An examination of the archaeological record gives an approximate timescale for human habitation or, at least the human activity, within an area. The oldest archaeological monument to date on Sherkin Island is a Wedge Tomb, which is located at the western end of the island. These are the most common type of megalithic tombs in Ireland. They occur mostly in the western half of the country; 104 tombs of this classification have been found in Co. Cork. (1). There is considerable variation in the size of these tombs, from the tiny, box-shaped remains on Sherkin to the large and complex examples found in other parts of the country. They have been dated to approximately the second half of the third millennium BC, (2500BC-2000BC or 4.5-4 thousand years ago). This is the earliest evidence to date of human activity on the island and suggests the possibility that an established community inhabited Sherkin at that time. Of course, the island may have been inhabited before this; the earliest date for human activity in Ireland is approximately ten thousand years ago.
Other archaeological remains include two possible Promontory forts (defended headland sites). These forts have traditionally been dated to the Iron Age, c. 500BC-400AD, although this date has not yet been established by direct evidence.
More recent monuments include the Franciscan friary which was established in 1460 and Dún na Long Castle
which was probably built around the same time. The Dún element in place names is common throughout Ireland and suggests important sites which may include hill forts, prominently sited ring forts and promontory forts.
1. William O’ Brien, Sacred Ground, (Department of Archaeology, NUI, Galway, 1999), p. 5.
Dún na Long
This castle was built on a small promontory overlooking the entrance to Baltimore Harbour in the townland of Farranacoush. It has been suggested that an earlier castle may have been built on this site by the Norman family called Sliney and destroyed after the Battle of Callan. This battle took place near Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry in 1261 between the Anglo Normans under John Fitzgerald and the king of Desmond (South Munster), Finghin McCarthy. The defeat of the Anglo-Normans in this battle is traditionally seen as marking their expulsion from the south. (2). The castle appears on Petty’s Down Survey map of 1658 as a basic sketch of a crenellated tower house. No auxiliary buildings appear in this depiction.
However, the castle had been badly damaged in an attack by an army from Waterford in 1537 (see below), so the original structure may have been larger and more complex than the remains we see today. Healy (3) says that fortifications ran down to the promontory where the remains of two possible blockhouses(4) were found above a sloping pier. Defensive walls surrounded all of this area and this part of the promontory was known as ‘The Platform’. The main tower house was about forty yards inland and comprised additional buildings and a Bawn(5) (defended courtyard).
3. James N. Healy, The Castles of County Cork, (Cork Mercier Press, 1988).
4. *Fortified structures with ports or loopholes through which defenders may direct gunfire.
5. James N. Healy, The Castles of County Cork, (Cork Mercier Press, 1988).
The Franciscan Friary
Locally known as ’the Abbey’ this friary is located near the pier and was established in 1460 by Fineen O’ Driscoll, chieftain of the area. This building is of moderate dimensions and smaller than its sister houses in Timoleague and Kilcrea. After the attack of 1537 the friary continued to function but to a lesser degree. In 1601 it consisted of a croft, a cemetery and other ruined buildings, and a close containing six acres. Things continued in this piecemeal fashion until the friary was confiscated by Cromwellian soldiers in 1650. It then became the property of the Beecher family who were the local landlords. In 1895, Sir Henry Beecher handed it over to the Board of Works and it is now under the protection of the National Monuments Service.
Sherkin under attack in 1537.
By the early medieval period all the eastern Irish ports had been taken over by the Anglo-Normans, and rivalry between these newcomers and the ancient clans of the west had developed into deadly enmity which saw many acts of piracy and destruction on both sides. Ships destined for eastern ports, and those owned by the eastern peoples, were fair game for the O’ Driscolls and, likewise, the same piracy was committed upon the O’ Driscolls when caught unawares at sea. Reprisals developed into outright warfare at various times during the 14th and 15th centuries.
Things came to a head in 1537 when the O’ Driscolls captured a Waterford-bound vessel, Santa Maria de Soci, which was sheltering from a storm in Baltimore Harbour. Carrying wine from Lisbon, the ship was offered a safe anchorage by the O’ Driscoll chieftain. The following extract details what then occurred:
“When the Gentry and Peers of those parts had tasted the wines they forgot their safe conduct and invited the merchants to dinner in the castle, seized and clapped them in irons, manned their Irish gallies and took the ship and distributed 72 tuns of the wine amongst their neighbours.”(6).
Early in March, the Santa Maria de Soci was recaptured by the Waterford authorities along with the remains of her cargo and the crew. On the 27th of that month a reprisal was launched against the O’ Driscolls that resulted in a five-day attack on the island, during which the castle, the Friary and probably every standing structure on the island was either badly damaged or destroyed. Forty of the O’ Driscoll pinnaces (smaller vessels used for fishing) were burned. When the attackers left they took with them the fine galley ship belonging to Finghin O’ Driscoll along with eighty pinnaces, all the stores they could find plus the bell, chalices and other valuables from the friary.
After a brief period of recovery the O’ Driscolls began reconstruction of both the castle and the friary. However, it seems that things were never quite the same again, and on February 23rd, 1602, Fineen O’ Driscoll handed over his castle to the local British Commander, Captain Harvey, without resistance. (7). Subsequently, the O’ Driscolls may have maintained a connection with the castle as the death of Donagh O’ Driscoll is recorded as having occurred there in 1638. The castle is recorded as having been restored by Henry Beecher in 1655 and probably remained in the Beecher family’s possession until the late nineteenth century.
Today, the ruin of Dún na Long is incorporated in the grounds of the Islanders Rest Hotel. The friary has been used as a cemetery since its foundation and the local burial ground is still located within its walls.
6. John O’ Donovan, (ed.), Miscellany of the Celtic Society, (Goodwin and Nethercott, Dublin, 1849), p. 94.
7. Calendar of State Papers Ireland 1601-1603, (Boole Library, University College, Cork), p. 298.
More information can be found in ‘Sherkin Island – a history of the social, cultural and economic life of one of Ireland’s most enchanting and diverse islands’ by Dolly O’Reilly. This is now out of print but available in public libraries. A new edition is pending.