Dún an Óir: On 28 August 1580, a fleet of 6 ships, carrying about 700 to 800 Spaniards, Italians and Irish led by Sebastiano di San Giuseppe, set sail from Santander on route for Dingle to support the Desmond Rebellion. The fleet dropped anchor in Smerwick Harbour in September 1580, and the force proceeded to fortify Dún an Óir (Castel del Oro), a small cliff promontory on the W side of the harbour, where Piers Rice had built a 'petty castel' about a year before. The fortifications were not completed before the arrival of the government forces and the commencement of the siege on 7 November. The main government force under Lord Grey was joined on land by a force under the Earl of Ormond, and Admiral Winter's fleet effectively blockaded the harbour. The siege lasted only 3 days, and, despite the fact that the fort had provisions enough for 6 months and arms and ammunition enough for 4000 men, the garrison of about 600 surrendered on 10 October and all but about 20, including women, were massacred on the same day. (O'Rahilly 1937, 1-15, 65-83; Jones 1954, 41-2; Ó Tuathaigh 1980)
Contemporary plans of the fort show a small oval promontory enclosed by a rampart, the approach to which was defended by a deep narrow causeway spanned by a drawbridge. The land immediately adjoining the promontory was also enclosed by a rampart of 2 bastions with an external fosse. Four gun emplacements were shown and buildings and tents constructed within the ramparts were also depicted. (Gowan 1979, 268-72).
The present remains at the site indicate that these contemporary plans were quite accurate. The remains of the landward defences, though very weathered, compare well with those depicted on the plans. The rampart, surviving to a maximum height of 1.5m, cuts off the landward approach to the promontory, enclosing a roughly triangular area 30m x 40m x 40m. The remains of 2 roughly-built bastions are discernible, though very recent disturbance of the area on which the northern bastion had been situated has totally destroyed its surviving remains. The shallow fosse outside the rampart was probably not much deeper originally and it roughly follows the line of defence of the bastions. Between this area and the oval promontory is a deep gully with a narrow causeway. The promontory itself measures roughly 26 x 16m and is surrounded, except for the E tip, by a low earthen bank, the exterior of which may originally have been revetted. At the points marked X on the accompanying plan are small, bastion-type thickenings on the bank which correspond to the gun emplacements shown on the contemporary plans. Inside the promontory enclosure, the outlines of several huts are traceable. (Gowan 1979)
Recent digging on the site unearthed a small number of finds including cannon balls, a rimsherd of a 'type of good class continental ware of the period', a buckle from a 16th century military uniform, a lead ingot and 4 fragments of a cast bronze gun (Snoddy 1972, 247-8).
According to local tradition the victims of the massacre were decapitated in a nearby field known as Gort na Gearradh (the field of the cutting), their corpses thrown into the sea, and their heads buried in the fields known as Gort na gCeann (the field of the heads), about 500m to S of the fort. There is also a local tradition that the bodies subsequently washed up from the sea were interred at Teampall Bán in Caherquin townland (KE042-052----).
The above description is derived from J. Cuppage, ‘Corca Dhuibhne. Dingle Peninsula archaeological survey. Ballyferriter. Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne’ (1986), no. 1519. In certain instances the entries have been revised and updated in the light of recent research.
Date of upload: 5 August 2013
1. Gowen, M. 1979 Irish artillery fortifications 1550-1700. Unpublished MA thesis, University College, Cork.
2. Snoddy, O. 1972 Dún an Óir. Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 102, 247-8.
3. O'Rahilly, A. 1937 The massacre at Smerwick (1580). Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 42, 1-15, 65-83.
4. Ó Tuathaigh, G. 1980 The massacre at Dún an Óir 1580. Ballyferriter.
5. Jones, F.M. 1954 The plan of the Golden Fort at Smerick, 1580. The Irish Sword 2, 41-2.