Ambush! Where was Walter Raleigh ambushed in Midleton in 1580?

The traditional site of the Seneschal of Imokilly's attempted ambush of Walter Raleigh is usually placed on the Owenacurra River near the present St John the Baptist's Church, Midleton, built on the site of the medieval Cistercian abbey.

The traditional site of the Seneschal of Imokilly’s attempted ambush of Walter Raleigh is usually placed on the Owenacurra River (foreground) near the present St John the Baptist’s Church, Midleton, built on the site of the medieval Cistercian abbey.

‘ Ireland he was a reprehensible snob and killer.’ Such is Michael Twomey’s blunt assessment of Walter Raleigh published in History Ireland in 2014. Twomey bolsters his assessment with a litany of incompetence and brutality committed by Raleigh during his time in Ireland, with the damning conclusion that Raleigh ‘..added nothing to Youghal’s infrastructure and very little to its economy.‘ And they’ve named a section of the town’s historic center after him!

The Second Desmond Rebellion (1579-1583) which convulsed Munster barely a decade after the previous Desmond Rebellion proved to be devastating for the FitzGerald interest in the province. The Earldom of Desmond went defunct, and ultimately extinct, as a consequence and many estates held since the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in the province in 1177 were confiscated and awarded to English adventurers. The often brutal Walter Raleigh was one of the biggest beneficiaries gaining some 40,000 acres of confiscated lands for his troubles. Edmund Spenser, the celebrated poet who wrote The Faerie Queen, was another beneficiary of the confiscations that followed the crushing of the rebellion.

What is little known (even in Midleton) is that Raleigh’s life might have been rudely cut short if the rebellious Seneschal of Imokilly had got his act together in September 1580!

The incident is recorded in the second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles which was published in 1587. James Fitzmaurice, leader of the Desmond Rebellion, while on pilgrimage to Holy Cross Abbey in County Tipperary in August 1580 was suddenly killed. This meant that John FitzEdmund FitzGerald, Seneschal of Imokilly, was now the effective military leader of the rebels. Captain Raleigh, based in Cork, had already attacked Barryscourt Castle, near Carrigtwohill, which had been burned by David, Lord Barry, to deny it to the Queen’s forces. The Holinshed chronology seems rather confusing but it actually seems that after Barryscourt, Raleigh had gone to Youghal. After a short time there Raleigh had to return to Cork, and prompted the attempted ambush at Corabbey, now Midleton. It’s best to give the Holinshed version before discussing the incident further. (Note: I’ve modernized the spelling to make it easier for the modern reader. The ‘captain’ in the text refers to Raleigh.)

Sir Walter Raleigh painted in 1588 when he was aged just 34. This elegant portrait gives no idea of the sheer brutality of the man who participated in the massacre of Papal and Spanish forces at Smerwick Harbour near Dingle in 1580, a crime condemned all over Europe.

Sir Walter Raleigh painted in 1588 when he was aged just 34. This elegant portrait gives no idea of the sheer brutality of the man who participated in the massacre of Papal and Spanish forces at Smerwick Harbour near Dingle in 1580, a crime condemned all over Europe.

This captain, making his return from Dublin, and the same well known unto the seneschall of Imokilly, through whose country he was to pass, lay in ambush for him and to entrap him between Youghal and Cork, lying at a ford, which the said captain must pass over with six horsemen and certain kerne, The captain, little mistrusting any such matter, had in his company only two horsemen and four shot on horseback, which was too small a force in so doubtful and dangerous times: nevertheless he had a very good guide, which was the servant of John Fitzedmond of Cloyne, a good subject, and this guide knew every corner and starting hole in those places.

The captain being come towards the ford, the seneschal had spied him alone, his company being scattered behind, and very fiercely pursued him, and crossed him as he was to ride over the water, but yet he recovered the ford and passed over. The Irishman who was his guide, when he saw the captain thus alone and so narrowly distressed, he shifted for himself and fled unto a broken castle fast by, there to save himself. The captain being thus over the water, Henry Moile, riding alone about a a bowshot before the rest of his company, when he was in the middle of the ford, his horse foundered and cast him down; and being afraid that the seneschal’s men would have followed him and have killed him, cried out to the captain to come and to save his life; who not respecting the danger he himself was in, came unto him and recovered both him and his horse. And then Moile, coveting with all haste to leap up, did it with such haste and vehemency that he quite overlept the horse, and fell into the mire fast by, and so his horse ran away, and was taken by the enemy. The captain nevertheless stayed still, and did abide for the coming of the residue of his company, of the four shot which were as yet not come forth, and for his man, Jenkin, who had about two hundred pounds in money about him, and sat upon his horse in the meanwhile, having his staff in one hand and his pistol charged in the other hand. The seneschal, who had so fiercely followed him upon spur, when he saw him to stand and tarry as it were for his coming, notwithstanding he was counted a man (as he was indeed) of great service, and having also a new supply of twelve horsemen and sundry shot come unto him; yet neither he nor any one of them, being twenty to one, durst to give the onset upon him, but only railed and used hard speeches unto him, until his men behind were recovered and were come unto him, then without any further harm departed.

Basically what happened was this: having returned from Dublin, where he was given a new commission to root out rebellion by Lord Deputy Grey, Raleigh had attacked David, Lord Barry, at Barryscourt, but was foiled by Barry’s burning of his own castle. Continuing to Youghal, Raleigh spent a short time there before he took a small escort of mounted men with him to go back to Cork. Their guide was a local man, a servant of John FitzEdmond FitzGerald of Cloyne, a cousin and mortal enemy of the Seneschal of Imokilly. One of the men in Ralaeigh’s party carried two hundred pounds in cash – probably pay for the garrison in Cork. The Seneschal discovered Raleigh’s plan and attempted to ambush him at a ford. Raleigh, riding ahead of his men, evaded the Seneschal’s personal attack and reached the far bank of the river. One of Raleigh’s men, The local guide ran off into a nearby ruined castle to save his life. Henry Moile was thrown from his horse in mid-stream. Raleigh came to his aid but Moile was too eager to remount and fell off his horse into a mire on the riverbank. Raleigh however stood his ground until the rest of the party caught up. The Seneschal, who had twenty men with him, some armed with guns, didn’t bother to attack Captain Raleigh but abused him with insults. When the rest of his men had crossed the stream, Raleigh gathered them up and made his way safely to Cork.

