History of County Kerry

The Irish name Ciarraí derives from the ‘Ciarraighe’, the name given to a pre-Gaelic tribe who lived in part of the present county, whose legendary founder was Ciar, son of Fergus Mac Róich. As one would expect, Kerry is full of prehistoric remains, which prove that the place has long been a chosen location for human settlement. However, we don’t know much about the history of a county which did not exist as such until the end of the sixteen century.

We know that, even after the first wave of Norman invasions led by Strongbow, most of what is now known as county Kerry remained the scene of local wars led the many clans, the most powerful one being the MacCarthy. But in the 14th century, the northern part of the county fell under the rule of the Anglo Irish Earl of Desmond, a branch of the FitzGerald dynasty.

1588 saw wreckage of the fleet of the Spanish Armada along the west coast of Ireland and some of the ship, which were returning to Spain during the stormy weather, sought shelter at the Blasket Islands.

After the Irish defeat of the Nine Years War, much of the native owned land in Kerry was confiscated and given to English settlers or 'planters'.

The head of the MacCarthy Mór family, Florence MacCarthy, was imprisoned in London and the lands were divided between relatives and colonists from England, such as the Browne family. Another Irish rebellion in 1641 saw an attempt by Irish Catholics to take control of a Protestant Ireland. In Kerry this rebellion was led by a McCarthy, whose forces were some of the last to surrender to Cromwell’s roundheads in the subsequent conquest of Ireland in 1652. The last stronghold to fall was Ross Castle, near Killarney.

In the wake of the Great Irish Famine of 1845–49, thousands of people died or emigrated to seek a better life across the Atlantic, and Kerry remained a soil of emigration until recent times.

In the 20th century, many of the events of Irish War of Independence (1919–21) took place in Kerry. The Irish Republican Army fought against the Royal Irish Constabulary and British military. The 'siege of Tralee' in November 1920 saw the Black and Tans burning many homes and shooting dead many civilians in retaliation for an IRA killing. Other major incidents were the Headford Junction ambush in spring 1921, killing twenty British soldiers, three civilians and two IRA men, and the killing in Castle Island on the very day of the July 1921 truce.

Kerry was perhaps the worst affected area of Ireland during the Irish Civil War (1922–23). In March 1923, soldiers from the National Army massacred Republican prisoners in reprisal for ambushes, the most notorious being the killing of eight men with mines at Ballyseedy, near Tralee.

Like the rest of the West of Ireland, Kerry recovered very slowly through the rest of the 20th century, but it eventually became the prime tourist destination in Ireland. And even the most recent international crisis hasn’t altered the good humour of the inhabitants of the Kingdom.

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