TÁIN BÓ 1335

Posted by Seoirse on 12/29/2010 in Commentary | Genaology

Cattle Raid


The following is a story from the life of Nicholas Fyreter, a man who lived during the middle years of the 14th century in Ireland. The episode as presented is accurate in terms of the historical context and the central event – aligning the very scanty documentary references to this Nicholas with the historical framework has provided the structure for recounting the tale. That this Nicholas was the son of the better documented family chief Philip le Fureter junior, or that this Nicholas himself became family chief are both conjectural, but both are supported by facts. The main event and the names of those involved are a part of the historical record.

Some background is necessary to place this story in context: The military, social, and economic consequences of the Norman Incursion dominated most of Ireland in 1335. Only at the geographic edges – northwest, west and southwest – those areas that had felt the Norman fist in passing, or where successful push-back had occurred did the ancient Irish system remain more or less intact. Where Norman or English Lords had not been able to sit or to remain seated life proceeded as before – everywhere else English Law held sway and intermittent warfare between the marcher lords, or between the newcomers and the native Irish sputtered and flared, broken only by periods of uneasy truces and periods of exhaustion.

During the early years of the Norman incursion, and in areas closely controlled by the invaders, vigorous efforts were made to establish and maintain English law. During this period, activities such as cattle-raiding and hostage taking were suppressed, although these practices continued unabated in Irish controlled areas. The native Irish also made a practice of raiding into the English controlled areas, taking away hostages and plunder, in their traditional manner of warfare.

As the 14th century progressed, central control and the power of English Law began slipping away, beginning in the outermost territories beyond the Pale. The Normans farthest from the locus of control began to Hibernicize, and Irish traditions, speech and culture reemerged. The Desmond FitzGeralds, in their several lordships, followed this pattern. Despite being made an Earl in 1328, Maurice FitzGerald, the First Earl of Desmond was a part of this trend.

An accelerating slide into anarchy within the marches was marked by the murder of William de Burgo, the Brown Earl of Ulster in 1333. That he had been struck down by several of his liegemen signaled a loosening of feudal grip. Ulster and Connaught moved farther away from the reach of English Law, and the Irish chiefs and petty kings once again held sway. Cadet lines of the de Burgos across Galway and Mayo became “Burke” and practiced all manner of Irishry, as they would continue to do so until Elizabethan times. In Munster, the newly created first Earl of Desmond, Maurice FitzGerald, was first made Earl (1328), then quickly imprisoned (1331) for making unsanctioned war. As the power of English Law continued retreating, cattle-raiding- sustained in practice within the Irish controlled areas - was taken up bay Hiberno-Norman Lords outside the Pale, both for material gain, and as a means for projecting power.

Less than 150 years had elapsed since the Normans had arrived. Only a century had passed since the first Norman and English settlers had become fixtures of life in West Kerry. In the far southwest, at the extreme end of the Corca Dubhuine peninsula, the le Fureter family had been established for this century. First granted lands by the de Marisco family, the Le Fureters, now styled Fyreter, were chiefs under the Desmond FitzGeralds. They held much of Ossurys cantred – the parishes of Marhin, Dunurling, and part of Dunquin, as well as the Blasket Islands as freeholders under the Earl, lands held by the family as a seigniorial freehold or chiefry since the arrival of Walter le Fureter three and more generations before. .

The chief man of the family during the first quarter of the 14th century, Philip le Fureter junior was growing old by 1330s. In his time, Philip had been an prominent figure in the activities of the area, as documented via a number of legal references, which have him involved in various lawsuits, a hanging, a swordfight with a tenant, and finally as an appointee to a commission investigating misappropriation of private property by the sheriff. Philip is notable not simply by the varied nature of his actions, but by his clear compliance with English Law.

One may easily imagine that the man who appears as the next family head within the record may have become a bit more Irish, and a bit less English. As the cadet lines of the neighboring FitzGerald families were rapidly assuming Irish ways, one must imagine that so did Nicholas Fyreter, born c1320. As this man became the family chief, he may be placed as Philip le Fureter’s son, albeit along with every other father-to-son relationship during this period, there are no documents to confirm this. Nicholas’ appearance within the historical record as family head makes the likelihood of patrimony probable.

