Thoughts on the Matter of Ferriters and Islandman

Posted by Seoirse on 5/24/2011 in Commentary | Genaology

Creation of the new Ferriter Family website moved me to a review of certain items that I had in hand, for inclusion on the site. A number of these are now posted as blog entries, including the following. None of these observations, speculations, and theories have been altered by the time that has passed between having been written and now…enjoy reading, and comment, please!

Having inherited the (not uncommon within the family) interest in Ferriter History, I have pursued many of the leads provided by those mentioned above, and a few of my own. I am not a historian, but as a student of history, I have tried to apply the search for and application of sound source material in compiling a narrative of the Ferriter Family’s experience in West Kerry, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, following emigration. My favorite focus has been on the events that happened before the Cromwellian era. Information becomes progressively more sparse as one looks back in time, short the century and a half the followed the Norman incursion, wherein application of Crown Law led to better records for a while. Despite the losses incurred by the destruction of the P.R.O.I. during the Four Courts fire, there is relatively more from that period. Again, I am thinking that none of this is news.

The novel notion that fascinates me, and has led me deeper down the rabbit hole of time and history that I originally intended, involves the apparent destruction and near annihilation of the Ferriter Family during the late 16th century…almost certainly principally associated with the Desmond Wars. Perhaps more on that later, but all of this does bring me to the Blaskets.

The first Ferriter (le Fureter) to arrive in West Kerry seems most likely to have been a Walter le Fureter, arriving during the second generation following the initial Norman Incursion, c1230 or so. Although no documents exist to confirm this, the timing of le Fureters arrival, and the subsequent property and social activities associated with the family suggest that this man was a participant in the sub-infuedation of territories previously granted to Geoffry de Marisco. Successive lordship passed to the FitzGerald family, and it is known that the Ferriters held their lands of the Earl of Desmond from the time that the earldom was created, until its destruction. The lands held by the Ferriters included the Blaskets, and despite the changes in Lordship that occurred following the fall of the Geraldines, Ferriters held on to at least partial title until the 1620s, and probably had de facto control of the islands until the fall of the Catholic Confederacy in 1652. Attempts to reclaim claim to any portion of the Islands following the Restoration failed.

It is known that Iron Age structures exist on the Blaskets, supporting habitation far back into prehistory. As the islands are natural defensive positions, and as the Great Blasket can support habitation (however sparsely) it requires no great leap of faith to discern that the same motivations that drove the early Irish to create promontory forts on the mainland would have driven those same inhabitants to build similar defensive structures on the Blaskets. Once established on the islands, and with continuous close communication (weather permitting) with the mainland, that human occupation would have continued on again seems easy to accept. That there is no discussion in early texts of habitation on the Blaskets is also easy to accept. Why would there be. There is no description of the Great Blasket as uninhabited either, and as discussed above, the balance seems to favor habitation. 

Islands are natural refuges. When the Normans arrived on the Corca Dubhine, the islands would have been a natural place for refugees. (As they became later, during the Desmond Wars.) The native Irish, settling on Great Blasket away from the Normans, would have most likely held on to some semblance of their traditional lifestyle – tribal organization and tainistry. When the first Ferriter – probably Walter le Fureter – took title to the Islands, there were probably tenants there – cattle grazers and fishermen. While these people may have been from several different relict Irish families – Falveys, Sullivans, Sheas, et alia –they had probably already an island-centric traditional social structure, with their “king”, and other principal personages.

We know that the Ferriter family gaelicised during  the late 14th century, transforming from le Fureter to Fyreter and on to Feiritear/Ferriter  during the two centuries between 1350 to 1550. That Irish was the spoken and written language of the family long before Piaras Feiritear wrote his poetry seems certain. That the Corca Dubhine became an area where the Irish language was preserved and evne fostered formed an additional protective bulwark for the Blasket Islanders, insulating them from outside forces that would alter their language or lifestyle.

I expect that Ferriter landlords had no difficulty with however the offshore tenants wished to organize themselves, provided the supported whatever the family chief of the Ferriters had in mind. Some rent in kind via dried fish, or assistance in bringing grazing animals back and forth would have been expected.  The persistent tale that has The Ferriter paying a rent of falcons to Desmond in return for entitlement to the islands may well have been true. If so, the islanders probably caught those birds for him.

At some point, a tower house or other sort of stone built fighting position seems to have been built on Great Blasket. This probably had multiple uses – as a residence for Ferriters when visiting, perhaps for the Blasket “King” when not otherwise used, and as a refuge if attack by pirates occurred. With MacCarthy and O’Sullivan lands just to the South, and with the sea-faring O’Flahertys off to the north, coastal raiding may have been a frequent problem. The possibility that shipwrecking and piracy may have been practiced also exists, so perhaps the “castle” was also a pirate lair. By account, this structure was cannibalized for building stone over time, and no longer exists.

There are well known tales involving Piaras Feiritear and the Blaskets. That he may have sought refuge or hidden there seems likely. We also know that during the siege of Bunratty by Lord Muskerry during 1646, Captain Penn send a sloop to “Ferriter’s Island” for provisions, with a note to “Captain Ferriter” to assure safe passage. 

There is an interesting correlation between the recently discovered correspondence that Identifies inhabitants (albeit they were ‘hooligans’) on Ferriter’s Islands . This letter discusses  a land lease dispute where the contesting parties were the Ferriters (Eamon and Pierce) versus “Diarmuid an Daingean”, who of course was the famous “Dermot O’Dingle”, or  Dermot Moriarty of Ballinacourty.

Dermot was chief of the Moriartys, and Lord Cork’s agent for Corckaguiney.  Later, this man became Pierce Ferriter’s father in law, and his fellow leader in the War of the Catholic Confederacy during the siege of Tralee in 1641/1642.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a fictionalized account of the taking of the Zeeland vessel “Fortune” by Pierce and his sons at the end of the War with Parliament, c1650. In this tale, I invoked the existence of “hooligan” islandmen, who were loyal to Piaras, and who helped in securing the treasure. While the details of my tale are imaginary, the basis for the story is not, and looking back, my guess is that Islandmen did help Pierce with his plunder.


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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