Irish Stories: Survival in Beara



In 1602, Donal Cam (also known as The O’Sullivan Beara) was caught between a rock and a hard place.  In actual fact, he was caught between many rocks and many hard places, trapped as he was in the bleak valleys around Glenn Garbh (Glengarrif) on the Beara peninsula. Having played his hand and backing the losing side at the Battle of Kinsale, Donal Cam and his followers had lost their home, their herds and were increasingly constricted by English forces. In the middle of a freezing Irish winter, without supplies or sanctuary the situation was pretty desperate.

Most people know the story of how Donal Cam and a thousand of his supporters escaped from Glenn Garbh during the night of 31 December 1602, travelling 250 miles from Beara to the O’Rourke stronghold in Leitrim in the middle of winter. Because of the poignancy and drama associated with that particular struggle most people are unaware of the story related to the survival of his wife and child in hiding back in the valley of Coomerkane.

According to local folklore, Donal Cam left his wife and child in Glenn Garbh with one of his most trusted men so that they could secretly take a boat to Spain while their enemies were focussed on capturing him. To do this, however, they had to endure a freezing winter with no food in the valley of Coomerkane. In order to survive, the story is that Donal Cam’s man climbed up to this spot (the central white ledge) where a pair of eagles had their nest. While the parent eagles were away hunting, this brave individual tied some cord around the eaglets’ throats so that they couldn’t swallow the food. As a result, when the parents returned with the food from their hunt then flew away once more, he was able to climb up to the nest again and snatch the food which he then shared with Donal Cam’s wife and child.

In terms of facts, the story does seem a bit fanciful. European eagles tend to start nesting in March/April – by which time Donal Cam would have been well gone. From the little I know of eagles, it does seem that that the male parents tend to do most of the hunting until at least 4- 6 weeks after the eggs have hatched (when the female parent joins the hunt). The sheer physical practicalities of actually climbing a cliff, manhandling the eaglets so that they can’t swallow (while at the same time not strangling them) and then getting away without being seen by their parents also stretches the limits of credibility.

What is more likely is that someone extrapolated this story from the behaviour of cuckoos – invading the nest, taking the food intended for the young etc. etc. Whatever the case – made up or not – its still a pretty amazing story and one that effectively captures the human imagination. I’m still pretty firm in my belief that its untrue. Having said that, I’m more than happy to be corrected if anyone ever comes across any additional information they’re willing to share.