ByRoute 3.1 Co. Wicklow & Co. Wexford

The Vale of Clara (Co. Wicklow / Central)

The Vale of Clara is a very pretty wooded river valley, but tends to get crowded in summer.

A beautiful old stone bridge spans the attractive River Avonmore.

Clara village claims to be the smallest in Ireland.

Clara church ( CoI) built in 1799, is probably the tiniest in Ireland.

Kids enjoy the nearby Clara Lara Fun Park.

The old Military Road rises from near the northern end of the valley through beautiful scenery, and descends forested slopes into Glenmalure.

The Vale of Clara is on the R755 linking Laragh with Rathdrum on ByRoute2.

Glenmalure (Co. Wicklow / South)

Glenmalure (Gleann Molúra)  the longest glacier valley in the British Isles, is exceptionally rugged and wild. The River Avonbeg descends from its source on Table Mountain through the glen beneath the steep, partially forested slopes of Lugnaquilla. The valley is very sparsely populated; locals identify with the scattered community of Drumgoff, centred on the only crossroads, overlooked by a bleak early  C19th barracks, now a private residence.

A solitary road wends scenically to the Barravore Ford, where there is a striking monument to the 1798 Rebellion and the romantic outlaws led by Michael O’Dwyer who held out in this area long after the uprising had been suppressed.

This remote valley was the scene of several battles over the centuries. An English force was defeated by Gaelic clansmen here in 1272. Another, led personally by King Richard II, passed through Glenmalure in 1399 in pursuit of Art Mor McMurrough and his ally Domichadh MacBrain Ruaidh O’Byrne – but the hunter became the hunted as the Gaelic clansmen subjected the royal flanks and rear to continual harassment. Richard’s knights and foot soldiers attempted to respond but the enemy simply disappeared into the forests. The decimated and starving troops were glad to reach the coast near Arklow, where ships awaited to take them and their doomed monarch back to England.

The Battle of Glenmalure 1580

Glenmalure was described in the late C16th by John Vowell (aka Hooker) as “a vallie or a combelieng in the middle of a wood, of a great length, betweene two hills, no other waie is there to passe through. Under foot it is boggie and soft, and full of great stones and slipperie rocks, verie hard and evill to pass through; the sides are full of great and mightie trees upon the hits and full of bushments and underwoods.”


The Desmond Rebellions in Munster increased turbulence throughout Ireland. In the Wicklow region, the Gabhail Raghnal / Gavall Ranell / Colranyll sept of the ancient O’Byrne clan had a long history of leaving raids on Dublin and the Pale. Headquartered almost impregnably in Ballynacor Castle, an oak fort run as a virtual military academy, Fiach Mac Aodh Ó Broin / Feagh McHugh O’Byrne was believed to be plotting revolution in league with chieftains of neighbouring clans.

A new and dangerous element from the government’s point of view was the involvement of members of the traditional defenders of the Pale, “Old English” Hiberno-Norman families led by Sir James Eustace, 3rd Viscount Baltinglass. (Ironically, Fiach’s father had defeated Sir James’ father Sir Roland Eustace in a celebrated border skirmish, but this die not prevent their sons from joining forces).

Queen Elizabeth I sent Arthur Grey, 14th Baron Grey de Wilton, to Ireland to stamp out insurgency with a newly raised English army of about 3,000 men, including many raw recruits.  Against the advice of veterans of Irish warfare, Lord Grey resolved to begin his campaign by storming Ballynacor.

On 25th August 1580, having marched for several days through lowland Kildare, the army advanced into the valley from Lugnaquilla in two columns. Hooker confirms that Grey ‘on horseback staied upon the mountainside’ with the cavalry and his secretary Edmund Spencer.

Sir Francis Cosby spearhead the advance with hired Gaelic mercenaries from Connacht. They were followed by the Berwick regiment under Colonel George Moore. Officers such as Sir Peter Carew and Captains Bernard Fitzwilliam, Furres and Audley were among the vanguard. The rearguard was protected by companies of shot under Sir William Stanley and Sir Henry Bagenal (who would later become marshal of the Queen’s forces in Ireland and mortal enemy of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, with whom his sister Mabel eloped). Other officers included Sir Nicholas Maltby, Sir Jacques Wingfleld, Captains Walter Raleigh, Edward Denny, George Strafford, John Zouche, Christopher Carleill, Thomas Norris andHumfrey Mackworth (who was kidnapped in 1583 by the Offaly O’Connors in reprisal for a raid; all the searchers found was his finger tied to a tree).

As Moore’s column emerged from the forest it came under raking fire from concealed rebels. Stanley’s later report is damning: “our Coronell [Moore] being a corpolent man not hable to endure travaile, before we were hallfe through the Glen, ledd us up the hill that was a mile in height, it was so steepe that we were forced to use our hands as well to clymbe as our feete, and the vanwarde being gone up the hill, we must of necessitie followe …” Hooker dolefully commented upon O’Byrne’s strategy: “He having them [the English] at a advantage upon everie side of the hill, with great furie assaileth them with his shot, and in a verie short time did kill the most parte of the foward, both captaines and souldiers“. At a prearranged signal, perhaps the shrill notes of warpipes, the insurgents surfaced suddenly from the heather and scrub, crashing in waves against the column, tearing holes in its massed ranks. The assault’s suddenness and ferocity stunned the recruits. Maltby described the reaction of the Elizabethan soldiery: “The strangeness of the fight is such to the newcome ignorant men that at first brunt they stand all amazed, or rather give their backs to the enemy.”

