Glencree

On our most recent trip to the east of this beautiful country – County Wicklow – we experienced the first snows of winter lining the edges of the remote roads that penetrate the mountains here. It’s a magnificent although often bleak wilderness: immersed in such vast, empty tracts of moorland you feel as far away from the civilised world as you can get without leaving these shores, yet Dublin city itself is just a stone’s throw distant – another of Ireland’s remarkable idiosyncrasies.

The 1790s was an era of conflict and change across the western world. News of independence in America and revolution in France inspired Catholic and Presbyterian communities in Ireland. In 1791, the Society of United Irishmen was founded, with the hope of uniting all religious persuasions in pursuit of Irish independence. In the late 18th century, the wild, inaccessible Wicklow mountains provided ideal shelter for insurgent groups who set out to disrupt British and loyalist forces. The deep valleys and fast strongholds of the natural terrain hid rebels from reprisals long after the United Irish forces had succumbed in other areas of the country. This group of ‘outlaws’ was so troublesome that the authorities resolved to forge a road across the impenetrable landscape:

. . . Construction of the road began in 1800 through parts of the county “infested with insurgent plunderers”. The road commenced from Rathfarnham in Dublin to Killakee and continued over the Featherbed Mountain to Glencree, where a major camp was formed. There were four work parties of fifty men each. Soldiers were paid a shilling a day and overseers earned five shillings daily; but very few local civilians could be induced to accept work and no “dependence” was placed on those that did . . .

http://www.glencree.ie

The Sally Gap and Wicklow Gap roads built by the British are still the main roads through the Wicklow Mountains today. The network of military barracks that they link are still to be seen at Glencree, Laragh, Glenmalure, and Aughavannagh. Intended to stop local unrest, ‘Wicklow Military Road’ is today a scenic reminder of the dramatic events of that time.

Built originally as a British Army barracks, the settlement at Glencree has gone through several mutations. This photo from the nineteenth century (above – courtesy Glencree.ie) shows St Kevin’s Reformatory, established on the site of the then abandoned barracks in 1858 and running through to 1940. One suspects it was a grim place: there are few records existing. It housed up to 300 boys.

Many of the buildings survive today, when Glencree has become the home of The Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. Founded in 1974 in response to the conflict in Northern Ireland, Glencree played an important role in the Irish Peace Process, bringing together those in conflict for confidential dialogue and helping to build relationships across divides. This Irish-based, independent, non-governmental organisation has evolved its expertise on a global basis, and this has been shared in more than ten conflict and post-conflict countries around the world.

There is so much to discover in Glencree. You may be surprised – as we were when we first visited – to come across a German cemetery. Set in a landscaped former quarry, the German Military Cemetery is one of the many German war cemeteries in Western Europe. The bodies of 134 German military servicemen and civilians are buried here, dating from both World Wars. It is a secluded, peaceful garden of memory, marked by art and poetry, and kept in immaculate order.

You could ponder at length on this little graveyard: there are many historical connections. After the nearby Reformatory School closed, the buildings were used for a time as a refugee centre for German children following the bombing of Dresden in 1945. In 1954 the German Legation sent a letter urging the Irish authorities to give consideration to a single cemetery for German war dead in Ireland. These would include German soldiers and sailors washed up on Irish beaches, wrecked or crash-landed after being shot down during the Second World War. Six graves at Glencree remember German soldiers who died in British prisoner-of-war camps in Ireland during the First World War. All the bodies were re-interred here after this cemetery opened in 1961. In pre-Covid times, there would be a series of commemorative events in Glencree every November to pay respect to all victims of all wars.

There is added interest, for us, at Glencree: a grotto established (as far as I can ascertain) in the Marian Year of 1954, dedicated to Our Lady of Reconciliation. It is reached from a path and steps which descend into the stream valley below the church.

The ‘cave’ is much visited, and – as in many other locations in Ireland, particularly holy wells – petitions for the good health of individuals, and personal relics are in evidence.

Glencree is a place apart. You might, as did we, come across it by accident and get drawn into its many strands. You should certainly visit this secluded haven of tranquility in Wicklow, and consider the implications of its transition from a base of an occupying military force in a wilderness haunted by outlaws to a modern-day centre of reconciliation.

Castleruddery Stone Circle

Our travels are always attuned towards our particular interests, be they history, stained glass, art or – as in this case – archaeology. We go out of our way to take in sites we have never seen before – and there are so many. When we were ‘holidaying’ in Wicklow last week we searched out this stone circle in the townland of Castleruddery Lower. It was well worth the journey.