The first point to note is that Raleigh’s party was to pass through the country of the Seneschal of Imokilly – that means he was going from Youghal to Cork, through the barony of Imokilly. This is important because it meant that Raleigh’s movements could easily have been made known to the Seneschal whose seat was at Castlemartyr, although it is unlikely he was actually in residence at the time. But knowledge of Raleigh’s movements would have given the Seneschal time to plot an ambush. It is worth noting that the river (or ford) that Raleigh crossed is not named. There is one important clue – the ‘broken castle fast by.’ There were two castles in the immediate vicinity of Corabbey (Midleton). About half a mile to the east stands the ruin of Cahermone Castle, which had been acquired in 1571 by John FitzEdmund FitzGerald of Cloyne, the loyal subject of Queen Elizabeth mentioned in the text. This stands on the banks of the Roxborough or Dungourney River. The other castle was Castleredmond. No longer extant, Castleredmond stood on the shore of the Owenacurra Estuary at its narrowest point. However, given the silting of the Ballinacurra Creek and the Owenacurra Estuary especially since about 1900 it simply isn’t possible to suggest that this was the site of the ford where the ambush took place.  Indeed there is no known historical evidence for a ford at that point. The third option is that the ‘broken castle’ was actually the ruined Cistercian abbey of Chore, on the site of the present St John the Baptist’s Church in Midleton. This was indeed ‘fast by’ the fordable river Owenacurra, which marked the boundary between Imokilly and Barrymore baronies. However it seems highly unlikely, given the apparent eye-witness account of the ambush, that the narrator mistook a ruined abbey for a ‘broken castle.’  In short there is only one place where this ambush might have happened – on the banks of the Roxborough or Dungourney River near Cahermone and NOT on the Owenacurra River.

In addition, it’s worth noting that the Owenacurra has lost much of its volume of water, and indeed can almost dry up entirely, because so much of the water is siphoned off upstream to supply the town of Midleton. The Roxborough River, despite being previously diverted into the distillery, has always been blessed with a good and rather deep flow of water. Given the proximity of Cahermone Castle, I’m inclined to place the ambush on the Roxborough rather than on the Owenacurra. Add to this is the mention of the ‘mire’ into which Henry Moile fell – there is an area of bogland next to the Roxborough River which probably extended further east towards Cahermone before the land was reclaimed in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. it should be noted that the townland of Park South straddles the Roxborough between Townparks (marking the center of Midleton) and Cahermone. Park South (along with Park North) formed part of Sir St John Brodrick’s deerpark as authorized in the Charter of Midleton of 1670.

The ruins of Cahermone Castle with the later additon on the right. The castle was acquired in 1571 by John FitzEdmund FitzGerald of Cloyne who supplied the guide for Raleigh's party in 1580. This is most likely the 'broken castle' in which the guide took refuge during the attempted ambush.

The ruins of Cahermone Castle with the later additon on the right. The castle was acquired in 1571 by John FitzEdmund FitzGerald of Cloyne who supplied the guide for Raleigh’s party in 1580. This is most likely the ‘broken castle’ in which the guide took refuge during the attempted ambush. The castle stands on the banks of the Roxborough or Dungourney River.

The comic detail of Henry Moile over-leaping his horse in mid-stream suggests that the Holinshed source was actually present at the ambush and recounted it to amuse the company but also to display his courage in standing by his hapless colleague. In addition the detail that Jenkin had two hundred pounds in coin in his possession is very telling. it was a considerable sum of money at the time.

Unfortunately the Seneschal of Imokilly, John FitzEdmund FitzGerald (NOT the gentleman from Cloyne!), does not come out of the affair with much credit. Indeed, the whole incident is redolent of hesitation and uncertainty on the part of the Seneschal and his men. Raleigh attempted to ford the river under the direction of a guide provided of John FitzEdmund FitzGerald, a Catholic gentleman who was both Dean of Cloyne (but a layman for all that) and a staunch supporter of Queen Elizabeth I. At this stage FitzGerald was very likely safely shut up in Cork, for Cloyne had fallen to his cousin, the Seneschal, who had burned much of it. The fact that this Raleigh’s guide had fled to the ruined castle suggests that he was familiar with the place, as he probably would be if he was a servant of John FitzEdmund FitzGerald of Cloyne.

Raleigh comes out of the tale with considerable credit, although one must question his foolishness in traveling through a rebellious country from Youghal to Cork with such a scanty force. Perhaps he felt it was sufficiently subdued to warrant the risk. Or perhaps he was in a hurry and a smaller party would make better speed than a larger one. It could well be that he just couldn’t spare the men and had to leave some to garrison Youghal.

Barryscourt Castle, Carrigtwohill, was extensively refurbished by David, Lord Barry, after he had burned it to deny it to Raleigh in 1580. Raleigh later tried to get Queen Elizabeth I to grant it to himself, but she refused,   preferring to keep the Barrys on side.

Barryscourt Castle, Carrigtwohill, was extensively refurbished by David, Lord Barry, after he had burned it to deny it to Raleigh in 1580. Raleigh later tried to get Queen Elizabeth I to grant it to himself, but she refused, preferring to keep the Barrys on side. The castle was restored by the Office of Public Works at the end of the twentieth century. 

