The Barretts of Cork Part One

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The Barretts of Cork: part one

Built in 1397

This is a brief history of the Barrett or Barratt surname in Ireland, mainly focussed on the Cork surname, although there was another important branch in Mayo. The Barrett surname is of unclear origin. Its earliest distribution indicates that it is a surname of the Anglo-Norman period in England, where the surname remains common and now has nothing to do with the surname in Ireland. Various origins have been suggested, including the Norman-French barat, for a trader, or a similar Anglo-Saxon word indicating a quarrelsome person (barat). The reality is that we simply do not know for certain. However, the surname was common in fourteenth century south Wales, in Carmarthen and Pembroke, an area from where many of the Cambro-Norman settlers of Ireland originated from. It is likely that the Irish Barretts were originally of this Cambro-Norman stock, whatever of their ultimate origins. It is hardly coincidental that the overlords of the Barretts in Mayo and Cork were the Cambro-Norman Carew family, who also came from Pembrokeshire.

One cannot disentangle the early history of the Cork and Mayo lines as these have a similar origin. The earliest reliable reference we have to the family occurs in an annal of 1214 when recording the approximate details of the Anglo-Norman settlement of West Cork and Kerry:

‘A castle [was built] by Barrett in the village above Cuan Dor’.

This is the coastal village and territory of Glandore in West Cork. A second reference from the same source mentions An Garrdha ‘in the territory of the Barretts’. This is a territory known as ‘the Garden’, part of Glandore. Later sources add the manor of Castleventry to the Barrett lands here, an inland manor near Glandore. It is clear from these references that the original main territory of the Barretts in County Cork lay in and around Glandore and Castleventry.

            Unfortunately we do not know for certain the name of the original Barrett who must have settled these territories, and from whom all later Cork and Mayo Barretts descend. 17th century genealogies of the Mayo Barretts derive them from one William Fionn (the fair) Barrett ‘of Kilcommon’. This is Kilcommon in Erris which may mark the place of his death. He is then made the father of William ‘Mór na Maighne’, which may mean William ‘of the wound’. The Anglo-Norman court proceedings which followed a battle in Mayo suggest that William died in 1281. All these records show that this William Mór na Maighne was in fact William the Barrett overlord. This Barrett / Cusack dispute dates back to the late 1240s, when the Barrets rejected a court decision against them and went briefly into open rebellion against the authorities for a contested territory in Mayo. The Barrett head at this time was also named William, and it is likely that this is the William Fionn of the genealogies, father to William Mór na Maighne, perhaps the original Barrett chieftain. Further evidence of this maybe the witness, William Barrett, to two charters concerning lands in West Cork which can be dated approximately to the 1220s. This may be the original Barrett chief of the Glandore lands, and may well be the William Fionn of the Mayo genealogies. It is possible however that William Fionn was a son of yet another William, the records are not clear. Therefore, William Mór na Maighne who dies in 1281 is either the son of the first William or the grandson of the first William.

            The 1281 dispute seems to have had its roots in the Anglo-Norman settlement of Connacht after 1235. This was not a settlement directly from England or Wales, as most of the earlier settlements had been, but was a secondary wave of settlement originating in those parts of Ireland already settled. It would appear that the same disputed territory (Bredach: around Kilfian) was granted twice to different families in error. It would appear that the Pettits who later sold to the Cusacks here were the correct grantees and that the Carews, overlords of the Barretts here (and in West Cork) had the erroneous claim. An inquisition was held in 1299 to sort out the situation, and this listed William Mór na Maighne’s lands in Ireland as follows:

  • The cantred of Bac & Glen (in Mayo) held of the de Burgh lords of Connacht
  • The manor of Grenagh, held of the de Cogan lord’s of Muskerry
  • The tenement of Ardskeagh in the manor of Tiperneyen held of the Rochforts
  • Land at Allow (around Kanturk) held of the Butlers of Aherlow
  • The manor of Castleventry held of the de Barry lords of Cork
  • Unidentified lands near Glandore held of the bishops of Ross
  • The territory of Glandore held of the Carew lords of Cork.


All the indicators are that these territories had been acquired by the first unnamed Barret lord during the period 1200 to 1220 approximately. He was, perhaps, the William Fionn of the Mayo Barretts genealogies. This list shows that the Barrett chief was possessed of two large territories, Bac & Glen and Glandore/Castleventry, and several smaller holdings, mostly in Co. Cork.

            Upon William Mór’s death his son, yet another William (the third or fourth), was aged three, and thus born around 1278. We note a court case of 1300 between this William and his overlord in Tiperneyen, Maurice de Rochfort, regarding William’s marriage. This was settled amicably and William agreed to serve Maurice ‘with men, horses and arms throughout Ireland wherever required’. This is a strange entry as the Barrett lands in Tiperneyen comprised only half a knights’ fee, very small for such an arrangement. He is also recorded at this time as lord of the manor of Castleventry and its seven and a half knights’ fees. An overlord possessing the ‘match making’ of the under age heir of a tenant was a normal feudal right.


