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Settlement and Social Life in Feagh McHugh O'Byrne's Ballinacor
Harry Long
Dr. Harry Long lectures in the Department of Medieval History at Trinity College, Dublin. He was awarded a PhD by T.C.D. in 1997 for his dissertation on the architecture and archaeology of Glendalough. Currently he is working on a definitive history of Irish music.

Prom the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion and conquest of Ireland in the A late twelfth century, the Wicklow Mountains provided a refuge for dispossessed Gaelic Irish Chieftains and their families. In pre-Norman times the O'Byrnes and O'Tooles were settled around West Wicklow and Kildare. They lost their lands, however, to the Anglo-Normans from the 1170s on, and most of them moved eastwards into the mountains. The upland areas around the valleys of Glendalough and Glenmalure became the homelands of the O'Byrnes and O'Tooles as they watched colonists from England, Wales and further a field establish new settlements in their former kingdoms. The process of conquest and colonisation was never completed, however, in the Middle Ages. At its peak, the area of English control in Ireland may have extended over three-quarters of the country. Vast areas of Ulster remained unconquered and autonomous Gaelic areas also existed in other parts of the country, including the Wicklow mountains. This area had special significance throughout the Middle Ages. Its proximity to Dublin meant that, from here, the O'Byrnes and O'Tooles could intimidate and attack the colonies right to the very centre of English administration in Ireland. From the late thirteenth century, the Gaelic Resurgence began the process of pushing back the colonies to such an extent that, by the fifteenth century, the Pale was established. This was an attempt to consolidate an area of English control in Ireland which could be defended from attacks by the hostile Gaelic Irish. At its southern end, the Pale stopped in the foothills of the Dublin mountains. Beyond here lay the country of the O'Byrnes and O'Tooles, whom many English armies during the Middle Ages had failed to subdue. The Gaelic language and way of life predominated in this area less than a day's ride from the very heart of the Pale at Dublin.

By the sixteenth century, when Feagh McHugh O'Byrne lived and died, the English attitude to Ireland had changed considerably. Although the latter years of the reign of Henry VIII (King of England, 1509-47 and of Ireland, 1540-47) saw an attempt to bring Ireland under control through a policy of conciliation, a very different policy was pursued under Elizabeth 1. Queen of England and Ireland for almost half a century (1558-1603), Elizabeth's reign was marked by an aggressive and sustained attempt to complete the conquest of Ireland. Military conquest and colonisation, partly inspired by the Reformation, provoked widespread rebellion amongst both the Anglo-Irish and the Gaelic Irish. Attitudes hardened, sometimes along Catholic/Protestant religious lines, sometimes along racial lines. On the English side, writers like the poet Edmund Spenser and the experienced soldier Barnaby Rich wrote extensive works on Ireland, attacking Gaelic Irish society, its customs and its culture. The backwardness of Gaelic Ireland and the "uncivilised" nature of its inhabitants explained the need for the aggressive military policy of conquest. On the Gaelic Irish side, some, such as the senior branch of the O'Byrnes, effectively submitted to the English crown rather than face the consequences of resistance. Others, such as the O'Byrnes of Gabhal Raghnall, the junior branch of the O'Byrnes to whom Feagh McHugh belonged, chose to resist. It was in these circumstances that the Gabhal Raghnall chiefs, Hugh McShane, Feagh McHugh, and Phelim, rose from relative obscurity during the closing decades of the sixteenth century.

The territory of Gabhal Raghnall stretched from the Rathdrum-Glenmalure area to the Carlow border near Shillelagh. From the time of Feagh's father, Hugh McShane, the O'Byrnes of Gabhal Raghnall were generous patrons of the bardic poets. The numerous poems which were written for Hugh, Feagh and Phelim O'Byrne were collected and published under the title Leabhar Branach: The Book of the O'Byrnes in 1944. It is apparent from numerous references in the poems that the main residence of these chieftains was at Ballinacor. This is confirmed by English sources, Sir Nicholas White, for example, in 1584 describing Feagh's residence as being "at the mouth of the Glynn [i.e. Glenmalure]".

