O'Byrne, Fiagh MacHugh (DNB00)
O'BYRNE, FIAGH MacHUGH (1544?–1597), in Irish Ficha mac Aodha na Broin, chief of the sept of the O'Byrnes of Wicklow, called Gabhal-Raghnaill, born about 1544, was the lineal descendant of Cathaeir Mor, king of Ireland in the second century. He was a man of great ambition and considerable ability, but, as Spenser remarked, he derived his importance chiefly from the wild and inaccessible nature of his country and its proximity to the metropolis. After the death in 1580 of Dunlaing, son of Edmund, the last inaugurated O'Byrne, he was generally recognised as chief of the O'Byrnes; but his authority was always more or less disputed by members of the senior branch, and it is probable that their jealousy of him ultimately led to his ruin. He is first mentioned in connection with the escape of Sir Edmund Butler from Dublin Castle in September 1569, at which time he was apparently about twenty-five years of age. Two years later, in April 1571, he combined with Rory Oge O'More [q. v.] in an attack on the Pale. But he first became notorious owing to his implication in the murder, in May 1572, of Robert Browne of Mulcranan in co. Wexford. For his share in this outrage he was prosecuted by Captain Francis Agard, seneschal of Wicklow, and, though he himself managed to escape, his brother and two of his principal followers were killed. Owing, however, to the unsettled state of the country, the lord-deputy, Sir William Fitzwilliam, was afraid to pursue an extreme course with him, and, with the assistance of Agard and the Earl of Kildare, he was in good hope of inducing Fiagh to surrender the real murderers of Browne as ‘the price of his own redemption.’ But his purpose was frustrated by the officious zeal of the seneschal of Wexford, Nicholas White, ‘and his frindes thundring abroade (in advauncement of their owne credit) the Q[ueen's] Indignacon and resolucon never to pardon any the partakers of Brownes murther.’ Fitzwilliam was unable to retrieve White's blunder, and Fiagh, being confined to his own territory, revenged himself by plundering the farmers in Wexford and the Pale. On 26 Aug. he invaded Wexford with three or four hundred followers, and having fired a number of villages, including that of Nicholas Devereux of Dunbrody, and having defeated the seneschal who tried to intercept him, he retired in safety with his plunder to his fastness in Glenmalure. In February 1573 government granted him a pardon. Later in the year his sister married Rory Oge O'More; and Fiagh, as he was returning from the wedding in Leix through Kildare, was attacked by the sheriff of that county, Maurice Fitzjames of Ballyshannon; but the sheriff, ‘being traitorously forsaken of his men, was taken prisoner and ledd away into the glennes of Cowlranyll.’ At first Fiagh refused to surrender him unless ‘he would condescend to pay 800l. ransom and be sworn never to seek revenge for his taking,’ but he ultimately consented ‘for a consideration’ to give him up to Captain Agard.
For several subsequent years Fiagh ceased to cause the government any trouble. After the death of his brother-in-law Rory Oge, in July 1578, some anxiety was felt lest he should be tempted to revenge his death; but, by the good offices of Sir Henry Harington, he was induced to submit formally to Sir William Drury in Christ Church, Dublin, on 21 Sept. In professing his wish to live as became a loyal subject, he complained, not without some show of reason, that he had been driven into rebellious courses by the violence of his neighbours, who had killed his uncle and were seeking his own destruction. A few days later he renewed his submission at Castledermot. ‘Ffeagh m'Hughe,’ wrote Drury to Burghley at the time, ‘[is] the most doubted man of Leinster after the death of Rorie Oge.’
For some time Fiagh faithfully observed his promise; but in April 1580 Captain Masterson, seneschal of Wexford, killed a number of the Kavanaghs, some of whom were near allied to him, and Fiagh swore to be revenged. Having become reconciled to his ancient enemy, Gerald Owen O'Byrne, ‘by theire solempe oathe, by theire baghall’ (i.e. crozier), he invaded Wexford, ‘the most syvell and englishe country of all the Realme,’ and utterly wasted it. He disclaimed any other motive for his conduct than personal hostility to Masterson; but, feeling probably that such excuse would not serve him at Dublin, he declined to justify himself before the council, and shortly afterwards threw in his lot with Viscount Baltinglas. In August he defeated, in a memorable encounter in Glenmalure, a strong force under the command of the deputy, Arthur, fourteenth lord Grey de Wilton [q. v.] In September he plundered and burnt Rathmore and Tassagard in the Pale, but was overtaken and defeated by Lieutenant Francis Acham. On 19 Oct. he burnt Rathcoole, a prosperous village ten miles from Dublin, and the inhabitants of the suburbs trembled for their safety. During the winter he was held in check by a garrison stationed at Wicklow under Sir William Stanley. An attempt to dislodge the garrison on 12 Jan. 1581 failed, and a few days later Grey reported that he and Baltinglas ‘woulde willinglye seeke peace, if they knewe what waye to begynne that it mighte not bee refused.’ On 4 April Stanley and Captain Russell attempted to surprise Fiagh in his own country, but they found him on the alert, and were compelled, after burning his house of Ballinacor and killing a few churls, to retire. Towards the end of June Grey made a fresh attempt in person to capture him, ‘every day hunting the glinnes,’ so that Fiagh, finding himself ‘thus earnestly followed and the garrisons planted so neere in his bosome,’ was compelled to sue for peace, ‘but his letters so arrogante, as thoughe he woulde haue yt none otherwise, but to haue therle of Desmonde, and all other his confederats conteined in yt as well as him self, and required, that in effecte, all the rebells of Leinster might depende vppon him, and vse whate religion he listed.’ To these terms Grey refused to listen; but want of victuals compelling him to retire, and Fiagh shortly afterwards renewing his offer of submission to Sir Henry Harington, he consented, mainly in order to detach him from Baltinglas, to grant him a pardon. In December Fiagh gave offence by hanging a certain Captain Garrat, an ex-rebel, who had received a pardon on condition of giving information as to the part taken by the Earl of Kildare in the rebellion of Lord Baltinglas, and it was seriously proposed to hang Fiagh's pledges in retaliation. Eventually more moderate counsels prevailed, and for several years Fiagh caused little anxiety to government.
