Revenue 1609


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This article was published in the Mizen Journal No 8

The O`Driscolls and their revenues from fishing- The 1609 Inquisition

By Edward O`Mahony


  During the late middle ages, fishing was a major source of income for the Gaelic lords of south-west Ireland. Climatic changes in the late 14th century had caused a migration of herring shoals to the south and west of Ireland, which in turn attracted Irish and foreign, particularly English and Spanish, fishing fleets to the area. Because herring had to be salted within 24 hours if it was to retain its flavour, fishermen would pay dues to the local lords for the privilege of using the havens and bays of the Irish coast to refit, revictual. and land their catch for salting. In the early 17th century, an inquisition took place, which provides a fascinating glimpse into this period.

    On April 9, 1609, an inquisition was held in the town of Rosscarbery, which examined the extent of O'Driscoll holdings, and the income that they brought in prior to 1602. According to the records of the inquisition, every ship and bark that came into the harbour of Baltimore, paid the chief lord, O'Driscoll Mór, four pence sterling to anchor there. If the ships came to fish, then the lord was also paid nineteen shillings and two pence, in addition to a barrel of flour, a barrel of salt, a hogshead of beer, and a dish of fish three times every week from every boat-on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. If the boats dried their fish in any part of the O'Driscolls country, they also had to pay thirteen shillings for the rock. If the boats fished between Fastnet and the Stagges, but only stayed for three nights, two shillings and eight pence were to be paid to the lord, in addition to fish three times every week as above, and six pence eight shillings if they dried their fish on a rock. In addition, if any fishing boat were to sell fish in Baltimore or its environs, O'Driscoll Mór was to receive six shillings and eight pence for every hundredth white fish and every barrel of herrings or pilchards sold.

    If the crew of any fishing boat were to catch a halibut, they had to hand the fish over to O'Driscoll Mór in exchange for a "balle of butter."(1)  Should they conceal the fish for more than 24 hours, they had to pay a fine of forty shillings to the lord. Since fishing boats might spend weeks fishing and drying their catch, there was always a great demand for fresh meat. This meat was taxed by the O'Driscoll Mór at the following rate: "That for every beef they kill they are to pay eight-pence, and for every sheep and pig that is killed likewise one penny."(2).  

   As well as the fees charged for fishing, O'Driscoll Mór also received other benefits from fishermen and merchants visiting Baltimore. All commodities or merchandise tendered for sale, in Baltimore, the harbour, or anywhere within the territory of the O'Driscolls (which extended roughly from Cape Clear to Castlehaven), had first to be offered to O'Driscoll Mór. He could then buy the goods, abating one shilling out of every twenty shillings of the price. If the lord was not interested in buying the goods, the seller paid him eight shillings out of every twenty shillings that the products were subsequently sold for. As for wine, a product in great demand in medieval Ireland, the lord was to receive four gallons of every butt of wine landed in his territory, as well as an abatement of two pence on every gallon that he bought for his own use.

   Many of the same rules applied to freeholders in O'Driscolls territory. They had to first offer their goods for sale to the lord. However, in their case, O'Driscoll Mór had to pay the same price others were offering for the goods, and he did not receive anything if the goods were sold after his refusal. If the freeholders tried to sell goods belonging to outside merchants, they could be punished at the lord's discretion.

  O'Driscoll Mór was also entitled to buy all fish caught in Baltimore harbour or off the coast by fishing boats that fished there for only three days in a season at two pence below the normal price for every dozen white fish. These dues were to be levied by O'Driscoll Mor's bailiff, and if any boats refused they were fined a barrel of salt for the whole season and fish three times a week.

    To protect his interests, it was forbidden for any pilot to conduct any ship or bark of over ten tons out of the harbour of Baltimore through the north-west passage without first obtaining a license from O'Driscoll Mór or his bailiff. This was presumably to ensure that all dues had been paid, and any pilot who broke this law was fined the enormous sum of five pounds sterling. Similarly, anyone who went on board a vessel before the lord or bailiff, and who gave it license to fish, was fined twenty-six shillings and eight pence sterling.

