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The Byrnes of County Louth



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These pages have been transcribed from the County Louth Archaeological Journal from the National Library of Ireland Volume 2. Written by Patrick Kirwan in 1908.
Transcribed by Dorothy Drayton Byrne and kindly photocopied for us by Ciaron McEniry from the National Library of Ireland.
 
Spenser, in his "View of the State of Ireland", makes a special mention of the sept of the O'Byrnes. He calls them "Brinns" which aproximates more closely to the original and correct Irish form Ui Broin than does that which passes as the present day equivalent.
He shows that long before his day- in fact all through Irish history, with it's endless tales of fight,feast and foray- this family took a leading part.
John Byrne of Ballinacor, in the County of Wicklow, was deputed in 1588 by his brother "Prince of Wicklow" to command the auxiliary army in aid of O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, Prince of Ulster. His son Edmund Byrne , married Margaret Taaffe, and settled in Killany, County Louth, and thus started the branch of the clan at which we are here taking a passing glance.
Facts are few, but quaint; and they are made quainter still by the colouring of tradition which still tends in the direction of magic.
Among all the local traditions one name stands out forever prominent. It is that of the "Old Pirate Byrne" of Castletown. As he happened to have been my maternal great grand uncle, I took a somewhat particular interest in all concerning him; and, as his career and that of his grandsons was full of romance, or what goes to the making of it, it may be of interest to the reader also. There is a picture of him painted by one of the earliest RA's. He looks a most respectable member of society. Yet the people still remember him in Dundalk by the name of "The Pirate Byrne". He lived in Castletown. The big square house on the top of the hill was one of his. He built it for his grand nephew Pat. As the inscription which reads - "Erected by Patrick Byrne Esq., of Castletown. for his Grand Nephew Patrick Byrne Esq., of Seatown. 1780" shows. There's pirates treasure in the cellars of it still; but it's guarded by a magic cat, and you've got to shoot him 'wid a silver bullet before he'll let you get it.
The mound and trench upon which the castle is built are remains of Celtic antiquity, and have been there from time immemorial. For this is the site of old Dundalk- the Dundalgin of the Irish bards. Here we are, as it were, hand in hand with the beginnings of modern history. Straining our eyes yonder, we almost seem to see the magnificent emblazoned chariot of the Queen of Connaught speeding up against us, surrounded by a gleaming host of warriors. And the sheen of the whirling chariot wheels shines in the valley below, and the warm glow of the saffron mantles, and the glitter of the brooches, and the family wrought jewellery. And we know that the dark haired Queen has wrath flaming in her eyes as she looks upon us, for has she not come to mortal combat with the knights of the Red Branch. But gone are the golden days alas, bringing with them their story of the vicissitudes which lead us to the modern anti-climax:-"The house has been lying empty for some time, your honour, as the ladies that were here last found it terrible awkward on account of there being no water bar that they dragged up the hill in a barrel. Sure if your honour would like to take it, it'll be going cheap with three acres of ground attached, and if your honour would only speak to the master, I'm sure it would be yours. Wait now 'till I get the drawing room shutters open."
We are in the pirates home at last. The hexagonal rooms, cut to the shape of the tower. look decorative and quaint, and how easily we can people them  with ghosts, and with the revelling and intrigues of bygone ages.
We wonder if he really was a pirate, or only a privateersman after all, but this tower would undoubtedly have been of use to him in the former capacity, and they say that he used to flash signal lights of red and blue from it to his ships in the harbour below.
Far away to the right stretches the expanse of Dundalk Bay. Here in the ninth century was fought the one great naval battle of which Irish records speak.
Turning our gaze a little to the left we rest it upon the hill of Faughart opposite; again one of the most historic spots in Ireland, for it was there that the last King of Ireland was killed. It was a little over five hundred years after the great fight in Dundalk Bay that Edward Bruce was crowned King of all Ireland on the spot above which we are standing, and it was in the battle of Faughart that he ended his reign, stabbed to the heart by the Sire de Maupas of Dundalk, who, they say, dressed as a jester, found his way to the heart of Bruce's army. and, with his dagger, to the heart of Bruce himself.
From the scenes of war we pass to the peaceful heroine of Faughart. She of whom it was written, " She was a ladder to heaven for very many souls, and was called by the chaste, 'Head of the Nuns of Erin' ". On this hill St Brigid, the great contemporary of St Patrick, was born; and on the first of February in each year her feast day was kept with the annual patron.
