Tralee (Trá Lí) (pop. 23,500), capital of “The Kingdom” of Kerry, with some 800 years of history as a sea port, garrison, assizes and post town, is nowadays a commercial, services and tourism hub with interesting outlying districts (Ratass, Ballyseedy, Ballymacelligott; Blennerville; The Spa, Fenit & Barrow). The area has excellent shopping facilities and a wide range of accommodation options and amenities for visitors, including lots of good pubs, restaurants and cafés.
The Pikeman Memorial, aka the Croppy Boy, has become the symbol of Tralee. Sculpted from local sandstone by Albert Power and erected on Denny St in 1939, the statue commemorates the 1798 Rebellion, even though the town played no part in the events of that year. (Photo – Kglavin)
The town is situated near the confluence of County Kerry’s River Lee /Leigh and several other small rivers and adjacent to marshy ground at the head of Tralee Bay. The name Tralee (historically also spelt Trally / Traleigh) is said to come from Trá Lí / Laoi, meaning “strand of the Lee”‘, although some claim it comes from Trá Liath, meaning “grey strand”.
Tralee’s Great Castle / Caiseal Mór and a Dominican Friary were both founded c.1243 on the banks of the River Gyle (Gomhal) in the barony of Trughanacmy by the first of the Munster , John FitzThomas FitzGerald, posthumously aka John of Callan after he was slain with his son Maurice and many other Geraldine men by TheMcCarthy Mór and his followers at the Battle of Callan in 1261.
His descendants, the Lords of Kerry / Earls of Desmond, used the settlement as a base from which to build up the greatest Anglo-Norman lordship in Munster. With an economy based on the agriculture of the Lee River valley, Tralee, capital of the Geraldine Palatinate of Kerry, developed as a medieval market town and trading port of some importance.
Gerald Fitzgerald, the 15th Earl, his brother John of Desmond and their cousin James FitzMaurice FitzGerald led the Desmond Rebellions against Queen Elizabeth I with help from the King of Spain and the Pope, during which the rebel lord’s family burnt down their own castle rather than let it fall to the enemy. The medieval town was largely destroyed in retribution in 1580. In 1600, Sir Charles Wilmot here “routed a party of the Irish here with considerable slaughter” (Lewis).
Sir Edward Denny (1547 –1599), a cousin of SirWalter Raleigh‘s and former privateer, was rewarded for his leading role in the 1580 Dún an Oir massacre of Spanish and Irish soldiers at Smerwick Harbour, and for presenting the head of rebel Garrett O’Toole to the Queen in 1581, with the “seignory of Tralee”, granted in 1587 on the understanding that he would build 46 houses for English Protestant families as part of the Munster Plantation. His wife Lady Margaret (née Edgcumbe) lived to the age of 84.
A 1613 Royal Charter from King James I incorporated the town under the name of “The Provost, Free Burgesses, and Commonalty of the Borough of Tralee“. Sir Edward Denny’s descendants rebuilt the Great Castle / Caiseal Mór in the 1620s and together with the Blennerhassett family dominated the area for much of the next 300 years.
The Great Castle / Caiseal Mór was besieged for six months during the 1641 Rebellion by a group of locals led by Piaras Ferriter, a Gaelic poet of Norman ancestry from the Dingle Peninsula, whose uprising was initially successful; “The town was soon after destroyed and the surrounding country wasted by the Irish, on the approach of Lord Inchiquin, to prevent him from making it his head quarters” but Murrough “Burner” O’Brien‘s Parliamentarian soldiers eventually quashed the insurgency.
The Dominican Friars, officially suppressed in 1580, continued to function until 1652, when their premises were destroyed by Cromwellian troops, who also laid waste to much of the town. Tralee was again razed by Jacobites in 1691, on the approach of King William III’s forces.
The Great Castle Caiseal Mórwas demolished as part of the late C18th / early C19th urban renovation of Tralee to make way for Denny Street, completed in 1826. By then the regional road network had also improved, and the Italian entrepreneur Bianconi opened up passenger coach routes linking Kerry’s capital with Dublin and other cities and towns around Ireland.
Lewis reported in 1837 that “The improvements in the trade, commerce, and general appearance of Tralee have been very considerable of late years, and are rapidly progressing notwithstanding the inconvenience arising from the extreme shallowness of the water in the river which prevents the approach of vessels exceeding 50 or 60 tons nearer than Blennerville, about 1.50 mile distant, and obliges large vessels to lie at the Samphire islands, off Fenit point, a distance of about five miles“.
