Curse and swear, Lord Kildare,
Fiach will do what Fiach will dare
Now Fitzwilliam have a care,
Fallen is your star low
Up with halbert, out with sword,
On we go for, by the Lord
Fiach McHugh has given the word
“Follow me up to Carlow”
So goes one of the best known songs in the Irish traditional canon, although it was written many years after the events that chorus describe.
To suggest that Wicklow chieftain Fiach McHugh O’Byrne was a thorn in the side of the Tudor dynasty in Ireland would be to exaggerate hugely the impact of a thorn. O’Byrne was nuisance and nemesis rolled together.
He was born in 1534 and became chieftain of the O’Byrne clan in his mid forties. One of the main reasons why he was so little beloved of British administrators in Ireland was because of his geographical proximity to the Pale. Whenever O’Byrne chose to do so he didn’t have far to go to bite off a piece of Tudor Dublin. And he chose to do so on a regular basis.
Retaliating against him was not quite as straightforward. There was no M11 or GPS in the 1500s so the Tudor armies sent against him had to make do with whatever tracks they could find and had to waste many frustrating days searching in vain for Fiach.
When Red Hugh O’Donnell and Art O’Neill made their celebrated escape from Dublin Castle in 1592 it was to Glenmalure, O’Byrne’s main redoubt, that they headed. Art O’Neill didn’t make it but a frostbitten Hugh O’Donnell did. O’Byrne sheltered him and sent him back to his people in Donegal, from where he made quite a nuisance of himself, along with Hugh O’Neill in the Nine Years War.
O’Byrne also made himself useful with the Earls of Kildare, who often had an ambiguous relationship with the English crown. Fiach once peremptorily hanged an important witness to a threatening government investigation into the affairs of Gerald Fitzgerald, 11th Earl of Kildare. Bumping off hostile witnesses didn’t start with the Mafia.
In 1580, during the Desmond rebellion the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Grey, led an army against the O’Byrnes. His plan was to attack Glenmalure. Like many a good plan brought to bear against Fiach it failed miserably and Grey was forced to withdraw to Dublin with serious losses. The Battle of Glenmalure was O’Byrne’s greatest triumph against the forces of Queen Elizabeth 1.
Sadly, Fiach came to a bad end in 1597. He threw in his lot with O’Neill and O’Donnell in the Nine Years War – in an engagement with English troops, assisted by some renegade members of his own clan, Fiach was captured and summarily beheaded with his own sword. His body was then cut up, and the head and quarters were hung on pikes on the Dublin Castle walls ‘pour encourager les autres’. Later his head was pickled and brought to London. A sad end for a redoubtable enemy of Tudor England.
Fiach McHugh O’Byrne, one of the last great Gaelic chieftains, died 418 years ago on this day.