The specific details given in the story and the description of the site of the ambush all point to one conclusion – Walter Raleigh was himself the source of the story in the 1587 Holinshed. This is reinforced by an interesting coda related in the text. Some time after the failed ambush, there was a parley between the Crown and the rebels. Raleigh and the Seneschal were both present and Raleigh took the opportunity to berate the Seneschal for his cowardice during the ambush. One of the Seneschal’s men piped up that his master was indeed a coward that day but was otherwise a valiant man. The Earl of Ormond intervened and suggested a duel to settle the argument, but the Seneschal sensibly demurred. It seemed he preferred to keep his head rather than lose it. After a peace had been arranged (and the rebellion crushed) the Seneschal was allowed, eventually, to return to his residence at Castlemartyr. Some time later he was arrested and imprisoned in Dublin Castle by a suspicious government. There were apparently plans to release him given the lack of any evidence against him, but John FitzEdmund FitzGerald, the last effective Seneschal of Imokilly, died in prison in 1586.


Holinshed’s Chronicle, 1587:

Michael Twomey: ‘A good heritage/tourism story getting in the way of historical facts?’ History Ireland, Issue 1 (January/February 2014), vol 22.


Harpur’s Lane, Cork – of soup kitchens, prostitutes and shanghaied sailors!

Cork marshlands

Early 17th century plan of Cork city showing the center of the town lying between North Channel and the South Channel of the River Lee. The plan doesn’t show the northern suburb (Shandon) and the southern suburb around St Finbarr’s Cathedral. the three marshlands were reclaimed by 1760 to provide an extension to the city.

Paul Street Cork

Paul Street, Cork, looking east. This narrow pedestrianised street gives access to the former Harpur’s Lane on the left, just beyond the trees.

One of the consequences of modernization in Ireland is the disappearance of old names from the street-map.  Sometimes even the street or lane has vanished with later developments. In Midleton, we’ve lost William Street (perhaps originally named for either King William of Orange or King William IV, the immediate predecessor of Queen Victoria? It’s now called ‘New’ Cork Road), Charles Street (now Connolly Street), Free School Lane (now McDermott Street and Casement Street) and Bridewell Lane (now Oliver Plunkett Street)! The latter seems somehow appropriate since St Oliver Plunkett spent time in prison before being executed.

Other Irish towns and cities have undergone similar processes – anything that smacked of the old regime was removed and a more patriotic name was chosen. Sadly, the motives were not always patriotic – sometimes snobbery intervened (and let’s be honest here, there’s no other way to put it – snobbery is exactly the right word!).

Stocks at St Paul's Church, Cork

An old photograph from the 1930s showing the local historian Philip G Lee posing in the stocks at St Paul’s Church, next to Harpur’s Lane, in Cork!

Cork city had a fine collection of interesting, even characterful, names!  Tom Spalding gives a few in his book Layers: The Design, History and meaning of Public Street Signage in Cork and other Irish Cities.  Names such as Beger Man’s Lane (sic), Knocker’s Hole, Crooked Billet, Three-Hatchet Lane (gulp!), Hang Dog Road, Dead Woman’s Hill, and Gunpowder Lane have all vanished – at least as names. The cult of respectability removed some of these names.  Knocker’s Hole on lower Shandon became Shandon Castle Lane, then New Chapel Lane and finally ended up as Dominick Street behind the Dominican Priory on Pope’s Quay!  At no point did this lane actually undergo any widening process during its name changes! This habit of upgrading the lane without adding any appreciable improvement in amenities or dimensions is not unique to Cork, but sometimes it really does got out of hand.

St Paul's Church Cork

St Paul’s Church, built as an Anglican church between 1723 and 1726, is now deconsecrated and in use as a sports shop! Happily the moulded plaster barrel vaulted ceiling still survives within.

A classic example is Harpur’s Lane or Harper’s Lane in the centre of Cork.  This lane, which still exists, but under a different name, is a narrow lane running south to north from Paul Street to the Coal Quay (the OFFICIAL Coal Quay, that is – not the ‘;popular’ Coal Quay which is actually Cornmarket Street!).

Site of Harpur's Lane

A map of Cork city about 1690 showing the first area of reclaimed land to be built up just to the right of the walled city and above the Bowling Green. This area was later to contain Harpur’s Lane which isn’t shown on the map because it had yet to be laid out.

Harpur’s Lane does not appear on a map of the 1690s which is the first to show Cork bursting out of its constricted medieval core and expanding into the marshlands both east and west of the city. The land that would later contain Harpur’s Lane was one of the first areas to be reclaimed in the eastwards expansion of the city. In Carty’s map of 1725 there is a lane on the site, but it isn’t named. St Paul’s Church was built next to the southern end of the land between 1723 and 1726. The name first appears on a Smith’s map of 1750 as Harper’s Lane and it keeps that name until the twentieth century. The southern end of the land was anchored by St Paul’s Church – a plain preaching hall that is now converted into a sports shop!

Smith's Map of Cork 1750

Smith’s map of 1750 shows St Paul’s Street and Harpur’s Lane. The map is oriented so that North is actually to the viewer’s left!

During the 19th century Harpur’s Lane gained notoriety as the site of a soup kitchen during the Great Irish Famine. In 1852 there were questions as to whether Mr Morrough’s disused theatre on the lane would be a suitable place for the casting of ballots during the election – remember that ballots were then cast openly by declaration rather than by being put into a box!

St Paul's Churchyard Cork

Plan of St Paul’s churchyard with tombs and graves marked in. St Paul’s Street is at the bottom (south) and Harpur’s Lane is immediately to the right of the churchyard.

But Harpur’s Lane sank into the murky underbelly of Cork with a different kind of sleaze. One of the objections to using the old theatre on Harpur’s Lane for ballotting during the election of 1852 was the reputation that the lane had acquired as a haunt of prostitutes – although this was strenuously denied at the time! Port towns were notorious for prostitution – Cork being no exception. Harpur’s Lane became the haunt of ladies of ill-repute who, I understand, may have deprived their clients of their coins by offering intimate services only for the poor client to be knocked up in a different way.  The clients were often hit over the head, their purses removed and the wretched men were then disposed of by being dropped over the quay into the north channel of the River Lee. They had been ”shanghaied’!

