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Daniel Byrne-Rothwell


The O'Byrnes have an identity that extends a great deal further back in time than the origin of their surname, an identity which reaches back through the sub-tribe of Uí Fáeláin, and the early tribe of Uí Dúnlainge, to prehistoric myth and legend. The story of these early days is still being unraveled, and with new insight because of the Byrne DNA project, our understanding is constantly being enhanced.

Volume One of this trilogy is largely a political history, and the first chapters of the book look at the history of the O'Byrnes from their mythical beginnings to the collapse of their society and culture in the seventeenth century. The story is continued in the social history of the clan covered in the second volume. It is an epic saga, the story of an aristocratic Gaelic ruling family over a period of two-thousand years, but because of the multiple and fragmentary nature of the sources, this story has not been properly told until now, neither has the impact of the clan on Irish history been understood.

The work begins with an investigation of the tribal origins of the clan, discussing migration into Ireland from Europe and the tribal origin legend centred on an heroic ancestor-god, Labraid Loingsech. Labraid's place in the "biblical" and mythological ancestry is explained, leading down to the first historical ancestors of the O'Byrnes . By the fifth century, the clan, under the tribal name of Uí Dúnlainge , had established a powerful dynasty in north Leinster . This flourished amid inter-tribal conflict, Viking settlement, war with other Irish states, and the problems of a north-south Leinster divide. Following the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, Uí Dúnlainge power was forever weakened, and within Uí Fáeláin itself, one of the three sub-tribes of Uí Dúnlainge , civil strife emerged between the clans of Mac Fáeláin and O'Byrne . Braen, the king of Leinster from whom the clan take their name, died in 1052, but by then his family had already made inroads into their future homeland in the Wicklow Mountains .

At this point the clan might have disappeared in history, but the O'Byrnes , initially as Norman allies, re-emerged as the most significant Gaelic power to the south of Dublin , carving out for themselves an independent state known as Críoch Bhranach or latterly, The Byrnes' Country . Although ruled by an overlord, the clan itself consisted of several separate lordships. The O'Byrnes of Críoch Bhranach were divided into four separate lordships, while to the south an increasingly independent branch of the O'Byrnes controlled Gabhal Raghnaill, or Ranelagh , and again this branch embraced a number of important chieftaincies. The division of lordship was an inherent weakness involving the various lords of the clan in numerous alliances, notably with the opposing Ormond and Kildare power blocs, a situation that inevitably led to internal conflicts. Nonetheless, the clan managed to withstand the Dublin administration operating from within the Pale, and to resist, both militarily and diplomatically, the intrusion of Norman baronial, and English governmental power, into its territory. Three centuries of war appeared to end in 1536 with the collective leadership of the clan genuinely coming to terms of peace with Henry VIII and accepting his lordship. However, the corruption of the Tudor administration, with its land-hungry newcomers, coupled with an inability to accept the O'Byrnes as true citizens of the Tudor state, led to the rise of the Gabhal Raghnaill, the O'Byrnes of Ranelagh , as protectors of the clan, and their mountain fastness of Glenmalure became a refuge of the persecuted.

The central focus of volume one is Feagh McHugh O'Byrne , a player in international politics, a national hero, and the greatest military genius of the Gaelic military resistance. Although regarded by some within his clan as a usurper, he successfully established himself as its overlord, but his influence, nationally and internationally, was much greater. Overlord of Leinster , the documentary evidence of the Tudor administration clearly regards him as the "kingmaker" behind the O'Neills . With earlier generations of historians, both nationalist and British, placing too much emphasis on Ulster , Feagh was overlooked and misunderstood until recent years. Feagh, operating in the shadow of the Dublin administration, and with limited resources, inflicted upon Elizabeth of England the greatest military defeat a Tudor ever knew. He maintained diplomatic relations with Spain and the Papal States , and he was the key figure in the Nine Years War. The first leader to be fighting for a united Ireland , and fighting as a European under the papal banner. His actions were ruthless and controversial in his attempts to bring an end to internal clan conflicts. Surviving poison plots and assassination attempts, Feagh was at last betrayed and killed in May 1597. However, his policies had long been developing along the lines of establishing a national identity, and he showed himself as almost unique among Irish leaders by having objectives beyond the immediate benefit of his own clan. His ideas inspired the Ulster princes, and his legacy towards a national identity, and a united Ireland , with freedom of conscience, survived his death.

The quatercentenary of Feagh's death, May 1997, saw a memorial raised to him in the Parnell National Memorial Park, Co. Wicklow. That year also heralded a series of academic lectures that were extended and published by the Rathdrum Historical Society in 1998 as Feagh McHugh O'Byrne . Paul J. Burns published an outline history in 2001, as a guide to researchers, under the title of The Clan O'Byrne of Leinster . Meanwhile the lectures initiated by the Rathdrum Society led to the publication of two major works, Emmett O'Byrne 's War, Politics and the Irish of Leinster (2003), and Christopher Maginn 's Civilizing Gaelic Leinster (2005), both providing excellent in-depth studies.

My own studies were begun some thirty-two years ago, but the original manuscript I compiled lay neglected for years, although it was privately published and circulated among a very small number of people by a distant relative in 1990. Professor Chris Wickham read it many years ago, and on the strength of it he offered me an unconditional place to read ancient and medieval history at the University of Birmingham . When I had completed my degree, Dr. Jans Rohkasten offered to supervise my PhD, for which I considered this very project. Unfortunately, the premature death of my wife, Honora, and my subsequent struggles as a single parent thwarted any further studies until by a series of coincidences the opportunity presented itself for my researches to be updated and revised. Credit must be given by all to Kevin Byrne of the House of Lochar for undertaking this project, and for the encouragement and support of many other serious researchers such as Anthony Byrne of Washington DC and Val Byrne of Glencormac, Co. Wicklow. It is my sincere hope that everybody interested in the clan may read and enjoy this work, and that through the associated website they may be able to contribute their own traditions and researches. My sincere thanks to all who have helped and encouraged me in this mammoth undertaking.

Daniel Byrne-Rothwell, Feast of St. Joan of Arc, 2008


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