Oakport Lough, Roscommon, February 1602
The sleeting rain drove in from the south west. The oarsmen dipped and pulled, dipped and pulled in unison.
‘Not far now,’ the helmsman spoke quietly, belying his youth.
‘We should head straight across the lake, not far up river then,’ Ronan spoke again.
No one answered but they took their directions from him without a word. They were dog tired, weary fugitives, nearing home. In the mid-section of the boat a huddled figure lay prone, only his face partly showing. It was sallow, damp with sweat, fatigued.
Darkness had almost fallen on this early February day as they finally found their way to the shallow inlet off the river.
‘Ronan, make haste to the rath and tell them of our coming. Explain that the master is wounded and in need of a physician and we will want the Rechtaire and others of Conor’s clan. Tell them to send messengers,’ Caoilte said, as he stepped ashore and organised the others to lift their clansman, their chieftain, from the boat and lay him on the ground.
Ronan raced away into the cold night to the MacDermot rath at Rathlurg, deep in the forest, following tracks only he could discern. Within twenty minutes he was being hailed and warned to come no further. Once he had identified himself he was admitted through the palisade of timbers to the rath proper. He was immediately surrounded by men and women who wanted to know how he had arrived and who was with him.
‘Patience,’ he commanded. ‘There will be time for telling our stories. We are tired and The MacDermot is injured.’
‘Caoilte, Eoghan and Fraoch are carrying him. Go some of you and help.’
Within minutes the place was a hive of activity as fires were restored and water heated. Meat dishes, bread and honey was prepared for the arriving men. As soon as they reached the rath with their wounded leader it became apparent that all was not well. This was no simple wound but a serious one.
The MacDermot was laid in the main house before a roaring fire and tended by his physician. It was plain to all who were there that not much could be done for him.
‘I have lived this long that I might talk to you one more time. I will say little about the battle, others will tell of it. Suffice to say that we were defeated and with that defeat I see an end of many things we cherish. Something of our way of life will go. The English will try to make this country their own. They will force themselves west, here, even among us who thought ourselves a long way from the Pale,’ Conor MacDermot spoke somewhat haltingly.
‘I am injured beyond help; you must choose soon your next chieftain. My last word to you is to learn to live among them when they come. You may lose your lands, your titles and your very way of life. Yet you can keep some of it alive, if hidden. Subvert them as we did the Normans before.’
Conor spoke with a vigour found somewhere in his wracked body.
‘I will rest now but send Saoirse to me if she is here.’
Within the hour his daughter, Saoirse, had arrived from a nearby MacDermot rath.
‘Listen well daughter, for I have little time left to me. The forces of the English are many and we are few. O’Neill and O’Donnell may well go abroad and who can say of The O’Connor, what he will do. Look to your own people. Get to know the ways of our new masters. Find their weaknesses and exploit them, marry them if necessary. Ronan will need your help and your guile, use it well.’
Conor lay back on the low cot, the strength that had sustained him on the long and arduous journey from Kinsale ebbing away. In the early cold dawn of February 1602 he died.
The council that followed had decisions to make. Where would they bury their chieftain? The Elizabethans had garrisoned the old Cistercian abbey at Abbeytown. The islands in Lough Key were occupied and watched. It was Ronan who suggested the hilltop of Sheegorey, near the Curlew Pass. Sheegorey, the fairy mound of Guaire, was an enchanting place. He had heard stories told of other MacDermot’s buried there in times past. From that vantage point The MacDermot could look down across the lake. He would also see the abbey and the growing village around it and further out across his territory of Moylurg. They would mark the grave with a pillar stone as in the old days. The English would not recognise it for what it was and The MacDermot would rest easy.
This was agreed by all, some noting the decisiveness of the young MacDermot. He would make a good chieftain in these troubled times. He had, too, the experience of war. He had not been permitted to fight at the battle of the Curlews in 1599, but he had viewed the action. He had observed that great victory from the summit of Sheegorey on a wet and windy August day.
‘Remember your father’s words, young Ronan,’ Caoilte had reminded him. ‘You must remain here with me, staying well hidden in the trees lest we be seen by Clifford’s scouts.’
It was raining heavily as Ronan and his guardian, Caoilte, climbed Sheegorey from the lough shore. His father, Conor, was with the army of O’Neill some distance to the north. His men carried heavy portable arquebuses, as well as javelins and swords. There, too, was Brian Óg of the battle axes, The O’Rourke Breifne, chieftain of the O’Rourke clan, with his one hundred and sixty galloglasses armed with their long axes.
The English had advanced through the undefended barricade that the Irish had erected on the south slope of the pass. Ronan’s father and his men were within the forest and immediately engaged the enemy. The English were pushed back and their military commander, Sir Conyers Clifford, was killed in the battle.