Cork Canals

Cork about 1760 was a city of canals – more like Amsterdam than Venice, despite nineteenth century romantic pretensions. Harpur’s Lane is immediately to the right of ‘Newman’s Quay’ and running parallel to it into Paul’s Street. ‘Newman’s Quay’ was actually Newenham’s Quay! The long curving canal is now covered over and is better known today as St Patrick’s Street – Cork’s main shopping street.

Just before Easter, I was disgusted to find that Harpur’s Lane was ‘improved’ in two ways – first it was named after St Paul, as St Paul’s Avenue. Well a church dedicated to him has backed on to the southern end of the lane since 1726, and St Paul had a thing or two to say about sex, so it makes some sort of sense as an attempt to exorcise the lane’s previous reputation. But the second ‘improvement’ took the biscuit. What possessed the city fathers to give Harpur’s Lane a new designation like St Paul’s AVENUE! The use of the word ‘avenue’ demonstrate only one thing – someone in Cork City Council has absolutely no sense of proportion.  The fact is that most of the former Harpur’s Lane hasn’t been widened by a single inch since it first appeared on Carty’s map of 1726 – designating a lane as an avenue is social climbing gone haywire! I’m disgusted – and I want my lane back, preferably with the family name on it, especially now that St Paul’s Church is deconsecrated and redundant!

Harpur's Lane

View of the east end of (the former) St Paul’s Church from (the former) Harpur’s Lane.

Twelve Christmas traditions in Ireland.

Christmas bauble

All too often today in Ireland the complaint about Christmas is that there is too much pressure – to spend, to drink too much, to eat too much, to ‘be merry’ when inwardly you are suffering from loss, to outdo one’s relatives/neighbours/friends in extravagance and originality. Indeed one of the maddest phenomena in Ireland is the stampede to the grocery stores in the days leading up to (and including!) Christmas Eve. A visitor from Mars (or anywhere else for that matter) would be forced to concluded that all the shops were closing – FOREVER! Much of this is a relatively new phenomenon in modern Ireland.  And the real point of Christmas so often gets lost in the bustle that leads up to it. The truth is that we’ve bought into the whole Anglo-American version of the commercial Christmas, with a few twists of our own.

What are the traditions of Christmas in Ireland? The original traditions are very few and rather simple. But we’ve added some new ones!

Shopping fast

Can’t stop, must shop! A frantic way to spend Christmas Eve.

The first ‘tradition’ is fairly new, It’s the Christmas Eve panic. Panic shopping for ‘essentials’ that you already have or really don’t need! This is coupled with the last minute shoppers – they felt there was enough time to go shopping for gifts especially that they forgot the sheer scale of the endeavour in the first place! There are people who swear that it isn’t Christmas unless they’ve had their adrenalin rush of panic or last minute shopping on Christmas Eve. I am reliably assured this is not a uniquely Irish phenomenon. It’s very much an Anglo-American-Irish er, ‘tradition.’

Share collectors

Bishops Buckley and Colton join the SHARE collectors in Cork. Charity fundraising is VERY big in Ireland at Christmas.

For a second tradition I select charity. This is BIG in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Honestly you can hardly move on the Main Street in Midleton without having to pay tolls to the collectors every hundred yards – on both sides of the street!  Okay, I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. Charity collections at Christmas are serious matters for the fundraisers. Cork City has an important and wonderful collection for Advent call the ‘SHARE Collection,’ SHARE is a body set up by secondary school children in Cork in 1970 to help elderly people with their basic needs. They have funded the repair of houses, the provision of foodstuffs, meals and, for many people this is most important, the youngsters provide company through regular visits to simply sit and chat, run errands, even cook meals for the senior citizens of Cork. The presence of the yellow-jacketed fundraisers on Patrick’s Street is a fixture of Christmas in Cork.

Adi Roche and Chernobyl Children

Adi Roche greeting some of the Chernobyl Children who will spend Christmas in Ireland. Roche’s charity has brought thousands of children to Ireland from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia to give them respite and healthcare in a different environment. They may not be Irish emigrants, but some of them have been to Ireland so often that they see the place a second home. (Published in the Evening Echo, Cork.)

The third one on my list is rather new. This is the welcome at the airports for returning emigrants. I have no idea how much money Aer Lingus (our national airline) makes at Christmas, but their business at this time of the year must be the envy of other airlines around the world. The news broadcasts usually cover the scenes at the airports as emigrants are greeted by family and friends. It seems to be compulsory to hold up homemade ‘Welcome Home’ banners and for everyone to wear a red Santa hat. The scenes are both heartwarming and heartbreaking, but sometimes the broadcasts get a little too maudlin. I suspect that only the Chinese have a similar movement of population for their New Year. ‘Coming Home for Christmas’ is the theme song of this ‘tradition.’ Although this tradition is rather new, it is linked to the long-standing idea that Christmas is a time for family gatherings. It may be the only time of the year in which the whole family gathers together to have a meal and catch up on the ‘sca!’  ‘Sca’ is not ‘scat’ or scandal, it’s derived from the irish word ‘sceal’ or ‘story’….hence the immortal phrase ‘what’s the story, Rory?’ Tell us what you’ve been up to and leave NOTHING out, especially the embarrassing bits! (‘Rory’ does not mean Mr McIlroy, it just rhymes with ‘story.’)

Spiced Beef

Spiced Beef is traditional fare on Christmas Day in Ireland, but it has lost out to the turkey. It’s still popular with families in Cork, and there are attempts to revive its popularity.

