In 500 BC, the first group to claim the Tralee area was the Ciarraige, a Pictish tribe from what is now Sligo and Roscommon. According to legend, they were descended from Queen Mebh's son Ciar. Ciarraige means "kingship of the people of Ciar." Kerry is derived from this name. They arrived in the Tralee region, but built their seat at Castleisland. Despite their generally autonomous position in the area, the Ciarraige paid tributes to Cashel and were a subject people for hundreds of years. One clan was even expelled to Connacht some time between 555-577 AD, foreshadowing Cromwell's similar action over 1000 years later.
The Celtic Fir Bolg arrived some years after the Ciarraige. The group that settled in North Kerry became known as the Corcu Duibne. These were an artistic and gifted people who best known for developing Ogham script. Ogham stones were once scattered throughout the Dingle Peninsula; examples can still be seen at Gallarus Oratory, Kilmalkedar Church, Ratass, and Chute Hall. The Corcu Duibne also had impressive building skills. They built the spectacular Caherconree, Dunbeg, and Dun Mor promontory forts. Perhaps most unique of all is the Glenfahan Group. This small "city" dates from the sixth or seventh century and housed up to 2,000 people. The Milesians were the third group to settle in the Tralee region. According to legend, they invaded Ireland in 100 BC. Landing in Waterville, they had several battles with the mystical Tuatha De Danaan, culminating in the battle of Sliabh Mis. Fought in a glen above Tralee, the Milesians won but their queen, Scotia, was killed. The area is now known as Scotia's Glen and her grave is reputed to be under an ancient scribed stone.
Advent of Christianity
The coming of Christianity in the late fifth century was the next major influence on the region. All three groups adopted the religion quite readily, blending together old pagan and Christian practices. During the early Christian period, both missionary and monastic movements were quite strong. While missionaries left the area, others stayed and founded monasteries. Ciarraige descendants were very active in both roles. St Brendan, St Mochuda, St Cuimine Fota, and St Fionan all travelled great distances, while monasteries were founded at Ardfert, Kilmalkedar, Riasc, Temple Martin, and Ratass. By the end of the sixth century, the monasteries had become very wealthy. A reform movement arose led by the Corcu Duibne. Eremitical, or hermitage sites, were built across Kerry. In fact, the largest concentration of eremitical sites in Ireland is to be found here. Gallarus Oratory is one of the best-preserved examples. The monasteries and hermitage sites acted as major patrons for education and the arts. Peace, wealth, and education brought a new period of prosperity to the region.
From 800-1000, the population of North Kerry greatly increased and centres developed for both trade and education. The ports of Dingle and Smerwick had extensive trade links with the Continent. Smerwick is Norse for "butter harbour," describing the main export of the time. Viking raids commenced during the tenth century and round towers were built to protect the monastery's wealth. Rattoo Round Tower is one of the finest examples in Ireland, remaining remarkably well preserved. Successive raids and plagues stunted the region's growth for close to 200 years. The monastic settlement at Ratass in Tralee was briefly the Kerry bishop's seat from 1111 to 1152. It then lost supremacy and deteriorated. Although the following period was one of political upheaval and unrest, it also saw extensive ecclesiastical development with Ardfert Cathedral and an Ardfert Church built during this time.
Life in the area radically changed when the Anglo-Normans, or Geraldines, arrived in the thirteenth century. Within a relatively short space of time, their superior organisation and weaponry proved decisive, and all of North Kerry came under Geraldine control. John Fitzthomas built a magnificent castle in Tralee and found a Dominican priory in 1243. A cousin founded the Ardfert Friary ten years later. Although John Fitzthomas was killed in 1261 at the battle of Callan, his family retained Tralee and a market town grew up around the castle. Tralee became an important trade centre with a road crossing to Dingle and a busy harbour supplying timber for wine casks and boats. In 1580, as Ormonds descended upon the town, the family destroyed their own castle. Tralee and 6,000 acres of confiscated lands were then granted to Sir Edward Denny in 1587. It was his reward for participating in the massacre at Dun An Oir.
The Dennys were the leading family for the next two centuries and helped the town achieve borough status in 1613. They rebuilt the castle in the 1620s on the west side of Denny Street. Although no trace of the castle remains, this is how Upper and Lower Castle Streets were named. The castle was put under siege between 1641-2 by a group of Catholics. Led by Piaras Ferriter, a Gaelic poet, the rebels were successful. However, the victory was short-lived. Cromwell's soldiers quashed the rebellion in 1652. The Gaelic aristocracy was banished to Connacht and much of Tralee was destroyed at this time. In the eighteenth century, however, Tralee was rebuilt with grace. Denny Street, Castle Street, and Day Place have splendid examples of townhouses from the period. The Georgian House Visitor Centre has restored one of these townhouses to give a glimpse into the life of a privileged Tralee citizen.
The Victorian age brought further construction including a fine Courthouse, designed by Sir Richard Morrison. Development, however, was halted during the Great Famine. Thousands that perished in the streets and Workhouse, were buried in mass graves at God's Acre. Similar numbers emigrated from the port at Blennerville with the Windmill their last image of home. By the 1860s, the worst was over and building began again with St. John's Church and Holy Cross Church.
Fight for Independence
Tralee continued to grow as a market town, always retaining its strong rebel spirit. In the early nineteenth century, support for Irish nationalism rose. Recruiting for volunteers in North Kerry began in 1913. After a date was fixed for the Rising, Sir Roger Casement and two companions arrived by U-boat to supervise the landing of German arms at Banna Strand. A series of mishaps and bad communication resulted in the boat failing to land the arms and Casement being arrested. During the war for independence, Tralee saw some skirmishes and British soldiers burned the old town hall in October 1920. In the civil war that followed independence, North Kerry saw some of the worst fighting. The majority of the population supported the irregulars and memorials to those who died fighting Government troops still line the roadsides. Perhaps the most evocative is the Ballyseedy Memorial. This commemorates one of the worst atrocities of the war when nine irregular prisoners were roped to a landmine and blown up at this spot.
Tralee today is a modern, dynamic town that takes great pride in its past. Perhaps the annual Festival of Kerry best shows these two characteristics. Each August young women of Irish descent from around the world compete for the title "Rose of Tralee." Honouring a legendary lovers' tragedy from long ago, it is a forum for contestants to express their talents and thoughts on the future.