Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Bandon Frontier Town of Munster

This week marks National Heritage Week 2010, which kicked off with the Irish Walled Towns day last Sunday 22nd August. To commerate this and the wealth of history, natural heritage and culture that West Cork has to offer I will attempt to recreate the period associated with the development of many West Cork towns but especially Bandon, the frontier walled town of Munster.

The Darkest of Centuries
The late 16th and particularly the 17th century was one of the most brutal and oppressive periods in the history of Europe and Ireland. This darkest of centuries began with the last stand of the Gaelic lords against the English in the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, the flight of the West Cork Earls to Spain in 1602, widespread famine in 1603 and the assassination of the last prince of Ireland Donal Cam O'Sullivan Bere in 1613.

What followed was a century of religious persecution, wars, famine, plagues, rebellion and ethnic cleansing on an unimaginable scale and not just in Ireland but throughout Europe. This century had the most profound and devastating impact on Ireland, it left in its wake a desolate land and its population perished as a result of war, starvation and plague. A second great exodus at the end of the century saw tens of thousands forced into exile to find service in France, Spain and beyond. Indeed, so great was the number of these exiles that landed in France over the next half century, from the landing of James' army up to and including the battle of Fontenoy in 1745, that the French war-office computed that upwards of 450,000 Irishmen laid down their lives in the service of France.

The Plantation of West Cork
Many towns in Munster, and in particular West Cork, owe their origin to Queen Elizabeth’s colonisation of Munster following the defeat of the Geraldines in the Desmond rebellion. The rebellion marked a watershed in Ireland, after three years of scorched earth warfare the population was decimated by famine and plague. Although English control over the country was still far from total, the southern Geraldine axis of power had been annihilated and in 1585 the lands of many West Cork clans were confiscated by the English crown. Into this wasted and almost dispeopled region, Elizabeth resolved to introduce English colonies. Not long afterwards, a series of English settlements sprung up in south-west Cork, in particular at Baltimore, Crookhaven, Bantry Bay and Bandon, frontier settlements on the edge of the English empire, deep in the heart of Gaelic Munster.

The Plantation of Bandon and the Nine Years War
In the Bandon area the O'Mahonys, who supported the rebellion, were uprooted from their castle at Castle Mahon (later Castle Bernard) and 40,000 acres of their land was confiscated. This land was given to the English undertaker Phane Beecher who set about attempting to colonise it from 1590 onwards.

The early years proved difficult and dangerous. Bandon lay on the outer edge of the area under English control; it was surrounded by a vast woodland populated by wolves, deer and the displaced O Mahony clansmen and other rebels. With the Nine Years war, another Irish rebellion against English rule came to Munster in 1598 most of the settlers were chased off their lands and took refuge in Cork city or fled back to England. The war was won in Kinsale in 1601; the battle marked the failure of the Spanish effort in Ireland, the collapse of the Ulster resistance, the completion of the Tudor conquest and the eclipse of Gaelic Ireland.

In this new century, Bandon developed rapidly as a frontier town. The early years saw rapid deforestation with the East India company purchasing large tracts of woodland in 1612 to be used as a fuel for smelting. In 1613 and 1619 the First Earl of Cork, Richard Boyle, purchased the former owner's interest in the town of Bandon and by 1625 Boyle was the sole owner of the town on both sides of the river. He built new houses and set about building the town walls and gates. The walls began in 1613 and were completed by 1625.

The Walls of Bandon & Irelands first workers’ strike
The walls were generally about nine feet thick, and varied in height from thirty to fifty feet. There were six bastions each mounted with two guns and the area enclosed by the walls was estimated at 27 acres compared to 30 acres within the walls of Londonderry. The fortifications in Bandon, however, were said to be the best in Ireland. By 1622 there were about 250 houses in Bandon and a population of over 2000 English families residing in the town and neighbourhood. By comparison in 1659 the population of Derry was 586. Within a century, Bandon would be the largest town in County Cork.

One notable event occurred during the building of the walls with what may be the first recorded strike in Ireland. The stonemasons demanded a pay increase and all of them bar one went on strike when it was refused. Boyle being anxious to complete the walls as soon as possible finally relented; the strikers won the day and upon their return, they murdered their fellow mason and strike breaker sealing him up within the walls. Here he lay undiscovered for over 200 years until two labourers removing part of the old town wall came across his hidden tomb with his skeleton wrapped in a large flag surrounded by his tools and a small silver coin.

Rebellion of 1641 & Cromwellian conquest of Ireland
In October 1641 the native Irish rose in rebellion in counties Derry and Tyrone. The rising spread rapidly throughout Ireland and made its first appearance in West Cork in Glandore. Panicked settlers throughout the region fled to Bandon for protection as it was the only walled town west of Cork. Before the rebellion was one year old, it was reported that one thousand of them lay buried within the churchyard walls as a result of hunger and disease. By 1642 all of the West Cork chieftains were outlawed and the same year civil war broke out in England. What followed in Ireland was a period of widespread sectarian violence and killing of civilians on both sides. Throughout the country only the areas where English settlers were concentrated such as in Cork city, Youghal, Kinsale and Bandon remained in the hands of protestant settlers.

The warfare and bloodshed of the 1640s ended in a terrible manner in 1649 with the arrival of Cromwell. While Cork city was the first town in Munster to declare for Cromwell it was the townspeople of Bandon, however, that acted first to deliver up Bandon town by forcibly taking the garrison for the Parliament and Cromwell. The invasion and victory of the English parliament under Oliver Cromwell had a catastrophic impact on Ireland. It resulted in the death of a least 400,000 people out of a population of around 1.5million inhabitants.

After the war vast tracts of land were confiscated and the second plantation of Munster began. Not only did Cromwell confiscate lands and force tens of thousands into exile but he also sent many thousands into slavery to work the tobacco plantations of the West Indies, Virginia and other colonies. Many of these poor souls left in slave ships from Kinsale. Into this waste land, new colonists flocked to Ireland numbering, it is suggested, more than 200,000.

Rebellion in Bandon, Kind James arrives in West Cork
Following the death of Cromwell, the monarchy was restored but peace did not last long. In 1685 England again rebelled against the Stuarts in the reign of James the second. The Irish siezed the opportunity to rebel in support of King James. The English settlers and protestant population were terrified. Many fled the country to the new world. A new charter was conferred on Bandon and the provost of the town was now a catholic, Teige McCarthy. The garrison in Bandon town was under the command of Captain Daniel O Neill who held the town for King James but not for long.

In September 1688, apprentice boys in Londonderry closed the city's gates to deny admission to a Catholic regiment under Lord Antrim. In February 1689, the townspeople of Bandon likewise rose against the garrison and seized control of the town in support of William of Orange. Without adequate provisions and lacking sea access, the town was quickly taken by Jacobite forces under Owen McCarthy.

News of the rebellion enraged King James when he landed in Kinsale a few weeks later. After this act of rebellion the walls of Bandon were partially demolished never to be repaired. The forces of King James marched on Derry but the population refused to surrender; the city held withstanding a three month seige before relief came by sea. James’ forces were subsequently defeated in the Battle of the Boyne. After two centuries of violent resistance, colonisation and rebellion the surrender of the Irish lords was to bring what it set out to establish. It determined the political, social and ecomonic development of Ireland to this day, controlled through a centralised system of governance over the localised Irish system of family rule and the absorption of the Gaelic world into the English world.