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  • Writer's pictureWilde Irishe

The O’Byrnes of Wicklow: Tara in the Mountains

Updated: Dec 27, 2019

Christmas seems an appropriate time to consider the O’Byrnes of Gabhal Raghnall. It was to their seat of Ballinacor that the young Red Hugh O’Donnell made his way at Christmas 1591 after slipping down the wall of the Bermingham tower of Dublin Castle. And it was on Christmas eve 1595 that Lord Deputy Russell routed the doughty old rebel Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne out of his house at Ballinacor and ate his Christmas dinner.

At the outset of the Tudor era, the O’Byrnes were in two septs; Crioch Branach east of the Avonmore, with a junior branch called Gabhal Raghnall in the mountains between Glendalough and Shillelagh. Circa 1480, a state document, “The Power of Irishmen,” gives the “Lord of ybranaght” a battle (60-80 men) of galloglass, 60 horse, and 88 kern. “Gowllranel” had a mere 8 horsemen and 40 kern. But these relative positions would quickly reverse as the junior branch increasingly took the lead, emboldened in their relations with the government by their more remote location. Sheltered in the mountains less than a day’s ride south of Dublin, the O’Byrnes under Hugh MacShane (died 1579) carried out extensive raiding on contiguous English settlements, one of which resulted in the saffron shopping we witnessed last week. The duanaire or poem-book of the O’Byrnes, records the circuit of Hugh MacShane’s raiding in poem 18, the Battle-Roll or Caithréim, of Hugh MacShane. The raiding progress, echoing the tribute circuit of an early Irish king, can be charted in the accompanying map, setting out from Ballinacor in the mountains south of Dublin, and running ritually clockwise (or deiseal) by way of Arklow through Carlow, Laois, Offaly, Kildare and the Pale to return home to Wicklow again.

Map showing the path taken by O'Byrnes on raids against the English Pale
Raiding circuit of Hugh MacShane O'Byrne

Upon succeeding his father Hugh, Fiach (“the Raven”) MacHugh O’Byrne earned a name as the “Firebrand of Wicklow,” fomenting and supporting rebellion in Leinster from the Desmond Rebellions through to his death in 1597, in the midst of Tyrone’s Rebellion. Gaelic rebels, harpers and poets from all over Ireland hiked up the mountains to Ballinacor to receive the largess of Fiach, for the poets exulted that there was no shortage of gold to plate sword hilts thanks to Fiach’s extensive raiding. Goblets, rings and cattle were bestowed upon the poets in return for the poems that fill the Leabhar Branach, or Poem Book of the O’Byrnes. This book brought the O’Byrnes into controversy again recently when historian Brendan Bradshaw used a number of it’s poems to build his thesis that in Ballinacor a nascent Gaelic Irish nationalism had emerged, with the poets praising Fiach as a figure of national and ethnic importance, rather than a mere local warlord. This was counter to the position, first outlined by Michelle O’Riordan (The Gaelic Mind and the Collapse of the Gaelic World), that the poets remained oblivious to larger issues of national politics until the end. The firestorm hasn’t yet subsided—we largely favor Bradshaw’s interpretation here ;-)

Rath settlement at Ballinacor in the Wicklow mountains, depicted on the 1837 six inch ordnance map.
Two of the raths at Ballinacor, highlighted by a red dot, as seen on the 1837 six inch ordnance map.

A fascinating aspect of the O’Byrnes is the settlement pattern at Ballinacor. In keeping up the style of Gaelic lords of old, Hugh MacShane and Fiach MacHugh patronized harpers and poets and kept open house in a series of circular raths, or earthwork fortifications encircling groups of houses. After Russell’s attack in 1595 the poets lament the loss of “the lios (enclosure) of the hostages, the lios of the women, the house of the guests.” The names of the different raths call to mind the ancient site of Tara, and this is surely intentional. The main rath had a postern gate that allowed Fiach and his people to escape Russell’s Christmas eve attack. And afterwards, Russell reports that he “cut down the plashed wood” that likely surmounted the circular earthwork. To “plash” is to bend over and intertwine living trees, making an impenetrable barrier. The Irish had used it as a defensive measure in woodlands since Strongbow’s invasion. The mountain fastness of Ballinacor may have been thought secure enough for forgo building a stone castle, but there was something more going on here.

Inset of plashing diagram from 18th centuryagricultural manual with photo of modern plashed hedge.
Plashed hedges in an 18th century agricultural manual (inset), and contemporary usage in the UK.

To find what may have been iron age raths still inhabited at this date is remarkable, but not isolated in Ireland. In more suitable country to the west and the north, crannogs, or lake dwellings, were still much in use by Gaelic lords. This prehistoric type of dwelling is repeatedly pictured by Lord Deputy Mountjoy’s cartographer, Richard Bartlett, towards the end of the 16th century. Crannogs were artificial islands, containing houses, castles or churches, and ringed by wattle fencing. They show signs of occupation as late as the 1690’s, but were in full use as chiefly residences, prisons and storehouses during the 16th century. While possessed of admirable defensive qualities, the reasons for continued occupation of ancient settlement types were also political. Kieran O’Conor (Crannóga in later medieval Ireland) has argued that their continued use was a deliberate anachronism, echoing and invoking the remote past to provide political legitimacy for the Gaelic elite.

depiction of crannogs, or artificial island settlements circa 1600, and Roscommon Abbey circa 1260.
Crannogs in Monaghan, by Richard Bartlett, and Roscommon Priory.

The use of these ancient settlement types does not mean Gaelic Ireland remained stagnant. Gaelic Ireland has been affected throughout its existence by much of what was trending elsewhere in Europe. For instance, Kieran O’Conor points out that king Felim O’Connor founded the priory of Roscommon for the vibrant new Dominican order in 1253. He notes it is comparable to anything on the Continent in terms of its truly massive scale, and the speed with which it was erected. While certainly a frontier society, and not wealthy, Gaelic Ireland possessed the necessary wealth and technical know-how to build large masonry structures. This being the case, it is notable that Felim O’Connor’s residence at this time was a crannog. Kieran O’Conor suggests that similar dynamics were at work in Wales and Cornwall, where occupying English lords created deliberately archaic looking castles and fortifications, quite possibly to invoke the authority of the deep past in societies which, like Gaelic Ireland, were lineage-based and highly conscious of precedent. And this is the dynamic underlying the O’Byrne settlement at Ballinacor.

Merry Christmas to all. We take a break next week, but when we next meet, we’ll enjoy the Irish contents of the first novel in the English language.

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