Sir Francis Cosby’s hired Gaelic kerne at the column’s head defected to the rebels, tilting the struggle further in the ambushers’ favour. It is likely Cosby was killed by his own men. The location of Sir Francis Cosby’s grave is said to be high in the hills above Glenmalure at a place called the Black Knobs. Tradition suggests O’Byrne kept Cosby’s body as a prize of war. It may have been buried secretly in this remote place on his command.

Moore ordered a fighting retreat, ironically sealing the fate of his troops. The recruits had suffered heavy casualties and the remnants faced annihilation. Now under continual attack, they retraced their path along the valley floor. Sensing victory, O’Byrne sent word to Eustace to attack, turning Moore’s fighting retreat into a massacre. Casualties soared as the column broke up. Faced by carnage all around them, the terrified recruits broke ranks and ran for their lives. Many of them threw away their pikes and arquesbuses. Desperately they tried to escape the bloody melee by clawing their way to safety over the valley’s southern walls. Stanley depicted himself and his company as the survivors’ saviours: “I was in the rerewarde and with me twenty soldiers of myne wherof were slayne eight, and desperately hurt ten… I had with me my drome whome I caused to sounde many alarmes web was well aunsweared by them that was in the rearewarde wch staied them from pulling us down by the heeles.”

Lord Grey’s horsemen prevented the utter annihilation of the companies covering the recruits’ flight, allowing Stanley and his company’s remnants to escape from the valley of death. Later, Maltby wrote that Hercules could not have bettered Grey’s courage. Having done all he could, Grey and his riders urged their horses up the mountainside and fled for their lives to Rathdrum, from where they retreated to lowland Wicklow.

The rebels, determined not to allow the defeated army to escape, followed in pursuit. Clad in bright coats of scarlet and blue, targets were easily visible. Edmund Spenser never forgot how the River Avonbeg’s waters were coloured by human carnage. The air was full of the screams of dying English and shrieking war cries of their killers. Stanley graphically describes the bewildered plight of the broken fugitives: “… were a man ever so slightlie hurte he was loste because no man was hable to healpe him up the hill.” Other soldiers just lay down and died: “… being so out of breath that they were hable to goe noe further being not hurte at all.”

Sir Peter Carew, exhausted from the effort of running uphill in a full suit of armour, paused momentarily to rest and catch his breath. A rebel party disarmed him and, after some bickering amongst themselves, decided not to hold him for ransom but “most butcherlie ….. slaughtered and killed him“.  Many soldiers met similar fates; among the English officers who died were Captains Fitzwilliam, Stafford, Audley and his lieutenant. Three years later, on a Dublin street on Midsummer’s Eve, Sir Peter’s brother George stabbed to death one Owen O’Nasye, a follower of Brian Owre Kavanagh, who had apparently boasted of being young Carew’s killer.

This defeat was the worst reverse ever suffered by a royal army in Ireland. The last word on the fighting is Stanley`s: “…it was the hottest peece off service for the tyme that I ever saw in any place.”

No record of Grey’s retreat from the Wicklow Uplands exists, or how many were killed or died from their wounds on this trek. Estimates of English casualties at Glenmalure vary from 500 to 1000. Nothing is known of the rebels’ losses, but they must have been considerably lower. According to local tradition fallen soldiers were buried in pits in the vicinity of Barravore ford. Officers were interred at a place called the Giant’s Grave.

There was panic in Dublin as the news of the battle filtered back. The question on every Elizabethan official’s lips was almost certainly whether Glenmalure’s victors would march on Dublin. However, the rebels quarrelled amongst themselves and, disunited, were easily defeated in a series of subsequent encounters. Viscount Baltinglass fought on for awhile, but eventually fled to France with his two brothers, and the Eustace lands were attainted and forfeit. He died in Spain in 1585.

Captains Stanley and Russell burned Ballinacor to the ground in 1581. (Stanley later defected to the Spanish and commanded a regiment in Flanders sworn to Queen Elizabeth’s overthrow, while Sir William Russell became Fiach Hugh O’Byrne’s nemesis as Lord Deputy).

Fiach Hugh O’Byrne’s vaunted diplomatic skills saved his lands and indeed his skin. In 1592 he sheltered Red Hugh O’Donnell, the “Fighting Prince of Donegal” who famously escaped here from Dublin Castle, losing a companion to exposure and two toes to frostbite en route.O’Byrne was murdered in a Glenmalure cave in 1597 by soldiers under Captain Thomas Lee; the chieftain’s pickled head was taken to London, where it was last seen perched in the fork of a tree.

The Battle is bloodily celebrated in the traditional ballad Follow Me Up To Carlow, notable for charming lines such as ” From Tassagart to Clonmore, there flows a steam of Saxon gore… ” and  ” …now for Black FitzWilliam’s head, we’ll send it over dripping red, to Queen Liza and her ladies“.

Glenmalure’s An Oige Youth Hostel, usually described as “atmospheric” (i.e. Spartan), is positioned above the ford, between the imposing Barravore Cliffs and the demanding ascent to Arts Lough.

The nearby Frocken Rock Glen, one of the most beautiful valleys in Ireland, is accessible only on foot and with care.

The Glenmalure Lodge at Drumgoff Crossroads traces its origins to “Wiseman’s Inn”, established in 1801, later a hunting lodge for Lord Meath. Family-run and always friendly, it has a traditional cosy pub atmosphere with timber floors, open turf fires and regular music sessions. It is also a good dining pub, with locally-sourced Wicklow lamb, beef, venison, poultry, fresh fish and game in season. The accommodation offers every modern convenience . (Photo by David R. Wilkins)

The old Military Road continues from Dromgoff Crossroads over a mountain spur into the Ow Valley.

Drungoff Crossroads is linked by a riverside road with Greenan and Rathdrum on ByRoute 2.


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