Chevalier William F.K. Marmion

He is said to be the ‘Ghost of Carrickfergus Castle’, whose apparition appears every time there is to be a war – as a warning. But Nicholas Marmion was a real person, a soldier, until his own death in 1598.

England’s King Henry VIII started to pursue total control over Ireland by his policy of ‘surrender and re-grant’. He wanted to put all Irish nobles, Gaels and ‘gaelicised’ Norman-Irish, under English law, once and for all. The bait was that ‘Chiefs-of-Name’ would formally renounce the land and titles they held under Irish Brehon Law*, accept the English inheritance system of primogeniture** instead of Irish tanistry***, and then be granted their lands back, along with an English title. After Henry’s death, Queen Elizabeth I carried on his policy in Ireland. It is within that scenario of circa 1560 to 1598 that our man ‘Captain Nick’ lived and soldiered.

* please see editor’s notes at the end of this article

In 1542, Con O’Neill ‘surrendered’ his title as The O’Neill and was re-granted the clan lands solely in his own name and given the new title of Earl of Tyrone: thus, thereafter he was to hold these lands for himself, not in trust for his clan as was historic Irish practice. Later he wished he had left his lands to his second son, Shane, via tanistry, instead of the English government’s preference, which was for his oldest son Matthew to inherit. Shane was in rebellion and, when his father died (1559), he eliminated his older brother, Matthew … and he became The O’Neill. And, Shane continued to attack the English government’s forces wherever he found them. Elizabeth, new to the throne, negotiated with Shane, making peace in 1561 ... to buy time.

A Galloglass and his kern attendants await their Irish lord, Shane O'Neill, during his visit to the court of Elizabeth I, London, 1562. To the English, Ireland was one of the frontiers of Europe, a land on the edge of their world, full of barbarians. It is little surprising then that the courtiers of Elizabethan London observed O'Neill's retainers with 'as much wonder as if they had come from China or America,' according to a contemporary chronicler. Indeed, the Celtic party, headed by The O'Neill, presented a fantastic sight. In defiance of previous Tudor legislation, his warriors were wholly Gaelic in appearance. Their hair was long: fringes hanging down to cover their eyes. They wore shirts with large sleeves dyed with saffron, short tunics and shaggy cloaks. Some walked with bare feet, others wore leather sandals. The galloglas carried battle-axes and wore long coats of mail.

Turlough Lynagh O'Neill and the other Irish kerne kneel to Sir Henry Sidney, Lord-Deputy, in submission 1575 … as part of the ‘surrender and re-grant’ process. In the background Sidney seems to be embracing O'Neill as a noble friend. Note that O'Neill wears a native version of English costume and sports an English haircut, though his entourage still wears distinctive Irish costume.

In Ireland the times continued to be unclear, with conflicting allegiances. Many Gaelic/Norman-Irish chiefs had accepted ‘surrender and re-grant’: The MacCarthy Mor becoming Earl of Clancar; and Bourke becoming Earl of Clanrickard, to name just a couple. Most came to realise that the ‘deal’ wasn’t as good as it had looked … and they knew they had violated ancient Irish practice.

Many Norman-Irish were reluctant to carry out the English government’s policy but for the most part continued to serve the government, as the Marmions did, hoping for an eventual peace in Ireland (that never happened).

The Norman-Irish, including the Marmions, were finally thrown totally into the arms of their fellow Irishmen by the time of the 1641 rebellion and the Cromwellian land confiscations, which followed. All the native-born Irish, whether O’Neill or O’Brien, Barry, or FitzGerald, were seen simply as ‘Irish Papists’ (Catholics) from that time forward.

Shane O’Neill, as part of a ‘deal’ he had done with the English government, had attacked and defeated the MacDonnells of Antrim, in 1565. The Scots* MacDonnells had been a huge bother to the English. Earlier, they and Shane O’Neill had been allies.

However, when later attacked by Hugh O’Donnell, Shane O’Neill sought refuge with the MacDonnells … who welcomed him, entertained him, then killed him.

Shane O’Neill had designated his cousin Turlough Lynagh O’Neill as his Tanist, bypassing of course the son of his own older brother, Matthew.

Matthew’s son, Brian O’Neill, as per the English system, had inherited the title of Earl of Tyrone.