Ronan had waited impatiently in the wood while all this was happening. He was not to know that he had witnessed the last great victory by an Irish army on Irish soil.
A year later Ronan persuaded his father to allow him to accompany him south to Kinsale. Ronan believed that the Gaelic forces were strong enough to succeed especially with the Spanish help of Don Juan del Águila and his four thousand men. Rumour was that many of the English were sick, but the clans were not as united as they should have been and hurriedly entered into battle. The battle of Kinsale was a disaster for the Irish. The long winter march from the north had admittedly weakened the Irish, yet Ronan felt it was rushed decisions that had cost them the day. The result was chaos and defeat. Worse still, his father was wounded and severely so.
The following night a small party of clansmen, The MacDermot’s trusted Ollamhs and an old Cistercian monk who had been displaced from the abbey, made their way across Lough Key by Hogs Island. They carried the shrouded body of their former chieftain along forest paths and up the hill toward Sheegory and there, in a grave prepared by his kinsmen, they laid him to rest.
Ronan MacDermot sat quietly on a rock and contemplated his future. That he would become The MacDermot he had no doubt. That he would have the support of his clansmen he also knew. Yet, he needed more than that. Councils he would have, but in what direction should his people go? He resented the idea of subjugation to a foreign power. He decided to take his time and see how things developed. He turned down the hill and re-joined his kinsmen.
Once upon a time the kings of Connacht had been inaugurated at Rathcroghan, many miles to the south. This had been the home of the legendary Queen Maeve, of whom great stories were still related in the raths and halls of Ireland. For Ronan, however, his selection and inauguration as the next MacDermot chieftain was a quiet affair. These were troubled times. No great initiation ceremonies for him as he assumed the mantle of The MacDermot. He gathered around him Ollamhs and others that might assist him. It was a trying time, for English law was now the law of the land. Ronan sought to keep a balance so that when the time was opportune he could unveil the old values that had sustained his clan for centuries before.
Within a year of his investiture an incident occurred with the march from the south of Ireland of The O’Sullivan Beare, chieftain of a southern clan. Defeated at Kinsale, The O’Sullivan had continued the war on the Beara peninsula in west Cork. Now he was coming north to join with The O’Rourke Breifne at Leitrim Castle and then hopefully, with The O’Neill, further north in Tír Eoghain. His force, once a thousand strong, had been harried and hassled all the way from Cork. Ronan’s spies brought word that The O’Sullivan Beare would avoid Abbeytown and instead attempt to go north of Lough Arrow and down by Lough Key to reach The O’Rourke Breifne. On the night of January 13th 1603 he would camp somewhere in the Curlews.
‘If we see fires lit this night, spread the word that it is woodcutters warming themselves and keeping the wolf at bay,’ Ronan ordered and commanded his attendants to circulate among the village folk at Abbeytown.
Darkness fell quickly that January evening and fresh snow began to fall as Ronan slipped away from the rath making his way north, circumventing the garrison at the old Cistercian abbey. He smelled the wood smoke before he saw the fire. Only one fire, he thought; that reflected how The O’Sullivan Beare was reduced to little more than a band of stragglers, some thirty five or so. Even their guard was poor and he quietly slipped through their ranks and openly approached their fire.
‘God bless all here,’ Ronan spoke softly. The lilt of his Connacht Irish brought the firewatchers alive quickly.
‘Have no fear,’ he added, ‘I come in peace from The MacDermot.’
‘I have come to lead you to safety around the lough, avoiding Ballinafad Castle, to The O’Rourke Breifne,’ Ronan finished.
A distinguished man, who had hitherto remained silent, spoke.
‘I am The O’Sullivan Beare,’ he said, ‘and who are you’?
‘I am sent by The MacDermot to guide you; who I am does not matter,’ Ronan replied.
‘Very well, what would you have us do?’ The O’Sullivan retorted.
‘We must leave here immediately and slip by Ballinafad Castle well before dawn,’ Ronan said.
They did not like the idea of departing so soon but accepted that the local guide knew what he was talking about. The few remaining followers of The O’Sullivan gathered their meagre belongings and began to follow Ronan. So tired were they that they did not stop to question his intentions, consuming on their way the few pounds of meal he had brought with him.
Some were wracked with coughs. Others revealed wounds poorly healed. All were in a bad state. One old gentleman, whom Ronan took to be The O’Connor Kerry, would not be helped and Ronan felt he might not survive the last twenty miles they had to go. He would need to procure a horse somewhere for him.
By sunrise they were turned above Lough Arrow with the lough now to their west and the legendary Moytirra hills to their east. Here legends told of the fierce battle between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomorians. Ronan had heard these tales when still a young boy. This morning he wished for the magical powers of the Tuatha Dé Danann to guide him and his ragged group safely to Breifne. They held to higher ground as the woods along Lough Key might be patrolled by Elizabethan soldiers hunting for The O’Sullivan Beare.