Fourth, the lunch or supper on Christmas Eve and dinner on Christmas Day. Traditionally in our house it was a fish day. Fish in Ireland was seen as something of a penance mainly because we really didn’t know how to cook it properly, and this in a country surrounded by rich fishing grounds! By long standing tradition fish was eaten on Fridays (it certainly was in our house). This was a hangover from the medieval Church law that ruled out consuming meat on Fridays in honour of the crucifixion. Later, Wednesday became a ‘fish day’ too….and don’t even mention Lent and Advent! (Curiously, Queen Elizabeth I legislated for the retention of Wednesday and Friday as ‘fish days’ despite the Reformation – remember, she really wanted to restore her daddy’s liturgy – polyphony, smells, bells, vestments….the whole works. Now you know why the Puritans fled to New England during the reign of her successor! The Established Church was a bit too fishy for their tastes.) So the fourth tradition of Christmas in Ireland is fish for a light dinner or lunch on Christmas Eve – except today it is no longer a penance and we (usually) have learned how to cook it properly. Add to this the tradition of having spiced beef on Christmas day. Once widespread, this custom is now generally confined to the area around Cork, although other areas are reviving it as an alternative to turkey. Beef was an expensive dish into the late nineteenth century or even the early twentieth century. So it was only eaten by many families on special occasions, such as Christmas. Despite my Cork heritage, I’ve never had it for Christmas dinner.

Harry Clarke Nativity

Harry Clarke stained glass window of the Nativity in Castletownbere, West Cork.

The fifth tradition among Irish Catholics is confession – the churches were busy with people slipping in to confess their sins (or repeat them ad nauseam as if they’re not certain that God REALLY forgives!).  You have to remember that until recently Christmas was a distinctly RELIGIOUS occasion in Ireland. And despite the claim of one bishop recently that shopping has become the new religion in Ireland, people will go to Mass/Church even if only to meet old friends and neighbours afterwards.  Furthermore, on Christmas morning after Mass it was the custom to visit the graves of loved ones and place a wreath or flowers there. This is still a very widespread custom, especially in parishes where the cemetery is next to the church. There is nothing morbid about this custom, it’s our way of including the whole family, living and dead in the festivities. We Irish can be a bit more forthright about this than some cultures that shy away from any mention of death at Christmastide.

Wexford carols

The Wexford Carols are probably the remnant of an older carol singing tradition in Ireland – fortunately they have been recorded and are gaining a wider recognition as a uniquely Irish contribution to the Christmas carol repertoire.

Carols are the sixth tradition. Yes, I know, EVERYBODY sings carols. But in Ireland Catholics limit themselves to a very narrow selection of carols from the vast number available. Better to be a member of the Church of Iireland – the congregations use hymnbooks with lots of carols, and EVERYBODY sings!  We actually have our own carols here in Ireland. One of the finest of all carols (and not just because it is Irish) is the Enniscorthy Carol, usually called the Wexford Carol. This starts with the words ‘Good people all this Christmas time….’ Check out Louis Mahon and the Palestrina Choir from the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin singing it on Youtube (see below) – exquisite!  And, still in County Wexford, the fishing village of Kilmore Quay has a fine collection of thatched houses and a special tradition of unique local carols going back at least to the seventeenth century. The local custom is that a six man schola sings the carols through the twelve liturgical days of Christmas. The carols were effectively preserved for three or more centuries by a single family who make up the schola. These are local fishermen, not professional choristers. There is a different carol for each day, usually sung during Mass in the local church. A few years ago Tom Jones (yes, THE Tom Jones!) joined a group of other musicians to record these carols for popular publication by Heresy Records. It is thought that the distinguished Irish Franciscan friar Luke Wadding OFM composed or redacted the lyrics in the seventeenth century. You know, I am convinced that we Irish really don’t realize how wonderful our native carols are. We should make it compulsory to sing at least one of the Wexford carols in every carol service or concert – perhaps people would get to know them better.

Feeling stressed out at Christmas?  Just listen to this and you’ll be put right again. Louis Mahon and the Palestrina Choir singing the Enniscorthy Carol:

Ballintotis Church

I once attended Christmas Day Mass in St Colman’s Church in Ballintotis (Midleton parish). It was remarkably short – the sermon was ‘Happy Christmas, and be sure to make it a happy one for somebody!’ Sums it up really.

Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is the seventh tradition. Now I know this is universal but there is an Irish twist. Usually packed, this can sometimes provide unexpected entertainment if a member of the congregation has come straight from the pub and starts singing aloud at the wrong moment. I’m not necessarily talking about singing hymns or carols either! Or maybe he (it’s usually ‘he’) likes/dislikes a point the priest has made in his sermon and broadcasts his opinion to the whole congregation. Excruciating embarrassment ensues for his nearest and dearest, or for those seated next to him. It certainly isn’t pleasant for any children allowed to stay up after bedtime in order to attend Midnight Mass. This is one reason why so many parishes brought forward ‘Midnight Mass’ forward to about 9.00 pm – the pubs don’t close on Christmas Eve until 11.30 pm. The drunks would still be ‘filling up’ whilst the congregation could celebrate Mass without interruption or embarrassment.


Uniquely Irish and  lovely, simple tradition, and no need to go overboard with it.

The eighth tradition which is distinctly Irish, is the candle in the window – just the one, mind!  Nowadays some people have EVERY window in the house lit. But the whole point of the candle in the window is not to show off, but to offer an invitation to the Holy Family (the Christ Child, Mary, and Joseph, presumably the donkey would be along too!).  It was an act of charity, since the idea was to invite the Christ Child to lay his head in a warm bed rather than a cold manger. Some claim that the tradition was intended to light the way to Bethlehem for the Holy Family, but I suspect this is a misunderstanding. But why only one candle? Well, candles were once quite expensive. Most people got by with home made rush lights or tapers.  Rush lights were strands of rush dipped in tallow (pig fat) in imitation of a beeswax candle. They smoked terrifically, and someone had to constantly tend them so that the flame did not get extinguished by the melting fat. Tapers were a wick dipped in animal fat. Smokey and requiring constant care, they melted fairly quickly. Candles proper, of wax or paraffin, were shop bought and were more expensive. Thus only ONE candle was lit to guide the Holy Family into a warm house. There are people alive today who recall Christmas Eve before rural electrification in the late 1940s. The most delightful thing was standing on a nearby hill and watching as, one by one, the neighbours lit their candles. When President Mary Robinson lit a candle in the window of her official residence Arus an Uachtarain, she gave the most distinctive Irish Christmas tradition a new secular twist, since her candle represented a welcome home to all the Irish emigrants (and their descendants) around the world.

