I don’t like to write downbeat articles but Autumn is always somewhat tinged with sadness. Maybe poignancy is a more accurate term. Summer has ended, yet another summer, and lying ahead of us are days getting progressively shorter and colder, and the usual barrage of head colds and flu viruses. This year in Wicklow it’s a little bit sadder than usual because we have lost Robert Jennings, a champion of local heritage.
Canon Robert Jennings, to be exact, was a Church of Ireland clergyman with a profound interest in history, archaeology and the world in which we live. He died almost one month ago but his funeral only took place two weeks ago. He was a very nice man. The reason I’m slow writing about it is I wanted to dig out some photos I had of him, albeit from an event in 2011.
Often, over the years, when I would be out walking in the middle of nowhere, looking for wildlife, I would encounter Canon Jennings. He would amble out along a path as if by magic, and he would frequently point out some remarkable artefact which had escaped my notice, or have some profound point of interest to relate. He was always doing something, searching for something from far back in our past – sometimes the remains of a church, sometimes evidence of a Bronze Age site. He also surprised quite a few people a few years ago, including me, by revealing he was a veteran of the Korean War. Remarkably, he died at the ripe old age of 93 most people under the illusion he was far younger than he really was. By all accounts he was still out walking and exploring, although not quite so much as he used to do. He was author of quite a few books and they are worth getting if you can find them:
He also really knew how to showcase archaeology and heritage to maximum effect, as you can see in the following photos:
Canon Jennings will definitely be missed, being not only a respected scholar and clergyman, but I will miss him as a character, as a person who was very much himself part of the landscape.
Last Friday was Good Friday and it commenced a long weekend of massive commemorations and celebrations of the 1916 Rising, the event one hundred years ago which led to Irish independence, and eventually to the modern Republic of Ireland. Most of the events and incidents relating to the Rising occurred in Dublin, but there were sporadic actions all around the island of Ireland. Ironically, Wicklow had been the centre of many events leading up to, and following after the Rising, but was itself quiet for the duration of Easter Week 1916.
However, Wicklow is strongly connected with a very important but almost forgotten figure who played a significant role in the events of 1916. Robert Monteith was born and raised in Newtown Mount Kennedy in 1878. He had a distinguished career in the British Army, with the Royal Horse Artillery in India and fighting in the Boer War. He retired from the British Army to work in a Civil Service job in Dublin in 1911.
However, it seems he underwent a major shift in political sympathies when one day his wife dropped his lunch off at his work place and, while returning home, was clubbed over the head by one of a number of Dublin Metropolitan Police Officers who were attacking union members on strike.
When the British Army attempted to re-enlist Monteith as head of recruitment in Ireland for the war effort (World War I) he refused and told them his sympathies now lay with Irish Nationalists, with whom he had become involved. His punishment was immediate – Monteith was sacked from his job and expelled from the city, and told he was not to enter the city limits of Dublin ever again.
With no job, Monteith became more deeply involved with Irish nationalism and a secret republican organisation, the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood). He was employed as a drill instructor with the paramilitary Irish Volunteers at the rank of Captain of Volunteers. He was then sent to America, and from America he travelled secretly to Germany to help train an Irish Legion under the command of Sir Roger Casement, who had been first a hero of the British Empire, but joined the Irish nationalist cause.
The Irish Legion failed to materialise, but instead Germany sent a ship-load of guns to Ireland to aid the rebellion, and Monteith accompanied Casement and another Irish agent in a submarine, and they almost drowned while landing in a small launch on the Kerry coast. Due to illness Casement remained near the beach, and was soon arrested by a certain Constable O’Reilly. Monteith and the third man managed to escape to Cork city, where they learned the ship load of guns had been seized by the Royal Navy. Monteith then had to flee Ireland, eventually reaching Liverpool undetected and signing on to the crew of a steamer bound for New York.
After brief imprisonment in the US (he had been technically assisting Germany) Monteith lived a quiet life, and had a number of jobs. He was still notorious in the British Empire, yet successfully sued to have his British Army pension reinstated after it had been stripped from him, and in 1947 he briefly returned to Ireland with his wife, living for some time in a house on the Sea Road, Kilcoole, here in Wicklow, not far from where he had been raised. He returned to the US due to his poor health, exacerbated by Ireland’s damp climate, and died soon afterwards. He has almost been forgotten in Ireland, although he was almost certainly one of the most important agents of the IRB and Irish Volunteers. The true extent of his involvement and activities will probably never be known.
One of the most unique heritage-related experiences you can get in Wicklow is a trip to Wicklow Gaol (or ‘jail’ as it has come to be speled today), a fortress-like building used to hold Irish prisoners from early Penal times (when Roman Catholics were legally second-class citizens in the British Empire) until Irish Independence in 1922.
What makes this combination of museum and architectural artefact most interesting is that it tells the story of the Irish Diaspora prior to, and in the wake of the 1798 Rebellion in a superb and memorable way. It is not the usual museum experience by a long way. For example, in the 18th century and in the immediate aftermath of the rebellion Irish people (Protestant and Roman Catholic) were detained here en masse before many of them were sold into slavery in the Caribbean, and sometimes also the North American colonies too.
Experts on the subject both act and educate before letting you free in the prison to experience the bleakness. The story of Irish people being punished by being sent to Australia also tells the story of the European settling of the continent and the real freedom that would eventually lead to the global Irish movement to obtain independence for the island of Ireland, an adventure that was actually started by the mostly Protestant leaders of the United Irishmen who were inspired by American Independence and the French Revolution. But the ordinary people who got caught up in all this history are give special treatment. Use of Holograms and innovative methods or education make these tales very effective.
It has to be said that the events in Wicklow before during and after the 1798 Rising have often been ignored by historians, but Wicklow Gaol goes to great lengths to put that right, and to remind us that it isn’t all that long ago. But there is a spooky bonus too, with Wicklow Gaol being considered one of the two most haunted buildings in Ireland, and the subject of many paranormal investigations and TV shows. In the very last cell you enter on the tour you will definitely see some very pooky things thanks to brilliant use of special effects, and a display of equipment used to identify spectral activity. There are also special night time paranormal tours and I’m told the occasional séance also takes place. A truly remarkable museum and a must-see.
There is car-parking available and tickets are a mere €7.90 for adults and €5.00 for children (be warned, they will see ghosts) and the Gaol is open everyday between 10.30 am and 4.30 pm, but do ask about the night-time paranormal tours (they cost a little more, but are an incredible experience. They’re a great place to take a girl on a date as hand-holding is practically a requirement…).