Crisis in Numbers: The Ferriters of Corca Dhubhine During the 1500s

Posted by Seoirse on 6/30/2010 in Family Legends

Many members of the Ferriter Family today are aware of the legend that maintains Piaras Feiritear as the last of his tribe. The facts do not support Piaras as the last – certainly we know that his father lived to become a grandfather, with Piaras’ son’s furthering the line, and certain evidences exist that suggest Piaras may have had at least one brother or a cousin. Those things said, that the Ferriters were a rare breed during the early 1600s seems doubtless. With the family having been established in West Kerry for over 300 years before Piaras came along, the idea that there were only a handful of Ferriters extant does not correspond with what we know about the growth of families over time.

Although beautiful beyond reason, the lands held and inhabited by the Ferriters are harsh and stingy to a farmer’s eyes. Most of the rocky hillsides were and are suitable for grazing only, and the more fertile bottom lands are not spacious. The saving grace of the locale was the ocean – and surely the Ferriters fished, and fostered other fisherman, with the resulting bounty going some distance to feeding the inhabitants of the locale.

The size of the family in Corca Dhuibhne was always limited by what the property could support. Sub-infuedation and tenancy by family members could only continue to the extent that the farms could produce sufficient food to support the tenants. Fishing was always vigorously pursued, under the conditions of the grant from the Earl of Desmond. These things being said, Ferriter men often left the area, either via the sea, or under arms. Whether they were sailors, or whether they were soldiers for hire, once departed these men were doubtless most often lost to the family.

Yet the 1400s had been a relatively prosperous and peaceful period for Ossurys, the cantred wherein Ferriter’s lands lay. Dingle, Ventry, and Ferriter’s Haven all supported trade and fishing. There were no large scale wars, and the occasional raids or dust-ups under Desmond colors were not destructive in a general sense. The Ferriters had shared in this sort of prosperity, and their numbers had certainly increased over time.

By extrapolating familial propagation over the two and a half centuries following the Ferriter arrivals in Ossurys cantred, an expectation that the area would have been replete with Ferriter families can be reached. 100% of the land would not have been occupied by Ferriter families, but making an estimate that most of it was can be seen as reasonable. For the purposes of this discussion, a conservative projection of 15 Ferriter Families across the various townlands of Marhin, Dunurlin, and Ferriter’s Quarter is established for the year 1565. These 15 families would have accounted for perhaps 60 to 80 individuals. These people would have acknowledged kinship ties with one another, shared a sense of family, and probably gave a degree of fealty to The Ferriter, An Feiritearach, the chieftain of the little sept.

Note the details of “Jobson’s Map of Mounster”, c1585. Here we see no fewer than four place names associated with Ferriter: Fereter’s Cove, C. (Castle) Fereter, B. (Bally) Feretor, and The Fereter’s Island.

75 years later, there were perhaps one or two families comprising at most a half dozen souls. What happened?

The destruction of the Ferriter Family must have gone something like this:

During the period of sharp numerical decline, three devastating wars occurred, along with sustained anarchy during each period of conflict.

Several authorities have posited that the population of Kerry may have been reduced by 30% to 50% during this period, which alone does not explain the radical reduction in numbers evidenced within the Ferriter family. Nor does leaving the area – all records available, along with onomastic evidence as available via surname distribution both suggest otherwise - the Ferriters stayed on in their home area. Aside from a very early occurrence of the name in Dublin that persisted for several generations before disappearing, Ferriters did not reside outside of Corkaguiny until recently.

As late as Ireland’s 1911 census, only two Ferriters resided outside of the home area. Many Ferriters had emigrated to America or elsewhere by 1911, but such an option did not exit in the 16th century. As noted, the younger sons may have often sailed away, or marched off to serve under arms, but that is not emigration. The Ferriters did not leave during the 1565 – 1605 time period. Whatever happened, it played out in West Kerry.

There may have been diseases and famine attendant with the periods of conflict, and certainly this speaks to the name becoming less common in the area. That the decrease in numbers corresponds to the decrease in numbers of other families in the area would be expected. The Trant and Rice families endured the same period of difficulty yet seem to remain relatively numerous in citations following the warfare, so what happened that was unique to the to the Ferriters?

When discounting an estimate of number reflective of the difficult times, the result does not correspond with what seems to have been the case for the Ferriter family, and the realization that something beyond famine and disease happened becomes apparent. Some analysis of the mechanisms that may have borne on the situation is warranted.