In Ballinacor townland, on the south-western bank of the Avonbeg River near Greenan, the remains of three enclosures survived in 1838. "Baile na Corra", as the name appears in the Leabhar Branach, means "the townland of the slope". In the first 6-inch map of the area (surveyed 1838), all three enclosures are located within a short distance of each other on the gentle slopes of Ballinacor mountain. The site commands fine views up the valley and overlooks the bridge at Greenan. The road coming down into Greenan from Rathdrum, on the opposite side of the valley, can also be seen. The site is significant strategically as it controls the mouth of Glenmalure valley, the main access route from Rathdrum and the river valley at Greenan, which did have a bridge in Feagh McHugh's time. Although the distinguished Co. Wicklow historian, Liam Price, did not analyse this site in detail, it is interesting that he mentioned the traditional location of the O'Byrne settlement as being somewhere in the immediate neighbourhood of Ballinacor House. The entrance to the House is, in fact, only about a quarter-mile from the site of the enclosures, between them and the Avonbeg River.

Only two of these structures now survive, the third having been removed between 1838 and 1909. The two surviving structures have ramparts of earth with stones loosely mixed in. Their height varies, but is around 1 m in most places. The easternmost of these enclosures appears to be circular but some sections of the bank are almost straight. There are three openings in the bank, the widest of which, on the north-west, appears to be an entrance. The enclosed area is about 35 m wide. The westernmost enclosure is somewhat larger, but is badly overgrown with trees and bushes. Two breaks are discernible in its banks. This enclosure, and the one which has disappeared, are circular and typical of the raths or ringforts which were built in Ireland from pre-historic times.

Although raths were a common form of settlement into Early Medieval times, and excavations have shown that some, at least, were still being occupied in the later Medieval period,` their survival into Early Modern times is rare. The Ballinacor raths have never been excavated, and excavation could reveal more about the date and nature of occupation there. The location certainly matches all known descriptions of Feagh McHugh O'Byrne's residence. With the exception of the site of 'Phelim's Castle', these raths are the only monuments which survive in the townland of Ballinacor. Perhaps most significant is the fact that all contemporary written sources, in Irish and in English, point to the conclusion that Feagh did not live in a stone castle but in a wooden structure surrounded by earthen ramparts, a typical rath type settlement. English sources avoid the use of the word "castell" for Feagh's residence, describing it simply as "house". The same sources refer consistently to the "castles" of "Castle Kevan" (Castlekevin, near Annamoe) and "Castle Comin'' (Kilcommon, near Rathdrum), both of which had stone structures in Feagh's time. The Annals of the Four Masters describe a raid on Ballinacor in January 1595 by the Lord Deputy and his men with the following words:

... before they had passed through the gate of the rampart that surrounded it, the sound of a drum was accidentally heard from the soldiers who were into the castle (baile). Feagh with his people took the alarm, and he rose up suddenly and sent a party of his people, men, boys and women, out through the postern doors, and he followed them and conveyed them all in safety to the wilds and recesses where he considered them secure.

Price observed that the term baile, translated into English as "castle", instead of caislean, the usual Irish term for a stone castle, implied that Feagh lived in a wooden structure." Other Irish terms used in this description provide evidence of the type of structures which existed at Ballinacor. The Irish for "through the gate of the rampart that surrounded it” is tar dorus an dunchlad tsaoi ina timpeall. Dunchlad in Middle and Early Modern Irish described not simply "rampart" but, more specifically, "earthen dyke or rampart entrenchment". The distinction made in the translation between dorus an dunchlad ("the gate of the rampart") and doirsib elaid ("the postern door") is correct. Elaid in Irish encompasses the meanings "escape, abscond, make-off”. The annals clearly state that the O'Byrne homestead at Ballinacor was surrounded by an earthen rampart with an entrance gate and a separate postern gate to allow the residents to escape.

A report from the Lord Deputy at Ballinacor, written just after the incident described above, mentions how he "cutte down the plashed wood near the house of Feagh". The verb "to plash" or "to pleach" means "to construct or repair (a hedge) by interlacing the shoots" and comes from the Latin plectere, "to plait or to weave." Shakespeare (d. 1616) used the word "pleached" to mean fenced or overarched with intertwined bows. Hedges planted on top of earthen banks increased the defensive capabilities of a settlement, and were used as such in raths. As late as 1600, the rath at Tullahogue in Hugh O'Neill's country was still occupied and a contemporary picture shows the trees growing from an encircling bank . It is clear that precisely this kind of structure existed at Ballinacor in 1595 and that Russell destroyed the defensive capabilities of the rath at Ballinacor by cutting down the hedge that surrounded it.