He also mentioned an Erasmus Smith school and “a school for females formerly in connection with the London Hibernian Society, held under the same roof; …… the building can accommodate 80 children of each sex, and both schools are under the superintendence of the Protestant clergyman“, and adds that “a male school in connection with the Board of National Education is held in a large edifice, consisting of an upper and lower apartment, each extending the whole length of the building and together affording accommodation for about 800 children. A female free school is connected with the convent of the Presentation by the nuns of which the children are instructed in the elements of useful literature, and in lace making and needle work; it is partly supported by a grant from the same Board. There are five private schools, the number of children instructed in all these schools is about 830“.
The Great Famine saw thousands of homeless peasants who perished in Tralee’s Workhouse buried in mass graves. However, the town itself escaped lightly and was booming by 1859, when the inauguration of a new railway line increased its merchants’prosperity.
Denny Street, Tralee, c. 1900. Note boy on right with bare feet. (Photo – NLI)
During the War of Independence, British soldiers torched the old Town Hall in October 1920. In revenge for the IRA‘s abduction and murder of two RIC men, the Black & Tans closed the town down in November 1920, burned houses and businesses connected with IRA activists, shot three local people dead and did not let any food into Tralee for seven days. Near famine conditions prevailed by the end of the week, and the incident caused an international outcry. The British Army vacated Ballymullen Barracks in February 1922.
In August 1922, during the Civil War, Irish Free State troops landed at nearby Fenit and then took Ballymullen Barracks from its Republican garrison. Nine attackers and three defenders were killed in fighting in the town. The anti-Treaty forces withdrew, only to continue a guerilla campaign in the surrounding area. Their Republican tradition remains strong locally.
Tralee grew considerably in he last decades of the C20th and benefited from the Celtic Tiger years, particularly in terms of tourism, but by 2007 was already an “unemployment blackspot“, with exceptionally high jobless figures.
Tralee’s recently redeveloped Town Square, now used as a central marketplace and a venue for public events, is thought to be the site of Tralee’s medieval Dominican Abbey cloister. (Photo – Peter Gerken)
Some ruins of the Abbey buildings were uncovered in the early 1960s but were quickly covered over by the council despite the protestations of many locals including the learned historian, Fr Leonard Boyle, OP. The site is currently the Abbey Car Park.
Virtually no other trace remains of the town’s medieval origins.
The church of St John the Evangelist
The church of St John the Evangelist (CoI) was built on a site occupied by churches dedicated to St John since c. 1220, when the ruling Geraldines installed the priestly Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem.
The adjacent St John’s Lane, site of the original main entrance, was still occupied by the Hospitallers in 1602. Teampall an tSolais (“church of the light”), the name of the modern parochial centre, long referred to the main church due to a lantern hung from the tower to guide townsfolk in the dark across a footbridge which spanned the River Gyle (Gabhal), popularly aka the Big River (now culverted).
The present edifice dates from 1623, and is considered the oldest building in constant use in Tralee. Remodelled in 1819, and enlarged in 1831, it is still in use as a place of worship, and contains many curious artifacts and memorials.
The atmospheric burial ground contains several interesting graves.
Charles Smith’s 1756 map of Tralee, one of the first detailed street maps of the town, shows development along High Street towards the junction with the Island Of Geese. Friary Lane is also evident. The Big River and the Balloonagh River converged at Bridge Place and flowed south westwards down present-day Prince’s Quay. The River Lee would have been an important transport and trade route linking the town with the more developed port at Blennerville at this time.
Day Place, Staughton’s Row, Prince’s Quay and Godfrey Place were amongst the first of Tralee’s modern streets to be laid out towards the end of the C18th.
The Georgian House
The Georgian House Visitor Centre in Day Place is the restored home of Sir Robert Day, a prominent jurist whose friends included Henry Grattan and Daniel O’Connell, and whose daughter Elizabeth married Sir Edward Denny, 3rd Bart. (Photo by Charles W Glynn)
Built c.1795, the house features a richly furnished drawing-room, exquisite dining room, ornate bedroom, elegantly appointed office, elaborate kitchen, scullery and chilly servants’ sleeping quarters, all furnished and equipped as they were in Sir Robert’s time, while the Georgian Tea Rooms serve freshly homemade cakes, snacks and light refreshments.
The Denny Baronetcy, of Castle Moyle (sic; error for Castle More in the letters patent) was created in the Baronetage of Ireland in 1782 for Barry Denny (c. 1744-1794). The second Baronet was about to be raised to the peerage when he was killed in a duel in 1794. The 3rd and 4th Baronets represented Tralee in the British House of Commons.