The loss of the Glandore lands

The fourteenth century saw major developments in the story of the Barretts of Cork. Among these was the loss of the West Cork lands, the severing of the Mayo link, and the creation of a new lordship in Muskerry (the territory between the rivers Lee and Blackwater) in Cork at the expense of the existing lords of the area. We also see a gradual morphing of the family from an Anglo-Norman style lineage to a more native ‘clan’ type structure.

            A list of pardons from 1295 to native followers of the Barretts in and around Glandore included many O’Donovans and other native clans whom we later find settled around Glandore and Myross on the coast, and stretching inland for ten miles or more. It appears that later, once the Barretts had been driven out of the area, the O’Donovans, O’Hegertys and others took over their territories in West Cork. Chief William, (born around 1278) was impleaded for the manor of Castleventry by its overlord, John de Barry, in 1310. De Barry was seeking the rent, which he stated had not been paid for six years or more. Later, in 1317, the bishop of Ross sued Thomas Barrett for the rent of Killangal and other lands near Glandore. Finally, there are references to the complete overrunning of the Anglo-Norman territories in West Cork during the decade of the 1320s. In 1317 several Barretts appear on a Carew list of pardons, again suggesting a West Cork context. It must have been from this time onwards that the Barretts began to relocate to their remaining territories in Cork. We might also note the last reference we have to William Barrett of Glandore in connection with the Mayo lands. This occurred in 1308 when he was accused of interfereing with  church lands in the diocese of Killala. We cannot say for certain when the Cork Barretts finally lost their interest in Bac & Glen and Kilfian but as late as 1366 we find Cork Barretts with given names more typical of the Mayo line, so there may still have been some connections this late. The power of the Dublin administration in Connacht had entirely collapsed by the mid 1340s. The Barrett connection with Glandore was long remembered: as late as the 1680s the Barretts were remembered as ‘Lords’ of the Garde (An Garrdha in Glandore).

During this time the death occurred (in 1312) of chieftain Wiliam Barrett, who died aged around 34, leaving only daughters. The subsequent history of the heads of the family is only partly visible, and I use the most likely scenario here. It is clear that William was succeeded in his Cork territories by Robert fitz William Barrett, probably his uncle. Robert was in turn slain in 1317 while fighting for the king against his ‘Irish enemies’, and was succeeded by his son, William. The ‘theatre of war’ of such enemies might have included the Barrett holdings around Allow and Tiperneyen. In 1283 ‘the sons of William Barrett’ along with their landlords, the Rochforts, were at war with the natives of this area, the O’Keeffes.

William fitz Robert Barrett was still chief in 1326 but appears to have been succeeded by one Thomas son of Richard Barrett by 1335. This Thomas appears to have been a son of one Richard Barrett, almost certainly the son of William fitz Robert Barrett. By 1355 Thomas’ brother William was chief. By 1358 this William had been succeeded by Richard Óg Barrett, ‘Richard Barrett the younger’, the greatest of the Barrett chiefs, who was responsible for the carving out of the large territory of Barretts in mid-Cork between the early 1360s to the 1380s. Richard Óg was yet another brother of Thomas’.

The main feature of our story during the fourteenth century is the collapse of the large Barrett territory in West Cork by around 1320 and the transfer of the lineage’s powerbase to the Muskerry area, to north and west of Cork City, by the later 1360s. This was greatly facilitated by the collapse of the Dublin administration’s power over the more distant parts of Anglo-Norman Ireland. This was due to various factors such as the Scottish invasion of 1314 to 1317, the Bubonic Plague of the 1350s and a series of severe winters and crop failures. Part of the administration’s success had been the transplantation of the English Common Law to Ireland, but this had weakened over decades, allowing the more powerful lords to oppress minor landholders and townsfolk and to promote lawlessness in general as long as it suited their individual agendas in their local territories. From a position of a strong rule of law in the 1320s we find by the 1360s a situation where the rule of law only operated in the walled cities, and had collapsed entirely by the 1390s. The rise of the Barretts in Muskerry must be seen against this background.


Expansion into Muskerry


Some of the Barrett expansion in Muskerry appears to have been through normal processes, marriage to an heiress or simple purchase, though it is clear that the expulsion from Glandore must have resulted in a significant swelling of the numbers of the lineage in Muskerry. The original holding here was modest, the small upland manor of Grenagh, lying half way between Cork and Mallow. By 1327 a branch of the Barretts had acquired the manor of Garrycloyne which bordered Grenagh to the south, and brought the Barrett territory within sight of whatever kind of castle then existed at Blarney. Another offshoot at this time may have been the Barretts of Ardrum, to west of Garrycloyne.

