Ard na Caithne/Smerwick – Dún an Óir
Researched and compiled by Muireann Nic Giolla Ruaidh
Ard na Caithne meaning “height of the arbutus/strawberry tree, sometimes known in English as Smerwick (a Norse name meaning the butter harbour), is one of the principal bays of Corca Dhuibhne, it is located at the foot of an Triúr Deirfiúr and Mount Brandon. Bounded by the villages of Baile an Fheirtéaraigh, Baile na nGall and Ard na Caithne itself.
Within this area lies the oldest settlement on the Dingle peninsula which is located at Ferriter’s Cove and dates to around 4,300 B.C. Excavations at the area, near Baile an Fheirtéaraigh, revealed evidence of hunter/gatherer groups, who, while staying in the area at separate periods spread over hundreds of years, utilised the food sources along the coast, and used locally-found stones to make tools. This site was inhabited during the latter part of the Middle Stone Age, 8000-4000 BCE. This site produced remains of a wide range of food such as hazelnuts, red deer, pig, hare, and birds (including the guillemot and gannet).There were 14 different species of fish identified, among them wrasse, conger eel, thornback ray, tope and haddock.
Middens (dumps) of shellfish can still be seen in the sand dunes of the area, where they were deposited 6,000 years ago. Among the more important finds were some cow or oxen bones, dating to 5700 BC indicating contact with early farmers also living in the area, as well as some human bone. The cattle bones found at Ferriter’s Cove are the oldest cattle bones found in either Ireland or the UK.
The Celts built great forts all around the area and following the arrival of Christianity in the 5th and 6th centuries many churches and monasteries were established.
We are very fortunate on the Dingle Peninsula that many of early monastic remains survived (over 30), with a variety of remains such as churches, cross slabs, holy wells, beehive huts, shrines, burials, sundials, ogham stones and enclosing features. One in this area at An Riasc not too far from Wine Strand.
The Fort of Dún an Óir which is situated on a small spit of land at the western edge of the bay is where in 1580, a small invasion force of Spanish and Italian soldiers landed at Smerwick Harbour to assist the Irish in the Desmond Rebellion. After being joined by Irish soldiers their number increased to about 600. They fortified themselves within the defences of the fort at Dún an Óir but were surrounded by a larger English force commanded by Lord Grey. After a three day siege, the Irish, Spanish and Italian soldiers surrendered to Lord Grey, only to be slaughtered by the English soldiers. According to oral tradition, the English, over the course of two days, beheaded all but the commanders, and lined up the heads in a nearby field. Their bodies were thrown into the ocean.The field of the massacre is now known locally as Gort a Ghearradh (the Field of the Cutting) while the field where the heads were buried bears the name Gort na gCeann (the Field of the Heads). A monument with twelve heads has been erected to honour those unjustly slain. In spite of the monument, the small sadly-eroding peninsula point and the water-logged fields seem hushed into silence by what they witnessed.
Little remains of the fort today, but there is a monument at the entrance to the site. The signposts to the site of Dún An Óir also carry the Spanish name “Fort del Oro” in honour of the Spanish soldiers who were slaughtered there.