The Fighting Irish – Is Your Irish Surname Mentioned Here?

We've often heard the phrase "The Fighting Irish". Here we have a letter all about how many of the "faction fights" in 1800s Ireland, went on to be subsumed into the modern Irish game of Hurling. Perhaps you can see some of your Irish surnames mentioned as part of this particular faction fight?

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The Fighting Irish – Is Your Irish Surname Mentioned Here?

Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to your Letter from Ireland this week. Well, the early summer is truly underway here in this part of Ireland. The cherry and apple blossoms are coming to an end, to be replaced by that beautiful light shade of green you see in the trees. A great time of year – full of promise! I hope the weather is treating you wherever this letter finds you today.

Speaking of the lovely green colour around us at this time of the year, just yesterday we drove through the nearby country village of Ballinhassig. As we went into the village shop for our daily usuals, we noticed a plaque on the wall with the following words:

This plaque was erected in memory of Maurice Corcoran, Jeremiah Coughlan,  Charles McCarthy, Cornelius Ford, John Kerrigan, Julia O’Callaghan, John Desmond, John Hourihan, John Walsh, Tom Delea and a man named O’Sullivan who lost their lives as a result of a Faction Fight which took place here in the village of Ballinhassig during a Fair Day on Monday June 30th, 1845.

An early recorded example of The Fighting Irish. This reminded me that a few weeks ago, one of our reader enquired about their ancestor who came from Ballinhassig originally.

The Fighting Irish of the 1800s. 

Margaret Rose from Melbourne in Australia contacted me with the following:

My Great grandfather, Jeremiah Drummy, was born in 1835 in Ballinhassig and migrated to Melbourne, Australia in July 1860. I would love to see some photos of Ballinhassig and perhaps discover what life would have been like before he migrated to Australia.

Well, Margaret – we can work on the photos later, but for now we are going to look at a particular aspect of Irish life that would have been very familiar to your Great Grandfather at the time – the “Faction Fight“. Back in the early 1800s, a particular phenomenon came to prominence among the Gaelic Irish. Family-aligned gangs – or factions – would come together in their hundreds, around the time of Fair Days or Saint patterns, and a fight would ensue between these rival factions.

The weapon of choice would often be a blackthorn stick – what has become known as a “Shillelagh” over the years. These fights were highly ritualised – involving specific signals and cries of communication. Each faction dressed a particular way, swore loyalty to their brotherhood, and met on pre-determined dates. A bit like modern a sports fixture. Only a lot more vicious – and occasionally murderous. The earliest recorded faction fight was in Clonmel, County Tipperary, in 1805 – the authorities generally did not intervene as long as property and “civilised folk” were not placed under threat.

Clonmel, County Tipperary

Clonmel, County Tipperary

The morning of Monday, June 30th was Fair day in Ballinhassig. The trading of the day passed without event and the tents and stalls were coming down before 7.30pm. A pre-scheduled faction fight got under way between two groups known as the “Neills” and “Sullivans”. It started with Ranter Sullivan throwing his hat into the fair green, whirling his stick, giving the faction whoop and calling his faction brothers around him.

This time, however, the police did intervene – and never allowed the fight to properly start. As a result, the crowd started to grow hostile to the police who in turn called for reinforcements. The day ended with the eleven people listed on the plaque losing their lives to gunshot wounds. It is entirely probable that Margaret Rose’s ancestors – the Drummy family – were present on that Fair day in 1845 in Ballinhassig, County Cork.

Sullivan can be found on the front of many Cork and Kerry buildings.

Sullivan can be found on the front of many Cork and Kerry buildings.

The event was widely reported in the papers in Ireland and England, and probably put pressure on the authorities to control and eradicate these faction fights. However, you might notice the year this fight was reported – 1845 – and by October of that year a far greater challenge was presented to the people of Ireland with the first potato crop failure of what later became known as “The Great Famine”.

Faction fights did not really feature after that Famine – I’m sure that many factions had lost huge number of their members to starvation and emigration. By 1860, the Drummy family had made their way to Australia from their home in a corner of County Cork.

Would you like to see a Faction fight today? Well, in a way you can – the Gaelic Athletic Association was set up in 1884 in County Tipperary, the same county where those faction fights first appeared. One of the ancient Irish games that they brought back to life at that time was the sport of Hurling. It was a game where groups of men wore similar colours, armed themselves with sticks and went into battle against each other at a predetermined place and time. All surrounded by hungry spectators, each shouting off their own “faction” whoops!

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GAA Headquarters in Thurles, County Tipperary on match day

The GAA at the time were very cognisant of layering this newly revived game over the existing urges and tribal instincts of the young men of Ireland. And they largely succeeded in replacing Faction Fights with the game of Hurling – now one of the most exciting games to watch and play anywhere in the world, and without the murderous intent of those old faction fights. You can see a clip of what I mean in the clip below – the last 5 minutes of the 2014 Hurling final between County Tipperary and County Kilkenny:

So, Margaret Rose – it might be time to head down to your local GAA playing fields in Melbourne and see the Fighting Irish in a game of hurling, a game that I’m sure your ancestors would have appreciated and enjoyed!

If you would like to say hello – or ask a question – please feel free to leave a comment below.

Slán for this week,

Mike and Carina.

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