Home Back to Contents Volume 2 Purchase

 

THE BYRNES AND THE O'BYRNES Vol. 2

A SOCIAL HISTORY OF THE CLAN

by

Daniel Byrne-Rothwell

AUTHOR'S INTRODUCTION TO VOLUME TWO

This second volume is primarily focused upon the social history of the clan, taking up the story of individual branches from more or less the seventeenth century. Following the downfall of the Byrnes' Country, the O'Byrnes attempted to live as loyal British citizens, but Feagh's children and grandchildren saw the disintegration of their estates amid a protracted period of English religious and political crisis. Ultimately, the greed of others dispossessed and displaced virtually the entire clan in scenes of injustice that were later to be cited for their flagrancy by Friedrich Engels. In this dark period, records are confusing and fragmentary, and the heritage and cultural treasures of the clan were reduced to ruin or lost. While the survival of Leabhar Branach (“ The Poem Book of the O'Byrnes ”) is something to be celebrated, the wider loss is reflected in an examination in this volume of the problems surrounding the genealogies of the Byrne families of south Wexford. The later chapters of this work continue the story through a number of interrelated branches of the clan. The exploits of the Byrnes of Ballymanus in the rebellion of 1798 are nationally acknowledged alongside the career of Miles Byrne, but in this second volume the stories of many other important branches of the clan unfold.

As well as the freedom fighters, the Byrnes produced an Abbot of Ampleforth, an Irish ‘pirate' and an ‘English' poet. This was a family that prompted Sir Jonah Barrington to remark that, ‘the family of Byrne, descended from a long line of Irish princes and chieftains, condescended to become little amongst the rank of English commoners'. Many Byrnes held high military rank in the service of Germany , France , the USA and other countries. Poor farmers were near cousins to the builders of one of England 's finest Palladian houses. Their numbers included English and German Barons, French aristocrats, Papal Counts and American pioneers, and their many houses included the French château and the log cabin.

My thanks are due to Anthony Byrne of Washington DC for his overall interest in this project and The Castle and the Country House , an excellent article that in the main part is his invaluable contribution. Among the many others who have researched or brought my attention to invaluable items and references I would like to extend my thanks to Kevin Byrne, Val Byrne, Sheila Chaudoin, Brendan Corrigan, Anthony McCann, and Michael Timmins.

I have endeavoured to cover every aspect of the clan, from the vineyards of France to the Irish farm and the American plantation. From the English titles and the lordships in Saxony, to the turmoil of late nineteenth century Anglo-Irish politics that saw the loss of the great estate of Cabinteely. No picture of the clan would be complete without telling the story of the female side, their family backgrounds, and their influence upon the clan, and so the traditions of many of the maternal lines are included.

The vexed question as to the chieftaincy of the O'Byrnes has no easy answer because there were in fact a number of chieftaincies. Críoch Branach had at least four lordships while their relatives, Gabhal Raghnaill, held an almost independent chieftaincy, and even Gabhal Raghnaill was divided into a number of lordships such as Clonmore and Knockrath. The question of overlordship is just as complex, for while this rank was elective and hereditary among a select group of the Críoch Branach, Hugh O'Byrne of Gabhal Raghnaill could be argued to have made himself de facto overlord. There is little doubt that his son Feagh was accepted as such by the majority of the clan as well as the Tudor administration, and his personal claims make that clear. It was a hereditary position among his descendants, but in 1714 a Byrne of Newrath was elected to the leadership, at least of his own branch if not the whole clan. The third Baron de Tabley assumed the title and it is inscribed on the huge and magnificent Celtic cross that marks his grave in Cheshire . Again, while the lordship was an elective process among the elite of Críoch Branach, the evidence suggests that the Lord of the Ranelagh was a hereditary position, and if there was an election at their inaugurations it was merely as confirmation of this hereditary position. More recently, the clan societies in Ireland and the USA have set up two chieftaincies. Perhaps the future may see a revival of individual titles.

The title chosen for this trilogy, “ The Byrnes and the O'Byrnes ”, is reflective of Trollop's The Kellys and the O'Kellys . Although related, in The Kellys and the O'Kellys the two branches of the family are in different circumstances, the one having a country residence and the other running an inn-come-grocer's shop. The society Trollope wrote about has disappeared, but it resonates in the scattered and diverse nature of the clan today. Many who read this work will have memories of people who reflected the nineteenth or early twentieth century society so aptly described by Somerville and Ross in Some Experiences of an Irish R.M .

"Mr. Florence (Flurry) McCarthy Knox … was a fair, spare youn g man, who looked like a stable boy among gentlemen, and a gentleman among stable boys. He belonged to a clan that cropped up in every grade of society in the county, from Sir Valentine Knox of Castle Knox down to the auctioneer Knox, who bore the attractive title of Larry the Liar… I had met him at dinner at Sir Valentine's, I had heard of him at an illicit auction, held by Larry the Liar, of brandy stolen from a wreck… and all were prepared at any moment of day or night to sell a horse."

While it is true that this paradoxical situation existed in post-conquest Irish society, the nineteenth century author, Charles Lever, presented a sadder picture of a fallen native Irish family labouring under British oppression in the preface to his tale of The O'Donoghue .

"Between the great families - the old houses of the land and the present [1872] race of proprietors - there lay a couple of generations of men who, with all the traditions and many of the pretensions of birth and fortune, had really become one in ideas, modes of life, and habits, very little above the peasantry around them. They inhabited it is true, the “great house” and they were in name the owners of the soil; but crippled by debt and overborne by mortgages, they subsisted in a shifty conflict with their creditors, rack-renting their miserable tenants to maintain it. Survivors of everything but pride of family, they stood there like the stumps, blackened and charred, the last remnants of a burnt forest, their proportions attesting the noble growth that had preceded them."

Relevant to an understanding of this particular Anglo-Irish society, to which the Byrnes, or at the very least certain branches of the clan belonged, is Sir Jonah Barrington's Personal Sketches and Recollections . Its oft-quoted description of the three classes of Irish Gentlemen, ‘ Half-mounted gentlemen, gentlemen every inch of them, and gentlemen to the backbone ', is well worth reading for an understanding of this society, as is his account of the personal nature of clan warfare in the form of a pitched battle between the O'Mores and Fitzgeralds in 1690.

As a final note, I have sometimes been asked to explain what part of the clan I belong to. Mine is a branch of the Byrnes of Timogue, my late mother's grandmother was Margaret, daughter of the Daniel O'Byrne who wrote a History of the Queen's County in 1856. Only Margaret and her brother had children, and of this generation, in turn only one married and had children. My mother was also ‘adopted' by her granduncle, Christopher O'Byrne - thus I have preserved the name of Byrne and their heritage in my own name. Apart from that I can trace several more lines of Byrne ancestry. As for the Rothwell part, the name was originally something like von Rothweil , believed to be from Saxony, and it has been in Ireland for several centuries now.

Daniel Byrne-Rothwell, Easter 2009

 

House of Lochar, Scottish Booksellers & Publishers, Isle of Colonsay, Argyll, PA61 7YR, Scotland, UK
Tel/Fax: 01951 200232 | Int Tel: +44 1951 200232