Denny Street, completed in 1826, is lined with elegant townhouses incorporating stones from the ruins of the Great Castle ruins it replaced.
Three Old Tralonians
Sir Boyle Roche, 1st Bart (1736 – 1807), elected MP for Tralee in the Irish Parliament in 1775, after a distinguished career in North America with the British Army, is better remembered for his mixed metaphors (“Mr Speaker, I smell a rat; I see him forming in the air and darkening the sky; but I’ll nip him in the bud“), malapropisms and other unfortunate turns of phrase (“Why we should put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity, for what has posterity ever done for us“). While arguing for a bill, Roche once said, “It would surely be better, Mr. Speaker, to give up not only a part, but, if necessary, even the whole, of our constitution, to preserve the remainder!” While these “Irish bulls” have led many writers to portray Roche as a buffoon, other biographers have interpreted them not as blunders, but as calculated attempts to disarm opposition to ministerial policies through humour. His political career ended with the passage of the Act of Union 1800, which he supported. It is possible but chronologically unlikely that Roche inspired Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s character of Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals (1775)
Sir Edward Denny, 4th Baronet (1796 – 1889), who remained unmarried throughout his life, inherited a substantial portion of Tralee in 1831. Associated with leaders of the Plymouth Brethren movement such as William Kelly, J.G. Bellett and John Nelson Darby, he participated in their conferences at Powerscourt House, published his own hymns and, having studied biblical prophecy, prepared charts to illustrate dispensational teaching. He and sister Dianna died within six months of each other, aged 93 and 85 respectively, and were buried together in London’s Paddington Cemetery. Their headstone was inscribed “In joyful assurance of rising to an endless day“.
The Leeds Mercury of 19th June 1889 carried the following interesting obituary: “Nearly the whole town of Tralee belonged to him. He had an opportunity twenty years ago, when his leases fell in, of raising his rents to figures that, in some cases, would not have been considered extortionate had they been quadrupled (during the Great Hunger in Ireland). He, however, decided to accept the old rents. The result was that he was almost alone in escaping any reduction in the hands of the Land Commission. So far as he was himself concerned, a little money went a long way, but he gave liberally to poor relations and to the development of religious work in connection with the “Brethren”. Living in a quiet way in a cottage in Islington, he devoted his time to the study of the prophetic books. His rental income from Ireland was about £13,000 a year“.
Robert D FitzGerald (1830 – 1892), born in Tralee, emigrated to Australia, where he worked as a surveyor, wrote poetry, corresponded with Charles Darwin and became such an important ornithologist and botanist that a county in New South Wales was named in his honour.
Sir Arthur Denny, 5th Baronet, accumulated huge gambling debts so that the whole estate was swallowed up. Sir Cecil Edward Denny, 6th Baronet (1850-1928) was a founder of the North-West Mounted Police in Canada, Indian agent and author. By the time the Rev Sir Henry Denny, 7th Baronet, inherited the title, there was nothing left to go with it. The title is currently held by Sir Anthony Coningham de Waltham Denny, 8th Baronet (born 1925), and the heir apparent is his son Piers Anthony de Waltham Denny (b. 1954).
The Grand Hotel Tralee, comprising three converted townhouses on Denny St, retains its old fashioned open fires, ornate ceilings and mahogany furnishings. The Samuel Restaurant, said to be one of the best restaurants in Kerry, was once the office of Samuel Murray Hussey (1824 -1913), staunch enemy of the Land League and celebrated raconteur, whose rollicking Reminiscences of an Irish Land-Agent (1904) still makes entertaining reading.
Tralee’s Nonconformist Protestants
Writiny in 1837, Lewis reported that Tralee had “places of worship for Calvinistic Independents and Wesleyan Methodists“. The latter, whose chapel off Denny St dated from 1829, relocated to Listowel Road in 1947.
A Presbyterian congregation was formed from Tralee’s Scottish population in 1840, and a church was built in Edward St in 1846. By the 1870s the majority of the members were Irish. The church was demolished in 1974.
Having merged, the Methodist and Presbyterian congregations used the Listowel Road church until Nonconformist services in Tralee ceased in 1976. The church became a furniture warehouse, and is now a delicatessen called the Kingdom Food Hall.
The Kingdom Hall of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints / Jehovah’s Witnesses is on Edward St.
The Redeemed Christian Church of God, with premises in Ashe St, is a Pentecostal denomination founded in 1952 by a Nigerian pastor and described by the New York Times as “one of [Africa’s] most vigorously expansionary religious movements ….. that is crusading to become a global faith“.