March of O' Sullivan Beare

This famous and epic march undertaken by O' Sullivan Bere to Leitrim through the Counties of Cork, Limerick, Tipperary, Offaly, Galway, Roscommon, Sligo and eventually Leitrim arose as a result of the Irish and the Spanish defeat in the Battle of Kinsale at the hands of the Crown forces. The Battle of Kinsale began on the 17th of October 1601 with the 3400 Spanish soldiers under the command of Aquilla supported by O'Sullivan Bere, O'Driscoll and the O'Connors of Kerry. Aquilla surrended on the 12th January 1602 and handed over the four Spanish defended castles along the South West Coast. Donal Cam, chieftain of the O'Sullivan Bere Clan rushed back to Dunboy and began to fortify the castle against an attack that started on June 6th and lasted 11 days with the Crown forces storming the castle and bombarding it with cannon-fire.

Harassed by the Crown forces and having lost his lands and his herds of cattle and sheep, he left the Beara peninsula and the Bay of Bantry, where the French invasion took place in 1796, to begin the long march to Leitrim to meet the O'Rourkes.

Accompanying him were 1,000 men, women and children representing the first large-scale exodus of people from Beara peninsula region. When the Beara men travelled from West Cork as well as his followers were members from other clans O'Collins, McAuliffe, O'Rourke, Fitspatrick, McGuire, O'Keeffe, O'Donoghues,O'Driscoll, McCarthy, McSweeney, Carrs, Quigleys and Naughtons. In the middle of January 1603 they finally reached their destination with only 35 people remaining, many settling along the route and been known since then in these localities as the Bearas.

The Beara-Breifne Way is inspired by the legendary 17th Century March of Dónal Cam O’Sullivan Beare, the last great Chieftain of West Cork and South Kerry.

Initially hugging the rugged coast of the Beara peninsula, the Way rambles north, crossing the hills into Ireland’s neglected interior, linking bogs, woodlands, riverbanks, rolling farmland and areas of Natural Heritage and Special Protection.

The serene landscape of contemporary Ireland is a far cry from that of 1602, when the Munster region was ravaged by war. The forces of Elizabeth I had defeated the Irish and Spanish at the Battle of Kinsale and advanced west to capture O’Sullivan’s lands in Beara. Following a series of battles and the loss of his stronghold at Dunboy, O’Sullivan withdrew with his troops to Coomerkane Valley, west of Glengarriff, on the Beara Peninsula. When the English seized his cattle, O’Sullivan knew his people were faced with almost certain starvation and they had no option but to flee. On New Year’s Eve 1602, he led one thousand men and women, including four hundred soldiers, on the epic march north, hoping to join forces with rebel leaders in Ulster.

In the days and nights that followed, they sheltered and ate where they could, but were ambushed time and again by native chieftains, who hoped to protect their stores of food and ingratiate themselves with the English. Many of O’Sullivan’s followers dropped out from weariness and by the time they reached the Shannon, their numbers were severely reduced. Half-starved and hemmed in by enemies, they slaughtered their horses for their meat and crossed the river at night in a boat made of their hides. Two days later, at Aughrim, they were forced into battle by an alliance of Irish and English cavalry and infantry. Though greatly outnumbered and thoroughly exhausted, O’Sullivan and his troops won a resounding victory, and continued on with their march.

Many of O’Sullivan’s soldiers were mercenaries from Connaught and they slipped away home as the party passed through the province. The local chieftains continued harassing the rest until at last, after fourteen days and five hundred kilometres, O’Sullivan Beare and his people reached Leitrim Castle, stronghold of the rebel O’Rourke of Breifne. Of the one thousand who had started out, only thirty-five remained.

All along the Beara-Breifne Way, there are clan connections to the March of O’Sullivan Beare that remain unbroken to this day and the finer details of the route are supported by folk memory as much as by historical research. However, the highlights of the walk encompass a much broader range of historical, cultural and natural points of interest, from ancient stone circles and places of religious pilgrimage to Big Houses and cottages and War of Independence sites of ambush.

The 400th anniversary re-enactment of the March of O’Sullivan Beare led directly to the creation of this official walk in his footsteps. The venture could only have come from the ground up; almost all the land used is in private hands and access has been granted for Beara-Breifne Way walkers. The route may be nationwide, but the sense of ownership and heritage is emphatically local. For the seasoned walker, it is this local interaction that, above all, sets the Beara-Breifne Way apart.