The Last Chieftain-telling the story of O’Sullivan Beara
By Charlie Mcbride
One of the most remarkable figures from Irish history is brought compellingly to life in a one-man show by Aidan Dooley which is coming shortly to the Town Hall. The Last Chieftain - O’Sullivan Beara conjures up the epic struggles of one of Ireland’s most celebrated leaders.
Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beara was one of the leading Gaelic figures in 16th century Ireland, and ruled the region around Bantry and Berehaven in County Cork. He allied himself with the northern chiefs O’Neill and O’Donnell in their war against the English crown and was present with them at the disastrous Battle of Kinsale. Following that defeat, O’Neill and O’Donnell retreated to Ulster and O’Sullivan Beara found himself under increasing pressure from the English forces. In 1602 his stronghold of Dunboy Castle was besieged and captured and all its defenders put to the sword.
Harried and outnumbered, O’Sullivan took the momentous decision to head north where he could join those Irish chiefs who continued to hold out. At the end of December 1602, he gathered together 1,000 of his followers, comprising 400 fighting men and 600 women, children, and servants, and set out from Glengariff. There ensued a two-week ordeal of unspeakable hardship and suffering as they had to contend with cold, hunger, and constant harassment on their long trek northward. When O’Sullivan eventually arrived at the castle of his ally O’Rourke in Leitrim, only 35 of his original 1,000 remained with him.
Speaking to Aidan Dooley –best known for his long running show on Tom Crean – I began by asking him where did he research the details of O’Sullivan’s life; “His nephew wrote an extensive document about him in the early 1600s,” he tells me. “I also came across an account of his life published in The Capuchin Annual and there was a wonderful novel about him by Morgan Llewelyn called The Last Prince of Ireland. So between those and other things I read about Irish history I had enough matereial. The challenge then is to get the balance right between it being a history lesson and a drama. Once I’d done my research I tried to get into the head of O’Sullivan and imagine what he was like as a man. There aren’t really any references to his personality, unlike Tom Crean where there are diary entries that give a sense of his personality. So it was my job to try and humanise him and give him some sense of reality that an audience could connect with.”
So what kind of man does Dooley imagine Sullivan to have been? “I imagine him to have been a hugely charismatic individual who could carry the people on the journey,” he replies. “True, they were left with only one option which was to follow him but he must have had amazing charisma to drive them on a daily basis, and they were covering up to 25 miles a day. I believe he would have had self doubt also about whether he was doing the right thing but surrendering would have probably meant them all being killed anyway. When he finally arrives at O’Rourke’s castle it’s a dramatic climax to the show.”
With the final defeat of the Gaelic chieftains, in 1603 O’Sullivan followed O’Neill and O’Donnell into exile, settling in Madrid. There he lived until 1618 when he was murdered by a young Englishman called John Bathe.
“The play opens with O’Sullivan in Madrid,” Dooley reveals. “It gives a chance to contextualise his story, it’s as if he was speaking to a group of people and describing what Ireland was like and what his life was like. I can also quickly fill in the details of his time in Madrid, he was there for 15 years, he started off an Irish college for the education of young Irish nobles. He was quite influential within the Irish community there. He kept trying to get Philip III of Spain to re-invade Ireland but without success. Philip bestowed honours on him, he seemed to recognize what O’Sullivan had sacrificed, he had committed his four castles and chieftainship to the Spanish so he lost everything in the name of his Spanish alliance. Philip gave him a good pension and a place to live and the title of Count of Bearehaven.”
The show is also enhanced by an original music score. “The music in the show is by a good friend of mine called David McGilton,” Dooley explains. “He has composed some original pieces that punctuate the narrative. I hope the play ignites people’s interest in O’Sullivan’s story so that they can go and find out more about him.”
The play has attracted rave reviews, with The Irish Examiner calling it unmissable and The Munster Express hailing it as “a magnificent scalding blast of storytelling.” The Last Chieftain –O’Sullivan Beara is at the Town Hall, for two nights only, on Tuesday September 3 and Wednesday September 4.
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie