FOR generations, there have been many connections between the Dingle area and Spain. Nowadays the connection is mainly that of Spanish fishing trawlers landing their catches while local fishermen look on, but trading goes back centuries.
Dingle was one of the great trading ports of the south and in 1257, a law was passed placing custom duties on all goods exported through Dingle.
Dingle was a starting point for the Camino to Santiago de Compostella and the patron of Spain, St James, is remembered today with the Church of Ireland in Dingle dedicated to him. Many houses in the village have unusual stone carvings on their walls, said to date from when many Spanish merchants settled in the town.
The Spanish connection most remembered is, unfortunately, a much more bloodied one. In the late 1570s, Gearóid Earl of Desmond was threatened by the forces of Queen Elizabeth I moving into Munster and attacks by his ancient enemy, the Earl of Ormond. Desmond was declared a traitor and his cousin James Fitzmaurice FitzGerald went to the continent seeking aid for their fight. He returned to Dingle with a small Spanish force but was killed shortly after landing and the ships sailed again.
In 1580, 600 Spanish and Italian troops, paid for by Pope Gregory, arrived. They landed in Cuan Ard na Caithne (Smerwick Harbour) just outside the modern village of Ballyferriter. The old enemy Ormond prevented them moving inland and a small force of English ships blockaded them at sea. They could neither escape by land or sea and their leader, San Giuseppe had to fortify his men in the cliff top fort at Dun an Oir.
The Lord Lieutenant, Grey de Wilton, arrived in Dingle with a force of 4,000 men. He was supported by more ships which brought him eight cannon guns. On the morning of November 8, they began an artillery barrage on Dun an Oir and quickly broke the defences of the fort. Grey rejected a call for a ceasefire and refused to consider an offer of conditional surrender, in which the defenders would leave the fort and their supplies and sail away. He demanded unconditional surrender.
Within three days, the English force entered the fort to take control of the armaments and supplies and Grey then sent in bands of soldiers to execute the prisoners. With the exception of some commanders, all the Italian and Spanish soldiers and Irish men and women were killed. It is said the English spent two days decapitating their victims and then throwing the bodies into the sea. According to folklore, the field where the massacre took place is known as Gort an Ghearradh – the field of the cutting – and the field where the heads were buried known as Gort na gCeann – the field of the heads.
Many names that became well known down the years were said to have been present. The poet Edmund Spencer and Hugh O’Neill, the future Earl of Tyrone, were said to have been part of Grey’s party and Sir Walter Raleigh supposedly supervised one of the bands involved. All in all, over 600 were killed.
That Massacre at Dun an Oir was ordered by Grey de Wilton on November 11, 1580 – 431 years ago this week.