. . . Neglected, knee-high in grass and surrounded by round-crowned hawthorns whose May blossom speckles the bank, it is difficult to appreciate how important Castleruddery must have been early in the Bronze Age when Beaker copper prospectors and the Wicklow mountain goldminers passed by its brilliant entrance. It is not properly a stone circle but a henge, with a stone-lined interior. It was constructed on the summit of a hill just east of the valley into which the Little Slaney flows. Six miles north is the lovely Athgreany stone circle and only two miles to the south is the Boleycarrigeen ring, its stones embedded in a low earthen bank . . .

Aubrey Burl, Rings of Stone, France Lincoln Publishers, 1979

The aerial view, and the extract from the 25″ Ordnance Survey map (above) show the monument in the context of the surrounding landscape. Nearby is a medieval ‘Motte’, very much younger than the ‘Druidical Circle’ – thus named on many early maps. The local Irish name – Chaisleán an Ridire – translates as Knight’s Castle, which might make you think that there is some medieval connection between the circle and the Motte, but in fact Castleruddery stone circle is likely to date from the late Neolithic, around 2,500 BC, marking it as one of the earliest of this monument type in Ireland.

We noted this little figurine by the entrance gate to the circle: it made me wonder what folklore or traditions might be associated with the site today. I could find only one reference to Castleruddery in the Duchas Schools Folklore collection, dating from 1936:

The informer here was Michael Murphy, aged 68 – a ‘labourer’ from Colliga, Co Wicklow. The School collector was from Baile Dháithí, Dunlavin, Davidstown, Co Wicklow. There was no doubt in Mr Murphy’s mind that the stones could only have been placed there by supernatural powers!

The two quartz portal stones at the east side of the circle are remarkable: deliberately chosen, no doubt, to emphasise the importance of the orientation. The circle has 29 significant stones still standing today, but there were probably more. There is evidence of attempts to break up and remove some of the stones, which would have made good building or fencing material for someone who did not share respect for the integrity of the circle.

The two views above show iron ‘drill’ markings: these were made to try and separate sections of stone to be taken away for re-use. In the upper picture one section has been removed, but the operation was unsuccessful for the remainder of the boulder. One has to wonder whether otherworldy forces intervened – and meted out some form of ‘bad luck’ to the perpetrators.

In the present day it’s territory for sheep, and they seem to be unconcerned about any ancient associations or supernatural influences interrupting their tranquil grazing. The archaeologists tell us that this is more of a ‘henge’ monument than the type of stone circle we are familiar with in West Cork. It’s certainly larger, and crop marks have shown that the 29 stones surmount an earthen ring, approximately 30 metres in diameter, and there is a further ring which was once supported or reinforced by timber. Comparisons are made with a henge circle at Grange, close to Lough Gur, Co Limerick, which we visited in 2016. There the ring of at least 113 stones has an internal diameter of 46 metres. We took the two photos below at Grange.

The Grange circle was excavated in 1939 by professor S P Ó Riordáin, and the Duchas board at the site states:

. . . The excavation indicated that the enclosure was constructed purely for sacred or ritual purposes. The bank may have provided a stand where an audience could observe ceremonies within the enclosure . . . One of the stones is known as Rannach Cruim Duibh. This suggests that the circle became associated with the festival of Lughnasa, traditionally the first Sunday in August, and a celebration of the harvest. Crom Dubh, meaning the Dark Bent One, was credited with bringing the first sheaf of corn to Ireland . . .

Duchas, Grange Circle

There must surely be connections, and common purposes, between the many similar circle monuments all over Ireland. We always want to know What was it for…? probably, we never will, but it’s part of the whole romance of archaeology to wonder about such places. We must be grateful that so much remains for us to explore.

East Coast Archaeology

We often find time to visit the east side of the country – where we see everything from a different perspective! But we are just as interested in history and archaeology over there as we are here in our own West Cork. Today I am bringing together three sites from three different eras – all equally fascinating, and all within a stone’s throw of each other, hovering on the borders of South County Dublin and County Wicklow.

From the high ground in these two counties you find stunning views to the north out across Dublin Bay, with Howth in the distance. The twin striped chimneys on the right of this picture are protected historic structures: they date from 1971 and were built to serve the Poolbeg electricity generating station. At 270m they are amongst the tallest artificial structures in Ireland and are a visible feature on the skyline from many parts of the city. The power station closed in 2010.

