighted to say hello to all here and give you a guided tour when you reach  Carriganass Castle in Kealkill, the last stronghold of O'Sullivan Bere.

Comment by on January 4, 2015 at 12:57pm


Comment by Dee Notaro on January 5, 2015 at 3:25am

You are truly a great landscape photographer! So beautiful 


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