Ballinacor had been burned before by one of Lord Grey's men, Sir William Stanley, the year after Feagh's famous victory over him in the Battle of Glenmalure (1580). MacAirt, the editor of the Leabhar Branach, thought that one of the poems on Ballinacor could have been written after this burning. As Ballinacor was reoccupied by Feagh after this, and as he was not finally expelled from there until 1595, the poem may, in fact, be later." it not only confirms that Feagh's Ballinacor was a rath type settlement, but also suggests that there were a number of raths, each fulfilling a different function. The poet laments the desolation of:

The enclosure (lios) of the hostages
The lonely enclosure (lios) of the womenfolk
The bright bank of the slender spears
The house of the guests (teagh na n-aoigheadh)

The stanza following laments the fact that the poet cannot see "the house where Feagh himself used to be". The term les (lios) was used in Old and Middle Irish to describe the "the space about a dwelling-house or houses enclosed by a bank or rampart." The archaeologist O'Riordain noted that lios and rath are terms which usually describe earthen ringforts, while caiseal and cathair are used for the stone type." The use of the term lios in the poem, therefore, concurs with evidence of a rath settlement from other written sources. A settlement consisting of more than one lios or rath is confirmed by the presence of three enclosures on the map of 1838.

One of the enclosures that survives at Ballinacor may, however, have been a rath of Feagh's settlement reconstructed by the Lord Deputy Russell after Feagh's flight from Ballinacor in January 1595. Between 5 February and 22 February, Russell "caused to be made a verie strong ffortification in Bayliennecorre [Ballinacor] which is the Chieff House of Feagh make Hews." Arms and provisions were sent to Ballinacor via the port of Arklow. Russell cleared passes at Drurnkitt and Kilcommon` and, on 21 February 1595, the Earl of Ormond came to view the fort. On 24 February, Russell left for Dublin, but an English garrison was left at Ballinacor. Having held the site for almost a year and a half, they lost it again "by the treachery of a sergeant" to Feagh McHugh who "raised the fort to the ground. It is some indication of the significance of Ballinacor, renamed "Mount Russell"," to the English that the sergeant and two soldiers were executed "for treachery in yielding up the fort ." Russell fortified the church at Rathdrum and eventually built another new fortification there.

While the refortification of Ballinacor by the English is important in understanding the site, the survival of a rath settlement into the sixteenth century requires some explanation. Gaelic chieftains in other parts of Ireland had, for about 200 years, been constructing stronger stone tower-houses to increase their security. Glenmalure, however, was secure in its isolation and the inaccessibility of the steep mountains around it. Throughout the Middle Ages, successive English armies had encountered great difficulties in attempting to defeat the "wild Irish" of the mountains around Glenmalure. Right up to Feagh McHugh's time, the landscape itself played a vital role in defeating the English. No more graphic evidence of this can be found than Sir William Stanley's description, written just after the defeat of Lord Grey by Feagh in August 1580. "The place," wrote Stanley of Glenmalure, "was such, soe very ill that were a man never so slightlie hurte he was loste, because no man was hable to helpe him up the hill; some died being so out of breath that they were hable to goe noe further being not hurte at all."" Russell succeeded in defeating and killing Feagh McHugh O'Byrne (in May 1597) only after a long campaign which involved moving garrisons inland from Wicklow and Arklow to the refortified castles at Kilcommon and Castlekevin; clearing the passes at Drurnkitt and Kilcommon; reconstructing Ballinacor itself after its capture in 1595 and, after losing it again, building new fortifications at Rathdrum. It is hardly surprising, then, that in such a remote and naturally secure valley the O'Bymes of Gabhal Raghnaill had no need to construct a tower-house before the end of the sixteenth century. Even though he captured Ballinacor itself, built new fortifications and installed garrisons in refortified older castles, Russell still couldn't track down and defeat Feagh until the latter was betrayed by a relative. Feagh knew the mountains and, like many Gaelic chieftains, was a master of what we would now call guerrilla-type warfare.

