Áth an Ridire and the ‘Battle of Mullinhassig’

Áth an Ridire, translated as Ford of the Knightis the meeting point of townlands (Carrigathou, Rockgrove and Shanavagha) and parishes (Aghabullogue and Aghinagh) north-west of Coachford village, within the heart of Muskerry and mid-Cork. This place name derives from an event which took place on 4 August 1580, when Sir James Sussex Fitzgerald of Desmond and his followers, who had been engaged in cattle raiding within the area, came into conflict with the MacCarthys of Muskerry, during the Second Desmond Rebellion (1579-1583). This skirmish is locally referred to as the ‘Battle of Mullinhassig’ and it was a considerable and bloody affair.

For centuries, a ford crossing of the Glashagarriff River existed here, only to be replaced in the twentieth century by a bridge. Topographically, to the north-west is the wooded glen of Mullinhassig, and to the south-east lies boggy land adjoining the river. During the sixteenth century the area would have been heavily wooded, with trees including oak, ash, elm and hazel scrub. This made Áth an Ridire a perfect crossing point, and on this particular day in 1580, an ideal ambush location.  

To give some background details … Sir James Fitzgerald, born June 1558, was the son of James Fitzgerald, fourteenth Earl of Desmond and Countess Eveleen of Desmond, daughter of Donal MacCarthy Mór. Orphaned by the age of two, Sir James was likely brought up by his mother’s people, but later rejoined his paternal family, the Fitzgeralds. Relations with his half-brother Gerald Fitzgerald, 15th Earl of Desmond were initially tense, but mellowed somewhat over time.

July 1579 saw the beginnings of the Second Desmond Rebellion, when Sir James’s exiled cousin James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald returned to Ireland from the continent, with soldiers and armed with a papal blessing. Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald (who was largely behind the First Desmond Rebellion (1569-1573) while governing Desmond during the imprisonment of Gerald 15th Earl of Desmond and Gerald’s brother, Sir John Fitzgerald) was fatally wounded soon afterwards near Limerick, and leadership of the rebellion quickly fell upon the same Sir John, with half-brother Sir James playing an active supporting role.

Sir John and Sir James, both accused of murdering English officials at Tralee on 1 Aug, later defeated Elizabethan forces in county Limerick at the Battle of Gort na Tiobrad (Springfield) in September 1579, but were defeated at Aenagh Beg (Monasternenagh) in early October. Gerald 15th Earl of Desmond was suspiciously regarded by the administration, and despite his claims to have no part in the rebellion, was proclaimed a traitor in November 1579, along with his rebellious brothers. The Fitzgeralds then proceeded, with their followers, to sack Youghal and Kinsale. Despite explicit support from Pope Gregory XIII, their general call to the Irish to assist the rebellion against ‘the heretics’ largely fell on deaf ears. What followed was essentially guerilla warfare across Munster for the next number of years, with the local populace suffering greatly as a result.

What happened at Áth an Ridire on 4 August 1580 was much influenced by events in preceding months, involving both Sir James and Sir Cormac McTeige MacCarthy of Muskerry.  In late May, Sir John and Sir James had taken 4,000 cattle from Kerrycurrihy and Kinelea in south Cork. Sir Warham St Leger, provost-marshal of Munster, who was no stranger to having property ravaged by rebels in this particular area of Cork, sent the following stinging rebuke of local lords to Lord Burghley (chief adviser to Queen Elizabeth I):

The traitors John and James of Desmond, with 300 of their associates, relieved as friends in the Viscount Barry’s country with meat and drink. They take a prey of 4,000 kine, &c., in Kiricurihie and Kynoley. Sir Cormac M’Teige let them pass quitely with the same. If three or four of such hollow subjects were to lose their heads for their treason, it would do more good than the execution of 10,000 mean persons.

Sir Cormac McTeige MacCarthy was, at the time, Lord of Muskerry and Sheriff of Cork county. Lord Justice of Ireland, Sir William Pelham, had expressed reservations in February 1580 to the English Council, describing Sir Cormac as reasonably well affected … if [he] may be trusted. On 12 May, Sir Cormac attended an assembly of Lords and gentlemen called by Pelham, and was delegated, along with Viscounts Barry and Roche, to deal with rebels along the Cork and Limerick border. Pelham’s discontent with regional affairs continued, and on 4 July wrote I have drawn to me the noblemen and gentlemen whose names are enclosed, and who incline to the traitors. I take them all with me to Limerick. Included in the list was the name of Sir Cormac McTeige MacCarthy. He, along with other principal lords and gentlemen of Cork were all required, at Limerick, to yield submissions and pledges, and make contributions towards the army in mitigation of charges, with some offering to serve at their own cost.

