The Battle of Glenmalure was probably the finest hour of Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne, the hero of Follow Me Up to Carlow by Irish songwriter P J McCall.
Ireland in the 16th century was only partly under the control of the British.
The clan structure was still very strong and still capable of taking on and inflicting costly defeats on British forces.
By 1580, the British were becoming increasingly concerned about their lack of control in Ireland and they were determined to do something about it.
The background to the Battle of Glenmalure
In 1580, Arthur Grey, Baron Grey de Wilton became the Lord Deputy of Ireland.
The British were preoccupied at this time with of the growing threat posed by Spain, a threat that would eventually lead to the Spanish Armada.
Queen Elizabeth feared the Spanish might use Ireland as a springboard to launch an attack with the help of Irish rebels. Grey was instructed to make Ireland more secure for the British to prevent any collaboration with Spain.
To do this, Grey knew he would have to send troops to across the country and out of the relatively safe area around Dublin, the area known as the Pale.
Grey wanted to prevent attacks by the O’Byrnes
Fiach and his O’Byrne clan had fought in several battles against the British when Grey arrived.
Grey wanted to take control of the O’Byrne stronghold areas in the Wicklow Mountains and beyond.
This would enable British troops to march south to quell problem areas without fear of being attacked from behind by the O’Byrnes.
Fiach supported the Baltinglass Revolt
Viscount Baltinglass was at this time involved in a rebellion against the Crown with the support of Fiach and the O’Byrnes.
In 1580, Grey decided to lead his troops into the Wicklow Mountains to deal with Fiach once and for all. Some of his army veterans were unhappy about having to fight in such dangerous terrain but Grey pressed on.
He ordered his troops march into Glenmalure to the beat of the drum. Fiach and his men hid in the rough mountainous terrain and looked on.
The British troops were routed
The British troops were highly conspicuous in their red and blue coats.
The Irish were able to pick them off with sniper gunfire before engaging them in hand to hand combat.
Grey’s troops were routed. Fiach and the O’Byrnes had secured a famous victory.