The O’Byrne Family

O’Byrne family crest

(Crest No. 315. Plate 53.)

FEAGH McHUGH of the mountain—

Feagh McHugh of the glen—

Who has not heard of the Glenmalure Chief,

And the feats of his hard riding men?

Came you the seaside from Carmen—

Crossed you the plains from the West—

No rhymer you met but could tell you,

Of Leinster men who is the best.

Or seek you the Liffey or Dodder—

Ask in the bawns of the Pale—

Ask them whose cattle they fodder,

Who drinks without fee of their ale.

From Ardamine north to Kilmainham

He rules like a king of few words,

And the Marchmen of seven-score castles

Keep watch for the sheen of his swords.

The vales of Kilmantann[1] are spacious—

The hills of Kilmantan are high—

But the horn of the Chieftain finds echoes

From the water side up to the sky.

The lakes of Kilmantan are gloomy,

Yet bright rivers stream from them all.

So dark is our chieftain in battle,

So gay in the camp or the hall.

The plains of Clan Saxon are fertile,

Their chiefs and their tanists are brave,

But the first step they take o’er the border,

Just measures the length of a grave;

Thirty score of them forayed to Arklow,

Southampton and Essex their van—

Our Chief crossed their way, and he left of

Each score of them living a man.

Oh, many the tales that they cherish,

In the glens of Kilmantan today,

And though church, rath and native speech perish,

His glory’s untouched by decay;

Feagh McHugh of the mountain—

Feagh McHugh of the glen—

Who has not heard of the Glenmalure Chief,

And the feats of his hard riding men?

T. D. McGee.

[1] Kilmantan—the Irish name of Wicklow.

The O’Byrne family is descended from Milesius, King of Spain, through the line of his son Heremon. The founder of the family was Fiacha Baiceada, son of Cathire More, King of Ireland, A. D. 144. The ancient name of the O’Byrne family was Broin, which signifies “Sorrow.”

The title of the chief was Lord of Ranelagh, and the sept possessed lands in the present Counties of Wicklow and Mayo. The Wicklow possessions embraced the greater part of the barony of Ballinacor, and also the Ranelagh. This tract was known as the O’Byrne’s Country, and was situated among the Wicklow Mountains. Among these fastnesses the O’Byrnes and their corelatives, the O’Tooles, successfully resisted for centuries all the efforts of the English to conquer them, and frequently struck terror into the enemy, even to the gates of Dublin.

The most celebrated of the chiefs of this clan was Fiach McHugh O’Byrne, who for years baffled all the attempts of the enemy to penetrate his country, and inflicted many severe losses on the English. In l580 he defeated the Lord Deputy, Arthur, Lord Grey, at Glenmalure, in a glorious encounter. Having skillfully drawn the English into a defile, he attacked them suddenly, throwing them into confusion, and slew eight hundred of them, including many of their best Captains, Carew, Moore, Andley and Cosby. Lord Grey retired to Dublin with the remnant of his force, and did not repeat his rash attempt to hunt down O’Byrne. This dashing chieftain was afterward betrayed into the hands of the English, who spiked his head on the gate of Dublin Castle, and afterward sent it as an assuring gift to Queen Elizabeth, who had long desired to crush the power of this chieftain, whether by force or treachery.

Glendalough, one of the most beautiful and celebrated spots in Ireland, is situated in the center of the “O’Byrne’s Country.” but nothing of this famous seat of piety and learning now remains, save a few ruins and a large round tower that has withstood the ravages of the invader and of time.

Previous to their removal to Wicklow, the O’Byrnes occupied a territory called Ui Faelain, which comprised the northern half of the present County of Kildare. It was not until after the arrival of the Anglo-Normans that they retired to the more secure territory of Wicklow.