* Editor’s note: 'Scots' – from the Latin – Scotus = an Irishman (Scoti = Irishmen). In those far off times, the Highlanders and Western Islanders did not recognise themselves as being a separate race to the ‘Irish’ ... the ‘Scots’ of those days were in fact referred by the English as “wild Irish”. For example consider Clan Donald, who had established themselves on the west coast of modern ‘Scotland’ and on the north-east coast of Ireland ... as well as in their homeland of the Western Isles. The ‘Scots’ of those times were Gaelic-speaking Roman Catholics, and to a man were the sworn enemies of Lowland Protestants (who were in fact North Britons, not ‘Scots’).

‘Lord of the Isles’ and Chief of Clan Donald being crowned at Dunadd (his territory included the Hebrides, Skye and Ross, Knoydart, Ardnamurchan, between Scot-land and the north of Ireland, as well as the Kintyre peninsula)

Turlough O’Neill indeed became The O’Neill under the Irish system … and then had Brian O’Neill killed. And, he would have also killed Hugh O’Neill, the youngest son of Matthew as well, but Hugh was taken to London for safety.

Turlough O’Neill eventually submitted to the English Government in 1575, in a ‘deal’ allowing him to keep portions of the historic O’Neill lands. The English government only agreed because their forces were so thin on the ground in the province of Ulster, due to Irish uprisings in other parts of Ireland, e.g. the rebellion in the province of Munster by the FitzGerald Earls of Desmond.

This sets the stage for Nicholas Marmion to enter the lists …

Sidney and the English army on the march with standards and trumpets, pikemen and shot in the foreground, demi-lances behind.

Nicholas, born circa 1540, was from the main branch of the Marmion family, a family which had entered Ireland with ‘Strongbow’* and which had clustered for centuries in and around Carlingford, County Louth. Regardless of sentiment, there was family property in Carlingford etc. to protect from incursions of the O’Neill’s and others. Nicholas chose a soldier’s career with the encouragement of his family; enlisting as a ‘mere Irish’ in 1575, in the company of Captain Wingfield, under the overall command of Sir Henry Bagenal (England’s Marshal of Ireland), who had been given Newry and Carlingford, and surrounding areas, as an incentive to stop the violence.

* Strongbow’: Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, Lord of Leinster, Justiciar (head of government) of Ireland (1130 – 20 April 1176). Like his father, he was also commonly known as ‘Strongbow’ (Norman French: Arc-Fort). He was a Norman lord from southern Wales, notable for his leading role in the Norman invasion of Ireland (which began on 1 May 1169).


Nicholas Marmion proved adept at his military vocation, for he quickly rose in estimation. By 1580 he was a ‘captain’ of a company – captains reporting directly to the Marshal.

By 1583-85 he was in the middle of things, as the English government was trying to stop the continuing intra-clan bloodshed among the O’Neill’s and its overflow to other native Irish, which was further complicated by the government (English) beginning to not trust their own candidate, Hugh O’Neill, Baron Dungannon and heir to the Earldom of Tyrone.

Captain of ‘Mere Irish’ Kern (light infantry), circa 1594 regalia of the ‘Queen's Kern’ (a hybrid combination of English & Irish dress)

In any case, Scottish MacDonnell unrest and infiltration continued, and Captain Nick found himself with Hugh O’Neill (plus Sir Henry Bagenal and Lord Deputy Perrot, and many Gaels) going into Ulster to do battle. Nick was outstanding; he was mentioned in government despatches. He was seconded to Turlough O’Neill ‘in garrison’ during the winter of 1584-85; because of his fluency as an Irish-speaker, and to ‘watch’ events. Turlough O’Neill and Nick Marmion became friends, interacting often until the end of Turlough’s life.

The heraldic achievement of Sir John Perrot

The English government knew it couldn’t subdue all O’Neill lands for Hugh O’Neill (and not really wanting to, given their distrust of Hugh), so England’s Queen Elizabeth I opted for a new ‘rapprochement’ with Turlough Luineach O’Neill. This was accomplished via a huge parley at Dungannon, and resulted in a treaty signed on the 10th of August 1585.

Queen Elizabeth I

Hugh O’Neill was formally installed as Earl of Tyrone by the English.