The first site we are visiting in this little tour is the wedge tomb in Shankill townland, County Dublin. It lies below Carrickgollogan hill, and commands distant views to the two distinctive Sugar Loaf peaks, which are situated in County wicklow. Or – let’s say – it should command those views, but it now reposes in a rather neglected state, engulfed by a modern hedge boundary, which you can see below.

The picture above is taken a little to the west, to show the full skyline profile. The monument is not in good shape: the photo below (courtesy Ryaner via The Modern Antiquarian) shows the tomb in 2006, when the capstone remained intact on its supports. In less than two decades the capstone has fallen, as you can see from our photos taken a few days ago.

It is quite difficult to penetrate the undergrowth to see what remains of this structure, which probably dates from between 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. It seems a shame that such an ancient survival is not cared for in any significant way by our State. The tomb was recorded (as a ‘dolmen’) by the archaeologist William Borlas in 1897. Just over a century later, it has significantly deteriorated. The extract (below( from the first edition 6″ OS map gives it the title ‘Cromlech’ – and also shows nearby a substantial ring-fort: there is no trace of that remaining today.

We leap forward about three thousand years for our next archaeological site, but we are only a short distance away as the crow flies – in Fassaroe, Co Wicklow, less than half a kilometre. This was a great discovery for me: a very fine carved cross, likely to date from the 12th century. Although it has been moved from its original site, it is cared for, and easily found right beside a strangely deserted modern traffic roundabout with little sign of habitation nearby.

The granite cross face is carved with a crucifixion, but there are also ‘bosses’ on the back, sides and base stone. These are believed to be heads, well worn now but in good light some features can be seen: a pointed ‘ceremonial’ head-dress, and beards.

The clearest view of the carvings (above) is illustrated in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Volume 88, 1958. An article by P Ó hÉailidhe discusses this cross and others nearby. The carving is popularly known as St Valery’s Cross as it purportedly came from the nearby demesne of that name. Some archaeologists theorize that it was originally brought to that estate from elsewhere.

This extract from the first edition of the 6″ Ordnance Survey map (c1840) shows the location of the cross, not far from St Valery.

It’s about 7km from the Fassaroe Cross to the last stop on our journey. We have to head north on a road that takes us through The Scalp.

. . . Within an easy drive of Bray is a wild ravine known as the Scalp. The road runs over a shoulder of Shankhill Mountain and through this ravine; it presents a very wild appearance, enormous masses of granite being heaped up in grand and picturesque confusion on either side. It looks as if nature, in order to spare man the trouble of blasting a road, had by some mighty convulsion torn a rent through the mountain just wide enough for a high road . . .

Irish Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil, Richard Lovett, 1888

The view above accompanies Richard Lovett’s 1888 account. In spite of the topological interest of the Scalp road, our journey took us on and forward a few hundred years to our last stop – the lead workings on Carrickgollogan hill, Ballycorus townland. The hilltop mine chimney which forms our header picture is a well-known landmark in this part of the country.

The mine was established in the early nineteenth century. Many of the lead works buildings remain today in the valley below the landmark chimney, mainly converted to modern dwellings: the photo above (courtesy Joe King via Wiki Commons) shows a distant view of the converted buildings and ‘shot tower’. The ‘Shot Works’ can be seen on the 25″ OS extract, above. This also show the location of the Lead Mine flue and chimney, which was the destination of our archaeological journey. That’s us (below) climbing the hill towards the chimney that’s on the 220m contour line, and offers views towards Dublin Bay.

Open-cast mining commenced in 1807. The Mining Company of Ireland took over the site in 1826 and began to carry out underground extraction. A 2 km long flue (shown in red on the map above) was laid out from the smelting facilities to the great chimney at the summit of the hill. You might think this was an acknowledgment of the poisonous fumes which lead working released, and an attempt to divert those fumes from the main site – but no!

. . . A process had been discovered in the 1770s whereby additional quantities of lead could be extracted from the fumes emitted by reverberatory furnaces if the vapours could be trapped long enough to precipitate the lead. To this end a flue 2 kilometres long running from the lead works and terminating at a chimney near the summit of Carrickgollogan was constructed in 1836. The precipitated lead deposits were scraped out of the flue by hand and many of the workers subsequently died of lead poisoning, giving the surrounding area the nickname “Death Valley”. . .

