The History of Wicklow

Between the old counties of Carlow and Dublin in the Irish province of Leinster, there was once a wild and untameable frontier land. This land consisted of an ancient mountain chain that ran parallel to the coast, southwest of Dublin city, for over one hundred miles, petering out into small hills in the county of Wexford. The mountains were weary, ravaged by millions of years of water and wind erosion.

Across the tops of the mountains and hills of this chain there was an open country of forbidding bogs, somehow, and strangely, covering all but the loftiest peaks. On the flanks of the mountains there were forested valleys: deep, dark, and somewhat sinister, where wild boar and wolves roamed, and mysterious rebel chieftains defied the enforced authority of successive military regimes, both Irish and foreign. Along the coast of this inhospitable land the foothills of the mountains met a narrow ribbon-like plain of saltmarshes scarcely more than mile at its widest point, punctuated in places by hills and mountains that ran to the sea and terminated in fierce wall-like cliffs.

In 1606 the most recent conquerors of Ireland, the English, finally decided upon the best way of dealing with this wild hostile zone that loomed so threateningly close to Dublin: they declared it to be Ireland's last county. The new county was named "Wicklow", an Anglicisation of Wykynlo - believed to be old Norse for "Viking Land" - as almost all of the coastline south of Dublin had been dominated by Norse settlements throughout the Middle Ages. Then they surrounded the new county with a perimeter of military installations located on all the roads leading into or out of it. The human inhabitants of Wicklow, the so-called "Wood Kerne", were regarded as mysterious and dangerous. The English could do little more than guard the main roads that ran along either side of the mountains to ensure a safe passage to Wexford by the coastal route, and to Carlow in the interior.

Although lands and titles were granted to various families, such authority was impossible to enforce in the mountains. While the wolf was hunted to extinction in the rest of Ireland, it survived in Wicklow. It seems the last killing of a wolf in Ireland was just over the Wicklow border, in County Carlow, in 1786, but sightings persisted into the early 19th century. While the British Empire was busily "civilising" far flung virgin territories in North America, Australia and the Indies, it was failing to infiltrate the relatively tiny area of wild land positioned on the doorstep of its second city.

Furthermore, in 1796 the "Wicklow Gold Rush" began in the south of the county. Thousands of freelance miners poured into the area and set up camps in some of the valleys. The landowners were powerless to stop them, and several months elapsed before an army was despatched from Dublin to drive them out of Wicklow and allow the government to take control of what turned out to be a vast goldfield. To this day it is unknown how much gold the miners successfully removed. But it is very likely that this enormous financial injection, and the crushing of the hopes and dreams of so many native people, helped lead to the outbreak of the 1798 Rebellion, which almost toppled British colonial power in Ireland. Most of the decisive battles of this rebellion took place in and around Wicklow, where the terrain favoured the rebels. Michael Dwyer, the last rebel leader, continued to fight on in his native Wicklow until he finally surrendered to terms in 1808, and was promptly transported as a prisoner to New South Wales in Australia, where he later served as a police constable.

Finally, in the early 19th century, they began to build a road into the very heart of the mountains, the so-called "Military Road". It was designed to divide Wicklow down the middle and make it governable. But the road was a failure. It cost too much to build, maintain and to man, and did nothing to tame the wilderness. Inevitably it was abandoned.

However, in some circles attitudes to this wilderness softened and changed radically. In the late 18th century, painters began depicting the landscape of forests and valleys as a romantic idyll. It is quite an experience to visit the National Gallery of Ireland, in Dublin, and view paintings there depicting the Powerscourt Waterfall and surrounding landscape, and to then visit the waterfall and find some of the same ancient trees depicted in the paintings still standing. But these same painters did not shy away from depicting the tempestuous and frightening elements of this landscape either, greatly adding to the mystique of the place.

During the Industrial Revolution Wicklow was quarried for building materials and plundered for gold, lead and other valuable minerals, but the rural landscape itself was largely unaffected, and abandoned mines and quarries were quickly reclaimed by the natural world. The terrible calamity that was the Great Famine, in the late 1840s, affected Wicklow with an influx of starving refugees, but the people of this wilderness had a plentiful supply of food available from the land and sea. The refugees from elsewhere in Ireland stood a good chance of surviving if they managed to reach Wicklow.

Man's activities led to more severe changes in the 20th century, such as the flooding of the Liffey and King's River valleys to create a gigantic reservoir with the dual aims of providing water and hydroelectric power to Dublin city. But this only provided another habitat for nature to colonise.

And this wild land is thriving. It is still a place of genuine mystery. In some key respects it is virtually unexplored. Nature still rules. In winter it can still be impossible to cross from one side to the county to the other without travelling around the mountains, the passes being impenetrable due to snow and ice. Wicklow can still be cut off from the rest of the world by a heavy snowfall, or heavy rains, and the people of Wicklow can find themselves needing rescuing with special all-terrain vehicles designed for the icy wastes of the Arctic.

In summer it is transformed, with the valleys becoming veritable jungles, and temperatures and weather-patterns separated into microclimates, varying in accordance with altitude position and aspect. But it is always humid and always unpredictable.

To this day Wicklow retains its fierce dignity, and, for this reason, it is a paradise for wildlife, and a little-studied mystery for archaeologists to unravel.