Turlough Luineach O’Neill retained in peace the historic title of The O’Neill and agreed to support the common cause against Scottish incursions. This agreement was signed by Bagenal, O’Donnell, Maguire, O’Hanlon, the Lord Deputy, other O’Neill’s ... and by Captain Nicholas Marmion.

Nicholas also signed a pact in 1586 with Maguire for the support of his company; he then went off to the Province of Connaught, to fight against the Norman-Irish Bourkes/ Burkes and their Scots allies.

In May 1586, Nick caught up with the Scots and wounded Alexander, the favourite son of Sorley Boy MacDonnell. Nicholas then chased Alexander MacDonnell to Strabane and finished him off, sending Alexander’s head to England’s Lord Deputy in Dublin. This earned the hate of the MacDonnells as well as the further respect of his future enemy, Hugh O’Neill of Tyrone, who was then just ‘biding his time’.

Nick, in 1587-89, was again sent to the aid of Turlough Lynagh O’Neill (Bagenal describing him as “an ancient, valiant, and well-approved soldier”) to watch the Earl of Tyrone (Hugh O’Neill), and to fight off any attacks by the O’Donnell Clan.

Nicholas warned the government that Hugh O’Neill did not possess the decency of Turlough, and that he would be a problem in the future. Con O’Neill, a son of Shane, was saying the very same thing, so we see the continuing problem of sides shifting! No love was lost between Nick and the O’Neill Earl of Tyrone, but having served together and knowing each others’ qualities, there was obvious respect. Hugh O’Neill professed loyalty to the English (again fighting together with Marmion against a Clan Maguire uprising in 1593). He then, in early 1595, proclaimed himself as The O’Neill, and cast off the title of Earl of Tyrone, and then went into open rebellion against the English government. Still anxious to protect his own family lands, Captain Nick now found himself in direct opposition to Hugh O’Neill.

Hugh O’Neill was one of the greatest Irishmen ever; a man who had come to a true understanding of nationhood. Yes, he also had desire for personal power, but faults fade against his ideals. Now he had to fight for his vision.

Hugh O Neill, Earl of Tyrone

The heraldic achievement of Hugh O'Neill
Quartering the ‘red hand’ of O’Neill together with the arms of the Burkes of Ulster
(as he was claiming the land of the Norman Burkes)

The first major battle between the forces of Tyrone (Hugh O’Neill) and those of the government (with many Gaelic-Irish fighting on the government side) was at Clontibret, six miles from Monaghan, on the 15th of May 1595 ... and Hugh O’Neill prevailed. Captain Nicholas, out of ammunition, led a charge against Hugh’s line with pikes and then sent his Lieutenant, a fellow Carlingford-man named Seagrave, against O’Neill himself ... Seagrave unhorsed Hugh O’Neill and was about to give the ‘coup-de-grace’ when he himself was dispatched to the next world … just in the nickof- time, by a son of The O’Kane! How Irish history would have changed had Hugh been killed that day! But Hugh O’Neill again saw the valour of Nick, and how dangerous he was as an adversary.

Reconstruction of the Dungiven Costume, a set of clothes discovered in a bog in the 1960s and thought to date to c.1600, the period of Tyrone's rebellion. It was perhaps originally the property of his O'Cahan soldiers. The trousers are of a tartan cloth cut on the bias, while the jacket resembles that of Turlough Luineach O'Neill in Derricke's print. The semi-circular woollen mantle is 8 1/2 feet wide by 4 feet deep. The photos are of the reconstructed Dungiven bog clothing at the Ulster Museum, Belfast.

After this battle, Nick Marmion was once again sent to Turlough Luineach O’Neill, and he fortified Armagh ... he then returned to camp in Newry.

Turlough Luineach O’Neill, was a great Gaelic personality himself … along with his contemporary, Sorley Boy MacDonnell. Turlough died later in 1595. In October 1595 there was a parlay between James MacSorley MacDonnell (who had succeeded his father). Nick was present. MacDonnell ‘gave up’ O’Neill (again) and asked for English government help ... but MacDonnell was (again) back with O’Neill by July 1596, and so the government (England) then had to go on the defensive. At this time Nick Marmion was in garrison at Carrickfergus. As to military and political commitments in Ireland at that time, many clans Gaelic and Norman-Irish just ‘sat on the fence’.