The countryside around Áth an Ridire had a pastoral tradition, and booleying (or transhumance) was long associated with this area of hills and ridges, with cattle being taken to higher ground and pasture to graze in summer, before being brought down to lower lands and enclosures during the winter months. Clues are to be found in the names of local townlands and places … Knockaunnamuacailly (Cnocan na mBuachailli) ‘hillock of the [herd] boys’, Shanavagha (Seana-Mhacha) ‘old cattle enclosure or milking field’, Cappanagraun (Ceapach na gCrann) ‘clearance plot of the trees’, and Glenabooly (Gleann na Buaile) ‘glen of the cattle enclosure’. On the northern side of the ridge is another townland interestingly named Curraghanearla (Creach-an-Iarla) ‘the raid or plunder of the Earl’, but we cannot be sure as to whether this is connected with Sir James’s raid. His party may have been raiding in the area for some considerable time, and word would have reached Sir Cormac, leading to the MacCarthys gathering to oppose them. 

Áth an Ridire today

We do know that the MacCarthy forces came from three principal locations: those of Sir Cormac from Blarney Castle; those of his brother Callaghan from Castlemore (near Crookstown) and those of Tanaiste and ‘second in command’ Donyll (Donal) MacCarthy of Carrignamuck (near Dripsey), whose tower house was but a few kilometres from Áth an Ridire. MacCarthy followers may also have been obliged to join in and take up arms in a local ‘rising out’ against these Fitzgerald invaders.

Sir Cormac would not have welcomed this visit by Sir James for a number of reasons, viz. (1) the prior rebuke made by Sir Warham St Leger, (2) the subsequent enforced ‘trip to Limerick’ and appearance before Lord Justice Pelham and (3) the lands around Áth an Ridire were ‘mensal lands’, namely the lands of the local lord, Sir Cormac himself, which were now directly under attack by Sir James and his followers. Additionally, there was the small matter of the Fitzgeralds laying claim to MacCarthy lands for centuries, which the latter generally rebuffed by victories on the battlefield, including Callan (1261) and Mourne Abbey (1521). As recently as 1564, Maurice ‘Dubh’ Fitzgerald (Sir James’s uncle and James Fitzmaurice’s father) had made an excursion into Muskerry, and ended up being captured and beheaded for his trouble.

Manuscripts dating to 1580 give a decent account of the ‘Battle of Mullinhassig’. An individual named Grante advised that Sir James took 2,000 cattle and garrans (ponies) from the surrounding area, leading Sir Cormac to gather his forces, including brothers Donyll and Callaghan. Donyll was first to the scene and attacked Sir James five times, until Sir Cormac arrived with the main force. Seventy-nine of Sir James’s force were killed, and three prisoners taken (other accounts put fatalities at 150). Sir James was seriously wounded, and taken to nearby Carrigadrohid Castle. Donyll MacCarthy was also wounded, by a ‘dart’ (spear) under his right ear, and was taken to his residence at Carrignamuck, where it is said he lingered in great pain for a number of weeks, and later died.

On 6 August, Sir Warham St Leger advised Sir Thomas Butler, 10th Earl of Ormond that Sir James wished to be beheaded rather than be brought to Cork. No doubt Sir James was more than aware of the fate that awaited him for perceived treason. Sir Cormac was now back in favour with the administration, with Lord Justice Pelham advising of service done, and Pelham confirmed that fifteen of Sir James’s principal horsemen were slain, with serviceable people being put to the sword, some of whom were executed during the conflict, but others later found hiding in bushes were also executed. ‘Serviceable people’ presumably included kerne (foot soldiers) and general camp followers.

Local tradition holds that Sir James was captured by a blacksmith during the fight, and was later handed over by him to Sir Cormac. This is possible, as local persons loyal to the MacCarthys, would likely have engaged in the fight, being obliged to be part of the ‘rising out’, as against Sir James and his followers. Another tradition has it that the slain were interred at nearby Carrigathou burial ground, which might ring true for followers of the MacCarthys, but possibly not for those of the Fitzgeralds, who may well have been left lie where they fell, and for the birds of the air and wild beasts to deal with. The Annals of the Four Masters suggests that Sir James was ambushed at Áth an Ridire by Sir Cormac, which is not identical to the version of events as given by Grante. There is certainly the possibility that Donyll MacCarthy, in knowing the local topography and in continuing to attack Sir James, intentionally succeeded in driving him towards ambush at Áth an Ridire, where the main MacCarthy contingent lay in wait. 

Sir James was held for a number of weeks by the MacCarthys, and there is suggestion of contact, and perhaps even negotiation during this time, as between his captors and the Elizabethan administration. He was firstly imprisoned at Carrigadrohid Castle and later taken to Blarney Castle. On 25 August, Lord Justice Pelham wrote to Sir Cormac, requesting he deliver Sir James up to Sir Warham St Leger. Also on 25 August, an Order for the trial and execution of Sir James was signed by Pelham and the Council at Limerick, followed by their letter, on the following day, to the Commissioners at Cork, requesting they proceed upon delivery of Sir James, to his examination, indictment and execution. Sir Cormac complied with Pelham’s request, and Sir James was handed over at Blarney Castle to the Earl of Ormond. He was taken to Shandon Castle outside the gates of Cork, where he was further imprisoned to await his fate.

