Wicklow in the Later Middle Ages

A basic weakness of the Norman Conquest was that there were not enough Normans to settle all the lands, even in Wicklow which was so close to the centre of Norman rule in Dublin.  In many cases the native Irish had remained working the lands which they had previously owned.  For the first hundred years after their arrival the Normans and the native Irish lived in harmony.  Gradually, however, the Irish tenants began to revolt against their new landlords. The Norman estates, including those owned by the Archbishop of Dublin, were losing profits.  This came to a head in 1316 when Edward Bruce of Scotland invaded Ireland, and nearly took control of Dublin itself.  He failed to take control of the city, but not after burning the town of Arklow to the ground.  Some years later the populations in the major towns and cities were devastated by the plague known as the Black Death.  This was a period of serious instability for the Normans who were in danger of losing all control in Ireland.  The native Irish were quick to take advantage of the new instability. 

In Wicklow the O’Byrne’s and O’Toole’s began to use the mountains at their fortress.  The Wicklow Mountains became known as a ‘land of war’ where the O’Byrne’s and O’Toole’s were out of reach of even the most daring of the King’s soldiers.  For nearly 300 years these families terrorised the countryside around Dublin, and were a thorn in the side of Norman Dublin.  On one occasion, in July 1402 the Lord Mayor of Dublin led the armed citizens of the city into a battle with the O’Byrne’s, led by Donnacha O’Bryne.  The Lord Mayor and his fellow citizens successfully defeated the O’Byrne’s in a battle that took place at Ravenswell in Bray. 

Even towards the end of the 16th century the Gaelic families of the Wicklow Mountains, under the notorious leadership of Feagh MacHugh O’Byrne, posed a formidable threat to the inhabitants of Dublin.  He earned his ferocious reputation as the Firebrand of Wicklow after he defeated a large force of English soldiers that had made the dangerous journey to confront him in Glenmalure in August 1580.  Even after Feagh MacHugh O’Byrne’s capture and beheading, the O’Byrne’s continued to reject English rule in Wicklow, and defeated another English force of soldiers led by Henry Harrington in 1599, in what was known as the Battle of Wicklow.  In the end, however, the O’Byrne’s and other Irish families were too divided amongst themselves and more interested in personal gain to prevent the expansion of English rule in Ireland.  Finally, after the Battle of Kinsale in 1603 and the Flight of the Earls, the old Gaelic way of life ended, and a new British rule was only just beginning.  In Wicklow this new beginning was symbolised by the final formation of its county boundaries in 1606 – the last county in Ireland to be formed.

This article is extracted from County Wicklow in Prehistory a heritage office publication produced as an action of the County Heritage Plan. Text supplied by Chris Corlett

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