What was life like for the Ferriter family during the long years spent at home on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry? This is a picture much less clearly painted for most of us.
There are periods wherein documentary data for the Ferriter Family is very sketchy. One such interval of time is the 15th Century, or that period extending from 1400 – 1500. We do know something about life in Ireland at large during the period cited, even life as far “beyond the Pale” as that enjoyed by the Ferriter Family, living at the edge of the territories controlled by the Geraldine Earls of Desmond, and their lesser House, that of the Knight of Kerry. The sources of this data include Irish writings of the period, documentary records as kept by the Anglo-Irish within the Pale, contemporary accounts of travelers, and songs and poetry that have survived.
Traditional and Anglicized Irish Feasting, c1500
From this information, a sketch may be drawn of what the lifestyles and occupations of Ferriter families in far West Kerry were most likely like. Together with the known attributes of life and activities during these times, we can do a certain amount of forensic reconstruction, by assessing what the local economy consisted of, who trading partners might have been, and what the family’s relationships with both the indigenous Irish and the Geraldines probably were.
While the very early Ferriters have been cited as filling the niche of “knights of the shire” within the Norman feudal system put in place by the DeMarais family, and their FitzGerald successors, the notion of “knight” as it pertained to West Kerry in 1400 must be clarified. The Ferriters were never “knighted” in the modern sense, or even in the English sense…they were “knights” in that they held title to lands in response to certain services and rents owed to their “liege lord”, or next individual up on the feudal hierarchy. They had considerable legal authority over those who dwelt upon their land, and no doubt regarded themselves as the property owners.
The men of the family did not ride armored horses, dress in armor themselves, joust, or do other “knightly” things. They would however, be required to serve as soldiers under the colors of the FitzGerald family. The lead man of the family, An Fearitearach, (pronounced An Ferr – tear - och), or “The Ferriter” doubtless regarded himself as a knight, since he provided scutage, or knights service in military fashion, when called upon. He probably owned chain mail, and maintained an armory with swords and pikes sufficient to arm the men that followed him or his designee off to serve alongside other FitzGerald tributaries.
The Ferriters had come to the land as soldiers and adventurers. The land assigned or granted to them by the local authority was not prime agricultural land. In the 15th century, (prior to the introduction of the potato), this land would have been sparsely populated, in general only supporting the population that could be fed from the small farms and the sea. Then, as today, Ferriter lands embraced steeply sloping grasslands, rockbound shorelines, stony mountains, and marshland, along with several coves suitable for anchoring and beaching boats. These lands included several individual townlands, each with a concentration of families, many of which were descended from the original Gaelic stock, with lines of descent far pre-dating the Norman incursion.
With the land offering little beyond subsistence farming and pasturage, there should be little doubt that the family’s interest would turn seaward. The rights to the immediate offshore fisheries were doubtless part of their fiefdom, as were the Blasket Islands, from an early period.
As early as the century preceding that under discussion, The Ferriter had caused to be erected stone forts and fighting positions of various sorts. Like their close neighbors, the FitzGerald Kerry family (the Knight of Kerry), the Ferriters built a fortification on the remains of an earlier fortification. Such building on earlier fortified sites was common practice amongst the Normans, as the sites already fortified were often the most strategic, and the earlier fort would be a handy source for building materials.
Whereas the FitzGeralds built a bit inland, upon the remains of a ring fort attributed to the O’Falvey family, the Ferriters built on the site of a Gaelic promontory fort, right at the edge of the sea. The location of this structure speaks to the focus of the Ferriter Family upon the ocean.
So what did these Ferriter men and women do on any given day? First, understand that by the mid 1400s, Ferriters had resided upon this land for a couple of hundred years. An estimate as to how many family members there were at that time can be made by examining the growth of the Ferriter name between 1650 and 1850, as these dates bracket a similar duration of time, and embrace the growth of the family in numbers from single individuals. Extending from the barest handful of souls in 1650, the Ferriter Family grew to something like 100 people by the time that the famine came. Discounting the introduction of the potato, which allowed displaced tenants farther west to eke out a living on the poor ground near Ferriter’s Town, nutrition and sanitation were in fact probably better from 1250 -1450 as opposed to 1650 – 1850. On this basis, some confidence can be applied to an estimate of on the order of 100 Ferriters in the home area in 1450.
The FitzGeralds, in their several houses, were frequent practitioners of small-scale warfare. This sort of skirmishing with adjacent lords and chieftains persisted throughout the 1400s. As The Ferriter had an obligation to provide men, both mounted and foot, and weapons, as a part of his entitlement to land, participation of Ferriter men in these many conflicts is again a certainty. That this cost the family in terms of men killed and wounded can also be assumed, but through the 1400s, the losses would have been light. Not so in the next century, but that is a different tale altogether.