A noted member of the elder branch of the family was Daniel Byrne, born in the early part of the seventeenth century, and son of a gentleman of fortune, whose estates were situated by the seaside, at a place called Ballintlea, near Redcross, in the County of Wicklow. Daniel, not being the heir, was bred to the business of a clothier, and afterward carried on the trade of a tailor, employing forty men constantly in his business. He used to buy all the white cloth in Dublin, get it colored red, and clothe forty thousand men of the army, for which he was paid on each delivery in cash from the Treasury. He grew wealthy, and purchased many estates. Among these was the Great Heath estate of Maryborough, known by the name of the Lordship of Shean, owned by a young Squire Whitney. The Squire being greatly indebted to Byrne, the latter offered him his daughter in marriage, proposing at the same time to forgive the debt and redeem the estate of all incumbrances. Whitney replied that he could not smother his blood by marrying a tailor’s daughter, to which Byrne answered by demanding immediate payment of his money, as he wished to settle it as a fortune on her. Not being able to raise the money without selling the estate, Whitney came and told Byrne that he had reconsidered the matter and would accept the proposal. Byrne replied that if he could find a young squire buying an estate he would be willing to give him his daughter, but he could not think of giving her to one who was selling his estate. He accordingly compelled Squire Whitney to sell the estate, and he bought it in himself, but allowed the squire to live in the Castle of Shean. Shortly afterward Whitney invited Byrne to dine with him there, and contrived that the latter had neither knife nor fork. On being entreated by the squire to help himself, Byrne replied that he had plenty of meat, but nothing with which to cut it. “Why don’t you draw out your scissors and clip it, sir?” said the squire sneeringly. “I drew them time enough to clip the lordship from your back, sir,” retorted Byrne, abruptly leaving the room. The squire was thrown out of the castle next morning.

Byrne was as quick-witted as he was wise, and was never at a loss for a repartee when any slur was thrown on him on account of his trade. A predecessor of the Earl of Portarlington, then Squire Dawson, and the descendant of a family of millers, said to Byrne, in offering him a dram of whisky one morning, as they were going to a hunt: “Swing it off, Daniel, it is but a thimbleful.” Byrne drank it, and jovially remarked, as he smacked his lips: “Yes, Willy, I would take it if it was a hopperful,” to let his friend know that if there was anything small in being a tailor, there was the same in being a miller.

Byrne had his son Gregory educated at the Temple, in London, and afterward purchased the title of baronet for him and his male heirs forever, the creation dating from May 17, 1671. A short time afterward Mr. Byrne and his son, Sir Gregory, were walking along a street in Dublin, when the latter said: “Father, you ought to walk to the left of me, I being a knight, and you but a mechanic.” “No, you puppy,” roared the old man, “I have the precedency of you in three ways: First, because I am an older man; secondly, because I am your father, and thirdly, because I am the son of a gentleman, and you are but the son of a poor, humble tailor.”

Several members of this family entered the French army, where they rendered distinguished service. It was an O’Byrne who prevented the capture of Brisach by Prince Eugene, shortly after the success of the allies at Blenheim, and thereby saved France from a very injurious loss. The enemy, consisting of picked officers and men, moved on the town under the guise of peasants, driving loads of hay and produce in the early morning under cover of a fog, and so well was the ruse carried out, that several of the vehicles that contained concealed arms and munitions actually entered the town. O’Byrne, whose suspicions were aroused, questioned one of the peasants, who was a German Lieutenant-Colonel in disguise. The latter not giving a civil or satisfactory answer, O’Byrne proceeded to thrash him with a stick. The enraged “peasant” ran to a load of hay, and snatching from it a musket, discharged it at O’Byrne. His comrades did likewise; but though several shots were fired at him at short range, the Irishman made good his escape. The garrison and citizens were aroused, and the enemy driven out with the loss of two hundred men and officers. Others of this family in the same service won honorable distinction, among them Lieutenant Byrne, who was killed at Fontenoy, and Captain Byrne, who was wounded on the same occasion.

William Michael Byrne of Wicklow was a prominent United Irishman, and was arrested in Oliver Bond’s house in 1798. His life was offered to him if he would implicate Lord Edward Fitzgerald, but he spurned the offer, declaring that he did not regret dying, but did regret leaving his country enslaved. On being led to execution he had to pass the door of Bond’s and Neilson’s cell, whose wives were present at the time. He stooped down in passing, so that the women could not see him through the grating in the upper part of the door, and would thereby be spared the shock of seeing him led to the scaffold. He met his death with perfect composure.

Myles Byrne, who became Chef-de-Bataillon in the service of France and officer of the Legion of Honor, was a native of Wexford, where he was born in 1780. He joined Father John Murphy’s force of insurgents in 1798, and fought at Gorey and Carnew. At Arklow he commanded a division of pikemen. At Vinegar Hill he took a particularly distinguished part. After the failure of the rebellion Byrne joined Michael Dwyer and General Holt in the mountains of Wicklow. He escaped to Dublin, where he lived for a time in disguise. He was associated with Robert Emmet in the latter’s insurrection, and after the miscarriage of that effort went to France, at Emmet’s suggestion, to seek aid from the French Government. He subsequently entered the French army, and served with distinction in Spain, the Low Countries and Germany. He left a volume of memoirs containing much interesting particulars. He died in 1862.