The next significant battle was between James MacSorley’s Scots and the garrison of Carrickfergus (under command of Sir James Chichester, a poor general) who attacked MacDonnell’s superior force on the 4th of November 1597; having said first to Nick Marmion, “your old friends await you”. The battle was a disaster for the English government, with 180 of 250 of their troops killed, including Chichester. Nick Marmion was shot in two places, but he managed to make it back to Carrickfergus, with reports telling of his bravery in the one-sided battle.

When O’Neill heard of the battle and the death of Chichester, etc, he is reported to have said “oh, how I would gladly have seen those spared if only we had succeeded in getting the head of Captain Marmion.” (Yes, there is no greater tribute than such as that from such a splendid foe.)

But Tyrone (Hugh O’Neill) needn’t have worried. Nick Marmion, while recovering from his wounds, was aboard ship sailing from Carrickfergus to Dublin in January 1598; when the ship was three miles from Carrickfergus Castle, ‘he fell overboard’ and drowned.

Foul play?

Quite possibly, as those were conspiratorial times!

The legend of Captain Nick as the ghost of Carrickfergus Castle, also called ‘Button Cap’, started immediately … and continues. He was a great soldier, admired by friend and foe alike in those perilous and shifting times. His loyalty to his family and his Catholic faith were all-important to him, and his successors came to see that a new solution was needed to the problem of Ireland. In Norse legend there is a place called Valhalla, where all the great warriors sit at table after death, however differing in life. Surely Nick, Tyrone (Hugh O’Neill), and the MacDonnells share a jar there now.

Carrickfergus Castle

The heraldic achievement of Marmion of Ireland

The years following the death of Captain Nick led to many victories for the Earl of Tyrone (Hugh O’Neill), but at the very end the result was the ultimate defeat of Tyrone during the battle at Kinsale in 1601.

The Marmions, by 1641, were in full support of the rebellion of Phelim O’Neill. Patrick Marmion, ‘Irish papist’ (Catholic), Captain-of-his-Nation, lost his castle and lands in and around Carlingford as a result of the Cromwellian confiscations, circa 1652.

Sir Felim O'Neill of Kinard (Left) and Oliver Cromwell (Right)

A grandson of Captain Nick, Captain Dominic Marmion, was indeed among the ‘Wild Geese’ that left Ireland after the Cromwellian conquest, and he served in Spain and in the wars against the Dutch and their English allies in Spanish Flanders … while fighting in the service of Spain, Captain Dominic served with the Irish regiment of The O’Sullivan Mor, as well as with the Irish regiment of Colonel Murphy.

Donal Cam O'Sullivan Beare
Prince of Beare, 1st Count of Berehaven

* Brehon Law: Prior to English rule, Ireland had its own indigenous system of law dating from ancient Celtic times, which survived until the 17th century when it was finally supplanted by the English common law. This native system of law, known as the ‘Brehon Law’, developed from customs which had been passed on orally from one generation to the next. In the 7th century AD the laws were written down for the first time. Brehon law was administered by Brehons (or brithem). They were the successors to Celtic druids and while similar to judges; their role was closer to that of an arbitrator. Their task was to preserve and interpret the law rather than to expand it. In many respects Brehon law was quite progressive. It recognised divorce and equal rights between the genders and also showed concern for the environment. In criminal law, offences and penalties were defined in great detail. Restitution rather than punishment was prescribed for wrongdoing. Cases of homicide or bodily injury were punishable by means of the eric fine, the exact amount determined by a scale. Capital punishment was not among the range of penalties available to the Brehons. The absence of either a court system or a police force suggests that people had strong respect for the law.

** Primogeniture is the right, by law or custom, of the first-born to inherit the entire estate, to the exclusion of younger siblings. Historically, the term implied male primogeniture, to the exclusion of females. According to the Norman tradition, the first-born son inherited the entirety of a parent's wealth, estate, title or office and then would be responsible for any further passing of the inheritance to his siblings. In the absence of children, inheritance passed to the collateral relatives, in order of seniority of the males of collateral lines.

