WALTER RALEIGH DID NOT MASSACRE 600 IRISH AT SMERWICK
These days, with talks of Brexit and Irish Borders and that thorny “Irish Question” that never goes away there are many British (but mostly English) people who struggle to understand all the fuss. Why can’t it all just be neatly packaged and go away?
So much history. Scratch any corner of the Emerald Isle and you will open a bloody scab. Like the one at Smerwick in Dingle. Back in 1580 Walter Raleigh, him of the cloak in the puddle, found himself in County Kerry under the orders of Grey de Wilton, Elizabeth’s Lord Deputy of Ireland. They were putting down the ill fated Second Desmond Rebellion. The pope had sent a force of 600 Spanish and Italian mercenaries to assist the Irish in their rebellion against the protestants. They were even joined by some English catholics.
These were not nice mercenaries fighting for the rights of the poor Irish Catholics. They were rabid beasts. When they landed in Kerry they engaged in a campaign of rapine and pillage on the English planters, on the local people, even attacking the families of Spanish Merchants who lived in the area at the time.
Grey bottled the main army on a poorly fortified headland at Dún an Óir, an ancient Iron Age ringfort. He had his guns on the landward side and six navy ships at his disposal in the bay. The Spaniards and Italians didn’t have a chance. The English negotiated a surrender under terms. Once the Papal troops laid down their arms they were summarily executed. With the exception of a few officers the men were massacred under the orders of Grey.
The event might have remained in obscurity, a brutal but forgotten sideshow, if not for English politics. Upon the death of Queen Elizabeth Raleigh fell out of favour at court. He was imprisoned by James I and tried. One of the many accusations thrown at him was the Smerwick Massacre, an event at which he was not present. Later papers suggest that he found Grey overly heavy handed and Grey left him behind in the race to Dingle.
But Smerwick was levelled at Raleigh in the court papers and he was ultimately found guilty. So if you go to Ireland today and ask about Smerwick the story you are likely to hear is that this is where Walter Raleigh perfidiously executed 600 brave Irish rebels after they surrendered. They will tell you he did it himself and enjoyed it. History is a funny old game. The massacre at Smerwick took place on November 10th, 1580.
Ocean’s Love to Ireland ; by Seamus Heaney
Speaking broad Devonshire,
Raleigh has backed the maid to a tree
as Ireland is backed to England
and drives inland
till all her strands are breathless:
‘ Sweesir, Swatter! Sweesir, Swatter! ‘
He is water, he is ocean, lifting
her farthingale like a scarf of weed lifting
in the front of a wave.
Yet his superb crest inclines to Cynthia
even while it runs its bent
in the rivers of Lee and Blackwater.
Those are the splashy spots where he would lay
his cape before her. In London, his name
will rise on water and on these dark seepings:
Smerwick sowed with the mouthing corpses
of six hundred papists, ‘as gallant and good
personages as ever where beheld’.
The ruined maid complains in Irish,
Ocean has scattered her dream of fleets,
the Spanish prince has spilled his gold
and failed her. Iambic drums
of English beat the woods where her poets
sink like Onan. Rush-light, mushroom-flesh,
she fades from their somnolent clasp
into ringlet-breath and dew,
the ground possessed and repossessed.