Feiritéar, Piaras (Ferriter, Pierce) (c.1600–c.1653), Gaelic poet, royalist and folk hero, was the son of Edmund Ferriter (c.1568–1628) of Ballysyble and Ballyferriter, west Co. Kerry; nothing is known of his mother. The Ferriters, a minor landed family of Anglo-Norman provenance, are believed to have first settled in Dunurlin parish in Corca Dhuibhne in the early thirteenth century. Subsequently, it appears that the family acquired the Blasket Islands and lands in Marhin parish, Dunquin, and in southern Kilmalkedar parish. The local influence of the family is reflected topographically in place names incorporating ‘Ferriter’ as an element in early modern maps covering west Kerry (Andrews, 77, 96, 100). The greater part of the Dunurlin holding was purchased by Richard Boyle (qv), 1st earl of Cork, during Edmund Ferriter's lifetime. Piaras is known to have resided at Ballyferriter and to have held it and Ballyaglisha on lease from Boyle. The books of survey and distribution also record Piaras as owner of Ballyoughteragh (Baile Uachtarach), formerly Ballysyble. It seems that Piaras married Ellen Trant. Like the Ferriters, the Trants were a Corca Dhuibhne landed family of Anglo-Norman origin (MacCotter, 67).
On the outbreak of the 1641 rebellion Patrick, Lord Kerry, governor of Kerry, appointed Ferriter captain of a company of troops. He soon defected to the ranks of the insurgents. In an undelivered letter to him written from Cork in June 1641, Honor, Lady Kerry, implored Ferriter to refrain from rebellion in order to prevent his adversaries having ‘just cause of rejoicing, and just way for them to avenge themselves on you’ (Denny, 25–6). This reference suggests that Ferriter had enemies among the English protestant settlers in Kerry. Under the command of Florence McCarthy, he participated in the siege of Sir Thomas Harris's force in Tralee from February 1642 until the English garrison surrendered in August 1642. William Dethick, who had been among the besieged at Tralee, in a subsequent deposition stated that the rebels, including Ferriter, had claimed the king's authority for their actions. Another deponent, Michael Vines, a shoemaker of Tralee, stated that he had heard Ferriter invoke the king's commission and claim that the besieged were in rebellion. Ferriter's loyalty to the crown was also emphasised in a contemporary account of the siege written by Elkanagh Knight (Smith, 164). Significantly, another deponent who had been in the town during the siege, Edward Vauclier, in listing several rebel leaders who had robbed him of money and household goods, made no reference to Ferriter. Michael Vines enumerated Ferriter among a group of local gentlemen who had either robbed him or had debts outstanding to him. However, Devereux Spratt, a Church of Ireland clergyman present at Tralee during the siege, specifically deposed that Ferriter had protected both the goods and lives of protestants and had relieved many destitute settlers from his own purse (TCD MS 820, f. 209).
Though it is clear that he remained an active supporter of the Catholic Confederacy, little is known of Ferriter's experiences subsequent to 1642 (Gilbert, 27–8). A petition dated 1650 to the marquess of Ormond (qv) on behalf of a Capt. Petersen, master of the Dutch trading ship Fortune, stated he was forced to seek shelter in Dingle harbour en route to Cape Verde. Ferriter and his retinue boarded the ship on the pretext of providing aid. According to the petition, however, Ferriter robbed the ship of cash and merchandise. Significantly, Ferriter probably invoked crown authority for his actions, as the petition states that as ‘the Irish and all other professing for his majesty’ enjoyed security in Zealand and Holland, the captain expected similar treatment in this instance. Subsequently, Lord Inchiquin (qv) directed that Maj. Dominic Ferriter restore goods and cash to Capt. Petersen, while he was to repair storm damage to the ship with the assistance of his father Piaras (CSPI 1647–60, 376–7). Still prominent within the ranks of the confederate forces, Ferriter accepted an invitation to ‘parley’ with Brigadier Nelson at Ross Castle near Killarney on the basis of a promise of safe passage. Friar O'Sullivan in his history of Kerry, composed c.1754, wrote that Ferriter was intercepted at Castlemaine on his homeward journey. He was hanged, reputedly along with a bishop and priest, at Cnocán na gCaorach in Killarney around 1652/3. After the restoration of the Stuart monarchy, the new administration recommended that his father's estates be returned to Maj. Dominic Ferriter. It was noted that both he and his late father had remained loyal to the crown and further that Piaras had sheltered many English protestant families and that he was ‘at length put to death by a court martial of the usurper Oliver’ (CSPI 1660–62, 193). In the Commentarius Rinuccinianus, a contemporary account of the mission to Ireland of the papal nuncio GianBattista Rinuccini (qv), based on original documents, Ferriter was said to have been condemned to death by English heretics and executed on Sheep Hill in Killarney (p. 165).