Pat O'Byrne, grandson of "The Pirate" , writes from Prague, on February the first in eighteen hudred and six, to Miss Eliza O'Byrne, in Sanson Place, Worcester England:- " This day used to be a hunting day- the patron of Faughart, Saint Bridget". So, through all his troubles and expatriation the Irishman never seems to have forgotten the old days at home.
Seatown is down yonder by the quay. The old red brick house, with the disused mill standing like a hoary sentinel beside it, is the house in which Pat O'Byrne's father lived. The military flavour still clings round it in a diminished degree, for it is now used as a militia barracks.
Looking upon the minature of poor Pat O'Byrne, we cannot help wondering at the brutality and stupidity of the government of that day that allowed such men to be taken from the country. For we see him in German uniform, and we know that he died Chamberlain to the King of Prussia, and we cannot but admire the grit in a man who could raise himself to such a position despite the adverse surroundings of his life.
The proclamation which he signed with the name of "Commonsense" was, after all, the commonsense at all events from one point of view. Had he not a right to call, as he did, upon his fellow countrymen- Catholic, Presbyterian and Protestant alike- to make a stand against the exorbitant taxation and the bad government of the day?
But Pat had to undergo two years imprisonment for his pamphlet, and pay a fine of five hundred pounds to the King, and find sureties for his "good behaviour". So he took his commonsense elsewhere, and shook the dust of the Emerald Isle from his feet forever. His pseudonym of "Commonsense" seems really to have been the key-note to his character. In the midst of trouble and sickness, in the thick of war and worry and the fighting with the French, he writes home in the year 1806, in a letter to his mother to the post office at Bath- a letter in which he makes the aphorism. "I now always reckon whatever is, although for the moment unpleasant, turns out for the best." So he went bravely through his fighting for existence until he died six years afterwards. He looks out at us still with a haughty air from the diamond frame of the old minature. for pride, too, was one of his distinguishing characteristics as we gather from his letters. So we take a lingering "goodbye" of the grandnephew of "the pirate".
As we take our way down the hillside, we are struck with the quaint old graveyard at the bottom of it. Left alone, I lean against the rusty iron gate, and take another view of Castletown Mount; and I wonder if this was the house in which the pirate slept that night of the robbery, when he outwitted his captors and had them hanged.
For they say that late one night, when the wind was moaning through the trees, and all was still in the Pirate's house. when the Pirate himself was sleeping the quiet sleep that only comes to those of good conscience and simple nature, a gang of men found their way into Pirate Byrne's house, and not only into his house, but even up to his bedside. There they gathered round his bed, and pointing a pistol to his head, demanded of him all the treasure he possessed.
Patrick the Pirate rubbed his eyes, and, stretching himself, took in the situation. Seeing that he was in the power of the gang of ruffians for the time being, he thought it best to treat then civilly, so he took the little pleasantry of the pistol pointing merely as a joke, and an excellent one at that, and in response to their question said, "Gentlemen here are my keys; take all you can find, and do not forget that this big key I hold between my finger and thumb is that of the cellar. Go drink what you can of the wine and welcome." So they went, completed the plunder, and before quitting, visited the cellar. Here they got so drunk that upon coming once more into the open air they one and all embraced the soil of "Ould Ireland" .
Captain Byrne meanwhile sent round to the police barracks.At dawn one of the ruffians was found in a field beside the house, another was prostate on the road to Dundalk; in fact the whole gang were found one by one adoring the holy soil of Louth.
At the next sessions they were tried, found guilty, and hanged on the summit of "dairy hill". They say that Captain Byrne was present at the execution, just to see the last of his guests and wish them a pleasant journey as a host should. For one man Byrne interceded in vain. This man had prevented his comrade from firing the pistol which was pointed at the Pirate's head and thus carrying the joke too far. But Byrne's intercession failed, and the man was hanged- the hangman "jumping on his shoulders to put the life out of him. ". Thus one little pleasant incident has come down to us of life in and around Castletown Mount.
When we first heard the story we thought it was merely a picturesque fiction invented to strengthen the local colour of which the Irish are so fond; but upon examining the court book of that particular period we found tradition corroborated.
We were lucky to get the extract from the court book, for it had left Dundalk. But previous to it's removal it had been lent to one of the residents and from his copy I got my information. The court book solemnly says that Patrick Clarke, Philip McCormick, Michael Hickey,John Griffiths, Patrick Rourke, John Kearns and Simon Doyle were indicted" for that they. on the night of the third of May, twentieth of the King (1780) at Castletown, did break and enter the dwelling house of Patrick Byrne, and thereout feloniously took"; and here it gives the list of knee buckles, salt shovels, tankards, seals, gold rings, twelve pair of stockings, seventy pounds in money and "one small piece of linen valued 5".