As mentioned, three separate wars occurred:

1569 - 1573 First Desmond Rebellion (James FitzMaurice)

1579 - 1583 Second Desmond Rebellion (Earl Gerald)

1599 – 1603 Munster Rising of O’Neil’s Rebellion (Sugane Earl of Desmond)



Each of these rebellions was replete with slaughter, famine, and destruction of humanity:

“I saw sufficiently ensampled in those late warrs in Mounster; for notwithstandinge that the same was a most ritch and plentyfull countrye, full of corne and cattell, that you would have thought they could have beene hable to stand longe, yett eare one yeare and a half they weare brought to such wretchednes, as that anye stonye herte would have rewed the same. Out of everye corner of the woode and glenns they came creepinge forth upon theire handes, for theire legges could not beare them; they looked Anatomies [of] death, they spake like ghostes, crying out of theire graves; they did eate of the carrions, happye wheare they could find them, yea, and one another soone after, in soe much as the verye carcasses they spared not to scrape out of theire graves; and if they found a plott of water-cresses or shamrockes, theyr they flocked as to a feast for the time, yett not able long to contynewe therewithall; that in a shorte space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentyfull countrye suddenly lefte voyde of man or beast: yett sure in all that warr, there perished not manye by the sworde, but all by the extreamytie of famyne which they themselves hadd wrought.” (“A Veue of The Present State of Ireland.”, Edmund Spenser, 1596.)

“For might it but please her Highnes under her owne hand to sett downe, that noe principale Traytor (especiallie those of Mounster){This would marre theyr mirth.} shall have any pardon or find anye favour …And lett that principall Traytor whom they call the Earle of Desmond be the first.{One after another and serve all alyke.} Then the White Knight alias Edmond Macc Gibbon, Piers Lacye, the Knight of Kerrye and the Lord Fitz Morris. These are the principall Traytors who have lands.{One occasion is too much and one pardon too manye.} Yf these or anye of these shall refuse to come in in manner…. Then lett proclamation be made that whosoever shall take or kill anye of these Traytors lands and hould them in the same sorte that the Traytors did. Yea though he be a Traytor and a leader of men amongst Traytors{Give the Devill his due yf he do a good turne.} that shall happen to doe this service. Let him not only have the landes of that Traytor whom he shall kill” (Captain Thomas Lee, Elizabethan soldier, c1580)

Note that these citations reflect the eyes and ears of a primary source. While reports taken from the field of and by Englishmen often play down English losses, these reports are quite sanguine regarding the fate of the Irish.

Taken together, these wars in Munster have a common thread in that they had members of the Desmond FitzGerald family as principal actors. Collectively, these wars could as easily be called the Geraldine Wars as anything else.

The Ferriters were Desmond’s men. The lands that they held were held of Desmond.
At the onset of the Geraldine Wars, this relationship had been in place for over 200 years. The Earl was their Earl, and they were his people. Certainly by the 1500s, marriages were occurring between Ferriter men and Geraldine women, ladies of the more local cadet branches, extending from the nearby Sliocht Edmund, (a Geraldine Clan around Castle Gregory) or the grand-nieces or the great-grand nieces of early knights of Kerry. It is known that a Ferriter lady married into the family of the Knight of Kerry c1565, and there exists no reason to imagine that she was the first.

Kinship bonds, and the oaths of fealty associated with landholding were powerful connections. In all likelihood, some Ferriter men had joined with James FitzMaurice in 1569. That “the Felleterache of Ballysibbel” appears on an Elizabethan pardon of 1574 along with other rebels confirms this.

Almost certainly, Ferriter men went out under the Geraldine banners as soon as the Earl declared himself in rebellion, in 1580. Via the marriage cited above, Maurice, Piaras Feirtear’s grandfather would have been the likely brother in law of William MacRuddery, brother to the knight, John, both of whom are known to have been rebels. The family connection, along with the requirements of fealty as given to the Earl would have mandated that Maurice and other Ferriters rode with these men.

Black Tom Butler, Earl of Ormonde

The English were already mobilized, having moved to address this second Geraldine rebellion in it’s infancy in 1579, so conflict flared immediately. The Dingle Peninsula experienced unparalleled savagery in the year 1580. Pelham, The Black Earl of Ormond, Winter, Bingham, and Lord Grey all had a turn in despoiling the land of Corkaguiney and slaughtering the inhabitants. Of these, perhaps Ormond’s Raid during the spring of 1580 was most destructive:
In Jan 1580 two Italian vessels with powder had arrived at Dingle, bringing news that Desmond might soon expect other forces from abroad. In response, as spring opened Pelham and Ormond passed through the rebel counties in separate companies, consuming with fire all habitations and executing the people wherever they found them. As noted below, the Irish annalists say that the bands of Pelham and Ormond killed the blind and the aged, women and children, sick and idiots, sparing none.

“The Erle of Ormonde…never slept his time, but was always in readiness, being the first with the foremost, and last with the hindermost…they met and divided their companies into three partes, and so marched to Dingle-a-Cush, and as they went, they drove the whole countrie before them…all such people as they met they did without mercie putte to the sword. By this means the whole countrie having no cattel nor kine left, they were driven to such extremeities that for want of vittels they were either to die and perish for famine, or to die under the sword.” (Hooker’s Chronicle, 1580)

“He (Pelham) sent loose marauding parties…wheresoever they passed shewed mercy neither to the strong nor the weak. It was not wonderful that they should kill men fit for action, but they killed blind and feeble men, women, boys, and girls, sick persons, idiots, and old people…The Lord Justice (Pelham) proceeded with his army (of which Ormond’s forces formed one wing) to Kerry, making no delay, until he arrived at Daingean-Ui-Chuis (Dingle) on which occasion he devastated and ravaged a great part of the territory of the Geraldines of Kerry.” (“Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters”)

How bad was it?

