Fiach MacHugh O’Bryne (Fiach Mac Aodh ÓBroin) was the son of the chief of the O’Byrnes of the Gabhail Raghnaill. His sept, a minor one, claimed descent from the 11th century King of Leinster, Bran Mac Maolmordha, and was centred at Ballinacor in Glenmalure, a steep valley in the fastness of the Wicklow mountains.
Their chiefs styled themselves as Lords of Ranalagh. The territory of the Gabhail Rabhnaill stretched from Glendalough south to the Forest of Shillelagh in Wexford and west to the borders of present day Co Carlow, an area of some 150,000 acres.
Resenting the greed and cruelty of the Elizabethan adventurers and settlers, Fiach would raid their villages and kill or drive them out. He was appalled at the ruthless cruelty of the stewarts Thomas Masterson and Sir Henry Harrington and in 1580 went into open rebellion when Masterson summarily executed many Kavanagh clansmen.
Other clans joined with Fiach and when James Eustace, 3rd Lord Baltinglass, angered by the treatment of the Catholic Old English also rebelled and joined with him. The English were appalled at this, already Munster was in turmoil as the Earl of Desmond was in rebellion and in the north the O’Neills were moving also against the English.
An army of 3,000 men were sent into the Wicklow Mountains but O’Byrne and Eustace were waiting for them in Glenmalure. Over 800 English lost their lives at the Battle of Glenmalure and the rest fled back to Dublin. The following year the English offered terms, Eustace refused and fled to Spain but Fiach and the other clan chiefs accepted and were pardoned.
In 1592 Hugh Roe O’Donnell, with brothers Art and Henry MacShane O’Neill escaped from Dublin Castle. The breakout had been planned with the help of Hugh Mór O’Neill and the escapees fled to the safety of Glenmalure. It was a severe winter and Art died from exposure and was buried in O’Byrne land but Fiach was able to transport Hugh Roe and Henry away to safety.
The English spent a long time collecting heads and plundering, they spared few. In April, Russell again went hunting for Fiach who once again escaped. His wife Rose however was captured and sentenced to be burned to death. The sentence was not carried out.
Lord Deputy Russell was to spend the next year unsuccessfully scouring the country for Fiach. However O’ Byrne’s luck was to run out. A traitor in his camp gave information to Russell that Fiach would be in Ballinacorr on 8th May 1597. The Lord Deputy was able to surprise him and captured him in a cave. There he was hacked to death and decapitated with his own sword.
The head of Fiach MacHugh O’Bryne was put on a spike at Dublin Castle then later sent to London to Queen Elizabeth. Angry that it would be even sent to England, she disdained to accept the head.
In the aftermath of Fiach McHugh’s death, the English had forced his sons to flee into Ulster to Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. There they planned to gather a force to return to Wicklow to reclaim their Lordship. Accordingly, it was in the Dublin government’s interests that these men be eliminated before they could stir up trouble in Wicklow.
In offering to betray them, Fiach’s wife, Rose, knew that she could manipulate the government. According to Captain Thomas Lee, the sentence of execution was not carried out because Rose offered if she may have her liberty and pardon, she will draw such a draught upon Fiach’s sons whom Lee had banished that he would have the killing of them. While no evidence can be found to prove that Rose managed to harm Fiach McHugh’s sons, it is strange that she was released on 7 January 1598 and was pardoned on 1 February.
“Follow Me Up to Carlow” is an Irish folk song celebrating the defeat of an army of 3,000 English soldiers by Fiach McHugh O’Byrne (Fiach Mac Aodh Ó Broin) at the Battle of Glenmalure, during the Second Desmond Rebellion in 1580.
Photo: Memorial to Fiach McHugh O’Byrne, Glenmalure, Co Wicklow.