*** Tanistry was a Gaelic system for passing on titles and lands. In this system the Tanist (Irish: Tànaiste) was the office of heir-apparent, or second-in-command, among the royal Gaelic dynasties of Ireland, Scot-land, and the Isle of Man, to succeed to the chieftainship or to the kingship. The Tanist was chosen from among the heads of the roydammna or "righdamhna" (literally, those of kingly material) or, alternatively, among all males of the sept, and elected by them in full assembly. The eligibility was based on ‘patrilineal’ relationship, which meant the electing body and the eligibles   were ‘agnates’ with each other. (Patrilineality, or agnatic kinship, is a system in which one belongs to one's father's lineage.) The composition and the governance of the Irish clans were built upon maleline descent from a similar ancestor. The office of Tanist was noted from the beginning of recorded history in Ireland, and probably pre-dates it. A story about Cormac mac Airt (an ancient High King of Ireland) refers to his eldest son as his Tanist. (Using their system of Tanistry, the native Irish chose their best and most able future leaders from the extended family of the King or Chief, unlike the English tradition of ‘primogeniture’ where, even though the eldest son may have been hopelessly inept, he would still become head of the extended family and their followers.)

Cormac Mac Airt (A.D. 227-268: )Following his murder by a member of the ‘Deisi’ (various different peoples listed under the heading déis shared the same status in Gaelic Ireland, and had little or no actual kinship, though they were often thought of as genetically related), another roydammna, Eochaid Gonnat, succeeded as king (he ruled for a year, before falling in battle). The Gaels exported tanistry and other customs, to those parts of Scotland which they controlled after 400 AD. In Ireland, the tanistry continued among the dominant dynasties, as well as lesser lords and chieftains, until the mid-16th century. In a much reduced form, it lingered until as late as the 1840s. When in 1943 the government of Ireland appointed its first new Chief Herald, it did not reintroduce tanistry. It is now hard to fathom why, but the ‘modern’ Irish state, via the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland, granted courtesy recognition to Irish chiefs based on the English custom/ law of ‘primogeniture’ from the last known chief.


By Douglas S. Files, MD, MPH, NSC

Ogham was an alphabet used in the early medieval period (4th to 10th centuries A.D.) to write Old Irish and sometimes Brythonic. Approximately 500 Ogham inscriptions can be found on rocks in Ireland and western Britain. They were deciphered because some are bilingual with Latin next to the Ogham. The etymology of the word “Ogham” is unclear. Some sources state it came from the Irish og-uaim (point seam, i.e. the point made by a sharp weapon). Others postulate that it arose from the name of the Irish god Ogma.

Three main theories exist for the creation of Ogham. Some scholars expect it was originally designed as a cipher or code so that only Celts could understand it - and Roman Britons could not. The second idea is that early Christian communities had difficulty transcribing Celtic into the Latin alphabet so they devised a system of their own. The third theory states that it evolved from a system of hand signals used by Gaulish druids. This seemed reasonable, given the organization of the alphabet into 5-letter groups like 5 fingers on a hand. The latter theory has lost ground in recent years due to studies of the letters showing that they were specifically created for the sounds of the Celtic language.

The 8th century Buckquoy spindle-whorl, reading "a blessing on the soul of L."

Strictly speaking, Ogham refers only to the form of the letters. It is neither a language nor the letters themselves, which are called Beith-luis-nin after the names of the first letters. (This is analogous to our word alphabet which derives from alpha and beta, the first two Greek letters.)

The Ogham alphabet originally contained 20 characters, arranged into four “families” of five letters called aicmi. Each aicme was named for its first letter. Later 5 other characters were introduced.

No letter for the “p” sound existed in the original Ogham since that sound was lost in Proto-Celtic. But when Latin loan words seeped into Celtic (for example, in the name Patrick) it was necessary to have one. The names of the Ogham letters mostly derive from tree or plant names. Thus we see letters called beith (birch), fearn (alder), saille (willow) and duir (oak). Other letters are named for ash, ivy, herb, holly, fern and blackthorn.

While all remaining Ogham inscriptions are on stone, it was probably extensively used on trees and sticks as well. Some of the remaining stones are monuments (grave stones), such as the one below that reads: Bivaidonas maqi mucoi cunavali “Of Bivaidonas, son of the tribe Cunavali”. Others mark land boundaries. When inscribed on stones, Ogham is written vertically from bottom to top.