Few spoke as they made their way above the lake. One fellow did attract Ronan’s attention. Slight and wiry, he kept to himself and uttered not a word as he followed every direction Ronan gave. He looked exhausted and pale faced. By Knockvicar they needed a rest and Ronan was able to acquire a horse for The O’Connor Kerry.
Ronan knew he could not go to the O’Rourke Castle. He would definitely be recognised and that might have serious consequences later if it became known that he had aided the O’Sullivan march. He would go as far as Drumanilra Hill and point them toward the Castle. There were only two that would struggle to finish the journey, the old O’Connor Kerry and the young lad who was limping by this stage. Ronan noticed that blood was oozing from a wound in his foot and called a halt.
‘We are getting close, a few miles now,’ Ronan said. Even The O’Sullivan Beare relaxed.
‘Near to friends at last, how can we repay you, my young friend?’ he enquired.
‘By saying nothing about my help,’ Ronan replied.
‘A strange request but perhaps not so in these difficult times,’ O’Sullivan added.
‘I am concerned about your young friend here. His wound is weakening him and he would do well to rest it and see a physician. He may not even be able to walk the last few miles. If he were to remain with me I would see that The MacDermot’s own physician tended him and sent him on to Breifne in a few days. I am sure you will remain there some time to refresh yourselves,’ Ronan finished.
The O’Sullivan Beare spoke quietly to the young lad who appeared distressed by the turn of events but who acknowledged his chieftain’s command.
‘He will do so on condition that he speaks with The MacDermot’s lady privately before treatment,’ O’Sullivan continued.
‘He is a bit of a mother’s boy,’ O’Sullivan finished with a smile.
Perplexed, Ronan could only reply, ‘very well then, you had better be off. I wish you well on behalf of The MacDermot,’ he finished.
The O’Sullivan smiled again and as he did so he pushed a small cloth sack into Ronan’s arms.
‘And our best regards to him too,’ he said as he turned and walked away, a weary but proud man.
Ronan looked at his companion and said ‘we had better move, but first you need to meet some friends.’
He whistled a soft tune somewhere between birdsong and human song. It was answered immediately with the same tones and shortly after, two armed men stepped from the trees.
‘How did you know we were there?’ Caoilte asked.
‘I have learned much from you, Caoilte,’ Ronan replied, ‘including when to know I am being followed.’
’Now let us get this fellow back to the rath. The poor fellow has an injury to his foot and cannot walk very well, though he has concealed it carefully so far. He also seems to have a problem talking or maybe he does not understand our Connacht dialect. Caoilte and Dualta each took an arm of the youth and half carried him after Ronan. It was only a few miles and they made good progress.
‘Your injury is bad but will not kill you, lad,’ Caoilte offered some comfort to the young man.
At last they reached the river. Ronan had hidden the boat the day before so that he could come home without anyone realising he was missing. Caoilte and Dualta had followed him making sure he did not come to any harm. They quickly crossed the river.
Ronan lingered awhile telling the others to proceed to the rath while he tied up the boat and hid it from prying eyes. When the others were gone he examined the cloth sack The O’Sullivan Beare had given him. It was heavy and he thought it might be extra lead for making musket balls. He was surprised when he unravelled the yard of linen within the bag with Spanish gold coins sewn carefully into numerous pockets.
‘Pure gold,’ Ronan exclaimed, ‘worth a fortune. Why did he give it to me?’ he asked of the open sky.
He knew that he could not use the coins in their present form, at least not for now. They would be easily recognised and associated with The O’Sullivan Beare. He would need to wait, maybe melt them down, if he could find a way to do that. Besides, an open display of wealth would not be wise in these hard times. Knowing he would soon be missed he hurriedly rewrapped the cloth, placed it carefully in the bag and set out for the rath. On the way there was an outcrop of rock that Ronan had explored as a child. He knew precisely where to place the bag, where only he could retrieve it.
He caught up with his companions as they arrived at the entrance to Rathlurg where they were greeted by Saoirse.
‘This fellow needs a physician. He has a wound in his foot and he may have walked on a splinter of wood on the long journey he has made to get here,’ Ronan said. ‘He has also asked to speak privately to Lady MacDermot,’ Ronan further added.
‘You, I think, must be Lady MacDermot,’ he smiled at his sister.
They placed the injured youth on a low cot where a year earlier his father, Conor, lay dying from wounds received at the battle of Kinsale.
‘Out, all of you I will speak privately with him now, then we will minister to his injuries.’ Saoirse directed the men to leave.
Ronan joined Caoilte outside in the cold afternoon air. Caoilte explained that he had followed Ronan to ensure his safety.