As a young man, this Nicholas may have preferred the Irish manner of speaking his name, “Nioclas”, probably spoke Irish as his primary tongue, and dressed in the Irish manner. During his father’s and grandfather’s times, a man may have taken pride in his “Englishry”, but with the generation of Nicholas, and far from the Pale, the young men of English and Norman descent were looking and acting more like the Irish every year.

As the Fyreters held their lands of the Earl, the family was subject to military service. During the turbulent 14th century, there may have been many occasions where some service under arms was required of these men. The strongly held affections and connections between Fyreter and FitzGerald mandated this, beyond the obligations that existed for them as liegemen. So, in 1335, when Sir Gilbert Broun, a principal Desmond military leader summoned a hosting for a raid on behalf of the Earl, the son of Phillip le Fureter, Nicholas Fyreter, responded. The action was to be a raid for plunder, directed at a vast manor in and around Rathkeale, an Abby in the County of Limerick.

The 1335 Raid on Rathkeale had unknown, or at best ambiguous motives. The Earl was needy – perhaps that was enough. Perhaps some difficulty existed between the FitzGerald family and the Montravers family, the latter being the absentee lords of Rathkeale. Perhaps the fact that Edward Montravers was absent, and the manor of Rathkeale thus assessed as an easy target was sufficient motivation. What we do know is that Sir Gilbert was the Earl’s man, and the Earl was always in need of more: more land, more money, more livestock.

What we also know is that when the call went out, there was a strong response from the leading men of the area.

Now, about the raid:

More so than any other type of action, the cattle raid is emblematic of traditional Irish warfare. Centuries before the arrival of any Norman, local conflicts between the Irish Chiefs and Kings consisted of tribal territorial incursions with the primary objective being the taking of plunder and hostages. The cattle raid occurred on many scales – from that of an individual stealing a single cow, to small armies of men sweeping an entire region clear of livestock. During a cattle raid, actual combat would most often take the form of running skirmishes between raiding parties and defenders, with pitched battles fought only when the raiders became trapped, or when the defenders made a protective stand.

An (a) dismounted Man-at-Arms and (b) a Kern

The 17 men who rode on the raid on Rathkeale in 1335 comprised a fairly strong raiding party. For each of the mounted men, there would have been a half dozen or so kern, or foot soldiers, lightly armed and fleet of foot, and quite probably native Irish. So the entire party would have comprised upward of 100 men. The mounted soldiers would have been armed with swords and lances, while the kerne typically would have carried several throwing darts (short spears) and their long knives or “skean”. While the mounted men dealt with combat, the principal function of the kern once the plunder was secured, was to drive the livestock back home.

Page from the “Unpublished Plea Roll” 9 Edw III (N.A.I., Dublin)


As Sir Gilbert made his home in the Ballyheigue area, along the coast north and west of Tralee, and as the record identifies him as having outfitted the crew, the gathering probably took place near or at his stronghold. This meant that the Corca Dubhuine men had already travelled for two days or so before the host gathered. From the legal record, we know the names of these men, and by knowing their names, we can place most of them as being Kerrymen, and several as men of Corca Dubhuine:

John FitzGalfrid
John Loveshot
William Poynaunt
William FitzPhilip Trant
Robert Trant
Andrew Og Broun
Nicholas Hussee
William FitzMathew of Ossurys
Nicholas Fyreter
Maurice Roth’ FitzMathew
William Stakepol
Richard FitzAlexander of Kerry
Thomas FitzThomas of Kerry
John FitzMathew of Kerry
Galfrid FitzRobert FitzThomas
Nicholas FitzThomas FitzRobert FitzThomas
Mathew Craddock

Given the naming practices of the time, identifying most if not all of the “Fitz’s” as Geraldine men is no doubt safe. It is interesting to note how cumbersome some of the Geraldine names were becoming by the mid-1300s – here you have poor Nicholas FitzThomas stringing out three generations beyond his own! Not surprisingly, within another few generations, fixed surnames were the practice, even amongs the lineage conscious Geraldine families.

