AN IRISHMAN'S DIARY
IN Wicklow these days they are remembering an O'Byrne who was killed 400 years ago and who, with true local patriotism, they insist was a far more formidable opponent of the Elizabethan conquest of this island than Hugh O'Neill.
Yesterday afternoon in the Parnell National Memorial Park at Rathdrum, they unveiled a monument to Feagh McHugh O'Byrne, another Wicklow man who, had he lived, might have changed the course of Irish history. The tall granite slab erected to his memory comes from Fraughan Rock Glen in Glenmalure, where he had a famous victory over Crown forces in 1580.
According to the Rathdrum Historical Society, Feagh McHugh O'Byrne was chieftain of the O'Byrnes Rannalach, who succeeded his father as chieftain in 1580. His territory, called Ranelagh - now you know where that name comes from - covered about 150,000 acres of Wicklow, extending from Rathdrum to Shillelagh and the Carlow border.
By the time he became chief, he had already earned a formidable reputation following for days into the Pale, as well as Kildare and Wexford.
In Dublin, O'Byrne was seen as the greatest threat to the city's security, by the authorities, and that it, was unlikely he would be pacified. They heartily wished he could be dealt with once and for all. So in 1580, the Lord Deputy, Lord Grey, led his forces from Dublin to put manners on O'Byrne. They met him at Glenmalure on August 25th and Grey was heavily defeated, ad ding greatly to O'Byrne's reputation. Some even saw him as a future leader of Gaelic Leinster.
Grey's successor as Lord Deputy in Dublin was Sir John Perrot said to be a half brother of Queen Elizabeth. He held the Dublin post for four years, from 1584 to 1588, and he had little success in suppressing O Byrne. Writing to his superiors at the time, he described O'Byrne and his father as those perilous firebrands" of Leinster who lived "in a country so fast and strong [Glenmalure] as the State bath been glad to tolerate what so ever and, to give, them pardons at their own wills".
He recalled how after Grey's defeat, "the bones of divers knights, gentlemen, captains and soldiers were left there". Fearing the O'Byrnes might be planning a bit of mischief with the Spanish, he proposed they be poisoned. It was agreed, and an apothecary, Mr Thady Nolan, "appointed certain things for that purpose", but the plot failed. No one knows why and Perrot returned to England.
Sir William Russell became Lord Deputy in May, 1594. His aim was simple to exterminate O'Byrne. His predecessors had been dividing their attentions between dealing with Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, and Feagh O'Byrne. Russell decided to concentrate on ridding the Pale of the nuisance that was O'Byrne. He was, he said, of far greater ability than the earl".
He offered enormous sums of money for his capture or for his head. In January, 1595, he captured and garrisoned O Byrne's house at Ballinacor, but O'Byrne escaped. Russell undertook further expeditions to Ranelagh in February and April of that year, but again without success.
In September, to Russell's consternation O'Byrne recaptured his house at Ballinacor. This episode was particularly embarrassing as Russell had just written to London telling them there that "Feagh [O Byrne] is old and sickly and not to be reckoned with" and that "Feagh's body is unwieldy and spent with years".
More troops were deployed to Wicklow, so many that the authorities in Dublin became worried that security elsewhere in the country was being exposed to risk. They worried that Sir William's obsession with O'Byrne was affecting his judgment.
In September, 1596, Russell himself led a force to Rathdrum and "began to fortify the church, intending to leave the garrison there. In the afternoon his lordship rose towards the woods and appointed certain houses adjoining thereunto to be pulled down for timber to foitify with". But it was all in vain. O'Byrne continued to elude them.
Russell persisted. He returned to Rathdrum on May 7th, 1597. Forces had been positioned at Tullow and Rathdrum - and there was a traitor, inevitably. The traitor told Russell where O'Byrne was to be found. Russell moved on Glenmalure from a number of directions at the same time. His forces entered the townland at about 2 o'clock on the morning of Sunday, May 8th.
As Sir William's diarist wrote it pleased God to deliver him [Feagh O'Byrne] into our hands, being . . . run out of breath and forced to take a cave where one Milborne, sergeant to Captain Lee, first lighted on him, and the fury of the soldiers was so great as he could not be brought away alive; thereupon the said sergeant cut off Feagh's head ... and presented [it] to my Lord, which with his carcass was brought to Dublin, to the great comfort and joy of all the province". Well, not quite.
Hundreds of O'Byrne's followers were killed and 200 of their cows were taken "and, with much pillage, [were] divided among the soldiers". Such was his joy that Russell knighted a scatter of his soldiery in Rathdrum and returned to Dublin triumphant.
His diarist records that "all the people of the country met him with great joy and gladness, and, as their manner is, bestowed many blessings on him for performing so good a deed".
Well, not quite either.
Another witness to Sir William's triumphant return to Dublin was Sir Edward Stanley. He wrote to London that as a result of O Byrne's slaughter, the hearts of the people "be so hardened towards us that few of them rejoice that any good service done".
However, Sir Geoffrey Fenton Secretary of State for Ireland, was in no doubt about the significance of O Byrne's death. He wrote that while he lived, Feagh gave notable encouragement to the rebellion in Ulster" and "was more relied upon by the Spaniards than Tyrone [O'Neill] himself".
Feagh O Byrne's head was brought to Dublin and impaled at Dublin Castle, then it was sent to London and shown to Queen Elizabeth. She was not amused and indicated "her high displeasure at such a present sent with so much of vain parade". She was also, nope too happy at Russell's knightings in Rathdrum. Her majesty is most troubled with the late knights that were made," it was written at the time, and not content that the head of such a base Robin Hood [O'Byrne] is brought so solemnly into England".
A Mr John Lane, who had brought the head to England, tried to collect head money for it, but was told that had already been paid in Ireland. However, they kindly told him he could keep the head. He gave it to a young lad who put it in a true, where it was later found by children searching for cattle. No one seems to know what happened to it after that.