The second in our series on celebrated figures from history immortalised in song and covered by both Folk and Celtic-Punk bands. Today we turn to the great Irish hero of Fiach MacHugh O’Bryne one of the greatest leaders in Irish history.
The song ‘Follow Me Up To Carlow’ recounts the struggle of Irish clan leaders against British rule in Ireland in the 16th century. The central figure in the song is Fiach MacHugh O’Bryne (1534 – 8 May, 1597) who fought the British army for thirty years during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The song celebrates his feats in battle and though thought to be from the time it was actually written 200 years later by famed Irish poet Patrick Joseph McCall, who also wrote the great patriotic ballads ‘Boolavogue’ and ‘Kelly The Boy From Killane’ among others. The song ‘Follow Me Up To Carlow’ is one of the most famous Irish folk songs and celebrates the defeat of the English army at the Battle of Glenmalure in 1580.
Lift MacCahir Óg your face brooding o’er the old disgrace
That black Fitzwilliam stormed your place, drove you to the Fern
Grey said victory was sure soon the firebrand he’d secure;
Until he met at Glenmalure with Fiach Mac Hugh O’Byrne.
Curse and swear Lord Kildare
Fiach will do what Fiach will dare
Now Fitzwilliam, have a care
Fallen is your star, low
Up with halbert out with sword
On we’ll go for by the Lord
Fiach MacHugh has given the word,
Follow me up to Carlow.
See the swords of Glen Imayle, flashing o’er the English Pale
See all the children of the Gael, beneath O’Byrne’s banners
Rooster of a fighting stock, would you let a Saxon cock
Crow out upon an Irish rock, fly up and teach him manners.
From Saggart to Clonmore, there flows a stream of Saxon gore
O, great is Rory Óg O’More, sending the loons to Hades.
White is sick and Lane is fled, now for black Fitzwilliam’s head
We’ll send it over dripping red, to Queen Liza and the ladies.
Fiach MacHugh O’Bryne (Fiach Mac Aodh ÓBroin) was the son of the chief of the O’Byrnes of the Gabhail Raghnaill. His sept, a minor one, claimed descent from the 11th century King of Leinster, Bran Mac Maolmordha, and was centred at Ballinacor in Glenmalure, a steep valley in the fastness of the Wicklow mountains. Their chiefs styled themselves as Lords of Ranalagh. The territory of the Gabhail Rabhnaill stretched from Glendalough south to the Forest of Shillelagh in Wexford and west to the borders of present day Co Carlow, an area of some 150,000 acres. Resenting the greed and cruelty of the Elizabethan adventurers and settlers, Fiach would raid their villages and kill or drive them out. He was appalled at the ruthless cruelty of the stewarts Thomas Masterson and Sir Henry Harrington and in 1580 went into open rebellion when Masterson summarily executed many Kavanagh clansmen.
(Perhaps the greatest ever version of ‘Follow Me Up To Carlow’ by the legendary Planxty included here with lyrics to sing along to)
Other clans joined with Fiach and when James Eustace, 3rd Lord Baltinglass, angered by the treatment of the Catholic Old English also rebelled and joined with him. The English were appalled at this, already Munster was in turmoil as the Earl of Desmond was in rebellion and in the north the O’Neills were moving also against the English.
(The song as covered by new north London Irish folk group Crock Of Bones on their debut EP ‘Nasty, Brutal And Short’. Incidentally the singer was named after Hugh O’Bryne)
An army of 3,000 men were sent into the Wicklow Mountains but O’Byrne and Eustace were waiting for them in Glenmalure. Over 800 English lost their lives at the Battle of Glenmalure and the rest fled back to Dublin. The following year the English offered terms, Eustace refused and fled to Spain but Fiach and the other clan chiefs accepted and were pardoned.
(Irish-American band The Young Dubliners from California performed one of the earliest Celtic-Punk versions of the song)
In 1592 Hugh Roe O’Donnell, with brothers Art and Henry MacShane O’Neill escaped from Dublin Castle. The breakout had been planned with the help of Hugh Mór O’Neill and the escapees fled to the safety of Glenmalure. It was a severe winter and Art died from exposure and was buried in O’Byrne land but Fiach was able to transport Hugh Roe and Henry away to safety.
(The Tan And Sober Gentlemen from Snow Camp, North Carolina)
The English spent a long time collecting heads and plundering, they spared few. In April, Russell again went hunting for Fiach who once again escaped. His wife Rose however was captured and sentenced to be burned to death. The sentence was not carried out.
(Jim McCann’s version was the first time I ever heard ‘Follow Me Up To Carlow’ when he bought me this album on tape when i was on holiday)
Lord Deputy Russell was to spend the next year unsuccessfully scouring the country for Fiach. However O’ Byrne’s luck was to run out. A traitor in his camp gave information to Russell that Fiach would be in Ballinacorr on 8th May 1597. The Lord Deputy was able to surprise him and captured him in a cave. There he was hacked to death and decapitated with his own sword.
(folk-metal version titled The Marching Song Of Fiach MacHugh from Irish band Cruachan)
Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne’s corpse was cut up, and for months hung on pike staffs on the wall over Dublin Castle drawbridge. Several months later, the pickled head was presented to the council secretary at London by an English adventurer, who was disappointed to find that the head-silver due on O’Byrne had already been paid in Ireland. The queen was said to have been greatly angered that
“the head of such a base Robin Hood was brought solemnly into England”.
(There’s no better way to end this article than with my own personal favourite and the version by Dublin Celtic-Punk band Blood Or Whiskey)
- If you are even just the tiniest bit interested in Irish history and culture then it is essential that you subscribe to Stair na hÉireann/History of Ireland. An absolutely fantastic resource for all aspects of Irish history including the daily ‘What Happened On This Day’ and covering a wide range of Irish History, Irish language, Irish Diaspora, The Great Hunger, Arts & Music, Culture, Archaeology, Literature, Photography, Mythology & Folk Culture.
- REMEMBERING HUGH THE GREAT O’NEILL IN SONG here
- REMEMBERING RODDY McCORLEY IN SONG here