Wicklow last county formed because of rebellious clans

Wicklow was the last county in Ireland to be formed. Plans to shire Wicklow had been in place since 1578 but rebellious clans stalled them.

'Finally in 1606, 400 years ago, the county was brought under the full control of Dublin Castle. This, according to 'The Last County - The Emergence of Wicklow as a County 1606-1845', represented the 'break up of the last bastion of Gaelic Ireland'.

'The Last County' was a County Wicklow Heritage Project book coordinated by Joan Kavanagh, Sean O'Connor and Fiona Walsh with FÁS trainees. It gives a comprehensive history of the county.

The three main Wicklow clans were the O'Byrnes, O'Tooles and O'Kavanaghs. The O'Byrnes occupied the northern part of Kildare. The O'Tooles occupied south Kildare and part of north Wicklow. They were driven off their own land and into the mountains in Wicklow by the Norman invasion.

They located themselves along the east coast from Newtownmountkennedy to Arklow and up as far as Glenmalure by the early 1200s. The two clans allied through marriage and declared war on the incoming Anglo Normans.

During the 14th and 15th centuries the natives continued to harass the invaders. There were incidents of open warfare such as the burning of Wicklow town in 1306 when the O'Byrnes and the O'Tooles conspired against the Butlers.

In the 1390s Roger Mortimer, Earl of March and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, along with the Earl of Ormond, attacked the O'Byrne Country and took the O'Byrne castle in Wicklow town - the Black Castle, the ruins of which are still in place.

The O'Tooles fought back and defeated the English, spiking 60 heads on the gates of the O'Tooles' castle at Powerscourt. Together the clans fought the English and killed the Lord Lieutenant in 1398.

Two branches of the O'Byrne clan emerged within the county. The east branch, Crioch Branach, was based at Kiltimon Castle while the Gabhall Ranalagh stretched from Lickeen to Aughrim and Bahana to Glenmalure. Between them they occupied east and west Wicklow by the 16th century.

The Gabhall Ranalagh O'Byrnes sided with the Fitzgeralds in their war with the Butlers. Garoid Og Fitzgerald was the Lord Deputy. On being summoned to England in 1534 he appointed his son, Silken Thomas, vice deputy. On rumours of his father's death, Thomas rebelled against the King. Many clans, including the O'Byrnes, joined his revolt, which was successful for a time.

These alliances between Gaelic chieftains and English nobles were viewed as dangerous by the English who set about breaking them up.

Under a new system, Thadeus, chief of the O'Byrnes, agreed to sign a treaty for the King in 1535 in which he swore to be a loyal subject. He requested that his territory be shired and called County Wicklow. However, this move was rejected by his clan and a new chief was elected.

During the mid 1500s there was a time of relative peace and the authorities in Dublin were led to remark on the good behaviour of the O'Byrnes.

By 1578 the authorities were preparing to shire Wicklow to create a new county of Wicklow and Ferns. The army of the Lord Deputy, Lord Grey, was sent to subdue the county but was destroyed by Fiach Mac Hugh O'Byrne and his ally Lord Baltinglass at the battle of Glenmalure in 1580. The plans for a new county had to be scrapped in the face of open rebellion.

Hostilities continued through to the turn of the century and by the end of the 1500s the O'Byrnes were experiencing great hardship. The defeat of the Irish in Kinsale signalled the beginning of the end for the Gaelic chieftains' old way of life. The final bell tolled for them in 1607 with the Flight of the Earls.

The time was right to bring the O'Byrnes' country under the full control of Dublin Castle. It is generally accepted that the county was finally shired in 1606.

'With this break up of the last bastion of Gaelic Ireland and the O'Byrne clan the last county in Ireland was created,' it is reported in 'The Last County'.

In 1606 efforts got underway to dispossess the O'Byrnes and the O'Tooles of their lands in Wicklow. Phelim and Redmond O'Byrne, sons of the great Fiach Mac Hugh O'Byrne who was killed in 1597, were given temporary grants to part of Gabhall Ranalagh. The rest was declared royal lands. Phelim fought the issue for many years.

In the years that followed, former O'Byrne territory was granted to Sir William Parsons, Sir John Hoey, Sir Henry Harrington and Sir Laurence Esmond, among others.

Phelim continued his fight for the return of his lands and petitioned the King in 1623. A commission of enquiry was established but found against him. After his death his sons, Brian and Hugh, continued his quest. The former Gabhall Ranalagh was also changing hands.

By 1641 the O'Byrne holdings had been reduced to 20,000 acres from 75,000 acres. Cromwell dispossessed the O'Byrnes of Gabhall Ranalagh in 1649.

n All the information for this article came from 'The Last County - The Emergence of Wicklow as a County 1606-1845'.