One world: the communities of the southern Dublin marches

Published in Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2005), Medieval History (pre-1500), Volume 13

When examining the histories of particular marchlands (border regions) through the medieval and early modern periods, it is best practice to avoid sweeping and speculative theses and to begin by employing that much-maligned and least fashionable of historical approaches—the historical narrative. The most important, yet most neglected, of these interfaces were those of the Irish and the English of Leinster, and in particular the southern Dublin marches. These marches pre-date the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman invasion, tracing their origin to Ostman Dublin’s foundation in 841. They were formed by the gradual expansion of Ostman influence southward and westward into Wicklow and Kildare at the expense of the Uí Dúnlainge kings of Uí Briuin Chualann and Uí Fáelain, a process paralleled in Fine Gall and the kingdom of Saithne in north Dublin. By the eleventh century Ostmen were settled throughout north-east Wicklow, while hinterlands of Ostman settlements at Wicklow and Arklow were also settled. The extent of Ostman power and territory south of Dublin is hard to delineate precisely. But clearly the Ostmen instead of defining the political landscape became part of it through their relationships with Irish kings such as those of Uí Fáelain and Uí Briuin Chualann.
The most dominant physical feature of the Dublin and Wicklow region is its mountains. At various times they provided refuge for dynasties driven from the Kildare plains. Although this region and its peoples traditionally fell under the overlordship of Uí Dúnlainge kings of Leinster, they were also partly subject to Ostman influence. Indeed, the region’s importance was enhanced by its proximity to Dublin. Moreover, Dublin’s foundation saw Leinster’s political centre of gravity shift from control over the Kildare plains to control over Dublin, thus increasing the importance of the region immediately south of Dublin. This point was not lost on ambitious Leinster princes. Arguably, this region became even more of a borderland owing to the decline of the Uí Dúnlainge and their Ostman allies after 1014. From the 1040s to 1071 Diarmait mac Máel na mBó, the expansionist king of Uí Cheinnselaig, stepped into the political vacuum to claim overlordship over Leinster and Dublin, beginning a trend carried into the twelfth century by the O’Brien, O’Connor and MacLoughlin high kings.

Anglo-Norman invasion a turning point

The major turning point in the region’s development was the arrival of Diarmait MacMurrough’s Anglo-Norman allies in 1169, resulting in the conquest of Leinster and the wreck of the Ostman kingdom of Dublin. After the 1170s the Leinster nobility of east Leinster and the Ostmen joined the new order, resulting in considerable interaction between the communities of the medieval county of Dublin and adding to the already hybrid nature of the southern marches. This hybrid world is captured in a snapshot of an inquisition held at the archbishop of Dublin’s castle at Castlekevin between 1257 and 1263. The inquisition was composed of ten Irish jurors, along with Richard and Thomas Lawless.  And as Kenneth Nicholls has noted, the law of the archbishopric’s courts differed substantially from the common law, for example accepting compensation for theft and the killing of Englishmen.
The sudden outbreak of conflict in 1269 saw the O’Tooles and O’Byrnes gradually assert overlordship over large tracts of territory. But to see their emergence as begetting hermetically sealed and independent Irish territories would be a mistake. In fact, the emergence of these Irish lordships did not signal the redefinition of the southern Dublin marches. If anything, these lordships remained an integral part of the march, being borderlands in character.
That is not to say that there was not considerable ethnic tension between the communities of the marches. The disadvantageous legal status of the Irish was bitterly felt. It resulted in the Irish of Leinster and Munster offering 7,000 marks unsuccessfully for a grant of common law in 1278. For Walter O’Toole, a member of the Irish élite, such a disadvantaged legal status was humiliating. At the Kildare assizes on 13 July 1299 Walter took legal action against two Englishmen who tried to deseize him of land. They answered that they did not have to answer an Irishman, making the plea of ‘Irishry’ to shut Walter out of the case because of his Irish blood. But Walter gave them the most effective reply, producing a grant of law to an ancestor in 1209. Moreover, the O’Byrnes and O’Tooles did break down the Fitzrhyss lordship of Imaal and the Lawless lordship in east Wicklow, forcing the more belligerent members of these families, along with the disgruntled Ostman lineages of Harold and Archbold, to retreat closer to Dublin during the fourteenth century.
The expulsion of these groups was never a foregone conclusion. If anything, the fluidity of march politics owing to the regular absence of royal government delayed the expulsion. The essence of the march is captured in the careers of fathers and sons. In 1328 David O’Toole was described as ‘the strong thief, the king’s enemy, the burner of the churches, the destroyer of the people’, while his son in the early 1350s was lauded as ‘defender of the faithful’. In this turn-about world of local power politics Irishmen had no qualms about entering English service to fight their own people. Malmorth O’Toole served as constable of Tallaght in 1326, while Murrough O’Toole and Gerald O’Byrne were in service during the 1320s and 1330s. A powerful Irish lord’s agenda could vary from one year to the next, choosing to ally with the settlers at one time before attacking them the next. The merry-go-round of march politics was reflected in the dealings of the settlers with the Irish, which resulted in a landscape littered with skirmishes, parleys, marriages, blood feuds, truces and broken alliances. Self-interest was the first rule of thumb on the march.