The O'Byrnes of Gabhal Raghnaill maintained, in their mountainous refuge, a Gaelic way of life which had long since passed away in other parts of Ireland. Under the impact of a sustained military and cultural conquest, living in a rath settlement could also be a symbol of political and cultural identity. Indeed Ballinacor in the time of Phelim, the son of Feagh, was compared by one poet in the Leabhar Branach to Earnhain Macha, the ancient seat and ceremonial centre of the Ulster kings. Both Feagh and his son Phelim were allied with the O'Neills and O'Donnells of Ulster and played significant roles in the Gaelic resistance to the Elizabethan conquest. Even if the comparison of Phelim's to Eamhain Macha is mere poetic fancy, it serves to underline a common cultural identity, a shared Celtic past which went back far longer than the time of the first English arrivals in Ireland. The very existence of the Leabhar Branach is a testament to the survival of a Gaelic cultural tradition which stretched back into pre-Norman times. In pre-Norman Ireland, poets held a power and social status which was second only to their patrons, the kings. They were partly propagandists, bolstering the image and ancestry of the kings. Their satire was greatly feared and, even in the fifteenth century, could cause physical blemishes, ill-fortune or death. The O'Byrnes of Gabhal Raghnall were the only Gaelic Irish sept in Leinster who had such a substantial poem-book written for them at such a late date. In addition to the MacKeoghs of Pallis in North Wexford, hereditary bards of the O'Byrnes,` poets from Munster, Ulster and other parts of Ireland contributed to the Leabhar Branach. Indeed Mac Airt has pointed to the special affection which the O'Byrnes had for "the passing guest". He suggests that the relatively high number of wandering poets who visited Ballinacor did so because the O'Byrnes were one of the few families at this time who could make such visits worthwhile for the poets. "By their success in maintaining the independence and integrity of their mountainous territory against great odds until the final collapse, they were in a position to attract poets of repute from distant" parts of Ireland.

The poems of the Leabhar Branach contain many references to ancient Irish sites including Tara, Tailte and Eamhain Macha. The O'Byrnes are compared to ancient mythological heroes such as Cuchulainn. The dunaire or collection of poems dedicated to Feagh's father, Hugh MacShane, is in many ways typical of medieval bardic poetry. The concerns of the political poems are largely those of local politics, the O'Byrne dynasty and the heroic stature of Hugh MacShane himself. In an excellent analysis of the Leabhar Branach, however, Bradshaw has shown how the dunaire of Feagh McHugh reflects changes in Gaelic society and politics. Despite the fact that some of the poems only display an interest in the personal achievements of Feagh and local dynastic politics, some poems have a far broader perspective. Six poems in particular portray Feagh as a leader of national significance, struggling to maintain the claims of the Gaeil to Ireland in the midst of a racial struggle with the Gaill. In one of these poems Feagh is portrayed as the embodiment of the prophecy that the Gaeil would eventually defeat the Gaill. He is compared to Lugh Lamhfhada, who rallied the nation in the face of oppression by the evil-eyed Baron. Another poem warns that the Foreigner is determined to exterminate the Gaelic race. Another celebrates Feagh's success, not merely as personal or dynastic but national in its significance... These poems, in which local or dynastic concerns are subsumed in a broader national ideology, mark a considerable departure from the traditional emphasis of bardic poetry. They provide important evidence for the evolution of a Gaelic nationalism in Feagh's time which was racial and non-religious in character.

The bards themselves formed an important part of both political and social life at Ballinacor. In addition, the poems which they wrote portray other aspects of a Gaelic society which may have faced annihilation, but continued to hold to customs of old. Hospitality, always an important feature of social life in the Celtic world, features strongly in many of the poems. Both Feagh and his second wife, Rose O'Toole, are praised repeatedly for their hospitality. Feagh is mentioned as seizing all wines, especially for the entertainment of poets. The significance of payments and gifts to the poets comes out in a number of poems, with cattle, goblets and rings" being given to them by Feagh. The poets were professional and relied on their patron for their living. Failure to pay could expose a patron to the threat of satire, as in one poem by Giolla na Naornh Ruadh Mac Eochada. Mac Eochada demands that Feagh redeem a pledge of "poems and lays" by depositing their price. He hints that satire may be the result of his not receiving this "deposit".