A laudatory reference to Ferriter in Seán Ó Conaill's Tuireamh na hÉireann, a mythic verse history of Ireland down to the Cromwellian period, possibly composed c.1655–9, indicates that his memory was being recast within a heroic mould shortly after his death. The preservation of the poem in a manuscript (BL, Egerton MS 187) written in Dublin in 1686 by William Lynch, and the poem's subsequent circulation in various manuscripts in the eighteenth century throughout Ireland also indicate that knowledge of Ferriter was not simply confined to west Kerry. In the nineteenth century the brief but admiring account (1839) of Ferriter by Lady Chatterton (qv) and the translation by Thomas Crofton Croker (qv) of his elegy on the knight of Kerry (republished in 1872 by Mary Agnes Hickson (qv)) introduced Ferriter to an English readership in the guise of dashing romantic poet, which echoed his heroic status in west Kerry's Gaelic oral culture. Hickson, the late-nineteenth-century historian of Kerry protestant society, while somewhat ambiguous with regard to his role in 1641, nevertheless sought to annex Ferriter to the county's elite when she declared that ‘the last direct descendants in the female line of Pierce Ferriter in Kerry were the late Mrs G. Hilliard and her sister Miss Giles’ while acknowledging with somewhat less enthusiasm that his direct descendants in the male line were ‘probably still to be found amongst the worthy tenant farmers of Corcaguiny’ (306).
Material collected by Patrick Ferriter (1856–1924) in the period 1889–93 provides early documented evidence of Piaras as folk hero in the oral culture of west Kerry (Ferriter MSS, UCD). The editions of Ferriter's poetry by Pádraig Ó Duinnín (qv), published in 1903 and 1934 respectively, introduced him to a new audience of middle-class Gaelic revivalists for whom his urbane image proved especially appealing. Ironically, Ferriter's appearance in the early twentieth-century folk literature of the Blasket Islands resulted in the incorporation of an erstwhile royalist within the nationalist cultural pantheon of independent Ireland (Ó Súilleabháin). The tale by Peig Sayers (qv) of Ferriter's execution, recounted in the early 1930s, illustrates the capacity of oral tradition to refashion memory. In this instance, falsely charged with rape by a protestant girl whose advances he had spurned, Ferriter, on the point of being hanged with a bishop and priest in Killarney, cheats death initially thanks to a miraculous pebble, which the bishop had given him to put in his mouth. Hanged twice unsuccessfully, Ferriter casts aside the pebble the third time with the declaration that he will not be remembered as the leavings of the gallows. Sayers's characterisation of Ferriter as having ‘fought many a hard battle for his country and his language’ (‘is mú cath cruaig do throid se er son a thíre agus a theangan’: Jackson, 38) deftly incorporated him within the modern nationalist tradition. Robin Flower (qv), in the chapter on Ferriter in his The western island (1944), an elegiac tribute to the Gaelic culture of the Great Blasket, while eliding his supposed role as catholic nationalist, presents him in the classic guise of a resourceful but cultured hero. Lamenting the occlusion of Ferriter's actual poetic achievement in the oral tradition, Flower succinctly concluded that he ‘had become the typical "man on his keeping", the hero of a hundred evasions, a fellow of infinite resource and wile, always giving the slip to the noose which hangs waiting for him, and which will have him in the end’ (Flower 90). The projection of Ferriter as Irish nationalist hero culminates in John Caball's novel The singing swordsman (1953), loosely based on his life and described by Daniel Corkery (qv) (1878–1964) as a book ‘that will be taken to readily by all those who are of the people of Ireland’ (Caball, 10).
The Commentarius, in addition to ascribing to Ferriter such traits as refinement, generosity, hospitality, and intellectual prowess, also states that he composed poetry in both English and Irish (165). While no poems in English attributed to Ferriter are extant, he is recorded as the author of a handful of poems in Irish in later manuscripts. Even on the basis of a rather meagre extant oeuvre, it is possible to speak with confidence of Ferriter as a poet of the first rank. Clearly immersed in the late medieval tradition of Gaelic praise poetry, Ferriter was also familiar with contemporary literature in English (Mac Craith, 177–84). A poem he composed for a visiting Scottish Gaelic praise poet, Maol Domhnaigh Ó Muirgheasáin, situates its author very much within the communal ideology of classical poetry in Irish (O'Rahilly (1942)). However, it is in his poems for close male friends that Ferriter articulates a passionate individuality, which sounds a refreshingly innovative note against the communal focus of the bardic tradition. In a poem he composed for an absent friend and fellow poet, Richard Hussey, Ferriter's description of his friend's physical and intellectual traits is suffused with homoerotic desire (de Brún et al., 24). A similar passionate intensity pervades his poem on the recovery of another friend, a surgeon named Eóin Ó Callanáin, from illness (ibid., 26–7). Ferriter is better known for the love poems for women ascribed to him which were published by T. F. O'Rahilly (qv) in his classic Dánta grádha (1925). In the poem beginning ‘Léig dhíot th'airm, a mhacaoimh mná’ Ferriter provides an exquisitely crafted account of a woman's beauty (de Brún et al., 25–6). While he admittedly follows in the tradition of amour courtois in presenting his female subject as a source of danger and unhappiness for her lovers, this poem contains no hint of the easy affection that characterises his piece on Richard Hussey. It is arguable, however, that Ferriter's most lasting claim on posterity lies not in his poetry nor in his significance as an Irish royalist but in the enduring yet evolving fascination he has aroused in Gaelic peasants, protestant Anglo-Irish antiquarians, and middle-class Irish catholic nationalists over four centuries.