Intermarriage and commerce

Although the Irish controlled much of the southern part of the county of Dublin by 1400, this region and wider Leinster were not racially exclusive worlds. Henry le Taloun’s acknowledgement of Art Mór MacMurrough’s overlordship in 1395 shows English communities living under Irish lordship. This view is further confirmed in Wicklow. In 1544 James Lawless was with the O’Byrnes and O’Tooles serving Henry VIII, while the towns of Wicklow and Arklow remained under Irish control until 1525 and 1542 respectively. Another tie binding this hybrid society was intermarriage. About 1390 Art Mór MacMurrough took Elizabeth de Veel as his wife, while his descendants intermarried extensively with the Butlers of Ormond, thus creating an alliance lasting into the sixteenth century. Intermarriage also occurred lower in society. It is more than likely that the fourteenth-century Domhnall Lawless of Wicklow had an Irish mother. Henry Walsh of Carrickmines—it was claimed in 1468—spoke Irish, wore Irish dress and was reputed to use Irish law whenever it suited him.
Trade was also common between the Wicklow élites and the English, particularly in wine, timber, butter, weapons and corn. The depth of this commerce was captured in Gerald O’Byrne’s 1392 offer of a barge to Esmond Berle, a Dublin merchant, as payment for debts. In 1395 Phelim O’Toole also attested to trade’s importance, exclaiming ‘for without buying and selling I can in no way live’, while in 1425 Donnchadh O’Byrne promised to protect merchants visiting his lordship.
The career of James Butler, the ‘white’ earl of Ormond (1405–52), really highlights this hybrid world. Although the white earl was the greatest English magnate in Ireland, serving four times as chief governor during the first half of the 1400s, he and his deputy, Edmund Butler, were equally comfortable cultivating Irish supporters throughout Leinster and Ireland. After the Butler attainder in 1462 and their defeat in 1464, Earl Thomas Fitzgerald of Kildare, displaying a similar ease, filled the political void in Leinster after 1468. Although the Kildares were meant to advance royal rule, they became the real masters of Ireland. But in contrast to the white earl, the power of the Kildares was more ruthlessly enforced.