Christmas day swim

Brave or brazen? Well, it’s fun in a good cause.

Although not unique to Ireland, the tenth ‘tradition’ is also rather new but increasingly popular. So much so that the Irish Water Safety Board issued a health warning to prospective participants. It is, of course, the Christmas morning swim! This takes place in the open sea – not in an indoor heated swimming pool, which would completely miss the point. If you live in the middle of the country, a trip to a local lake or river might suffice, but this is really a coastal tradition. The Irish catch is that the participants usually do it for charity – notice how this theme keeps cropping up!  I really don’t know how many Christmas Morning Swims are taking place in the beaches and coves of East Cork, but there seem to be quite a few. The essential requirements are a bathing costume and an ability to swim a few strokes (that’s all you need do).  Zany costumes are strictly optional. It’s a heck of a way to wake up on Christmas morning, especially if the night before had been somewhat indulgent! Oh, and the health warning from the Irish Water Safety Board – beware of hypothermia! They suggested wearing a wetsuit. Very sensible, in my opinion. In Dublin, some people are so sensible that they prefer to stay warm by running the Goal Mile. This is a run, not a race – think vigorous morning jog – around an athletic track to raise funds for the third world charity Goal.


On Christmas Day? Don’t. Even. Think. About. It.

The eleventh tradition will probably surprise you. No pubs. Yes, that’s right, the pubs are shut by law on two days of the year, Good Friday and Christmas Day. The law does not say ‘no alcohol’, it says you may not drink alcohol in a pub. And the pubs may not open on those days. There are rare exceptions. In 2010 the publicans of Limerick won an argument in the local district court to be permitted to open on Good Friday for a major European Cup Rugby match.  By all accounts they did a roaring trade! But that was a unique exception. This does not mean that every pub actually obeys the law – for years it was rumoured that on one of the Aran Islands the pub served alcohol on Christmas Day, because there wasn’t a single Garda (a policeman) on the island to enforce the law. Their excuse? The pub wasn’t really open and the place was full of family friends around for a drink. And everybody kept quiet about the festivities. Now you know why patrons ‘filled up’ at the pub on Christmas Eve before staggering in to Midnight Mass. Closing the pubs on Good Friday is, perhaps, still understandable, but why close the pubs on Christmas Day? Simple, to allow the staff to celebrate Christmas at home with their families. There IS a point to the immortal barman’s query ‘Have you no homes to go to?’

Wren Boys

Once a frightening tradition, the Wren Boys now perform for charity on St Stephen’s Day.

The final tradition (well it had to be twelve!) is one that happens on the day after Christmas Day.  Many people use the English term Boxing Day for the 26th December. In Ireland it is popularly called St Stephen’s Day, being the feast of the first Christian martyr. And no, we didn’t get the idea from the carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’ – it’s a genuine feast of the church going back well over a millennium. The custom in Ireland was for the Wren Boys to call around on this day. These were local youths in disguise, accompanied by a musician. They wore costumes made of straw and carried a bush with a dead wren tied to it.  This recalled the tradition that Stephen was betrayed by a wren and so the wren was killed to avenge the saint’s death.  It’s possible that the custom had a pre-Christian origin. The reason the ‘wren boys’ wore disguise is that they expected a warm welcome in every house and if they felt the welcome wasn’t good enough (not enough drink or food) they would upset the house by overturning furniture, letting animals out of their byre/stable and opening the gates of the farm. People were often quite perturbed if they heard that the ‘wren boys’ were approaching.  I suspect the whole business may be linked to the idea of the Lord of Misrule – a medieval Christmastide custom of appointing a ‘lord’ of the household to the person who drew the longest straw. This person organized the revels and nobody was permitted to disobey his instructions, not even the real master of the house. Some cathedral choirs appointed a ‘boy bishop’ as their Lord of Misrule. The ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia had similar customs. The Wren Boy tradition almost died out in Ireland because it got out of hand. Except in the extreme south west (West Cork and Kerry), but it is now being revised in parts of Dublin and elsewhere. The good news is that the ‘wren’ used today is a fake bird, or maybe even a toy, and the ‘Boys’ (grown men, mostly) usually perform a song or dance and collect money for charity (there’s that theme again!).

Christmas market Cork

The Glow Christmas Market in Cork – a new ‘tradition’. We borrowed this from the Germans…just like our Christmas trees!

Like everybody else, we have a the Christmas tree, Christmas cards, and the presents and Santa (or Santy, as he is often called here in Ireland – it’s a diminutive). But the list I’ve given above is my twelve traditions of the Irish Christmas.  It’s good to see new ‘customs being added to the list. And they say tradition is dead? Not in Ireland, at Christmas!

A Happy Christmas to you and your nearest and dearest!

Another anniversary: the Burning of Cork City, 1920.

On the morning of 12th December 1920, the people of Cork woke up to the sight and smell of smoke.  A large part of Patrick Street, the city’s main shopping thoroughfare, was gone.  The City Hall was a burned out shell, and even the city’s Carnegie Library was destroyed.  Several acres of the city had been deliberately  set alight during the night.

The culprits were British forces based in Cork.  The Auxiliaries (men brought in from Britain to reinforce the Royal Irish Constabulary) the Black and Tans, and even, it is alleged, regular British troops had run amok and torched or blew up selected premises in the city to teach the inhabitants a lesson.

