OTD – 8.5.1597 Death of Fiach McHugh 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 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.

On This Day – Drivetime – Michael Collins takes possession of Dublin Castle 16 January 1922


Even though Michael Collins concluded, accurately, in December 1921, that, in agreeing to the terms of the Anglo Irish treaty, he had signed his own death warrant, without having appended his signature to the document on 6 December 1921 he would not have been able to participate in an event six weeks later that must have given him a great deal of satisfaction.

Once the Treaty was signed and ratified by Dail Eireann on 7 January, bar a port or two, the loan of some artillery to start the Civil War, and of course six counties, the British didn’t really hang about. The new rulers of Ireland were advised to be ready to take over Dublin Castle in mid January.

There could be no clearer indication of the actual intention of the British to leave the 26 county Irish Free State than the handing over of this sprawling monument to British rule in Ireland. For centuries Ireland had been governed from … ‘The Castle’. Members of the majority religion who co-operated with the British administration to their financial benefit were … ‘Castle Catholics’. Everything British that moved and had its being in Ireland emanated from … the Castle.

Built at the behest of King John in the 13th century to provide a base for the English conquest of the country from Dublin it had remained the nexus of English and then British rule and the abiding symbol of the colonization of Ireland.

It was from the Bermingham Tower in the Castle that the legendary escape of Red Hugh O’Donnell and Art O’Neill took place in the depths of the winter of January 1592. Art O’Neill perished in the Dublin Mountains but O’Donnell managed to make his way to the sanctuary of the O’Byrnes in Glenmalure, Co.Wicklow. Just over two hundred years later, in 1907, the Insignia of the Order of St.Patrick, known as the Irish Crown Jewels, were stolen from the Bedford Tower in an audacious robbery that has never been solved. Half of Dublin at the time knew who had stolen them. The problem was they nominated the other half of the city as the thieves.

The Castle might well have fallen during the upheavals of 1641, but it did not succumb to rebel control. Robert Emmett could conceivably have taken it in 1803 but dismally failed to do so. It was even more vulnerable in 1916 but the Volunteers failed to walk the ball into an open goal.

So Michael Collins, dressed impressively in his military uniform, must have savoured the moment when his staff car drove into the precincts of the complex of buildings whose fabric he had successfully managed to infiltrate during the Anglo-Irish war while, himself, managing to stay out of the clutches of its more sinister and homicidal operatives.

When Collins stepped out of his staff car he was greeted waspishly by the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Fitzalan. ‘You are seven minutes late, Mr.Collins’, observed His Majesty’s last Viceroy in Ireland. The Irish leader is said to have responded acidly, ‘We’ve been waiting over seven hundred years, you can have the seven minutes.’

Fitzalan, the first Catholic Lord Lieutenant since the reign of King James II then took Collins on an impromptu and largely irrelevant tour of the facility pointing out which keys opened which doors, before absenting himself and leaving Collins, literally, holding the fort.

Michael Collins took possession of Dublin Castle on behalf of the Irish provisional government 93 years ago, on this day.