Grisly heads dangling on spikes in Cork city

The Battle of Culloden in Scotland dashed the last hopes of restoring the Catholic Stuart dynasty in Britain and Ireland. On the battle’s 275th anniversary, PAT POLAND recalls the event, and how it led to the macabre sight of a row of heads dangling over Cork’s South Gate Bridge...
Grisly heads dangling on spikes in Cork city

DAY OF INFAMY: The Scots and their allies taking on the English ’redcoats’ at the Battle of Culloden on April 16, 1746. The Irish Picquets fought for the Catholic ‘Pretender’ in the last great hand-to-hand battle fought on British soil, but it became a rout and was over in under an hour.

THE milkmaids of the southside of Cork were among the first to complain to Mayor Hodder. They could not, they grumbled, even cross over the South Gate Bridge into the city each morning without great wisps of hair from the decomposing heads spiked on the parapet of the County Gaol landing on their milk.

Their daily trips to the shops, with their five-gallon open pails hanging from a wooden yoke across their shoulders, often had to be aborted and their precious cargo fed to the pigs.

In spite of the heads being parboiled in bay salt and cumin to delay putrefaction, and thus prolong their grisly presence, that long, hot, late summer of 1754 had only served to hasten the decomposition. But whose skulls were they, and why did they end up high over Cork city’s main southern entrance?


It has often been said that the Battle of Culloden on April 16, 1746 — 275 years ago this Friday — the last great hand-to-hand battle fought on British soil, effectively began in 1688.

That year, Queen Maria, wife of the King of England and Ireland, James II, gave birth to a son. All fine and dandy, one might think.

But James, of the Stuart dynasty, was an ardent Roman Catholic, and England, by then, was overwhelmingly Protestant. The notion the next King would also be a Catholic was too much and, in what was effectively a coup d’état (to Protestants, it was the ‘The Glorious Revolution’), James II was ousted and a Dutch Protestant prince was invited to be King of England.

However, James’s Catholicism made him especially acceptable to the majority of the inhabitants of Ireland. Thus, in 1690-91, a number of battles and sieges were enacted here between ‘Williamites’ (followers of William) and ‘Jacobites’ (from Jacobus, the Latin for James), including the Siege of Cork.

William, however, got the upper hand, James was vanquished and fled from Kinsale into exile in France, earning himself, from the urchins of Cork, the unflattering moniker of Séamus a’Chaca — ‘James the Shit’.


The exiled Stuarts never gave up their claim to the crown. So far as they were concerned, James’s son (James Francis Edward) was the Prince of Wales, eldest son of the anointed King and next in line to the throne by Divine Right.

When Queen Anne died in 1714 without an heir, the English settled on a Protestant German 50 times removed from James’s claim (all 50 were Catholics) to be their next King. Thus the House of Hanover (after which a Cork street is named) and the first of the Georges (after whom a Cork quay is named) ruled Britain.

A series of Scottish risings against the ‘Germans’ took place in 1715, 1719, and, finally, in 1745. All ended in failure. The last battle, fought on Culloden Moor near Inverness on April 16, 1746, would end in the rout of the Stuart followers and dictate the course that Britain and Ireland, and, by definition, Cork, would take over the coming centuries.

FIGHTING TALK: Bonnie Prince Charlie addressing his troops at Culloden in 1746. His men were massacred and he himself fled back to exile in France
FIGHTING TALK: Bonnie Prince Charlie addressing his troops at Culloden in 1746. His men were massacred and he himself fled back to exile in France


Prince Charles Edward Stuart, handsome 24-year-old grandson of the man who had departed from Kinsale in 1690, sailed from France to Scotland, arriving in the Outer Hebrides in July, 1745, accompanied by seven principal companions of whom four were Irish.

The first Highland chief who met him advised him to go home, to which Charles quietly replied: “I am at home.” 

He travelled across the Highlands, all the while assembling a new Jacobite army to support him.

To the Scots, he was An Príonnsa Teárlach or ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, to his enemies, he was dismissively dubbed ‘The Young Pretender’.

Among his rapidly-growing support were elements of the Irish Brigade, the ‘Wild Geese’, that had fought with the French against the British in the wars on the Continent. In late 1745, detachments of these so-called ‘Irish Picquets’ landed surreptitiously on the east coast of Scotland to join Charles. Among them was a 34-year old Corkman, Morty Oge O’Sullivan Beare (as Béarla) of Eyeries.

Tall, dark, dashing, resplendent in a uniform of green and gold (a personal gift from Lady Clare), he was once described as the ‘handsomest man in the Irish Brigade’.

Born in 1712, Morty, an only child and scion of the princely line of the O’Sullivan Beares, was educated abroad and received his military training in Spain.

The Irish Battalion at Culloden numbered some 500 officers and men.

Initially, things went well for the Jacobites. They took Perth and Edinburgh with little or no resistance, and when a Government army came to sort them out, early one morning at Prestonpans, they attacked the English first as they slept and routed them within 15 minutes.

The kilted Highlanders’ had little military training, their main tactic was the terror-inducing ‘Highland Charge’. Having fired their muskets or pistols once, they discarded them, drew their broadswords and, roaring blood-curling Gaelic battle-cries, descended on a terrified enemy, slashing left, right and centre, lopping off heads and limbs as they went.

