Rebellion in the glens … new journal recalls stories of priests and patriots
A description of a time capsule buried in the foundation of a church in Donard is but one of the gems unveiled in the latest issue of the Journal of the West Wicklow History Society.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then the Leinster Leader can take some credit as the West Wicklow journal reproduces the original Leader columns from 1925 giving a lively report of the celebrations surrounding the laying of the foundation stone for the new church (later named the Church of the Holy Trinity).
There was high excitement in west Wicklow anticipating the arrival of the Archbishop of Dublin, Most Rev. Edward J. Byrne, who would be chief ecclesiastical guest at the ceremonial. The Leader page, as reproduced in the West Wicklow journal carries the report illustrating the level of anticipation: “The towns of Dunlavin and Donard were gaily bedecked with flags and arches of ever-green, prominent among the decorations being scrolls bearing the arms of the O’Byrnes. Throughout the entire parish private houses were gaily beflagged and bedecked and at intervals through the famous Glen of Imaal and on the historic hills of Wicklow flags and banners floated.”
Later, at the site of the new church, a sealed bottle containing coins and papers of the day was inserted into a special recess beneath the position of the foundation stone. There was more celebration with the parish priest telling an enthusiastic crowd how the Archbishop, with a surname like Byrne, was very much one of their own, coming from the ancient West Wicklow clan of O’Byrne.
However the story of West Wicklow was not always as joyous as the Donard church account would suggest and indeed the aforementioned O’Byrnes were in the thick of years of turbulence and agitation as they harried and harassed the forces from Dublin Castle attempting to bring Wicklow under control. So effective was their resistance that Wickow was the last Irish county to be “shired” and it was not until 1606 (three centuries after Kildare) that it came into the county system under the control of Dublin Castle.
Chief among the O’Byrnes in their war against Dublin Castle was Fíach MacHugh O’Byrne, a Wicklow rebel famed in song and in story. The Journal includes a scientifically researched article on the bold Fíach O’Byrne written by Dr Chris Lawlor who will be known to a generation of Naas schoolboys as head of history teaching at Naas CBS Post Primary school of which he is a past-pupil.
If there is a Guinness book of records entry for footnotes to an article than Chris Lawlors’s masterpiece on Fíach must in the winners’ category: his piece includes is based on 97 footnotes with one citation running to 47 lines – a level of research rarely matched in the most specialist academic publications. In less accomplished hands the academic approach to history might be daunting for the reader but Chris Lawlor makes light of the formalities and writes about Fíach O’Byrne in a vibrant manner which highlights the dramatic nature of his tenure in the deep glens of west Wicklow. Not alone was Fiach a battle-hardened leader but the company he kept was out of the same mould. In 1572 Fiach joined his brother-in-law, Rory Óg O’More of Laois, to launch a raid on the Pale – the zone extending from Dublin which was under the control of the Dublin Castle authorities. Five years later Rory Óg launched an attack of his own on Naas, one of the chief border towns of the Pale. He took the town’s sentries by surprise and set Naas ablaze leaving chaos behind them.
However such border raids paled against a full scale ambush engineered by Fíach in his own backyard, the deep valley of Glemalure. A force from Dublin led by Lord Grey de Wilton marched into Wicklow to try to flush Fíach out of his granite lair. However the wily Wicklow man was not going to be taken that easily on his home ground. He laid a trap for the English allowing them march into the glen then pounced cutting off their retreat and hacking and slashing until there was hardly a survivor. According to some sources the English lost more than nine hundred men. As Chris Lawlor points out Glemalure was one of the heaviest defeats suffered by Crown forces in Ireland. News of the crushing defeat got back to Dublin where it triggered panic on the streets with city dwellers fearing that Fiach would follow up his victory in the Glen by descending on the city with his warriors.
Protest of a more peaceful nature in west Wicklow is documented by Pádraig G. Lane who contributes a well-researched article on the struggle of the farm labourers in west Wicklow to improve on their appalling employment conditions in the years of the land war in the 1880s. This article breaks new ground because previous studies of the land war have concentrated almost exclusively on the tenants and the farmers and their good fortune in succeeding to the division of the big landlord holdings. The farm labourers felt that they should share in the improvement of rural life brought by the land campaign. A farm workers’ Labour League was formed and held meetings in Baltinglass, Castledermot, and Donard.
Their demands for better conditions were partially met by legislation providing for rural cottages to house the labourers. However the labourers were told not to press their farm employers too hard so as not divert attention from the completion of the transfer of the land-holdings from the landlords to the farmers. The net result was an element of class tension between the farmers who had gained the security of middle-sized farms and the labourers who felt they had been ignored in the dividend which attended the transfer of land to a new Irish elite. Pádraig Lane sums up the position very well: “ … even as Wicklow’s strong tenant farmers basked in their triumph, the county’s agricultural labourers were coming to terms with their role as losers in the wake of the Land War.”
Such are the insights into the social conditions on the west Wicklow/Kildare county boundary to be found in the attractively presented seventh Journal of the West Wicklow History Society jointly edited by Chris Lawlor and Donal McDonnell. Undoubtedly the best little book published this year. Leinster Leader 25 November 2013, Looking Back, Series no: 359.