It then goes on to give the result. Simon Doyle was found "not guilty" . All the others were found "guilty" and sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead, on Saturday, the 2nd day of September next".
We leave the ruined chapel with regret, for there is evidence of interesting early Celtic work about it, mixed with that of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and we tread a cautious way among the mounds which veil what once was human, until we stand before the roofless building erected by Pirate Byrne as a family tomb. With the aid of grass from the neighbouring graves the lettering under the mermaid family crest became distinct in the stone above the doorway of the vault. And I read the quaint epitaph for the famous Pirate:
 
NEPTUNE'S WAVES AND BOREAS BLAST
HAVE TOSSED ME TO AND FRO
UNTIL NOW I AM COME AT LAST
TO HARBOUR HERE BELOW
WHERE I HOPE MY BONES WILL BE AT REST
UNTIL THE JUDGEMENT DAY SHALL BE
O GOOD CHRISTIANS WHO READ THIS
I BEG YOU WILL PRAY FOR ME.
 
There's no one quite knows who wrote the verses. Some say the Pirate himself did it, and more say that he isn't buried here at all, and that he only used the vault to hide things in, that he was smuggling, and that there's a secret passage from here to the Mount. But we've not found it yet.
But time is running away, and we must do likewise. For is there not a house below at the bottom of the hill by Castletown river, and was it not the living place of John, Pat's brother? But there is no house there now, only a few loose stones and the remains of one or two outhouses. For they say that pikes were found in the garden in '98 and the zeal of the yeomanry was roused- or their sense of plunder to be had for the asking perhaps. John knew nothing of the plot which was being hatched against him in Dundalk, but the yeomanry officers loosed their tongues rather too freely about it over their cups after dinner, and one of the waiters took an early opportunity to escape from the room, and once outside fled with the speed of loyalty and love to aquaint the friend of the people of the danger he was in. They say that Captain Seaver of the Bog, who commanded the Yeomen, was so enraged at finding the prey flown that he swore" the bird is gone, but by God we'll burn the nest" and they did. The house was burned to the ground.
And all the while John was hiding in Castletown river, up to his neck in the water, and at nightfall he got clear away and escaped from the country, and went to join Pat as a brother in misfortune, and served in the Thirteenth Regiment of Austrian Light Horse. In one of Pat's letters, written from Prague in eighteen hundred, he says " John comes to a troublesome place on the Rhine perpetually day and night before the enemy, and no rest." And a little later "when you write to John direct to him' Monsieur O'Byrne Lieut. dans le Regt. du Vincent, triezieme Chevaux Legers au service de sa Maj: Imp: R.; et Apost: sous les ordres de Monsr. Le F: Z: M. Conte de Sztary (pres de Mannheim), and then somewhat naively adds, " the 13th Light Horse is John's Regt."
Yet he did not stay long in this regiment with the grandiloquent title, for a year afterwards we find him writing home to his mother in Dublin that he has obtained his "dismission" and that he intends to walk all the way to Hamburg (700 miles) in order to get to England, as "I would sooner starve in England than be a general here". He seems very troubled in this letter, and yet, Irish like, has a mind to describe the fashions of the day. "If the girls wish to know Prague fashions, the ladies wear red pantaloons with yellow gauze over them, and Pat wears a brown surtout and a Welch wig."
The Duke of Cumberland took a fancy to " the brave John O'Byrne" as he is called in the dismission from the Austrian Army, and not only to the man, but also to his dress. From that time the sleeveless jacket worn by Cornet O'Byrne was introduced into the English army, not to be discarded until after the Crimean War. Joh served in the Fifteenth Light Dragoons until someone with whom he had a quarrel denounced him as a papist and former rebel. His brother officers backed him up, and signed a declaration that he had " always conducted himself with graet loyalty and zeal, and behaved in every respect as an officer and a gentleman".
Yet, after this, he left the army, and retired into private life at Worcester, where he lived to a good old age, a well known character in the town. A cariacture in the window of a Worcester bookseller is the only likeness we possess of him.
In the same tin box in which we found the declaration by the officers of "The Fifteenth" was an old deed relative to lands held by the Byrnes in County Louth in the time of Charles 1, with a full length seal effigy of the King attached. One of the words decipherable in the forest of doggeral latin of which the deed is composed is "Rossmakea".
In conclusion let us take a birds eye view of the descent of the County Louth branch of the Byrnes from the time that John Byrne came from Wicklow in the year 1588 to the time of my grandfather John and my granduncle Pat. The following table puts this portion of the genealogy in perhaps the most succint fashion: