The Last County - Total Conquest

Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford
The Last County
Oliver Cromwell
Edmund Ludlow

In the years between the shiring of Wicklow and the 1640s, although under the rule of the Crown the county was to remain largely in the control of the O’Tooles to the north and the O’Byrnes to the south. To understand how this happened one has to look no further than the Lord Chancellor of Ireland and Anglican Archbishop of Dublin, Adam Loftus.

Adam Loftus – A Shrewd and able tactician

Loftus was the most influential administrator in the land for the first four decades of the seventeenth century – he was also a very shrewd and able tactician. He had achieved his position of power through the patronage of his namesake uncle and thus, early in his life, he was to learn the importance of family. During his administrative career he succeeded in marrying his children and cousins into the most powerful families in Ireland, both Irish and English. In so doing he was not as underhand an operator as today’s political morals may indicate. In Irish society the best course of action against a potential enemy was to make him or her a family member; in a country of many wars and factions Loftus’ position was one of the few constants.

As early as 1594 his uncle had him made Archdeacon of Glendalough, a position he held until his forced retirement under Cromwell’s Commonwealth. Since much of his church territory was in the lands of Barnaby O’Toole, he quickly ingratiated himself with the Gaelic lord. At the same time he and Phelim Mac Fiach O’Byrne, in whose territory he also held land(1), exchanged children through fosterage, thus cementing a family bond. Loftus’ loyalty to both these men, plus his future high office, ensured the continued survival of the O’Byrnes and O’Tooles.

In the first year of James I’s reign (1603), land that had been the territory of the rebellious Lord Baltinglass was to be vested in the crown but was instead passed to Phelim O’Byrne (2). This proved to be a serious bone of contention between Phelim, his tenants and his neighbours; most notably William Parsons who had been “appointed a commissioner for the apportionment and erection of the county of Wicklow” (3). Through his office he managed to procure large holdings in the county for himself. He was also only too aware of the illegality of Phelim’s position.

The O’Toole’s land to the north was no less dubiously held. Following a rebellion led by Barnaby during the Lord Deputyship of Arthur Chichester (1604-16),Barnaby’s lands were confiscated but somehow, after passing through a number of hands, the bulk managed to return to his son Luke (4). Loftus also had an interest in the east of the county, as his daughter Beale was married to William Usher “owner of most of the benefices from Bray to Arkiow” (5) and constable of the castle at Wicklow town. By 1634 two of Wicklow’s M.P.s were James Byrne (Phelim’s son, Phelim had earlier been M.P.) and William Usher.

As was earlier mentioned, Phelim was not always on good terms with his tenants, neighbours and also his brother, Redmond. These disputes were often violent, to the extent that the Earl of Cork, a Lord Justice, remarked that he “had not the least means of extinguishing the petty rebellion in the Ranalagh and the O’Byme’s County”. In an extreme measure to ensure that he would hold on to the lands he still possessed, Phelim passed them in their entirety to the Earl of Carlisle, who then appointed Phelim as his ‘middleman’. Although this arrangement worked to Phelim’s, and later his son’s, advantage it did not secure peace in the region until the arrival of Thomas Wentworth as Lord Deputy (6). Wentworth was the first Lord Deputy capable of taking on what had become known as the Loftus party. He bought Carlisle’s Wicklow holdings for the crown and then leased the area to himself. The O’Bymes went to London to appeal this plantation but failed. When they returned in 1641 “muttering many things, the whole country was in turmoil, the uprising in Ulster was mirrored in Wicklow” (7). At the same moment the “O’Byrnes broke out and the bones of many a Wicklow farmer bleached the hillsides” (8). It is interesting to note that by this time William Parsons, as well now as being M.P. for Wicklow, had also become a Lord Justice.


In 1641 both the O’Bymes and the O’Tooles revolted. On 12th November the O’Bymes laid siege to the garrison at Carysfort, while later that month the O’Tooles attacked and captured the Black Castle at Wicklow town. On 29th November Sir Charles Coote regained the castle and massacred many of the town’s inhabitants. They had sought sanctuary in a church, but Coote (later to become Earl of Mountrath) set fire to the church and his men killed all those who tried to make their escape from it. The following year, on 29th December 1642, the castle was again attacked by the O’Byrnes who demolished it and slaughtered the entire garrison. Loftus could no longer assist his old friends; in that year 172 Byrnes were listed and outlawed for treason (9). The fact that the Archbishop had by this stage sold much of his interest in the county could account for his desertion of his former allies. On 4th January 1642 he was among the signatories to an order whereby William Parsons and others were to enter Wicklow and

“to tarry in that country as long as possibly you can gain provision for your men. You are in journey to kill, slay and destroy all the rebels you can there find. You are in that country to destroy by fire and sword all the rebels’ goods, houses and corn, and to take all their cattle. You are to this purpose to do any other thing for his Majesties service that you in your judgement shall find fit” (10).

This was the first in a series of scorched earth policies that were to reduce Wicklow over the next ten years. In 1641 and 1642, among the many dispositions taken by royal examiners against the rebellious activities in Wicklow, those against Colonel Luke O’Toole point him out to be the most vociferous of the county’s rebel leaders. Included in them was that of Andrew Foster, a gentleman from Macreddin, who swore “that the Rebels said that they would, within a week, burn Dublin and that neither King nor Queen should govern Ireland any longer, for they would govern it themselves” (11).

Richard Cleybrook, a county Wexford farmer swore

“that he heard Luke O’Toole say, that he intended soon after to march to Killcothery (sic), and take it, and afterwards to come to Dublin and take the castle there, and that he would not leave an English man, nor an English woman in the Kingdom, but they should be banished, and that he would not leave any English beast alive nor any of the breed of them. He said also that he would have his own religion settled in this Kingdom, and that he would pull the Lord Parson’s hat from his head” (12).

From the 65 loyal subjects examined it was estimated that the rebels had caused £132,457 14s. 2d. worth of damage to the county. Only Cavan, Monaghan and Fermanagh fared worse. When the General Assembly of the Confederate Catholics of Kilkenny established themselves in 1642 as the Irish Parliament, they did so with the full support of the O’Byrnes and O’Tooles. Among the signatories of the Oath of Association were Brien, Brian and John Bierne(Byrne).There was also listed a Richard Belling(Bealing) of Tyrrelstown; little is known of his origins save that he possessed vast tracts of land in Meath, Dublin and Wicklow. In his own history of the Confederation he lists himself as Bealing, Richard, of Parke Esq., under the heading of those outlawed from Wicklow. Consequently, there is reason to treat him as a native of Wicklow. He was to become a very important member of this attempt to establish an independent parliament in an Ireland free from religious intolerance, yet still loyal to the English crown. As well as publishing his many-volumed history of the war, he was to become the Confederation’s special envoy to the Catholic crowned heads of Europe.


The war between the Confederation and the Crown was to be overtaken by the English civil war. In the main, the Irish took the side of the royalists, though not through any great loyalty to the King. It was hoped that in victory the monarch would then look favourably on the claims of his Irish supporters. However, something was to happen in 1649 that would lead to the eventual suppression of all resistance to the English Parliament’s power in Ireland. On 15th August 1649 Oliver Cromwell, Lord Lieutenant and Commander of the Parliamentary Army in Ireland, landed at Ringsend, Dublin.

The fortunes of all three sides in Ireland had risen and fallen at different stages until Cromwell’s arrival but, in just nine months, he was able to impress his name so indelibly on the country’s consciousness that he is still the most vilified person in Irish history today, three hundred and fifty years later. In September of that year he besieged and captured Drogheda; he then turned his attention southwards. His time in Wicklow was brief but his impact, and the later impact of his armies under the control of Edmund Ludlow, was great indeed. On 27th September the Parliamentary armies sacked the castle at Killincarrig and then moved on towards Arklow. The Irish forces under Brian MacPhelim O’Byrne, rather than face the greater English forces head on, resorted to guerilla attacks from their mountain strongholds. In one of these attacks Cromwell’s horse (minus the Lord Lieutenant) and a valuable table that was to be a gift to his wife, were stolen by a band led by Christopher Tothill (Toole). Cromwell’s best efforts, including an offer of £100, could not force him to return them.

However, victories against Cromwell were to be few and far between. On 28th September Arklow fell after a brief battle. A garrison was installed and despite an effort by the O’Tooles and O’Byrnes to recapture it in December, it was to remain in English hands due to the arrival from Dublin of a force of horse under the command of Colonel Hewson. A further attempt to capture the town was foiled the following month. Cromwell passed on to Wexford and was eventually to break the strength of the Irish and Royalist armies. His successor in command of Parliament’s forces, Henry Ireton, was to continue in the same vein.

The most successful tactic employed by the Irish was to remain the guerrilla one. The Wicklow mountains were to become the home of many of these bands which became known as Tories. As they were predominantly made up of O’Byrnes, O’Tooles and O’Kavanaghs, their knowledge of the terrain was to ensure their survival in spite of a number of attempts to flush them out. It was Ireton’s successor, Edmund Ludlow, who eventually crushed the Wicklow resistance on his second attempt. It was declared illegal for smiths, harness-makers or armourers to be active in the county and virtually all activity was banned outside the confines of garrison towns. Furthermore, anybody found bearing arms in the county after 28th February 1652, was to be killed. On that day Ludlow himself entered the mountains from Talbotstown at the head of an army of 4,000 men. He met with little opposition as

“the Irish, who had sentinels placed on every hill, gave notice of our march to theft friends, so that upon our approach, they still fled to their bogs and woods” (13).

One of Ludlow’s officers in the campaign was Colonel George Cooke, the Governor of Wexford, who was to describe the army’s tactics in Wicklow in the following words;

“In searching the woods and bogs we found great store of corn, which we burnt, also all the houses and cabins we could find; in all of which we found plenty of corn: we continued burning and destroying for four days, in which time we wanted no provision for horse or man to lie in, though we burnt our quarters every morning and continued burning all day. He was an idle soldier that had not a fat lamb, veal, pig, poultry or all of them, every night to his supper. The enemy in these parts chiefly depended upon this country for provision. I believe we have destroyed as much as would have served some thousands of them until next harvest” (14).

This continued scorched earth policy resulted in the Irish resorting to the only food stuff that could withstand the ravages of such armies. From then on the potato was to become more prominent in the Irish diet; among its many advantages was the fact that it could lie underground until it was to be eaten. Thus, not only was the Cromwellian era one of the most destructive ever to the native population it also sowed the seeds of the even more destructive Great Famine, two hundred years later.

It was not until August that Ludlow was to eventually rid himself of the Wicklow Tories. Ludlow first declared that all who surrendered would be well treated and allowed leave the country. Many of the Tories were by now sure of the futility of their cause and willingly surrendered. The O’Byrne chief Hugh MacPhelim fled, while his brother made his way to Ulster and the last pocket of Irish resistance. Those remaining under the command of Luke O’Toole were quickly captured and thus the county was eventually subdued, while Luke was brought to Dublin to be executed.

Among the many trials that were staged in Dublin after the war was that of Eamonn O’Reilly, Vicar-General of Dublin and Eamonn Dubh O’Byrne, who were deemed responsible for the massacre at the Black Castle in December 1642. For his part O’Byme (who pleaded innocent and blamed it all on O’Reilly was executed, while O’Reilly was gaoled and later banished. Wicklow was to be divided in order to pay the debts incurred by the war and to help pay the Munster army. The power of the Irish clans was well and truly broken and, save for a brief period of false hope given by the Jacobites in the 1680s and again in 1798, the English Crown and government was to continue to consolidate its position within the county until the present century.

(1) C.S.P., 1592 – 585.
(2) O’Grady, Hugh, Strafford in Ireland, p.8 & 48.
(3) Dictionary of National Biography, Voi. XV, pitl9.
(4) CowperMss., 11-114.
(5) O’Grady, op. cit.., p.48.
(6) In Hugh O’Grady’s Strafford in Ireland, page 956, he mentions Phelim O’Neill of south Wicklow. This is surely an error and consequently this episode is recounted as having happened to Phelim O’Byme.
(7) C.S.P., 1641 – 285.
(8) O’Grady, op. cit., p.234.
(9) Gilbert’s History of the Confederate Wars, Vol. lii, p40.
(10) Ibid, pp.137-S.
(11) Boate, Arnold, A Remonstrance of Diverse Remarkable Passages in Ireland, Examination no.48, National Library of Ireland, Thorpe P2 (London, 1642).
(12) Ibid, Examination no. 56. (13) Beresford-Ellis, Peter, To Hell or to Connaught, p37.
(14) Ibid.

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