The importance of raids on enemy settlements is also a feature of the poems. One claims that the "tributes" taken by Feagh from his enemies were so great that there was no lack of gold for decorating swords. Raiding enemy settlements and the extortion of "black rents" certainly played a significant role in both the military strategies and economies of Gaelic Irish communities. Huts called both,' teach tathaimh or teach fionnabhraidh" were constructed as temporary sleeping huts used before dawn raids. In thickly wooded country, raiding would be difficult. Attackers would ride to within a short distance of their objective in late evening, construct temporary huts, and carry out their raids in the early morning. The O'Byrnes persistently plundered and burned settlements on the fringes of the Pale and often attacked Carlow as well. "Guerrilla" tactics such as these served them well and the poets praised their abilities as reivers. This was a world of contrasts and extremes. In Ballinacor itself, the (lios) of the hostages existed side-by-side with the house of the guests. Hostage-taking was an important part of warfare in pre-Norman Ireland. The English soon adopted this practice in Ireland, and it continued to play a significant role in the sixteenth century. In November 1596, after Feagh McHugh O'Byrne broke negotiations with the Crown by going into open rebellion, Russell "appointed Feagh McHugh's pledges, one of them being his base son, to be executed, with one other of his followers." Russell's journal also shows that the well-known practice of cattle-raiding, a central element in Irish warfare since the Iron Age of The Tain, was not uniquely confined to the Gaelic Irish in the sixteenth century. Numerous instances of cattle-raids carried out by Russell's men are recorded in his journal.

Ballinacor is praised as a "hunting haven" and Rose, Feagh's wife, portrayed as engaged in the delicate craft of embroidering "silken hounds" and "a golden stag" in Feagh's dunaire. Elsewhere the bards delight in the slaughter of foreigners or are exultant at a warden's head being displayed on a spike over his own fortress, successfully raided by Feagh. The latter poem also mentions Spaniards` and probably dates from around 1594, when it was reported that Feagh did have some Spaniards amongst his men. Throughout his time, the Spanish played an enormous role as allies of the Gaelic Irish against the English, down to the catastrophic defeat of the combined Irish and Spanish forces at Kinsale in 1601.

Even music could signify both beauty and political persecution. One "household poem" on Feagh's Ballinacor describes a gathering of young men and women, people from all parts of Ireland at a "court of communal drinking" and "a king's son without gloom or lack of enthusiasm distributing wealth for the cry of [harp] strings." Harpers were the musicians who held the highest status in pre-Norman Irish society. Their importance continued into Early Modem times, when they frequently accompanied the recitations of poets. Harpers, pipers and other entertainers had been legislated against since the Statutes of Kilkenny (1366). In Elizabethan times, harpers and pipers could be executed under English law. After Kinsale, many were pardoned as Ireland settled into an uneasy peace. Many of the authors who contributed to the Leabhar Branach also received pardons when they submitted and agreed to keep the peace. Bards and musicians were seen as spies or fomentors of rebellion, and on one occasion the Lord Deputy complained that Feagh McHugh O'Byrne and Rory Og O'More led raids into the Pale headed by pipers during the daytime and torchbearers at night.

In both the Leabhar Branach and the English records of Feagh McHugh O'Byrne there is evidence of hatred and distrust, ruthless killing, terror and fury. As early as 1571, eight years before he succeeded his father as chief of the O'Byrnes of Gabhal Raghnaill, Feagh was noted by Lord Deputy Fitzwilliarn as ,'very dangerous and garlus’. Feagh's victory over Grey at Glenmalure in 1580 inspired disaffected Irishmen to go into open rebellion against the English. His adherence to the cause of allies such as O'Neill, O'Donnell and O'More led to a long military campaign by the English in Wicklow from 1595 to 1597. Feagh was ultimately defeated not by the considerable military resources expended by Russell, but through betrayal by an unknown relative. Perhaps no source captures better the sense of hatred, ruthlessness and fury unleashed and out of control than Russell's journal on 8 May 1597. This was the Sunday on which Feagh McHugh finally met his end in Glenmalure.