The trouble had been brewing for over a year.  From November 1919 the IRA had been conducting a guerilla campaign against Crown forces in Ireland, with the county of Cork being at the heart of the action.  On 28th November 1920 the IRA had ambushed a column of Auxiliaries near Kilmichael.  Seventeen auxiliaries were killed in the ambush – the single biggest loss of life sustained by the British since the start of the war.  On 10th December, martial law was imposed on county Cork, and a curfew was declared in Cork city from 10.00pm each night.

On 10th December the IRA ambushed a regular convoy of Auxiliaries who had just left Victoria Barracks (now Collins Barracks) with the intention of killing or capturing the intelligence officer, Captain James Kelly.  The ambush was successful but it angered the Auxiliaries because it happened so close to the barracks.

Patrick Street early 1900s

Patrick Street in the years before the Great War. Despite the trams, it was still partially paved with wooden setts (cobbles). Victoria Barracks was located over the crest of the hill in the background.

Later that night groups of Auxiliaries, Black and Tans, and even regular troops went into the city center (remember, it was under curfew) and began to mine and burn premises on Patrick Street, especially the three major department stores of Roches, Cash’s and Grant’s.   The troops also burned down City Hall, and, for good measure, the Carnegie Library next door.

Cork City Hall (old)

Old City Hall in Cork, set alight by Crown forces in December 1920.

It is reliably reported that the troops threatened and shot at the fire brigade as the tenders tried to dowse the flames.  Indeed, they even cut the fire hoses to prevent the firemen bringing any fires under control.  The city’s fire chief had to send messages to other towns for assistance.  Dublin Fire Brigade even loaded a fire-tender on a train to assist their colleagues in Cork.  The fact that many of the St Patrick’s Street had wooden setts (cobbles) could have proved disastrous for if they had caught fire the conflagration could have spread even further afield.


Ruins of burned out businesses on Patrick Street. Citizens of Cork woke to this sight on 12th December 1920.



A few days after the burning, Patrick Street looked like a war damaged town on the Western Front.

The next morning revealed an appalling scene on Patrick Street – it looked like the town had endured the horrors of bombardment on the Western Front in the recent Great War.  Some five acres of the city center had been burned out. Over forty businesses and some 300 residential properties had been destroyed. Many people were left homeless and 2,000 people were left unemployed, just weeks before Christmas. Many of the city’s trams had also been damaged or destroyed. The loss of stock was never properly quantified but the loss of property was calculated at £3,000,000, a huge sum at the time.  Fortunately few lives were lost – despite houses being torched while the inhabitants were still inside – two IRA volunteers had been shot dead and a woman had a fatal heart attack when the Auxiliaries burst into her home.

Burnt out city hall Cork

The burned out shell of the old Cork City Hall.

Even worse for the historian and genealogist was the loss of the city’s historic records, a loss comparable only to the loss of the Public Record Office in Dublin in 1922.

Carnegie Library Cork

Cork’s Carnegie Library before the fire. This stood next to the City Hall and housed some of the city’s historic records. It was never rebuilt.

The British authorities in the person of Sir Hamar Greenwood, Chief Secretary for Ireland, denied that any crown forces were involved.  He actually blamed the IRA! However, in January 1921 the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress published a report to refute this.  It was written by Alfred O’Rahilly, the President of University College Cork, and drew on hundreds of eyewitness testimonies which showed clearly that Crown forces had indeed committed the crime.

It took many years to make good the damage of December 1920.  Patrick Street’s department stores were rebuilt in a much grander style, do doubt taking inspiration from the splendid rebuilding of O’Connell Street in Dublin, which had been wrecked during the Easter Rising of 1916.  A splendid new City Hall replaced the burned out ruins of the old city hall, opening in 1936.

Cork City Hall (new)

Cork City Hall, opened in 1936 to replace the building burned in December 1920. Ironically it is built in the style of neo-classicism used by the British to build the last of their grand buildings in Ireland.

Despite the events of December 1920, Cork was the only city in Ireland deemed safe enough for Queen Elizabeth to conduct a public walkabout during her visit to Ireland in 2013!

I wonder how many citizens of Cork will recall this particular anniversary on 11th and 12th of December?

Fr. Theobald Mathew’s extraordinary temperance movement

The Irish and drink seem to be a combination that go together like gin and tonic or, more wholesome, mom and apple-pie.   In fact our reputation for drinking is somewhat misleading (or probably just jealousy!). This year the Wall Street Journal published a list of the top ten alcohol consuming countries on a per capita basis.  And the bad news – the Irish don’t qualify!  Yup, the most alcoholic country in western Europe is…..tiny Andorra!  It comes in at number 7, downing just 13.5 litres of alcohol per capita per annum! And almost no binge drinking! Topping the list of the mostly eastern and central European countries is…..Belarus at 17.5 litres per capita per annum!  Over a quarter of the people there binge-drink and some 34.7% of deaths are related to alcohol.  By the way, even Poland doesn’t make the top ten – at least we Irish have something else in common with the Poles.

WJS survey:

Mind you CBS News puts Ireland at number 15 out of 27 countries for drunkeness:

CBS survey:

You’ll notice that the listings are different – although the same countries appear in both.  That’s the trouble with surveys – you can get different results from different, but similar, surveys.  Hence the old saw: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics! 

Way back in the nineteenth century there was a highly successful and dramatic attempt to wean the Irish off drink. Fr Theobald Mathew, a Capuchin friar whose statue still marks the entrance to St Patrick’s Street in Cork, ran an astonishing campaign that attracted the attention amazed Americans and Europeans.  Mathew started his campaign in Cork in 1838, and at its height in 1844 some three million people had ‘taken the pledge’ to foreswear alcohol – half the adult population of Ireland at the time!  Fr Mathew must have been truly charismatic – like his contemporary Daniel O’Connell. The Irish temperance campaign actually bankrupted some brewers and probably some distillers – or at least weakened them, so that when the potato famine struck from 1845, several brewers and distillers went under. Fr Mathew died on 8th December 1856 in Queenstown (now Cobh) in East Cork.