Attack on a Tower House, c1450
The Knight of Kerry, a FitzGerald who held one of the three hereditary knighthoods in Desmond, made his principal residence at Castle Rahinane, on the slope above Ventry, from 1250 through to Cromwellian times in the mid 1600s. Rahinane is a short distance (less than 7 miles), from Ballyoughtra, the townland within Dunurlin where Castle Ferriter stood, and closer yet to the site where The Ferriter’s principal residence likely stood.
While The Ferriter would not have been on equal social footing with the titled Knight, they both paid allegiance to the Earl of Desmond. One can make probably safe assumptions that The Ferriter was close to the Knight, and that the families socialized. The lesser lines of both families no doubt intermarried from early times, as they still do today, binding the families yet closer together.
While many of the men may have had as principal employment soldiering for either FitzGerald Kerry or FitzGerald Desmond, and others may have been given tasks about the farm, many should have been available for nautical work. Nautical work probably included inshore fishing, trips to the Blaskets and beyond for deeper water fishery, light cargo transport from the cove to the deeper harbors of Smerwick or Dingle, as well as light coastwise shipping, perhaps up the bay to Tralee, and around the Shannon mouth and upstream to Limerick. Cargos would have included livestock, fish, local crafts, perhaps wax and honey in season, salt, and passengers.
What sort of craft would have been used in these activities? The sea going boats of recent history provide strong clues. First, the traditional curragh, constructed with lightweight ribs and stiffened via application of a stretched outer covering of leather. These vessels remain in use in West Kerry, and elsewhere along the western coast of Ireland. The fabled voyage of the missionary Saint Breandan is said to have involved such a boat – stout enough to transit the Atlantic, and make landfall in the New World, hundreds of years before Columbus.
Up from the curragh, we have the famed Galway Bay “hooker” a lateen rigged open hulled workboat that also remained in service until recent times, famous for her black sails.
The probability that Ferriters deployed similar vessels in pursuit of the sea’s bounty, and as wage earners in the transport of goods and people is very high.
The fore mentioned seaside fort probably served a base for nautical activities, amongst other things. Castle Ferriter would have been great place to secure valuable items like cleats, hawsers, sails, oars, nets and lines. In addition to being a storehouse, the structure, with it’s massively thick walls, and apertures for weapons would have been an outstanding defensive position. In addition to all of these fine qualities, the tower also would have been an excellent signal tower or light house, which may help explain why “Castle Sybil” and “Castle Ferriter” (different names for the same place) remained on so many maps of Ireland for so long.
Trade with Spain, and to a lesser extent France and England was also a feature of West Kerry life during the 1400s. This activity required larger vessels than the hooker, but probably not much different in shape or design. That ships left Dingle for these far away places is known. That Ferriters sailed upon these ships, perhaps as crew, perhaps as captains cannot be established in fact, but can be supposed with confidence.
One might surmise that the lucrative pastimes of piracy and shipwrecking might have been partaken of from time to time. It is most certainly true that the coast of Southwestern Ireland with its wild shores and secret coves had a terrible reputation for both of these up to modern times. I may write more on that later, but not here, not now.
That Ferriter’s Town, and all the rest of Dunurlin spread across the land in small clusters of stone houses, with the occasional larger farmhouse, and with a substantial fortified messuage, or manor castle near the church at Dunurlin can be easily visualized. Stone houses, stone walls, stone mountains and stone sea cliffs – these were the physical boundaries that embraced the early Ferriters in Kerry. War, trade, and fishing were most likely the principal occupations of the Ferriter men. Their society would have swirled about these activities, with women, family, and the church near the center of this swirl.
Ancient Stone Hut, Ballyferriter
Life was no doubt difficult at times. For individual family units, loss of a breadwinner to the sea or to battle would place them in a position of dependency upon the extended family. One might imagine a paternal system wherein some provision was made to assist those most needy – the widows, orphaned children, and the deserving aged.
Lesser lines of the Ferriters would expect little or no inheritance, and be challenged to provide for their families.
As the Norman order, which seems to have been fairly strictly patrilineal and patrimonial began breaking down in the 14th century; Norman outposts beyond the Pale began adopting Gaelic notions of family, ownership, and law. Quite likely by the 1400s in Ferriter’s Town, some sort of shared ownership and community effort to the common good was in play, and that the extended family looked out for their own.
This is supposition, but knowing those of use who bear the name yet today, I would think nothing less. We might be confident that Ferriters were then, much as as Ferriters are now, willing to work hard, set high goals, and to ensure that no family member is abandoned or forgotten.
NOTE: References and citations for source material utilized in this essay are available from the writer.