Dún an Óir

On the Dingle peninsular lies the Viking settlement of Smerwick Harbour. On it was built the settlement of Dún an Óir, also known as ‘Fort del Oro’ or ‘The Fortress of Gold’. In the latter 16th century explorers returning from the Arctic hit a reef and sank their ship with a cargo hold full of black gold. This was later to be revealed as Fool’s Gold and the worthless load was said to be utilised as building blocks for the fort.

In 1579, James Maurice Fitzgerald initiated the Second Desmond Rebellion against the English and those who sided with them. He took position with his men at Smerwick and was slain within the month. Undeterred, the rebellion continued and Pope Gregory XIII sent Papal troops in September of 1580, led by Sebastian di San Giuseppe to give aid to Fitzgerald’s army.

Although only numbering around 600 in total, thanks to the arms and money brought over from Europe, the men of Desmond were able to hold off the English who were in a holding pattern until the arrival of Admiral Winter and the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Arthur Grey, together with a few thousand naval personnel.

Trapped by the ships blockade in the bay, Grey’s men advancing and the daunting Mount Bandon behind them, Giuseppe had no choice but to order his men to retreat to Dún an Óir. They battled on for three days as the English laid siege to the fortress, however they were left with no alternative but to surrender without condition.

In November of 1580, overseen by Sir Walter Raleigh, the Rebellion and Papal Troops were gathered and the officers led away. The remaining 600 or so men were taken to a field now known as ‘Gort a Gherradh’ or ‘The Field of Cutting’ for execution. Every last man was put to his knees and beheaded.

The heads were buried together in a field and the bodies thrown without ceremony into the sea. It is said these soldiers were the lucky ones as the officers were to suffer a worse fate. The higher ranking men were told to immediately denounce their Catholic faith in order to receive a life sentence. The captives’ refusal to do so led to their limbs being fractured multiple times, after which they were left in agony for a day before being dragged out and hanged.

In later years, some would say the dead had their revenge, as although only acting on instruction, Raleigh was charged with atrocities pertaining to the events at Dún an Óir as well as the Main Plot against James I, which led to his own execution.

Centuries later the fort is ruins, victim of an unforgiving sea and the field in which the heads of the soldiers are buried has been named ‘Gort na gCeann’. A sculpture has been placed here to commemorate the dead of the Second Desmond Rebellion, but this is not enough to let their spirits rest in peace.

The harsh erosion of the Atlantic coast is said to have brought skulls and skeletons forth from their burial site and on the anniversary of the massacre the tormented souls call out. Many have heard voices crying out in Spanish, the agonising sounds of fear and suffering not needing translation and on the wind the horrific stench of rotting flesh is carried out to sea. If you stand on Smerwick Harbour remember you stand on centuries old violent history and bloodshed. If you are standing there in November, the men of the Second Desmond Rebellion will not let you forget it.


saint patrick

On March 17th every year, the whole world finds a little Irish inside of them and celebrates the anniversary of the death of Ireland’s Patron Saint, Patrick. This day has become a global commercial phenomenon, with even the most revered of world historical monuments lit up in green to celebrate a man whose life remains an enigma to many, the man and legend heavily intertwined.

Patrick the boy

Saint Patrick was born Maewyn Succat in the latter 4th Century in what was then known as Briton. From a high ranking Roman family, his father Calphurnius was a Deacon and his mother Conchessa had strong links with the Church.

It was odd therefore that the young Maewyn was not active in the Church and was not raised under religious doctrine. Also unusual for a family of such high standing, the boy received very little education -something he would reflect on with regret in later life.

Life was very much uneventful, that is until he turned sixteen. Taken prisoner by Irish Pirates, Saint Patrick was sold into slavery in Ireland. He was sent to work in the North of Ireland as a Shepherd for a Chieftain known as Milchu. Saint Patrick’s Master was a Druid Priest and in his years of captivity Saint Patrick became well versed in Pagan worship and practices as well as fluent in the native Irish tongue.