Fr Mathew statue

An old photograph of JH Foley’s fine statue of Fr Theobald Mathew, the ‘Apostle of Temperance,’ on St Patrick’s Stteet in Cork. Some years ago there was an attempt to move the statue to facilitate the refurbishment of the street, but a popular outcry forced the city council to back down and the Catalan architect, Beth Gali, had to redesign the refurbishment around the statue. The muck on the street surface was perfectly normal in all towns and cities until the advent of the motor car. The sculptor JH Foley also created the statue of Daniel O’Connell that stands in O’Connell Street, Dublin, and the figure of Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband) on the Albert Memorial in London.

Sadly, the advent of the potato famine in 1845 led to the collapse of Fr Mathew’s temperance movement – saving lives afflicted by starvation and its related diseases was much more importance.  No doubt the men (and they were all men) working in Murphy’s distillery in Midleton and in Bennett’s maltings in Ballinacurra were glad – they, at least, had jobs that gave them an income to purchase food.  Bizarrely, it could be suggested, with reason, that the alcoholic drinks industry saved many lives during the Irish famine!

the ultimate failure of his temperance movement due to circumstances beyond his control cannot take from Theobald Mathew’s achievement – anybody who could persuade over three million Irish people to give up alcohol, even if only for a while, deserves to be called ‘great’.

The Pioneer Total Abstinence Association was founded in 1898 by Fr James Cullen SJ as a new movement to encourage Irish Catholics to reject alcohol.  Even now one can find people in Ireland who ‘took the pledge’ as and youngsters – and never broke it!   When I was confirmed by Dr John Ahern, Bishop of Cloyne, we were asked to pledge not to drink alcohol until we were at least eighteen years of age.  Clearly the spirit of the great Fr Theobald Mathew lives on in some places.

September and County Loyalties.

The summer is officially nearing its end in Ireland. How do I know? Next Sunday (7th Sept.) is All-Ireland Hurling Final Day.  Like Labour Day in the US, this event effectively marks the end of summer for most Irish people (even if we happen to get an Indian summer for September!).   

When the ‘Normans’ (my ancestors on my dad’s side) came to Ireland in 1169, they rapidly gained control of vast areas of the country.  But how did they divide out the land?  Well, Ireland was already divided into different local units and the ‘Normans’ simply appropriated these local divisions as a way of apportioning the newly conquered lands among themselves.  Some of these divisions were probably extremely old,  others had been created more recently due to political and religious developments since the 900s.  One new thing the Normans introduced was the rudiments of Ireland’s modern county structure – although we had to wait until the seventeenth century to achieve the full gamut of thirty-two counties that we see on modern maps of Ireland.  There were no counties in Ireland until they were imposed on the country following the English model, which makes the modern Irish identification with counties so ironic.  As a Corkman I can identify with both the city of Cork and, particularly, the county of Cork.  The irony lies in the fact that this English subdivision of Ireland provides the basis of passionate county loyalty when following the All-Ireland Hurling and Football Championships.  The body behind these games, the Gaelic Athletic Association, is very much one with a nationalist, even anti-British, history.   

September brings the two great sporting occasions in Ireland – the All-Ireland Hurling Final and the All-Ireland Football Final. In colloquial parlance, when someone says they are either going to, or planning to watch, the ‘All-Ireland’ you are expected to know which game is involved.  The Hurling Final is usually played on the first Sunday in September (this year, on next Sunday 7th Sept.) and the Football Final is usually played two weeks later on the third Sunday in September (this year on Sunday 21st Sept.).  The Hurling Final, as noted, can be said to mark the definitive end of summer in Ireland – the schools and universities are already back for the new academic year.  By the time the Football Final is played, the autumn is truly with us – it’s time to drag out the old woolly jumper and wrap up against the chilly evenings.  

However, our Irish county loyalties did not exist prior to the establishment of the Gaelic Athletic Association at a meeting convened by Michael Cusack in Hayes’ Hotel in Thurles, County Tipperary, on 1st November 1884.  With the spread of the organisation into parishes and villages around the country and the development of the All-Ireland Championships (the first finals were held in 1887) there came about gradual popular identification with one’s county. But county loyalties transcend hurling and football – even people with little attachment to Gaelic games feel a strong county attachment.  Imagine the football or baseball seasons in the US being run on basis of state teams contesting with one another until only two are left to play at the final – Texas versus California would be pretty intense I imagine.  That’s how it is here in Ireland.  To make matters even more intense, Tipperary and Kilkenny are neighbouring counties – they share a common border, although they are in different provinces.

So, I am, and always will be, a Corkman!  Even if I didn’t proclaim it, people from other parts of Ireland would inquire where do I come from.  The answer marks me out at once.  This is pretty much the case whenever you meet someone here.  Continental visitors are amused by the Irish asking ‘Where in (name country) do you come from?’  It usually doesn’t matter (unless you’re Italian!), except in Ireland.  And, of course, once we’ve pinned down your county, we get down to your parish and, maybe, even townland!  Townlands, and their subdivisions, ploughlands, were Ireland’s answer to the GPS system, before the first satellites were even launched – you could be located very precisely. on the map of Ireland!

Much of Irish history is all about location (province, county), location (barony, parish), location (townland, ploughland).  Some of the post on this blog will discuss the subdivisions of Ireland and their importance in locating people in the past – VERY useful if you are trying to find the correct Thomas Murphy among all the other Thomas Murphys in the same parish!

(NOTE:  It is another delightful Irish irony that we refer to the events of 1169 as the ‘Norman Invasion’ of Ireland.  They were invited into the country as mercenaries for a deposed Irish king, and, despite the fact that they spoke French, Flemish and Welsh, they called themselves English, because their sovereign was the King of England, Henry II.  The Normans were considered a better class of invader!  Such are the delights of Irish hsitory.) 


(who actually called themselves ‘English’ even if they spoke French among themselves – that is, subjects of the King of England)