‘Yes, I knew of the arrival of The O’Sullivan Beare and it was obvious that you would try to help him, and do so without anyone knowing,’ Caoilte explained.
‘No one recognised you? You met no one you knew on your route?’ Caoilte enquired.
‘No,’ Ronan replied. ‘I knew what I was about, and that I could not go as far as O’Rourke Breifne as I would be recognised there.’
‘I also knew you were not far away should I have needed you,’ Ronan concluded.
‘So we are safe then, our English neighbours will not have reason to condemn us,’ Caoilte said.
‘Of course there is the question of this youth you have helped; we must keep him away from The MacDermot lest he betray your assistance to the English,’ Caoilte added.
‘Well, he is a fugitive from the south and he may well wish to have his own identity remain secret,’ Ronan said.
‘Her identity,’ exclaimed Saoirse as she emerged from the dwelling.
‘What do you mean?’ Ronan asked.
‘I mean your youth is a young lady,’ Saoirse stated gently. ‘You men could not tell?’ she said half in earnest, half mockingly.
‘We never thought to look closely. His face was dirty, his hands calloused and his dress that of a young man,’ Ronan was quick to reply.
‘True,’ Caoilte added even quicker, his face betraying his embarrassment.
‘So who is she then?’ Ronan asked.
‘That she will only confide to The MacDermot,’ Saoirse said.
‘So I had better talk to her and find out who she is and whither she intends to go,’ Ronan said.
He turned and entered the low ceilinged dwelling. It was obvious now that their guest was female, once her long cloak and hood were removed. Her face was pale. She was obviously tired with travel and her injured foot was raised, swathed in linen cloths.
Ronan could see that she was around his own age, very pretty, though much in need of rest and good food.
‘So, who are you then?’ he asked.
‘I will tell no one but The MacDermot,’ she replied, ‘though I thank you from my heart for bringing us safely to Breifne,’ she quickly added.
‘Well, truthfully, I am The MacDermot,’ Ronan said.
‘You are?’ she exclaimed.
Ronan could see that she was a little doubtful.
‘Why did you not reveal yourself to The O’Sullivan Beare then?’ she asked.
‘Like you, I wished to remain disguised,’ he replied.
‘Look, let us start with your name. There are many here will testify that I am who I say I am, should you wish me to parade them before you,’ he said.
‘No, there is no need for that,’ she said; besides I do not want to become known here or anywhere.’
‘Alright then, your name and where you come from and I will keep these things private. You can trust The MacDermot,’ Ronan said.
The girl on the cot grimaced as she sat up and began her story. She accepted a bowl of tea that Ronan handed her. He asked if she would rather have some rest first but she declined, saying that she had survived the long march from Beara. She could rest when she knew that she was safe.
She began by inviting Ronan to sit. When he did so she told him her name was Helen. She was a distant relative of The MacCarthy, chieftain of the MacCarthy clan from the south. She was visiting her friend, Eleanor O’Sullivan, the O’Sullivan Beare clan, when war broke out in Munster and she stayed there hoping things might become quiet and she could travel home. Alas, that was not to be. The situation deteriorated and eventually The O’Sullivan Beare decided to march north to join The O’Neill in the continuing war. There were many women on the trip, both family and servants, except The O’Sullivan Beare’s wife, who was in Beara, awaiting passage to Spain.
Helen explained how she had decided early on to disguise herself by having her hair cut in the men’s style and by dressing appropriately. Gradually the other women on the march fell away through exhaustion, injury or death. She had managed to avoid being asked to fight. However, a few days ago her footwear finally fell apart and she had ripped her foot on a jagged rock. The pace and need to keep going had meant no stopping to allow for healing.
So here she was. She had some gold coins concealed about her and they might help to pay for food and a guide to see her on her way north to re-join The O’Sullivan Beare. All this and more she recounted in a rush of energy and when she was finished she slumped down on the cot exhausted.
‘The first thing to do is to rest and then continue to have that injury seen to,’ Ronan said.
‘I will send Saoirse, my sister, to look after you. You will be safe here as this is a remote place and few come here,’ he added.
‘Thank you,’ Helen said. She lay back on the woollen blankets and her face relaxed, probably for the first time in a long time.
Ronan left and joined Caoilte and Saoirse.
‘Well now, we have ourselves a guest from the far south,’ he began. He explained who she was and that she wished to remain anonymous. She seemed to want to re-join The O’Sullivan Beare, though he was not sure why. She feared going back south as she might be recognised and in danger. The clans were much divided; some were for the English and some against.
‘Just like it is here,’ Caoilte remarked.
They decided that if anyone asked who she was they would say she was a distant cousin of Caoilte. After all, he had often spoken of his relatives who hailed from Hy Many country south near the Shannon.
Saoirse said that it would take more than a few days for her foot to heal. Having agreed their plan they went their ways to attend to their various tasks.