   To regulate matters during the fishing season, O'Driscoll Mór would hold court every Monday with a specially appointed Admiral from Kinsale. Together they would settle provisions and orders for fishing, and all fines paid for the breaking of those orders were divided equally between the lord and the Admiral. If Kinsale did not send anyone, O'Driscoll Mór was entitled to appoint someone, and take the same course alone. By agreement, the Admiral for the fishing season and O'Driscoll Mor's bailiff could also call on all military forces in O'Driscolls territory to enforce their orders. To enforce his will, O'Driscoll Mór also had constables and bailiffs, as well as a chief galley of 30 oars (3) and several other vessels. Clerks regulated the market in Baltimore.

   All wrecks and all goods and materials washed ashore also belonged to O'Driscoll Mór. An interesting example of this custom occurred in 1582. According to the testimony of an English sailor, Nicholas Dennys of Bristol: "..a Spanish ship, whereof Philip de Ortis was master and owner, laden with linen cloth and other goods, was assaulted by Englishmen in the haven at Falmouth in January last and carried to Ireland. And the company of the Spanish ship were all cast overboard, and drowned, except two Dutchmen who were spared to help sail the ship….

   That the Spanish ship was brought into Baltimore about 12th January last where, being in need of masts and other things, the pirates bought a bark from Captain Apsley (4) and Thomas Eden (5) of Ross for £50, in return for which they delivered them goods valued at 100 marks more than the said sum. And they unladed most of the spoiled goods, being wax, Holland cloth, ropes and other wares, into the said bark, and left the Spanish ship in the Haven.

    Under Brehon law, which prior to 1602 was the dominant legal system in force in Ireland, almost all offences against a person could be redeemed through compensation. This included murder or the wounding of a person, and it was compensated through eraic, or blood money, which was paid either to the victim or his friends and relatives. In the O'Driscoll country, all fines for bloodshed were paid to the lord, amounting to eleven shillings six pence for every bloodshed.

    Put together all these fees could add up to quite considerable sums with all the fishing boats and other vessels visiting the area. In 1569, for example, it was reported that 200 Spanish boats alone were fishing off the south-west coast, as well as carrying "away 2,000 beyffs, hydes, and tallow." (8) In addition, there is the example of Mac Fineen Duff [O'Sullivan?] of Ardee, who was paid £300 annually by Spaniards for permission to fish in Kenmare Bay in the early 16th century. To put this figure in context, a good milch cow, the standard used to estimate wealth in medieval Ireland, could be bought for thirty shillings. Since Baltimore was the first harbour that Spanish and other fishermen would come across on the south-west coast, it is probable that O'Driscoll Mór received at least this amount and probably a good deal more.






1. O'Donovan, John; Miscellany of the Celtic Society (Dublin 1849); p. 104

2. Ibid; p. 104

3. At least prior to 1538, when the chief galley was destroyed during an attack by Waterfordmen.

4. Apsley was the commander of English forces in Carbery during the second Desmond rebellion. He was subsequently killed with all his command at Bantry Abbey in Marchh 1582.

5. Eden was Apsley's lieutenant, and was stationed in Rosscarbery

6. Appleby, John C.; A Calendar of Material relating to Ireland from the High Court of Admiralty Examinations 1536-1641; p. 47

7. CSP 1509-1573; p. 405




Primary Sources:


1. Calendar of State Papers relating to Ireland of the reigns of Henry VIII., Edward VI., Mary, and Elizabeth 1509-1573; ed. Hans Claude Hamilton (London, 1860)


Secondary Sources:


1.  Appleby, John C.; A Calendar of Material relating to Ireland from the High Court of Admiralty Examinations 1536-1641 (Dublin, 1992)


2. Berleth, Richard; The Twilight Lords (London, 1979)


3. O'Donovan, John (ed.); Miscellany of the Celtic Society (Dublin 1849)