Patrick the man

Witness to Pagan rituals and left with much time alone on the hills of Antrim, Saint Patrick turned to God in his hour of need and prayed long and hard. After six years, Saint Patrick received a vision, some say an angel, telling him to escape. Stowing away on a ship, Patrick found himself reunited with his family.

The ordeal of kidnap and slavery had changed the young man. After all he had seen and heard Patrick was determined to rid Ireland of Paganism and bring Christianity to the shores of the Emerald Isle. With focus and direction he set off for Auxerre in France to enter the priesthood and study under the guidance of Saint Germain. For many years Saint Patrick studied and prayed, never forgetting his ultimate purpose.

Patrick the Priest

In 431 A.D, under the recommendation of Saint Germain, Pope St. Celestine I renamed Maewyn Patritius or Patrick in expectancy of him fulfilling his role as the Father of the Irish people- a role given after Pallidius had failed in fear to convert the Tribes of Ireland to Christianity and had abandoned his sacred duty.

Following preparations and further study, Patrick set sail for Ireland and for a renewed battle with the Druid Chieftains and their unrelenting warriors. Choosing to begin his work in the place of his enslavement, Patrick’s way was fraught with hostility and danger.

It was during this period of opposition that Saint Patrick came into his own. Speaking to the Irish in their own tongue, Patrick declared that their faith kept them enslaved under the power of the Druid Chieftains and that believing in God and living a Christian life would set them free.

Called to Tara to meet with the Great Chieftains, along the way Saint Patrick’s Crusade gathered strength in numbers, heightened by the apparent miracles he was performing and through his own charismatic speeches and humble manner.

The Oracles of the Druids had spoken of the messenger of Christ coming to Erin and they were more than prepared for Patrick’s arrival. They had demanded that all fires be extinguished until a new flame announcing Druid victory was lit in the Royal House. The meeting was at Easter, and Patrick set up camp on Slane Hill opposite Tara where he lit the Paschal fire as part of the Easter vigil.

Outraged the Druid Priests cried out that if their own gods did not quench the Holy flame that night they would be doomed for it to burn on Ireland’s shores forever. Many attempts were made by the Pagan’s to douse the fire, but it was all to no avail and Patrick remained unscathed despite the continued assaults on his camp.

Patrick and the Shamrock

Saint Patrick began his procession to Tara, with the Druids and their Magicians using all their power to block his path. So dark was the magic, the sky became covered with black clouds of apocalyptic proportions. Undeterred, the Bishop of Ireland prayed until rays of sunlight broke through and dispersed the clouds.

In a final attempt to retain control, the Arch-Druid Lochru, used his dark magic to rise high into the air. Saint Patrick prayed until the Priest was dashed on the rocks below. Knowing that a great power was in their presence and that their prophecy had come to pass, the High Kings gave their permission for Christianity to be preached to the people of Ireland. It was during his time at Tara that Patrick picked a Shamrock from the ground to use as a symbol of the Holy Trinity.

Saint Patrick began to travel the length and breadth of Ireland, facing resentment, imprisonment and violence every step of the way. Patrick’s reputation and news of his miracles began to spread quickly however, as more and more of the Irish turned their back on Paganism and were instilled with Christian hope and faith.

Croagh Patrick

Having spent much time in Munster, baptising, teaching and founding Churches and schools, Patrick continued on, journeying to the hill now known as Croagh Patrick, a place of Holiness and Pilgrimage. Here he began a retreat of 40 days and nights of abstinence and prayer, all the while resisting temptation from the demons and darkness around him.

Having rid Ireland of Paganism, and having brought hope and peace to the Irish, freeing them of slavery, Saint Patrick was called to his eternal reward at the end of the 5th Century, on 17th March.

What of the snakes you ask? There are many stories and legends, whether true or parables to explain his work who can say? In his own writings “Confessio” and the “Epistola ad Coroticum” no mention is made of this particular miracle.

