Eustace Families Association

The picturesque valley of Glenmalure, nestled in the rugged Wicklow mountains was the scene of one of Ireland’s proudest moments when rebellious forces under the command of James Eustace, Third Viscount Baltinglass, defeated Queen Elizabeth’s troops in 1580.


The families of the Earls of Desmond and of Ormand had, between them, owned a quarter of Ireland and in the southwest and for generations, they had fought between themselves. However, in the late 1560's, they united to fight off the colonists being imposed by Elizabeth I and her English government. The campaign ended with the wounding of Desmond, who was handed over to the English by Ormand at the price of his own safety. After languishing in prison in England for seven years, Desmond was transferred to Dublin. He escaped, and with the support of his people in Munster, lived for some years in peace. Then an expedition sponsored by the pope and led by an Irishman landed in Munster. Desmond tried to avoid becoming involved, but was declared "traitor" by the English government. He joined the rebels in the sacking of Youghal. Reinforcement of the English army and the absence of further help from papal sources resulted in the steady loss of Desmond strongholds. He became a fugitive in his own domain.

Three years later the English suddenly left Desmond alone. They were under new threat as a rebel force raised by James Eustace, Viscount Baltinglass, was burning villages around Dublin. Eustace had inherited his title and estates in 1560 and had recently returned from Rome with a crusading zeal to re-establish the Catholic Church in Ireland. A big part of his force was drawn from the clansmen in the Wicklow hills. Eustace was expecting Desmond to join forces with him, but did not realize that Desmond was by this time a fugitive.

Elizabeth sent a new general, Grey of Wilton, who landed at Dublin in August, 1580, with a new but inexperienced army. There was talk of a Spanish invasion in the southwest, but Grey would not march south with the threat to his flank and rear of Eustace and his clansmen. He decided on a course, bold if successful but foolhardy if not, of striking into the Wicklows and dealing with the threat.

His every move was watched by the clansmen and reported to Eustace who was at his home in in Tipperkevin near Ballymore Eustace. By riding through the night he reached his troops shadowing the English army. With O'Byrne, his chief ally, he positioned his crossbowmen and arquibusiers along the heights above the wooded Glenmalure. Grey advanced via Naas and Lugnaquilla and entered Glenmalure from above. The English troops in scarlet and blue doublets with white hose made easy targets for the ambushers, who poured a deadly fire down upon them. Even downhill, arms and armour sapped the strength of the marching army and when they tried to mount the sides of the glen to dislodge their attackers, they arrived at the top so exhausted they they were easy prey for the clansmen. They were cut to pieces. It was the worse defeat that the English had suffered in Ireland. Extricating his forces as best he could, Grey had to reinforce his army and march, regardless, to the west coast where Catholic forces, mainly Basques and Italians, had landed and seized Smerwick. The invaders were besieged and capitulated in three days. Some six hundred were put to the sword.

Eustace and his clans continued a guerilla fight from the hills until the following year, but he and his two surviving brothers were forced to escape into Ulster and thence to Scotland and France. The other Eustace men that were captured; many were hanged and their heads sent to Dublin. In spite of his victory at Glenmalure, James Eustace's bid to free Ireland from the Protestants had failed through lack of support. His title and lands were forfeited under attainder and remain so to this day. He died three years later in exile.

(Details of this account have been taken from The Twilight Lords, by Richard Berleeth.)