Turlough O’Toole—one of the great figures of march politics

The extension of Kildare’s suzerainty over the now-mature Wicklow lordships was marked by Cahir O’Byrne’s assassination in 1500. The Kildares consolidated their authority over the Wicklow Irish by rewarding their clients, collecting rents and crushing dissent. However, in 1516 the stewards of Gerald Fitzgerald, ninth earl of Kildare, killed Shane O’Toole of Imaal. During 1517 Shane Oge O’Toole took revenge, killing some of Kildare’s men after they had attacked Imaal. Worse followed when Kildare’s client Art O’Toole was killed, probably by his Imaal kinsmen, while in 1517/18 Art’s son, Turlough, defeated an expedition led by Mayor Christopher Ussher of Dublin, a Kildare client. When Turlough became lord of the O’Tooles about 1519, one of the great figures of march politics emerged, signalling a turning point in Kildare fortunes in Wicklow.
Turlough’s political schooling arose from the constant exposure of the Wicklow Irish to the English of Leinster, allowing him to tap into this heritage of political wheeling and dealing. The result was a mercurial and regional politician capable of anything, playing the politics of pillage, parley and pardon masterfully to work the English system to his own advantage. After 23 May 1520 Turlough exploited Kildare’s absence in England, offering his services to Thomas Howard, lord lieutenant of Ireland. He, however, was quickly allied with Kildare upon the latter’s return in January 1523. During Christmas 1523 the Fitzgeralds murdered Robert Talbot, causing Piers Butler, the disputed earl of Ormond, to invade west Wicklow to punish James Fitzgerald. This Butler intervention destabilised Kildare’s eastern frontier, encouraging the predatory Turlough, which in turn led the earl to subdue him in autumn 1530.
Like Turlough, many senior O’Byrnes wanted rid of Kildare but bided their time until May 1532. Then Edmund O’Byrne terrorised Kildare’s clients, while Turlough and his brother Art Oge O’Toole mocked Kildare by burning Donard that year. The O’Tooles, encouraged by Kildare’s shooting in the winter of 1532–3, routed the earl’s brothers in 1533. About the same time Edmund O’Byrne exposed Kildare’s inability to defend the Pale, attacking Dublin Castle to free prisoners. Turlough seized the opportunity when ‘Silken’ Thomas Fitzgerald, baron of Offaly, denounced Henry VIII on 11 June 1534. And with the senior O’Byrnes, Turlough joined Lord Deputy Skeffington to quell the rebellion.
The subsequent Kildare implosion was to allow Turlough to build an alliance between the O’Byrnes of Glenmalure, the Kavanaghs of Garryhill and the Art Boy Kavanaghs, who operated independently in east Leinster during these years. Their alliance was conditional on a protagonist leader with the ability to bring them success. And from autumn 1535 Turlough and his allies began to destroy government restraint in the Leinster mountains, sacking the former Kildare castle at Powerscourt, provoking intermittent conflict with the government until April 1540. Turlough also pursued his gains diplomatically, negotiating with both Lord Deputy Leonard Grey and the Geraldine League during 1537–8. But in the borderlands Turlough gave no quarter. He killed Constable John Kelway of Rathmore at Three Castles near Blessington in May 1538.
The recall of Grey to England in April 1540 encouraged Turlough, the O’Connor Falys and the O’Mores to burn the Pale, resulting in an unsuccessful expedition against him in mid-June. This allowed him to support the Kavanaghs of Garryhill in July against James Butler, ninth earl of Ormond. By September most of the O’Byrnes and Kavanaghs had submitted to Lord Deputy St Leger, but Turlough was elusive. After cornering him during November, St Leger and Ormond prevailed on Turlough to submit. In late 1540 St Leger dispatched Turlough to submit before Henry VIII and to receive confirmation of O’Toole rights to Fartry and Fercullen. Yet Turlough craved overlordship of Imaal, making conflict with the O’Tooles there inevitable.
Overconfident, he attacked Imaal in early 1542 but was killed. His son and successor, Turlough Oge, wanted revenge, which caused St Leger to support the Imaal O’Tooles. On 2 June 1542 St Leger and the council wrote to the king, declaring Turlough Oge and his brothers illegitimate, delaying letters patent to Fercullen. Henry would have none of it. The letters patent were issued in July. Encouraged, Turlough Oge attacked Imaal but was killed there before 15 May 1543.
The wooing of the O’Tooles encouraged the O’Byrnes to court the government, resulting in Tadhg O’Byrne’s agreement on 4 July 1542 to bring his lordship within the new kingdom of Ireland. Irish approval was further evidenced through the service of some O’Byrnes and Art Oge O’Toole in Scotland during 1544. During 1545 the government affirmed the new order, making an O’Byrne sheriff of O’Byrnes’ Country and appointing Brian O’Toole of Powerscourt as sheriff of Dublin. The latter proved his loyalty in summer 1547, crushing Fitzgerald rebels and the O’Tooles of Imaal at Three Castles.
Like the O’Tooles of Fercullen and the senior O’Byrnes, the O’Tooles of Fartry embraced the government. During November 1546 Feagh McArt Oge O’Toole of Castlekevin had Fartry confirmed to him, receiving his livery during 1551. The rise of reform in the O’Toole lordships can be felt in a case brought by the Glencap freeholders in July 1557 against Feagh McArt Oge and Phelim O’Toole of Powerscourt. Before Lord Deputy Thomas Radcliffe the freeholders alleged that these lords were openly levying dues upon Glencap. Sussex ordered them to desist, maintaining that Glencap fell within the sheriff of Dublin’s jurisdiction. Although this censure was probably ignored, it displayed O’Toole assimilation. This transition was speeded by their choice of wives. Phelim took Mary Talbot of Belgard as his first wife, while Feagh McArt Oge married Rose Basnett, daughter of Dean Edward Basnett of St Patrick’s Cathedral.
Not all Irishmen welcomed the New English reformation. During the late 1540s Hugh McShane O’Byrne of Glenmalure emerged as a major force in the region, harnessing those dispossessed of Laois and Offaly for his own purposes. But after the crushing of the midland rebellion in 1557, Hugh McShane recognised the potential offered by reform and began a policy of accommodation with local English officials to further his objectives. Even though he still secretly sheltered and encouraged midland dissidents, Hugh McShane could go to extraordinary lengths to maintain good relations with these officials, such as the humane Sir Francis Agarde, seneschal of the O’Byrnes and the O’Tooles from 1566.