In June 1584 he presented himself before Sir John Perrot [q. v.] at Dublin, and consented to put in substantial pledges for his loyalty. The master of the rolls, Sir Nicholas White, after completing the circuit of Wicklow, visited him in August at Ballinacor, ‘where Lawe never approched,’ and reported favourably of him. A month or two later a number of cattle were lifted in the Pale, and ‘carried with a pipe to the mountain.’ Fiagh at once restored the cattle and surrendered the thieves to Perrot. Early in 1586 some of his pledges escaped out of Dublin Castle, but Fiagh appeared before the lord-deputy, decently clothed in English apparel, and, having exonerated himself and consented to put in fresh pledges, was granted a new pardon. Still there were not wanting circumstances that went to show that he was merely biding his time, and Sir Henry Wallop, who regarded all Irishmen with suspicion, thought it would be a good thing if he could be cut off. Perrot was much of Wallop's opinion, and offered, if permission were granted him, to have his head or drive him into the sea, and settle his country so that it should no longer be the gall of Leinster. Wallop, however, was obliged to admit that he had done little damage of late years, and that the worst that could be alleged against him was a propensity to harbour rebels. In July 1588 he renewed his submission to Perrot's successor, Sir William Fitzwilliam [q. v.] But he continued to be regarded with suspicion. His very existence so near the capital was looked upon as a standing menace to the public peace, and it was evident that nothing but a plausible excuse was wanted to induce government to make a fresh effort to suppress him. On 18 March 1594 his son-in-law, Walter Reagh Fitzgerald, and three of his sons attacked and burnt the house of Sir Piers Fitzjames Fitzgerald, sheriff of Kildare, at Ardree, near Athy, after Sir Piers had expelled Walter Reagh from Kildare. Sir Piers himself, his wife, two of his sisters, his daughter, and one gentlewoman perished in the fire. For this outrage government held Fiagh responsible, though he disclaimed all participation in it, and begged Burghley to intercede with the queen for his pardon. But Fitzwilliam was too ill and probably too wary to attack him in person, and left his punishment to his successor, Sir William Russell.
In January 1595 Russell captured and garrisoned Ballinacor, and made active preparations for hunting Fiagh out of his den. He was proclaimed a traitor, and a reward of 150l. offered for his capture and 100l. for his head. After the capture and execution of Walter Reagh in April, a camp was formed at Money, halfway between Tullow and Shillelagh, which the lord-deputy made his headquarters for several weeks. A number of Fiagh's relations, including his wife Rose, fell into his hands; but Fiagh, though he had one or two hairbreadth escapes, continued to elude his pursuers. On 30 May he was surprised by Captain Streete's company, but, though severely wounded and oppressed with age and sickness, he managed to escape. It seemed as if every effort to capture him was doomed to fail. He offered to submit and to put in Owny Mac Rory Oge O'More as a pledge. He actually surrendered his son Turlough, and in November presented himself before the deputy in council, and upon his knees exhibited his submission and petition to be received to her majesty's mercy. The Irish government referred his case to the privy council, and meanwhile renewed his protection from time to time. In April 1596 he appealed to Burghley to mediate with the queen for his forgiveness and restoration to his chiefry. His petition was granted, but before the patent for his restoration arrived he had entered into a close alliance with Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone. In September he recaptured Ballinacor, and though to attack him would, in the general opinion, lead to a rupture with Tyrone, Russell, after some hesitation, determined to make the attempt. Before the end of the month a new fort was erected at Rathdrum, and, despite the protests of Tyrone, who insisted that Sir John Norris had passed his word for his pardon, Fiagh was hotly prosecuted during the winter. In February 1597 he was reported to be ready to submit to any conditions, but Russell had made up his mind to capture him at all hazards, and capture him he eventually did. On Sunday, 8 May, he was surprised by ‘one Milborne, sergeant to Captain Lee,’ and his captor was compelled by the fury of the soldiers to strike off his head. On his way back to Dublin the inhabitants greeted Russell ‘with great joy and gladness, and bestowed many blessings on him for performing so good a deed, and delivering them from their long oppressions.’