Most likely the snakes are an analogy for the Paganism that Saint Patrick drove from Ireland’s shores, what is fact and what is legend we will never know for sure. What we do know is that for over 1500 years, a Roman-Briton slave who returned to Irish lands to bring Christianity to the people has become a beacon for celebration, not just in Ireland, but throughout the world.

So on March 17th, raise your glass and remember the man, the myth and the legend, whatever your beliefs and enjoy being Irish, even if it is just for one day!




In 1895 Ireland witnessed the most chilling and compelling of murder trials to ever take place in the Emerald Isle to the extent it was reported in newspapers throughout Britain, Ireland and Canada. Those charged with her murder cited the Faeries as their defence.
Bridget Boland Cleary was an attractive confident woman of twenty six years of age. She was married to Michael, an educated Cooper nine years her senior and the childless couple resided with Bridget’s father Patrick Boland in a cottage in Ballyvadlea, County Tipperary.
Bridget was fiercely independent and uncharacteristic of a married woman at that time, as not only was she literate, she was also a very successful business woman. A seamstress with her own machine she made and repaired garments for locals as well as selling eggs from her own chickens. To quote the Judge in the case, Bridget Cleary was “a young married woman, suspecting no harm, guilty of no offence, virtuous and respectable in all her conduct and all her proceedings.”
Early in March of that year Bridget had been out delivering eggs and having caught a cold, it escalated and she became quite ill. The young wife had been subjected to forced intake of herbal concoctions as was the way in that household, however as her condition remained unimproved, the doctor was sent for on 11th March, but was unable to attend until the 13th. At this point rumours believed to have been started by Michael and her Uncle Jack Dunne were circulating the community, stating that Bridget Cleary was gone and that a Faery Changling had been left in her stead.
On examination the doctor said that Bridget was in a “state of nervous excitement” and had a complaint, possibly TB or Bronchitis. In general her life was not believed to be at risk however the priest was called for to deliver the Last Rites. The priest carried out a last confession and the Last Rites. He too was convinced Bridget was not dying and stated there was no need for him to return.
At this stage both Michael Cleary and Bridget’s father Patrick were openly denouncing the poor woman as a Changeling as she remained sickly. The herbal and folklore ‘cures’ being administered were becoming more frequent and more brutal. More family and neighbours were now involved and Bridget was subjected to force feeding, urine being thrown upon her as well as being verbally and physically abused. On 14th March she was finally carried by all present to the fireplace whereupon it was demanded she recite her name three times to prove she was not a Changeling, whilst being held over the fire.
On 16th March Bridget Cleary was reported missing.
Michael Cleary stated his wife had been taken by the Faeries and they were seen to be holding a vigil for her safe return. Following intervention from the local priest, after five days Bridget Cleary’s corpse was found, buried in a shallow grave, charred and burned.
The horror of her final moments was revealed in court. Nine people in total, with Michael Cleary being the main accused were charged with her murder and/or wounding. Bridget had been subjected to torture and torment, finally being burned alive in her nightdress in front of the kitchen fireplace, screams of agony ignored by the silent that stood before her.
That silence continued until arrests were made and the trial began. The evidence brought out at trial was horrific, particularly the post-mortem findings including exposed bones, strangulation marks and burning. Cleary’s argument? “She was too fine to be my wife and two inches taller.” On this basis he deduced she was a Changeling and should be slain.
In total five people were convicted, four of wounding and Michael Cleary of the Manslaughter of his wife, Bridget Cleary, for which he served 15 years in prison after which time he emigrated.
Was this a clever, jealous husband who convinced his neighbours and family to commit atrocities through mass hysteria? Did Michael Cleary genuinely believe his wife had been taken by the Faeries? The outcome of the trial points to the former, yet we will never know. All we know is that poor Bridget will forever be remembered as the victim of Ireland’s most bizarre and controversial murder trial.

Bridget Cleary’s legacy is a nursery rhyme that epitomises the complexity of the circumstances surrounding her death:

Are you a witch or are you a faery?
Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?