Feagh McHugh O’Byrne—quintessential warlord turned Catholic crusader

But the bloody upheavals of the 1570s changed the march’s political climate, as the career of Hugh McShane’s son, Feagh McHugh O’Byrne, demonstrates. The young Feagh McHugh was a true creature of the hybrid world of the Dublin marches, possessing also the opportunistic outlook of a quintessential warlord. His ability to span the communities of the marches was helped by his position, his proficiency in English and his occasional wearing of English clothes. He was closely related to the Walshes of Carrickmines, and friendly with the Harolds, Archbolds, Williams and Basnetts. Moving up the social ladder, Feagh McHugh was also a confidant of Gerald Fitzgerald, eleventh earl of Kildare.
Following Hugh McShane’s lead, Feagh McHugh was initially pragmatic in his dealings with the New English. But the upheavals in Leinster in the early 1570s were to cause Feagh McHugh’s attitude to change. Increasingly, he began to be more attracted to the political and religious views circulating in the communities of opposition gathering around such figures as the Desmond Fitzgeralds, Rory Oge O’More and Piers Grace. In fact, Feagh McHugh’s political thinking began to merge with that of many Old English Catholics, displaying similar anger about the treatment of Catholics. In trying to understand Feagh McHugh’s growing alienation from the government, it is clear that the killing of family and friends during 1577 and 1578 was a watershed in the formation of his later political views. And it was from this crucible that the later radical was to emerge.
After Hugh McShane’s death about May 1579, Feagh McHugh and James Fitzeustace, third Viscount Baltinglass, plotted a war in defence of the Catholic faith against the Protestant-dominated New English government. Centuries of interaction on the march between their families meant that these men were not strangers to each other, but it was their shared fervent Catholicism and their anti-New English feeling that made their partnership so dangerous for the government. Feagh McHugh and the Leinster Irish also saw a major opportunity to settle scores with the New English.
The shared religious zeal of Feagh McHugh and Baltinglass, however, was plainly evident when they unfurled the papal banner at Newcastle McKynegan on 28 July 1580. And it was confirmed by their killing of surrendering New English soldiery during their rout of Lord Deputy Arthur Grey de Wilton at Glenmalure on 25 August, and Feagh McHugh’s execution of New English prisoners after the sack of Rathcoole in October. On 26 April 1581 Sir William Stanley, the New English commander at Wicklow, wrote of the seething local resentment of his men: ‘they are the worst when they see us and have an extreme hatred’. And at parleys in 1581 Feagh McHugh left Grey in no doubt that he would continue to attack the New English in defence of Catholicism. On 25 April Grey wrote that Feagh McHugh ‘raile[s] at your Majesty; leave god, and relye upon the pope and that charges shall in the end free them’. In July Grey exempted him from pardon because ‘he will not have pardon unless the earle of Desmond, John of Desmond, and all the confederates of this rebellion be content to receave their pardon, and that religion might be at liberty’. Grey added: ‘. . . I do not finde that the offer of a pardon to him could prevaile, so well confirmed is he by Roachford [Father James Rochford], and other popishe instruments to followe his oathe, and obedience he hath swoorne and vowed to the pope’. To Grey there was no doubt that Feagh McHugh and his allies had fused hostility towards the New English with religious zeal.
Feagh McHugh survived the war and received his pardon in late July but the hybrid society of the Dublin marches was coming to an end. In December 1580 Kildare, its natural leader, had been arrested on suspicion of colluding with Feagh McHugh and Baltinglass. Kildare was eventually exonerated but he was a spent force, even though he lived until 1585. Kildare’s fall was followed by the flight of Baltinglass to the Continent in late 1581, depriving the march of another of its traditional leaders and leaving the Catholic leadership to Feagh McHugh. And he set his face against the New English until he was killed in 1597.
Catholicism had finally put the seal on the hybrid society of the Irish and Old English of the Dublin marches, beginning the emergence of a single Catholic political nation. The region now became an arena for the two competing faiths and nations, as the rebellion of November 1641 would show when these two worlds collided.

Emmett O’Byrne is a postdoctoral fellow at the Michael Ó Cléirigh Institute for the Study of Irish History and Civilisation at University College Dublin.

Further reading:

C. Etchingham, ‘Evidence of Scandinavian settlement in Wicklow’, in K. Hannigan and W. Nolan (eds), Wicklow: history and society (Dublin, 1994).

E. O’Byrne, ‘The rise of the Gabhal Raghnaill’, in C. O’Brien (ed.), Feagh McHugh O’Byrne: the Wicklow firebrand (Rathdrum, 1998).

E. O’Byrne, War, politics and the Irish of Leinster (Dublin, 2003).

E. O’Byrne, ‘Cultures in contact in the Dublin marches’, in S. Duffy (ed.), Medieval Dublin V (Dublin, 2004).

The author wishes to acknowledge the support of the Ó Cléirigh Institute and of Dr Edel Bhreathnach in the preparation of this article.


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