In November, the Jacobite army, numbering some 6,000, marched into England and had early successes in Carlisle, Preston, Manchester and finally Derby, just 120 miles from London, which prompted widespread panic.

But the support expected from Charles’s English followers failed to materialise, and reluctantly, he headed back to Scotland. To his dismay, many Highlanders now decided to return to their homes for the winter. They were, after all, an ‘army’ of volunteers whose holdings and livestock had to be looked after, plus the pay from Charles was beginning to run out.

It was in Scotland, on Culloden Moor, that the Government army, under Charles’s distant cousin, 25-year old son of King George II, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, finally caught up with him.


On the miserable, cold morning of April 16, 1746 — snow and hail had fallen earlier — with a howling, freezing gale sweeping across the moors, the last battle involving hand-to-hand combat fought on British soil played out.

Charles’s ill-supplied army of about 4,000 was half-starved, with many asleep in ditches and outbuildings from sheer exhaustion, when Cumberland’s 9,000 regular troops, well-fed and equipped, encountered them.

The terrain was in the Duke’s favour, and realising the Highlanders’ only real tactic was the initial terror-charge, their forces had been refining their bayonet drill.

The battle took less than an hour. Estimates of casualties vary, with between 1,500 and 2,000 Jacobites killed or wounded, cut to shreds by hails of grapeshot, cannon, musket and bayonet, and some 300 Government casualties.

The Irish Picquets bravely covered the Highlanders’ retreat from the battlefield, and were the last Jacobite unit to leave the field, falling back to Inverness before having to surrender. Being regular soldiers, they were treated as bona fide prisoners of war and later exchanged for English prisoners held by the French.

MACABRE: The County Gaol, the building here on the left of South Gate Bridge. Note the rows of five spiked heads overhead (circled), from which loose hair dropped onto the passers-by below!
MACABRE: The County Gaol, the building here on the left of South Gate Bridge. Note the rows of five spiked heads overhead (circled), from which loose hair dropped onto the passers-by below!

No mercy, however, was shown the Clansmen, who the Government regarded as ordinary ‘rebels’ or ‘bandits’. They were pursued through the Highlands for months and they, their wives and children, were slaughtered wherever the Government Redcoats encountered them.

The Government dragoons even slaughtered innocent bystanders who had come from near and far to ‘rubberneck’ at the battle, a widely-practised phenomenon of the time, some even bringing picnic baskets with them.

Bonnie Prince Charlie managed to escape Culloden and, with a bounty of £30,000 on his head — over €4 million in today’s money — went on the run in the Highlands and Islands. No-one was tempted to turn him in, and his escapades, including accompanying Flora MacDonald, dressed as her Irish maid Betty Burke, ‘over the sea to Skye’ are the stuff of legend, embellished by a plethora of songs, chief among them our own hauntingly beautiful Mo Ghile Mear, and Kenneth McKellar’s unforgettable rendition of the melancholy Will Ye No’ Come Back Again?

Finally, in September, 1746, he and his party boarded two ships for France, exile, and obscurity. He died in Rome in 1788, aged 67, in the same room in which he had been born.


As for those heads on spikes in Cork...

After the disaster at Culloden, Morty Oge became an unofficial recruitment officer for locals wanting to join the Irish Brigade, still active on the Continent. However, an altercation on Easter Sunday in 1754, during which he shot dead Revenue Officer John Puxley, left him a wanted man.

Eventually, informed on, he was surrounded at his home in Eyeries where the thatch was set on fire and he was shot ‘attempting to escape’.

His body was dragged behind the Revenue sloop the Speedwell and brought to Cork from Berehaven where, upon arriving at the South Gate Bridge, the head was severed and spiked on the parapet of the Gaol, the body being buried in a hole on the parade ground at Cat Fort, off Barrack Street, a stone’s throw from where the City Council named a street after his arch-enemy, the Duke of Cumberland.

The following August, two of Morty’s lieutenants, Kerrymen ‘Little John’ Sullivan and Daniel Connell, who were arrested at the time of the fracas in Beara, were hanged at Gallow’s Green (now Greenmount) and their heads also joined poor Morty’s on the South Gate.


And how did the City Council of ‘Rebel Cork’ react to the news of the slaughter of their fellow-Celts across the Irish Sea at Culloden?

The loyalist Corporation, always and ever knowing what side their bread was buttered on, organised a good old-fashioned knees-up to celebrate the event, the Council Minute Book for April 30, 1746, recording:

“Ordered, that Mr Sher Bruce, Alderman Croker, and the City Sheriff do provide a hogshead of wine and some punch to drink His Majesty’s health this evening, on the arrival of the joyful news of His Majesty’s Army having conquered and subdued the Rebels in Scotland.”

The Council certainly didn’t believe in doing things by halves. The bill for the booze — paid for by the ratepayers, naturally — came in at £27, which, according to The National Archives, would have a purchasing power of some €3,500 today.

Not content with that, for good measure they named a street on the southside ‘Cumberland Street’ (now Red Abbey Street), and later erected a statue to the ‘Butcher’s’ father, King George II, on the Grand Parade which stood for 100 years.

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