As we have seen above, Robert Barrett had died in 1317 fighting for the administration against Irish ‘enemies’. But by 1345 we find several Barretts in the following of Diarmaid ‘MacDermot’ MacCarthy, including the chieftain, William fitz Richard. This ‘MacDermot’ was a renegade MacCarthy chieftain who had overan much of northern and central County Cork and most of the Lee Valley, driving the Norman settlers out and bringing his control almost to the walls of Cork city. Though on the decline, local control by the Dublin administration here was not yet entirely broken, and a royal army led by the justiciar, the king’s lieutenant in Ireland, Thomas de Rokeby, broke the power of MacDermot in 1353. At the same time de Rokeby tried to repopulate the area by requiring the former inhabitants, now sheltering in Cork city and east Cork, to resettle, and where this did not occur to make fresh grants to new lords. This policy saw John Lombard, a city-based civil servant, granted lands stretching from near the city to west as far as the Coachford area, and including the Blarney area. Such was the fear of the settlers that many did not return in 1353, but after MacDermot died, in 1357, many more did return under the protection of Lombard and the Cogan lords of Muskerry.

By 1358, with Richard Óg, the experienced rebel, now at the helm, the lineage began their spectacular expansion. In that year the administration was forced to intervene in savage fighting around the Cogan fortress of Dundrinan in order to make peace between the Barretts and the de Courcys. It appears that raids by the MacCarthys and other Irish continued after this, and one suspects, although there is no direct evidence, that the Barretts were also involved. Such was the situation in the Lee Valley that another justiciar, the king’s son, the Duke of Clarence, led another royal army against the Irish in 1365 and 1366 from Cork, once again breaking their power. Apparently in the belief that the Norman settlers had not return to their lands (untrue), Clarence, ignoring Rokeby’s earlier grants, granted the lordships of Muskerry and of Kinalmeaky to Richard Óg Barrett and his heirs to hold by annual rent of one red rose, in September of 1366. By now of course the western half of the Lee valley was already legally in the possession of the MacCarthy kings of Desmond, but what Barrett received was the eastern half of the Lee and Bride vales, a rectangle of territory stretching from the river Blackwater in the north to the hills south of Ballincollig in the south, and from Crookstown and Coachford in the west to Grenagh in the east. This was a territory stretching twenty miles south to north and twelve miles east to west. What is strange about this grant is that it ignored the fact that the Cogan lords of Muskerry were still holding some of this territory and many of their tenants had indeed returned to their holdings. It may be that Clarence, given the military situation, thought that the Barretts would make a better job of protecting the western borders. For the following two years the Barretts, far from protecting the borders against the MacCarthys, turned viciously against their neighbours, expelled them and drove them into Cork city with their cattle. This is evidenced by the many court cases taken against the Barretts by the dispossessed landowners, Cogans and others, over the next two years, in which the settlers won judgements against the Barretts, who were now busy strengthening their hold on their lordship by settling junior branches throughout the territory as well as several subservient MacCarthy branches.

Such was the weakness of the administration that the court judgements carried little weight, although various efforts woud continue for the next twenty years to reverse the grant to Richard Óg. He was helped by the death without heirs of the last Cogan lord of Muskerry, Piers, in 1371. It may have been at this time that Richard Óg gained possession of the Cogan stronghold of Carrigrohane, just four miles west of Cork itself. At the same time the second major Cogan fortress in Muskerry, Castlemore near Mallow, was said to be worthless ‘due to the destruction of the Barretts’. Presumably at this time also the third such fortress, Dundrinan at the western end of the Barrett territory, was in Barrett possession. We have only partial details of the course of Barrett history over the next decade or so, but it is clear that Richard Óg and his son William, along with several other leading men of the lineage, were outlawed. Richard is described as a notorious felon and maintainer of thiefs while his son William is described as notorious felon and traitor against the king. These references, especially that of traitor, clearly demonstrated the administration’s feeling of betrayal against the Barretts, as Anglo-Normans who had ‘gone native’. These references come from around 1374, and must relate to the 1373 burning of the suburbs of the city of Cork by William in what was apparently a seige of the city. The administration tried talking instead fighting after this, when William was given a safe conduct to come and go into the walled city of Cork, and Richard Óg was pardoned his behaviour upon payment of two hundred cattle ‘from his nation and people’. The somewhat delayed response of the administration was to organize yet another royal army, this time against ‘les Barrettes’, in 1377. By 1381, in the face of yet another royal army, led by the earl of March, Richard Óg and William appear to have been talking to the administration, in peace talks brokered by Gerald, earl of Desmond (the premier magnate of Munster). One result of this was the delivery of various Barretts into the possession of the sheriff of Cork. These included Richard Óg, who found himself transferred into the custody of the mayor of Waterford by escort of twelve archers, sixteen footmen and a man at arms. By the following year Richard was back in prison in Cork in custody of the mayor. He appears to have been released upon payment of one thousand cows ‘for his seditions’ to the administration in exchange for a new treaty. This was in 1383. By the early 1390s the power of the administration had virtually collapsed in Co. Cork, along with its record keeping, and this is the last we hear of Richard Óg and William. In 1392 one Andrew Barrett, ‘felon and rebel’, was in prison in Kinsale.