The Earl of Desmond’s piper: a County Kerry tradition

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By Seán Donnelly

A Victorian era drawing depicting Gerald Fitzgerald, 14th Earl of Desmond, leaving for France, c.1575.

The Desmond Rebellion of 1579-83, the suppression of which devastated the province of Munster, culminated in the slaying of Gerald Fitzgerald, 14th Earl of Desmond, at Glanageenty, near Tralee in Co. Kerry, in November 1583. The Earl’s extensive lands in the counties of Cork, Kerry and Limerick, forfeit to the crown, were granted to English colonists under the Plantation of Munster (1586). When rebellion spread from Ulster to Munster in 1598, the Earl’s nephew, James, assumed the Desmond title with the support of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, becoming known as the sugán – straw rope Earl.

To neutralise him, the 14th Earl’s son, also James, was released from the Tower of London, where he had been imprisoned as a child before his father’s death. He was created Earl of Desmond – but with no lands to accompany the title – and sent over to Munster, carefully supervised. But the people of Desmond, while welcoming the sickly ‘Queen’s’ or ‘Tower’ Earl for his father’s sake, recognised that he was a puppet of the English government, and his mission failed. The young Earl was returned to the Tower of London in 1600, and his death later that year was generally ignored. The sugán Earl, captured in May 1601 after an intensive manhunt, followed his cousin to the Tower where he was to die insane in 1607.

Despite the claims of his son and nephew, Gerald Fitzgerald was regarded in tradition as the last Earl of Desmond, and his memory lived on in his former lands. Around Lough Gur, Co. Limerick, he evolved into a folklore figure, becoming the subject of legends previously attached to various Fitzgerald Earls of Desmond and Kildare1.

In 1883, the Tudor historian Richard Bagwell found that the people of Glanageenty could still point to exactly where the Earl had been killed2. Traditionally, a party of Moriarties did the killing, subsequently despatching the Earl’s head to London in a small leather bag, and down to this century that family has been taunted as ‘cineal an mbhiilin’ – ‘the folk of the little bag’. Not the least to hold the killing of their kinsman against the Moriarties were the Fitzgeralds, Knights of Glin, whose seat is on the Shannon estuary in Co. Limerick. Moriarties who encountered various Knights of Glin – several of them were renowned duellists – during the 18th and 19th centuries found, sometimes to their cost, that the idea of a statute of limitations was a non-starter in Glin Castle3.

In Co. Kerry, even the elements were felt to preserve the Earl’s memory, and Bagwell wrote of his 1883 visit to Glanageenty that “when the west wind comes fitfully up from the sea and makes the slates and windows rattle, the Kerry people still call upon travellers to listen to the Desmond howl.”4 Irish soldiers of the 16th century attacked with an ear-splitting scream that sometimes unnerved inexperienced recruits5. The ‘howl’ heard in the wind would have been the war-cry (and motto) of the Desmond Fitzgeralds, “Shanid Aboo”, from the castle of Shanid, co. Limerick, “Desmond’s first and most ancient house” – though the Desmond Rebellion also saw the coining of the cry “Pápá Aboo”6. Down to the end of the last century, the people of Lough Gur, Co. Limerick, still raised the ‘Desmond Cry’ on celebratory occasions, but no longer related it to Shanid7.

All that remains of Shanid Castle, a tower castle dating from the 13th century

But 50 years before Bagwell wrote, a different account was recorded of what was to be heard in the screech of the west wind. A visitor to Kerry in early 1832, describing a day spent fowling at Abbey Island, near Derrynane, wrote that the wind, blowing from the south-west, “sighed mournfully amidst the rocks – now rising in that high and shrilly note which the southern Irish denominate the music of ‘Desmond’s Piper'”8 The Kerry antiquarian, Mary Agnes Hickson, a native of Fermoyle, near Ballinskelligs, recalled this eerie musician in 1872 as a childhood bogeyman:

THE EARL OF DESMOND’S PIPER – A reference to this official was an infallible recipe for producing quiet in Kerry nurseries on winter evenings some 40 years ago. When the wind whistled round the house the old nurses used to say “Whisht! Listen to the Earl of Desmond’s Piper!” and the most refractory subject became as still as a mouse or as an undertaker in the days when Gerrot na Sceaidhe was yet on Earth.9

Imagining that the shriek of a winter gale was the sound of a bagpipe was not confined to Co. Kerry. A number of prehistoric stone circles in Ireland are called The Piper’s Stones, and the occasional single monolith The Piper’s Stone.

Glin Castle, located along the River Shannon in Glin, County Limerick.

These monuments were usually the objects of superstitious awe in earlier centuries, and the sound the wind made as it blew around the sharp-angled stones was imagined to be the music of fairy pipers. Occasionally, though, a Piper’s Stone/Rock took its designation from human musicians. It was normally a natural platform at a site where local people traditionally danced or played hurling, on which a piper would play during these activities. Indeed, people in one parish in Co. Galway distinguished Carraig an Phiobaire, The Piper’s Rock, the haunt of fairy pipers, and Cloch na bPiobari, The Piper’s Stone, on which human pipers used to play during hurling matches.

The Piper’s Stones at Athgreany, Co. Wicklow (in the old kingdom of Leinster). The placename ‘Athgreany’ comes from the Gaelic, ‘Achadh Gréine’ or ‘Field of the Sun’, which suggests the original purpose of this stone circle.

Personifying the wind as a musician also seems to have been a variation on an international motif. In a similar tradition, current on the east coast of England in the 19th century, the sound of the east wind, howling in off the North Sea in winter, was The Danish Boy’s Whistle10. More intriguingly, to cod fishermen in certain coastal areas of France, the south wind was “le cornemuseux”  – the bagpiper11.


Footnotes:

1 Dáithi Ó hÓ gain (ed.), Myth, Legend and Romance: An encyclopaedia of the Irish folk tradition (London, 1990), pp. 227-30.

2 Richard Bagwell, Ireland under the Tudors (3 vols., London, 1885-90), III pp. 114-115.

3 J. Anthony Gaughan, The Knights of Glin: a Geraldine Family (Dublin, 1978), pp. 72, 112; Richard Chenevix Trench, Grace’s Card: Irish Catholic Landlords 1690-

1800 (Dublin and Cork, 1996), p. 176.

4 Bagwell, Ireland under the Tudors, III, pp. 114-115.

5 Cyril Falls, Elizabeth’s Irish Wars (London, 1950), p. 70.

6 [Anon], ‘War-cries of the Irish septs’ Ulster Journal of Archeology iii (1885), 207, 209; David Greene, ‘The Irish war-cry’, Eriu xx (1971), 168-73.

7 Mary Carbery, The Farm by Lough Gur (London, 1937), pp. 144, 249, 254, 274.

8 [Anon], ‘Scenes and Sketches No. V’, Irish Monthly Magazine of Politics and

Literature i (May 1832-April 1833), 382.

9 Selections from old Kerry records (London, 1872), p. 187.

10 The Munster Journal and Cork Military District Directory i, 12 (December 1888), [126].

11 Albert Barrere, (ed.), Slang & argot,… (London, 1889), p. 95.