Early in the morning our foot enterted the Glynnes and fell into that quarter where Feagh McHugh lay; and coming several ways on him, it pleased God to deliver him into our hands, being so hardly followed as that he was out of breath, and forced to take to a cave, where one Milborne, sergeant to Captain Lee, first lighted on him, and the fury of our soldiers was so great as he could not be brought away alive; thereupon the said sergeant cut off Feagh's head with his own sword and presented his head to my Lord [Russell] which with his carcass was brought to Dublin, to the great comfort and joy of all that province. Many of his followers were slain and 200 cows were taken with much pillage. My Lord returned to Rathdrum, and there before the fort knighted Sir Calistinas Brooke, Sir Thomas Maria Wingfield and Sir Richard Trever.

The following day, Russell rode to Dublin, being greeted all the way "with great joy and gladness" by the people who "bestowed many blessings on him for performing so good a deed, and delivering them from their long oppressions. “The Council, divers noblemen and the citizens of Dublin, with many others, met his Lordship, and he was welcomed with universal joy.”

Two men who were present in Dublin at that time and did not share in the apparent "universal joy" were Domhnall Mac Eochada and Aonghus O'Dalaigh. Both were poets from Pallis in north Wexford and both viewed Feagh's quartered corpse when it was exhibited in Dublin." Each of them wrote a lament for Feagh,` whose head had already been dispatched to Queen Elizabeth's court before they wrote. Both hinted that Feagh met his end by treachery, although neither poet knew who the traitor was. The Annals of the Four Masters also state that Feagh was "treacherously betrayed by his relative, at the bidding of the Chief Justiciary of Ireland, Sir William Russell."

Feagh's son, Phelim, continued to resist English rule in alliance with the northern chiefs. On 29 May 1599, he defeated a royal force under Sir Henry Harrington between Rathdrum and Wicklow. Gaelic Irish control over Gabhal Raghnaill, however, came to an end after the Irish defeat at Kinsale. In 1606 Phelim and his brother Raymond received English grants of what lands were left to them, to be held under English law. Phelim was tried and condemned on false charges in 1628. His lands were confiscated and he was imprisoned in Dublin Castle in 1629. He was later released again but died at Ballinacor in the following year.

After the numerous attacks and destructions of Feagh's Ballinacor, it is not surprising that Phelim resided at a site further up the mountain to Feagh's in a castle which was probably built of stone. The move up the mountain and the greater need for the security of a stone castle are symbolic of a chieftain and a society quite literally "on the run". Gaelic resistance to the English at Glenmalure really reached its peak in Feagh's time. Phelim's dunaire in the Leabhar Branach does not contain anything of the broader nationalist ideology of some of Feagh's poems. It portrays a Gaelic lord trying to come to terms with his conqueror without losing self-respect or the family fortunes."

The prophecies concerning Feagh's role as saviour of the Gaelic race in the war with the Gaill were ultimately false. Gaelic society collapsed after the Irish defeat at Kinsale, four years after the death of Feagh. Nonetheless, Feagh's Ballinacor represents the remarkable survival of a settlement form, the rath, which has its origins in Celtic prehistory. The Gaelic society of Feagh's Glenmalure also displays many characteristics of early Irish society in pre-Norman times. That such features and characteristics of pre-Norman times could survive the Middle Ages right on the fringes of the Pale is a fact which has not received due recognition. The emergence of a nationalist ideology, evidenced in Feagh's dunaire, went beyond the usual limited vision of the bardic poets. Although Gaelic society was ultimately too weak to survive the onslaught of Elizabethan conquest, the dogged resistance of Gaelic chiefs such as Feagh McHugh O'Byrne mobilised every resource available in the struggle to survive. Words and music became political weapons in the struggle. Poets, pipers and harpers fought the same war on a different front to their military leaders. Although ultimately defeated, the society of Feagh's Ballinacor has left us a wealth of evidence which allows us rare glimpses of Gaelic Wicklow struggling to survive. Its significance goes beyond Wicklow, forming part of a national resistance to an English conquest which began in the twelfth century but was not finished until 1601.

O'Byrne Files Copyright © 2002 N. O'Byrne Most recent revision: Thursday, 25 March 2004

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