Fiagh's head and quarters were for some time exposed over the gate of Dublin Castle. Four months later one Lane presented what purported to be his head to Cecil, but he was told that head-money had already been paid in Ireland. The head was given to a lad to bury, but instead of doing so he stuck it in a tree in Enfield Chase, where it was found by two boys looking for their cattle.
Fiagh was twice married. By his first wife he had three sons—Turlough, who appears to have been hanged in 1596 for his share in the attack on Sir Piers Fitzjames Fitzgerald; Phelim, who succeeded his father; and Redmond—and one daughter, who was married to Walter Reagh Fitzgerald. Fiagh's second wife was Rose, daughter of Turlough O'Toole, who, after being sentenced to be burnt as a traitor, was pardoned by the queen on promising to do service against her stepson. Two of her sisters were married to her stepsons Phelim and Redmond.
Fiagh's death did not, as had been expected, lead to the settlement of Wicklow. On the outbreak of Tyrone's rebellion in 1598, Phelim and Redmond immediately took up arms, the former in Wicklow, the latter joining the earl in Ulster. On 29 May 1599 Phelim routed a strong force under Sir Henry Harington between Ballinacor and Rathdrum, but was shortly afterwards defeated by the Earl of Essex in the neighbourhood of Arklow. During that winter and the following year he created great havoc in the Pale, and in December 1600 Mountjoy made a determined effort to suppress him. Stealthily crossing the snow-covered mountains of Wicklow from the west, he unexpectedly appeared with a strong force before Ballinacor, at the head of Glenmalure, on Christmas eve. Phelim saved himself by escaping naked out of a back window, but his wife and son were captured. The deputy remained in the neighbourhood for three weeks, and Phelim, ‘to vent his anger, daily offered slight skirmishes upon advantage, but his heart was nothing eased therewith, being continually beaten.’ He eventually submitted, and on 10 May 1601 Mountjoy gave warrant to pass a pardon for him and his followers. It was evidently the intention of government to restore him to his chiefry, and in 1613 he represented co. Wicklow in parliament. But in 1623 a scheme was set on foot by Lord-deputy Falkland to establish a plantation in his country. The design did not meet with the approval of the commissioners for Irish affairs, who suggested that the lands belonging to the O'Byrnes as a clan should be allotted to them individually at profitable rents. Their suggestion, however, was not acted upon, and two years later Falkland announced that he had discovered a formidable conspiracy against the state, in which two of Phelim's sons were implicated. He again suggested the advisability of planting the O'Byrnes' territory, and again the commissioners for Irish affairs stood between him and the O'Byrnes, advising, ‘as the best course to reduce that barbarous country to some good settlement,’ that a grant should be made to Phelim of all the lands claimed by him, on condition that he in turn made a grant in freehold of two hundred acres to each of his younger sons. The suggestion of the commissioners was again ignored by Falkland, who on 27 Aug. 1628 announced that Phelim and five of his sons had been indicted on a charge of conspiracy, that a true bill had been found against them by a Wicklow jury, and that, pending their trial, they had been committed to Dublin Castle. But Phelim had powerful friends at court, and a committee of the Irish privy council was appointed to investigate the matter impartially. In the end, Phelim was found innocent of the charges preferred against him, and he and his sons were restored to their liberty. It is uncertain when he died. He married Una Ni Tuathail, called in English Winifred O'Toole, and by her, who died of grief in consequence of his arrest in 1628, he had eight sons and one daughter.
[Annals of the Four Masters, ed. O'Donovan, v. 1746, vi. 2017; State Papers, Ireland, Eliz., and Chas. I; O'Byrne's Historical Reminiscences of the O'Byrnes, London, 1843; O'Toole's The O'Tooles, anciently lords of Powerscourt, etc., Dublin; Spenser's View of the Present State of Ireland; Gilbert's Account of the National MSS. of Ireland, p. 218; Moryson's Itinerary, pt. ii. bks. i. and ii.; O'Sullivan-Beare's Historiæ Catholicæ Iberniæ Compendium; Bagwell's Ireland under the Tudors; Gardiner's Hist. of England, viii. 20–6; Hickson's Ireland in the Seventeenth Century; Gilbert's Hist. of the Irish Confederation; Carte's Life of Ormonde, i. 55; Harl. MS. 1425; Leabhar Branach, or Book of the O'Byrnes, in Trinity Coll. Dubl., MS. H. i. 14, containing several poems in celebration of Fiagh MacHugh; and Brit. Mus. M.S. Eg. 176.]