“The extent of the devastation became clear in the aftermath of the rebellion. Sir Henry Wallop…after the rebellion, described how the population had been so decimated by “sworde, and by Justice, but cheeflie by famine” that he found the province between Dingle and Cashel completely barren and desolate….The general impression of the destruction of the province thus supports Spenser’s view that Munster had suffered a social and economic trauma on a massive scale.” (“The Social and Economic Consequences of the Desmond Rebellion of 1579-83”, Anthony McCormack, May 2004)

One modern source has suggested that the generation of the Desmond Wars may have sought refuge elsewhere. While some may have, refugee status certainly was no assurance of salvation:

“Ferriter must have fled northwards…In the aftermath of this violence famine became widespread and local inhabitants forced to migrate, as explified in the case of a young heir to a minor Geraldine branch in the area.. ‘who died for famine on Fereters Island, aged 12 years’. Maurice Ferriter probably died in Iraghticonner as a refugee from this violence and famine” (“The Ferriters of Kerry”, Paul MacCotter, 2003)

Never having known any adult male Ferriter to “flee” from anything, I would differ with Dr. MacCotter in his reasoning as to why Maurice was in Clanmaurice rather than at home. In all likelihood, he was part of a rebel band, of which there were many across West Kerry. That issue aside, the terrible price of the Geraldine Wars is clear. Where perhaps as many as 60 or more Ferriter family individuals were living at the advent of the period of conflict, perhaps a half dozen souls survived it.

Piaras Feiritear seems to have grown to manhood lonely with respect to the company of other Ferriters, and absent the large extended family that should have existed two generations before. His father Eamon may have borne witness as a child to the worst of the slaughters, and may have participated in the final round of conflict, the rebellion of the Sugane Earl of Desmond. That his name appears on the final round of Elizabethan pardons associated with this rebellion confirms involvement.

Occam’s Razor identifies that the simplest solution to a problem most often is the best. For the vanishing Ferriters, there really seems to be no mystery. Certainly Occam indicates that these people were killed in war, either directly in combat, as collateral damage, or due to ancillary consequences such as famine and disease.

The Ferriter Family was victim to a sort of political and ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Elizabethans: Pelham, Butler, Drury, Malby, Raleigh, Grey, et alia. The goals were manifold: to exterminate the Desmonds, to solidify political control of Munster, and to prepare the way for the transplantation of English settlers to the province.

When Piaras himself sallied away to do battle with the English in 1641, he had scant family to accompany him. Before the Confederate Wars were over, perhaps three of his sons had participated in the fight, and following the war in 1653, we know that three Ferriter men, two of these most certainly the sons of Piaras, were serving the Catholic cause on the Continent. A real possibility exists that Dunurlin and Ballyferriter were devoid of any Ferriters during the Cromwellian interlude, from the death of Piaras in 1653 until the return of Dominick in 1660 or 1661. The restoration period marks that time when the Ferriter family began to increase in numbers once again.

How might things have been different?

During the 1560s, if “The Ferriter” had made overtures to the government of Queen Elizabeth, had acknowledged the Church of Ireland (see: Ormonde (Butler) and Thomond (O'Brien)), and had become an active agent for the crown, everything would have been different.

Conformance, submission, and assistance to the crown in the several Geraldine Wars would have been rewarded with patented grants and titles - knighthoods and baronetcies. Others of similar social station did those things, and were rewarded in the manner described. Of course, to have gained these things the Ferriters would have become traitors to their faith, their bonds of loyalty, and their culture. To have done this was not in the make-up of these people.

By the 1570s, it was probably too late, and certainly after 1584, the loss of station and property was irreversible.

Those things said, the world in which these men lived, the inertia of history, and the inevitable view of the world that they inherited almost certainly precluded any course of action other that that taken.

When one's world ends, even identifying that it's happening; much less understanding how personal impacts might be mitigated might not be possible.

So, did Oliver Cromwell, bloody though his hands were, destroy the Ferriter Family? No. Thank Elizabeth Tudor and her cutthroat minions for that. That a great man such as Piaras Feiritear arose within another generation, and that the Ferriter name has now spread to far places and is associated with many wonderful attainments, is a tribute to the strength of the line, and to the will of our ancestors.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past” (William Faulkner, c1930)

blog comments powered by Disqus

Know Your Ancestors

Patricia Clare Ferriter

photo b. April 25, 1909
d. December 31, 1994

  Patricia Clare Ferriter was born on April 25, 1909, in Dickinson, North Dakota, to John Ferriter and Katherine McNertney.  She began painting as a child when she was in bed for a full year with an illness.  In the late 1920s, Clare attended the Massachusetts School of Fine Arts.  From 1931-1933  she lived in the Philippines, where her father was stationed as an Army captain.  Part of the time she worked worked as an illustrator for The Manila Times, an English-language newspaper. It was at this job that she dropped her first name and from then on used the name "Clare Ferriter" exclusively. She... Read More