Fiach Mac Hugh O'Byrne 2. 1597-1997 – The Firebrand and the Wicklow Legend that’s still burning!
Indeed, the O’Byrnes had control over almost all of highland Wicklow (which was not actually shired into a county until 1606), to such extent that the whole area was known as “O’Byrnes Country” or even “Fiach Mac Hugh’s Country” in the late 16th Century. Before 1997 ends, then, I thought this small article might be an appropriate way of remembering that this chieftain – “The Firebrand of the Wicklow Mountains” – once held sway in this area.
Fiach Mac Hugh, then, was born in or about the year 1544. He was the son of Hugh Mac Shane O’Byrne, who was chieftain of the O’Byrne clan. The young Fiach seems to have been a dashing and daring “devil may care” figure. He was involved in Sir Edmund Butler’s escape from Dublin Castle in 1569 and was implicated in the murder of Robert Browne in Wexford in 1572. The English poet Edward Spenser described how Hugh Mac Shane “got unto himself a great name” and goes on to say that Fiach Mac Hugh “increased that name . . . and is now become a dangerous enemy to deal with”
Indeed Fiach Mac Hugh proved to be a continuous thorn in the side of the Dublin Authorities. In 1580, he supported Viscount Baltinglass (James Eustace) in a rebellion against the forces of Queen Elizabeth I.
There was a Dunlavin connection here too, as Edmund of Tubber (our own Tober), who was a brother of Viscount Baltinglass, also joined with O’Byrne and Baltinglass in the revolt.
The action ended in failure for the rebels. Edmund of Tubber fled to Portugal, where he died in 1594. However, Fiach Mac Hugh and his men defeated Lord Grey at a battle in Glenmalure in 1580. The overall rebellion might have failed but the Wicklow Mountains were still firmly in O’Byrne hands! The battle of Glenmalure is referred to in the song “Follow me on to Carlow”.
Follow Me Up To Carlow
Lift MacCahir Óg your face,
Brooding o’er the old disgrace,
Black Fitzwilliam stormed your place
And drove you to the fern.
Grey said victory was sure,
Soon the firebrand he’d secure;
Until he met at Glenmalure
Fiach MacHugh O Byrne.
Curse and swear Lord Kildare,
Fiach will do what Fiach will dare,
Now Fitzwilliam, have a care,
Fallen is your star, low.
Up with halberd, out with sword,
On we go for by the Lord,
Fiach Mac Hugh has given his word,
Follow me up to Carlow.
See the words of Glen Imayle,
Flashing o’er the English Pale,
See all the children of the Gael
Beneath O’Byrne’s banners.
Rooster of the fighting stock,
Would you let a Saxon cock,
Crow out upon an Irish rock?
Fly up and teach him manners!
From Tassagart to Clonmore,
There flows a stream of Saxon gore,
Och, great is Rory Óg O’More,
At sending loons to Hades.
White is sick and Grey is dead
Now for black Fitzwilliam’s head,
We’ll send it over, dripping red,
To Liza and her ladies.
Note that the song mentions the “Swords of Glen Imayle”. The Glen of Imaal was a natural pass through the mountains, allowing O’Byrne to threaten the western margins of the pale, and to link up with other (Midland) raiding Irish clans. As early as 1572, Fiach Mac Hugh joined with Rory Og O’More to launch an attack in the pale. (Rory Og O’More was the chieftain involved in the burning of Naas in 1577).
When Red Hugh O’Donnell was captured at Lough Swilly in Donegal by one of Sir John Perrott’s ships, Fiach Mac Hugh was still lording it in highland Wicklow. Red Hugh escaped from Dublin Castle in 1591 and after great hardships in the Wicklow Mountains (then in the depths of winter) he reached O’Byrne’s country. Fiach Mac Hugh nursed the young chieftain back to health and provided a strong body of horsemen to safeguard Red Hugh out of the mountains and past Dublin. It was January 5th – “Little Christmas Eve” and the lords of the pale were not keeping a good watch on that night. By morning, the party, led by Fiach’s son in law, Brown Walter of Ballygloran, had reached Co. Meath. Red Hugh was heading for Drogheda and the northward road home.
The 1590’s saw Ireland in the throes of the nine years war. Fiach’s guerrilla tactics were still successful in the Wicklow highlands, but the Crown forces were inexorably closing in. In 1595 Fiach was declared a traitor and a large reward offered if he were captured (the reward was even larger for his head!). From a crown point of view, Fiach was indeed “now a dangerous enemy”. In 1594, his audacious attack in Piers Fitzgerald’s lands near Athy had brought home to the Dublin officials the fact that the Wicklow mountains had to be pacified, or else a large area was under threat of attack.
In 1596, O’Byrne made an alliance with Hugh O’Neill the ‘commander in chief’ of the Gaelic Irish forces in the nine years war.
In 1597, Sir William Russell led a large force into highland Wicklow. As with the nine years war and its end at Kinsale in 1601, weight of numbers did not favour the Irish chieftains. Russell’s force moved onward and Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne was killed in a skirmish with them on the 7th May 1597.Fiach’s head was impaled on a spike in Dublin Castle and even though his son Phelim succeeded him as chief of the O’Byrne’s, Fiach’s death really marks the end of Gaelic Wicklow. (Fiach had three sons, Turlough, Phelim and Redmond, and was twice married). His life had been tempestuous and violent, his long resistance to Dublin forces had been remarkable, but by 1606, Wicklow had subdued and shired, and the Gaelic way of life would die out during the 17th Century.