O’Sullivan Beara - The Last Gaelic Chieftain

AIDEN DOOLEY, creator of international hit show Tom Crean Antarctic Explorer, comes to the Town Hall next week with his acclaimed new play about the remarkable life of Gaelic chieftain O’Sullivan Beara.

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 O’Neill and O’Donnell clans 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 army. 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 to Ulster 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.

It is one of the most remarkable and poignant stories from Irish history and now Aiden Dooley brings it vividly to life in O’Sullivan Beara - The Last Gaelic Chieftain.

Ahead of the play’s Town Hall Theatre run, Dooley outlined some of the challenges of bringing it to the stage.

“Unlike Tom Crean who had a considerable amount of diary entries showing what he was like this was more of a dry historical research project,” he notes. “I had to think ‘How am I going to turn this into drama?’

“From my experience of doing Tom Crean and other museum shows you always have to find something that will connect with an audience, you have to make the audience have some attitude toward the character so it was necessary for me to find something that would make the audience feel they were getting to know a human being as opposed to a history book.

“I need the audience to get to know O’Sullivan Beare through me and they in turn will feel something for the hardship of the journey that took place.”

Dooley expands on how he sought the ‘human being’ behind the dry historical figure.

“Running through the show there is a sense that he is wasting these people’s lives when he could have sacrificed himself at the very start,” he reveals. “So there’s a struggle within him about whether he’s worth all this waste; these are the kind of questions I ask in the show to humanise him.”

Dooley describes some of the many hardships O’Sullivan and his followers had to face.

“He was fighting nearly every day of the journey,” he says. “I imagine the clans that were fighting him were trying to curry favour with their overlords. There was a bounty of 200 pieces of gold on his head so there was a good reward for whoever managed to kill him.

“He was constantly being harassed on the journey as opposed to outright battles. He had one battle on the south of the Shannon and another in Aughrim when an English army was waiting for him. There’s a wonderful speech he made that was documented by a nephew where he says ‘We are fighting for the life that remains within’.

“He defeated that English army because he managed to get the body of his people across a bog and the English horses came into the bog and then couldn’t move. Then they tried to retreat and ran into their own footsoldiers and it was chaos; he killed over 100 of them.”

When O’Sullivan set out for Leitrim it was with the hope that the Gaelic chiefs could continue their resistance in Ulster but this was not to be, as Dooley explains.

“Hugh O’Neill surrendered four days before O’Sullivan reached the north,” he says. “O’Sullivan realised his days were numbered, he knew if the English got him they would hang him, they weren’t prepared to countenance a pardon for this particular Irish chief so he went to Spain.”

O’Sullivan was welcomed by King Philip III of Spain who confirmed his princely status and gave him a commission as an imperial general. He continued to hope for a fresh Spanish invasion of his homeland but he met his death in Madrid, in 1618.

“The English paid the man who stabbed him outside a church 15 years after he went there,” Dooley reveals. “He was constantly trying to get the Spanish to re-invade and my research says they were countenancing invasion in a different way. His assassin was paid £600 from London when he went running back there. The premise of the show is ‘I will return’ which O’Sullivan didn’t but I hope his fighting spirit does somehow through this show.”

O’Sullivan Beara - The Last Gaelic Chieftain runs at the Town Hall from Tuesday May 10 to Saturday 14 at 8pm nightly. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie

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