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29 May 1997 Edition

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Remembering the Past: The Wicklow Rebel

By Aengus O'Snodaigh

Four hundred years ago a major Irish rebel leader was betrayed to the English forces which had been hounding him, or were hounded by him, for nearly two decades.

Despite being surrounded on all sides in Glenmalure, County Wicklow, that leader, Fiach Mac Aodh O'Broin, and his soldiers put up a brave fight. O'Broin was cut down, beheaded and carted off to Dublin where his head was presented to England's Lord Deputy there, Sir William Russell. It was then impaled on the walls of Dublin Castle and later transferred to London to be presented to Queen Elizabeth. She was not amused and indicated ``her high displeasure at such a present sent with so much of vain parade.''

The importance of the betrayal and subsequent slaying of O Broin on 8 May 1597 was not lost on the English. The then Secretary of State for Ireland Sir Geoffrey Fenton wrote that while alive Fiach gave ``notable encouragement to the rebellion in Ulster'' and ``was more relied upon by the Spaniards than Tyrone (Aodh O'NĂ©ill) himself''.

Fiach succeeded his father as taoiseach of the O Broin Ranallach clan, who lived in about 150,000 acres of Wicklow known as Ranelagh. Fiach was seen as the greatest threat to Dublin. In 1580 Lord Deputy Grey set out to quash the independence and threat of the O Broins. On 25 August Fiach and his forces heavily defeated the crown forces, sending what remained scurrying back to Dublin.

Grey's successor, Sir John Perrot, made less headway against Fiach between 1584 and 1588. He said of him that he was a ``perilous firebrand'' and proposed that he be poisoned. Despite retaining an apothecary, Thandy Nolan, his devious plan did not reach fruition. Perrot's replacement, Sir William Russell, saw O Broin and ridding Dublin of his threat as his main priority.

Despite offering vast sums of money for his capture and capturing Fiach's home at Ballinacorr in 1595 he was nowhere near capturing Fiach himself. This was demonstrated by Fiach's recapture of his lands and home later that year despite Russell boasting to London that he was ``old and sickly and not to be reckoned with''.

So outraged was Russell that he deployed so many troops to Wicklow that Dublin's security was wide open to a chance attack by the other Irish clans who were at war with the English at this time, especially O'Neill and O'Donnell. For the next two years Wicklow became a virtual English garrison, so many troops remained deployed there. It wasn't until the traitor sold out Fiach that Russell came to corner him.

A Mr John Lane, who had brought the head to England, tried to collect head money for it, but was told that it had already been paid in Ireland. However, they kindly told him he could keep the head. He gave it to a young lad who put it in a tree, where it was later found by children searching for cattle. No one seems to now what happened to it after that.

400 years ago this month an Irish Chieftain, warrior and rebel, Fiach Mac Aodh O Broin, was betrayed, killed and beheaded. This month in Rathdrum, County Wicklow, the local historical association unveiled a memorial in his honour.

An Phoblacht
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