It should also be mentioned that the Ogham alphabet held magical power for the Celts. This is not all that surprising, as all writing seems mystical to those who cannot read it. (How do you feel about a Mandarin Chinese text?) The Celts said that Ogham held druidic secrets which could be used in magical spells. Divination sticks were engraved with Ogham letters, and modern druids still do this. In fact the word druid probably derived from duirwydd (oak-seer).

Sample text in Ogham

LIE LUGNAEDON MACCI MENUEH “The stone of Lugnaedon son of Limenueh”

From: Inchagoill Island, County Galway, Ireland


A ‘Scotch pie’ is a small, double-crust meat pie filled with minced mutton or other meat.

The Scotch pie is believed to originate in Scotland, where it is often known simply as a ‘mince pie’ or simply a ‘pie’, but can be found in other parts of Britain and is widely sold all over Canada. They are often sold alongside other types of hot food at football matches, traditionally accompanied by a drink of ‘Bovril’, resulting in the occasional reference to ‘football pies’.

Leg and rack of Mutton (sheep) ‘Bovril’ is the trademarked name of a thick, salty meat extract developed in the 1870s by John Lawson Johnston and is sold in a distinctive, bulbous jar

The traditional filling of mutton is often highly spiced with pepper and other ingredients and is placed inside a shell of hot water crust pastry hot water crust pastry. An individual pie-maker's precise recipe, including the types and quantities of spice used, is usually kept a close secret, for fear of imitations. It is baked in a round, straight-sided tin, about 3 inches (8 centimeters) in diameter and 1.5 inches (4 centimeters) high, and the top ‘crust’ (which is soft) is placed about half an inch lower than the rim to make a space for adding accompaniments such as mashed potatoes, baked beans, brown sauce or gravy.

Scotch pies are often served hot by take-away cafes and bakeries, and at outdoor events. The hard crust of the pie enables it to be eaten by hand with no wrapping, but increasingly they are cooked and served in a foil tin. Typically there is a round hole in the centre of the top crust.

Every year, the Scotch Pie Club holds the World Scotch Pie Championship. Butchers and bakers enter their pies into this competition, and the maker of the pie judged tastiest by a panel of judges is awarded the title of World Scotch Pie Champion.

Laurent Vernet, Marketing Manager at Quality Meat Scotland presenting the trophy to 2008 World Scotch Pie Champion, Amos Smith of Buckhaven

A Recommended Recipe for ‘Scots Pie’, from a much trusted source
(Michael Doyle’s poor mother)

Ingredients for the Meat filling:
1 pound (500 grams or two cups) lean lamb, minced (ground
Pinch of mace or nutmeg
Salt and pepper
Quarter pint (150mililitres) gravy

Ingredients for the Hot Water Pastry:
1 pound (500 grams or four cups) plain flour
6 ounces (175 grams or ¾ cup) lard
6 fluid ounces (225mililitres or ¾ cup) approximately of water
Pinch of salt
Milk for glazing

You will also need glasses or jars, approximately 3-3½ inches (7.5-8.5 centimeters) in diameter to shape the pie.

Create the filling by mixing the minced (ground) lamb, spice and seasoning.

Make the pastry by sifting the flour and salt into a warm bowl. Make a well in the centre of the flour. Melt the lard in a scant measure of water and, when it is bubbling, add to the flour and mix thoroughly. Take a small amount (remember the mixture should make 8/10 pies, with their tops) and form into a ball and keep the rest warm while making each pastry case. This is done by rolling a suitable amount for each pie and shaping the crust round the base of a glass or jar approximately 3-3½ inches (7.5-8.5cm) in diameter. Make sure there are no cracks in the pastry - you can trim round the top of the case to make it even. As the pastry cools and gets cool, remove the glass and continue until you have about a quarter of the pastry left to make the lids.

Fill the cases with the meat and add the gravy to make the meat moist.

Roll the remaining pastry and use the glass to cut the lids. Wet the edges of the lids, place over the meat and press down lightly over the filling. Pinch the edges and trim. Cut a small hole or vent in the centre of the lid (to allow the steam to escape).

Glaze with milk and bake for about 45 minutes at 275 degrees F (140 degrees Centigrade). If the pies are not eaten immediately, they can be stored in the refrigerator but always ensure they are properly re-heated before being eaten.