Follow Me Up to Carlow is an intriguing song with lots of references to fascinating but obscure characters.
It’s often described as being about the victory of Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne at the Battle of Glenmalure in 1580, but a close examination of the lyrics show that there’s more to it than that.
The song refers to incidents covering more than 20 years and is actually set in the early 1590s, more than ten years after Glenmalure.
Follow Me Up to Carlow begins by telling Mac Cahir Og to lift his face and stop brooding. The person referred to is Brian MacCahir, who was Fiach’s brother in law.
MacCahir and his family had been put off their lands in 1572 and driven “to the fern” or the wilderness, which means they were literally left with nothing and had to rely on the support of the rest of the clan.
Their lands were given to supporters of the British Crown. This is the disgrace that Mac Cahir is brooding about.
The person responsible for the eviction was William Fitzwilliam, who was the Lord Deputy of Ireland at that time. He is the person referred to in the song as Black Fitzwilliam.
Fitzwilliam resigned as Lord Deputy and returned to England in 1575. He was away from Ireland for 13 years until he returned to take up his post again as Lord Deputy in 1588.
In 1580, the 14th Baron Grey de Wilton recruited 6000 men to quash the 2nd Desmond Rebellion. H
In the meantime, Ireland had a new Lord Deputy called Arthur Grey de Wilton who, in an attempt to increase British power and security, sent troops to confront Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne in 1580.
As the song says, Grey thought “victory was sure” but the confidence was unfounded as his men were routed by O’Byrne at the Battle of Glenmalure.
This is why Brian MacCahir is being urged to stop brooding: the point is that Ireland has a leader who can take on the British and win. All that’s needed is to get behind Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne.
Lord Kildare refers to The Sheriff of Kildare, a man called Pierce Fitzgerald.
As a representative of the British Crown and power, he too was plagued by O’Byrne and his men who gave him plenty of reason to curse and swear.
Fiach’s sons eventually put an end Kildare’s cursing when they stormed his stronghold, killed him and burnt his body.
The line Now Fitzwilliam have a care makes it clear that we are not just dealing with the Battle Glenmalure in this song as Fitzwilliam was out of the country when the battle took place.
It must refer to sometime after 1588 when Fitzwilliam returned to Ireland. The reference to fallen is your star low relates to the fact that Fitzwilliam was accused of corruption and taking bribes.
He had powerful friends who protected him from the anger of Queen Elizabeth but things were still difficult for him during this period.