Having mustered somewhere near Ballyheigue, these men and their kern set off towards the east, with Rathkeale their target. At this time in Munster, roads would have been lacking. One might easily surmise that between Tralee and Limerick, some sort of beaten path existed, but only as one approached the environs of a city would the tracks become more formalized and recognizable as roads. The Irish were never road builders, nor were the Normans to any great extent, and this region was far beyond the English Pale.

The Slieve Loughra mountains stood as the principal topographical obstacle along the route. Certainly these low but rugged hills were wild and difficult. Once over the mountains, the party would have moved quickly and as unobtrusively as possible. In a cattle raid, surprise was a key ingredient of success.

Perhaps they travelled only by night. Once over the Slieve Loughra, travelling in the dark for concealment made sense. Th trip would have taken two or three days, limited by the speed that the kern could make, and the difficulty of the terrain. That they rested as close to their destination as possible again is likely, and such a rest – within striking distance of Rathkeale would have been during the day, for as we know:

We have no account regarding casualties, or even if there was a fight. Recall that the purpose of a cattle raid was not to inflict death, injury, or random destruction, (those things were incidental, and not at all desirable), but to take plunder.

We do have an accounting of the plunder taken, and as noted on the plea roll, the take was considerable – over 700 animals, and a large amount of textile material. Given the handwork intensive nature of textile production during the medieval period, the value of the linen and wollen material must have been considerable.

Returning to West Kerry with such a haul would have been onerous, indeed. An additional problem with bringing such a large herd of animals back across the Slieve Lougher would be the increased probability that pursuers might catch up with them, and either recover the loot, or force a battle. There are several aspects of the situation to consider. One, if they were acting on behalf of the Earl, as might well have been the case, a principal Desmond stronghold existed at Askeaton, a fairly short march north, on the baks of the Shannon estuary, near the border of Limerick and Kerry. Askeaton may well have been their destination.Two, Rathkeale may have been selected as a target simply because the likelihood of pursuit was minimal. It is known that the Montravers family, which owned the monor for generations, did not reside there. The Abbey was continuously occupied by Augustinian friars, but the notion that clerics would pursue the raiders is as silly as it seems.

That justice prevailed is a matter of public record. As with many cattle raids, restitution was made to that aggrieved party. As may be read in the account on the Plea Roll, the raiding party was ordered to pay 1000 pounds in compensation. Such a sum represented a very large amount of money in those times, when gold or silver coinage was scarce, and highly valued. That said, whether or not the restitution was ever made, or ever made in full is not known. As an absentee, in difficult and turbulent times , with the authority of law waning, Edward Montravers may have had some difficulty collecting.

Curiously, several of the names of Nicholas’ companions show up on later documents of record. We know that in 1349, Robert Trant, Nicholas Hussee, John FitzMathew, all appear along with Nicholas Fyreter and Richard FitzMaurice in a call to arms. This order was placed upon the Earl of Desmond by Ralph, Baron Stafford, in the name of the king during Edward IIIs war in France. Yet later, in 1355, Nicholas appears as a manucaptor supporting William Stakepol as Sheriff of Kerry. Apparently having been on this great raid did not have a negative impact on Stakepol’s advancement.

So ends this recounting. In reading this, there exists a hope that a greater appreciation for the deep roots and deep history of the Ferriter Family may develop. From the earliest period of the Norman Incursion into West Kerry, members of the Ferriter Family appear within the context of the events in Corca Dubhuine , and although the Family only rises to the public record occasionally, enough may be seen to understand the ongoing role these people played in the region’s history.

Archived comments:

michele said...
Interesting article, the references are a great find, good work, as always, George! I once heard an Irish Historian say, that Ireland was all about cattle.


31 DECEMBER 2010 14:31

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Know Your Ancestors

James T. Ferriter

photo b. December 1843
d. February 22, 1902

James Thomas Ferriter was born in December, 1843, either in New York or Massachusetts to Irish immigrant parents. Most census data lists his birthplace as Massachusetts. It is quite likely that he was born in West Springfield, MA, as he had a brother, Patrick, who was born there in 1849. His parents, Patrick Ferriter and Catherine Sullivan Ferriter, had married in Ireland on February 14, 1840. They moved to America and travelled where there were railroads to be built. Patrick's family landed in Dummerston, Vermont, in 1850, where many people with Irish surnames and the job title of 'railroad laborer' are listed in the census.... Read More