We learn that by 31 August he had been condemned, but reprieved and on 6 September Warham St Leger wrote to Lord Burghley in London, advising Sir James was still alive. The Annals of the Four Masters also tell us that Sir James was confined for nearly a month and that a writ eventually arrived from Dublin from Pelham and the Council, ordering the mayor of Cork to put him to death. Sir James was executed at Cork on 3 October 1580, with Warham St Leger writing to Lord Burghley, six days later, advising that Sir James of Desmond, who by direction from the Lord Deputy, [he had] caused to be hanged drawn and quartered at the gates of this Town on Monday last … [and that Sir James had] yielded to God

The Second Desmond Rebellion had continued after Sir James’s capture and imprisonment, with English forces being routed at Glenmalure in Leinster on 25 August by the forces of O’Byrne and Viscount Baltinglass. On 10 September, a papal invasionary force of approximately 600 men landed at Smerwick, Co. Kerry, but they were besieged and ultimately massacred. The war dragged on for two more years, dominated by guerrilla type fighting, with the civilian population suffering greatly from the destruction, and from famine and disease. In 1582 Sir John of Desmond was killed following a skirmish north of Cork City, and the rebellion finally came to an end in 1583, when the Earl of Desmond was killed by the Moriartys near Tralee. Confiscation of the vast estates of the Desmonds and the lands of their allies followed, and the Munster Plantation began in earnest. 

Sir James Fitzgerald of Desmond was one of many caught up in the tumultuous events of the time, but does not seem to have received much notice, despite the importance of his contribution during this period of Irish history. A personal bond with his half-brother Sir John is evident, as the two acted together during much of the Second Desmond Rebellion. It could be argued that Sir James rebelled for many reasons: as a means of flouting authority, for material gain, for religious belief, from the impetuosity of youth (he was twenty-two when executed); from exposure to conflict and rebellion from a young age; and for it being natural in these circumstances to rebel in turn and to follow the ways of his ancestors.

Sir James was indeed a significant figure of the time, but was forgotten over the centuries, as was the significance of Áth an Ridire and the ‘Battle of Mullinhassig’. On Sunday 13 October 2019, ACR Heritage incorporated Áth an Ridire into our local Heritage Trail, and a plaque was unveiled by local Fitzgerald and McCarthy family members, in memory of those involved and what had happened locally on that fateful day. Hopefully this will help preserve the memory, as well as educate future generations, of an event of local, regional and indeed national historical significance, which occurred within our very own locality, over 400 years ago.


  • Annals of Loch Cé 
  • Annals of the Four Masters

  • Anthony M. McCormack, The Earldom of Desmond 1463-1583: The decline and crisis of a Feudal Lordship (Dublin, 2005)

  • Bruno O’Donoghue, Parish Histories and Place Names of West Cork (Kerry, 1986)

  • Calendar of State Papers relating to Ireland, 1509-73
  • Calendar of State Papers relating to Ireland, 1574-85
  • Calendar of the Carew manuscripts, 1575-88
  • Colm Lennon, Sixteenth-Century Ireland: the incomplete conquest (Dublin, 1994)

  • Don Philip O’Sullivan Bear, Chapters towards a history of Ireland in the reign of Elizabeth being a portion of the history of catholic Ireland, ed. Matthew J. Byrne (Dublin, 1903)

  • Earl of Ormond to Lord Deputy Grey, 28 Aug. 1580 (The National Archives (UK): PRO SP 63/75)

  • Grante to my Lord of Ormond, Cork 6 August 1580 (The National Archives (UK): PRO SP 63/75)

  • John Hooker (ed.), Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (6 vols, 2nd ed., London, 1587), iii

  • Niall O’Carroll (ed.), The forests of Ireland: history, distribution and silviculture (Dublin, 1984)

  • Pelham to Sir Cormoke McTeige, 25 Aug. 1580, Lambeth Palace Library, MS 597

  • Pelham to the Commissioners at Cork, 26 Aug. 1580, Lambeth Palace Library, MS 597

  • Seán MacCárthaigh, Topographical and General Survey: Aghinagh Parish (Irish Tourist Association, 1943)

  • Sir James of Desmond, 25 Aug. 1580, Lambeth Palace Library, MS 597

  • Sir Warham Sentleger to Lord Burghley, Cork, 9 Oct. 1580 (The National Archives (UK): PRO SP 63/77)

  • Sir William Pelham to Lord Burghley, 14 Aug. 1580 (The National Archives (UK): PRO SP 63/75)

  • W. F. Butler, ‘The Barony of Muskerry’ in Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, second series, xvi, 1910