He must have thought to himself that fine morning: ‘Ah yes, I’ve landed on my feet in this country’.
It was only a few years previous that Robert de Barri had come to Ireland for the first time. He came as an invader, a soldier, a would-be conqueror from Wales.
Robert and Philip, nephews of Robert Fitzstephen, came with their uncle to Ireland as part of the Norman invasion of 1169, which landed in Wexford. In reality, it was hardly an invasion at all because the Normans were invited here by Diarmuid Mac Morrogh as he tried to gain the upper hand on rival native Irish kings and chieftains.
We’ve all heard the phrase that the Normans became ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’. This was certainly true of the de Barris, who became overlords of great swathes of land in Munster. It wasn’t simply by force of armies that they gained this power, property and influence. There’s an old saying ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’ and the de Barris adopted that policy, especially in Co. Cork.
In north-east Cork, the Ui Liathains and Ui Gliasains were two powerful old Gaelic septs, or dynasties. The Ui Liathains — sometimes called O Culhanes or Lehanes — were based in the Bride and Blackwater valleys. Their main power base took their clan name, ‘the Castle of the Ui Liathains’, modern day Castlelyons.
Well, Robert de Barri got ‘friendly’ with the powerful ‘Lehanes’, so much so that he married into it. Some say he lost several of his teeth in the initial fighting in 1169 at Wexford. Toothless or not, it seemed like a marriage made in heaven, a dashing soldier from Wales and a beautiful, comely Irish maiden — with a fortune, castle and plenty land. It would be grand to say Robert and his new wife lived happily ever after, but such was not the case however!
As Robert de Barri broke his fast on this particular morning, he dined alone, save for servants and retainers who served at his table. Perhaps his Lehane in-laws were away hunting or raiding some neighbouring territory. His wife of three years was maybe in her boudoir beautifying and titivating herself for the day ahead.
He heard some kefuffle in the courtyard outside, an exchange of voices and then silence. One of the household servants appeared in the dining hall with a ‘letter’ for Robert. Unlike the letters of modern times this was more like a leather pouch with a wax seal attached — ensuring no-one saw the contents except for whom it was intended.
It was around the year 1185 so the delivery of such ‘letters’ took many weeks — especially as, in this case, it had come all the ways across the Irish sea from Wales!
With probably a sense of excitement and trepidation, Robert unfolded the parchment and read the lines therein. His jaw dropped, the colour left his face and cold sweat emanated from his forehead. He glanced around furtively, placing the letter on a window ledge behind a closed curtain. It was still early in the morning so few were about the castle and courtyard.
Swiftly and silently, he left the dwelling, unseen by any human eye, and headed off, half walking, half running. Tracks and pathways fit for humans and horses traversed the countryside and he headed off in a south-easterly direction. His journey of nearly 22 miles would take him several hours but he had to go alone.
The sun was rising in the sky, t’would make a glorious day. Back in the castle, the wife was now ready for some tasty morsels of food and drink to sustain her for the day ahead. As she ate, her husband’s absence caused her no concern — Robert de Barri was a ‘man about town’ of his time. It was not unusual for him to visit parts of their vast estate and call on others of his ‘upper class’.
Shortly after, her three brothers joined her and they too feasted on a wide range of foods, as would be normal for noble men of their status. One idly opened back a curtain to leave in more light and spotted the little parcel, which he handed to his sister. As she ate she took out the parchment and began to read the delicate writing. She spat out her food, burst out weeping, left out a wail and nearly fainted as she thrust the letter to one of the menfolk. He read it out;
Pembroke, Wales, May 1 — my dearest Robert, all of four yres have gone since last you wrote me, how fares all with ye in that lande of Irelande. I longe for yere arms around me as in days of yore, my lonliness is pircing my harte as I yearn to behold you again, I am resolved to go across that vaste ocean that comes twixt our love so have done all to sail from her on ye fourteenth daye of this monthe of May and to come to the Cove of Corke on two days thereafter, ye sixtenth day of this monthe on the spring tyde. I beg you to come for there on that very day so that we agin may be pleasured once more, I remain youre darling wife, Gwendolyn.
Well, t’was then the racket started! His darling wife Gwendolyn, over in Wales. So the bould Robert was a duly married man even before he came across to Ireland! She was inconsolable, a bigamous sham marriage —what shame and infamy this was bringing on her family, and to think this Robert, her ‘husband’ of three years, was living a lie.
Her three brothers had a quick parley. They knew Robert had had an hour’s start on them as he journeyed to Cove to send Wife No 1 packing back to Wales, nevertheless they set off running. They were natives and knew every path, every short-cut and river crossing.
The sun was high in the sky as Robert de Barri scurried on his furtive journey. His head was pounding as he feared his deception would be discovered. If he reached Cove he could make some excuse to Gwendolyn — that plague and pestilence and fever stalked the district perhaps and she’d be safer in Pembroke.
A few miles into his journey, he rested for a few moments. He sat on a large stone on the boundary of the townlands of Ballynoe and Hightown in the present day parish of Bartlemy. His route was from here on to Leamlara, then Carrigtwohill and hence to Cobh.
As he rested on high, open ground, the three pursuing Lehane brothers caught sight of him. They spread out and surrounded him. Then, all together, they emerged, sword in hand and quickly sent their erstwhile ‘brother-in-law’ to a bloody death.
Though that event happened more than 900 years ago, the story was handed down in local history. The spot where the gruesome killing took place was on the farm now owned by the Walsh family.
William Walsh married in there in the late 1800’s and was succeeded by Maurice, Matt, Tony and Michael, who still farms the ancestral acres.
In his final book, Through Desmond And Decies, published in 1953, Patsy Barry NT has a short piece and poem entitled A Norman’s Atonement on the affair. Just recently, I completed reading the full text of Barrymore by Fr Edmond Barry — a monumental work detailing the history of the de Barri/Barry family in Ireland from Norman times up to the late 1800s.
Fr Barry was a brilliant scholar and researcher. He quotes a ‘pedigree’ taken down from Bridget Fitzgerald, nee Barry, in her last illness in 1808, concerning this deception and murder;
Robert and Philip de Barry were the nephews of Robert Fitzstephen, who was half-brother of Maurice Fitzgerald, both commanders-in- chief of the Irish expedition. Robert married O’Culhane of Castlelyons’ daughter, by whom he had no issue, and by whose three brothers he was murdered, at Hightown, on his way to the Cove of Cork, where his English wife had arrived (as he was informed by her letter). She, on hearing of his murder, fled to England.
Truly a sordid tale of land, love, lust and loss.