Wikipedia

The lead mine chimney remains – although a brick upper section was removed in the twentieth century for safety reasons (see lower picture) – and so does much of the enclosed flue. A public trail follows its course to the top of the hill. The remaining chimney is a fine granite structure, in reasonably good condition. It’s certainly much visited: Finola – who grew up in Bray – has fond memories of cycling out there with her two brothers, and finding ways to climb part way up the spiral staircase which accessed a viewing platform, in spite of key parts of the stair structure being missing!

All three examples of archaeology we have studied today have one thing in common: they are constructed of local granite. Thousands of years separate the oldest and the most recent, but the inherent strength of the material has ensured survival, at least in part. As with West Cork and all other parts of Ireland, the temporal history is rich, and much of it is largely intact. We have so much more to explore!

Gardens at Kilquade

Wicklow is the Garden County of Ireland. Whenever we visit, we are impressed by the exuberance of the verdant landscapes and woodlands, and outstanding gardens abound. Do you remember our exploration of the Kilruddery Estate a few weeks ago? Here’s another venue well worth a visit: Kilquade Arboretum, formerly the ‘National Garden Exhibition Centre’. The modest 5.2 acre site is billed as the perfect escape from the stresses of everyday life – and rightly so. Not only can you wander through a collection of inspirational gardens, formal and informal, which were designed by a number of highly experienced horticulturists, but also you can eat and drink in superb outdoor dining settings: everything is well maintained and efficient. And – if you are a gardener yourself – there is a great shop to supply your every need!

As you can see, you never know what might await you as you traverse the grounds, moving from one creative vision to another. At the height of this Irish summer – which is unmatched, so far, in its brilliant weather – you are guaranteed shady nooks and surprises, and plenty of places to rest and contemplate. You will happily spend half a day or more at Kilquade, and come away satisfied in body and mind! Here’s an enigmatic sculpture by Fiona Coffey:

Water is used refreshingly within the gardens – at times you have the feeling of wandering beside a mountain stream; at others you can just find a spot for contemplation by a cool pool.

You can be methodical in your walks through each of the garden areas or you can, like us, wander haphazardly, not taking any particular straight line. If you do this, you are sure to miss something – but that’s good reason for a return visit. We are keen to come back when the autumn is setting in: the colours will be a treat. But we will return before then anyway: the excellent coffee and snacks are calling!

I haven’t mentioned the profuse planting that veers between formal and – as you can see – naturally wild. Finola is particularly pleased to see the latter: she firmly believes that wildflowers have a big part to play, nowadays, in any established garden: have a look at our post on West Cork’s Bantry House Gardens, here. Allowing nature to contribute to established planting schemes will ensure that good habitats evolve to support our pollinators and a balanced eco-system.

One of the things that struck us on our visit to Kilquade was how easy it is to get away from the crowds! We saw others walking through the gardens but we often had each little designed space to ourselves. Possibly the unbelievable (for Ireland) weather (temperatures approaching 30 degrees) meant that many visitors were sweating it out on the beaches. We were calm and cool, and felt safely tucked away from ‘the madding crowd’. All in all, the experience was exceptional.

Glen of the Downs

There’s a very attractive woodland walk near Delgany, County Wicklow, to the south of Dublin. It’s well worth an exploration, but be prepared for the intrusive sound of the main N11 road which runs alongside the path as you set out from the public car park: you will leave it behind – eventually – as you climb up into the trees.

It’s a now rare ancient Irish oak wood, once all part of Bellevue Estate, a 300 acre demesne established by the La Touche family in the mid eighteenth century. Through many generations the Huguenot family was known as an ‘ample benefactor of mankind’ who ‘left a record of noble deeds behind them’. During their heyday the La Touches acquired the lands of Upper and Lower Rathdown on which much of modern Greystones has been built, and their name is familiar in the fabric of that town today.

The beauty of this part of County Wicklow has been celebrated by many artists over the years: here are a couple of examples from the late 1700s showing the Glen of the Downs landscape. Always, one or both of the topographical high-points – the Great and Little Sugar Loaves – are prominently featured.

We have photographic records of the La Touche mansion, Georgian Bellevue House – with its famed hot-houses where many exotic plants were cultivated, before its decline in the 1900s and its eventual demise: the crumbling pile was demolished in 1950 to make way for wheat-fields and a golf course.

Hidden away in the oak wood is a remnant of the once vibrant La Touche estate: today it’s known as ‘The Octagon’ because of its shape. Its purpose originally was a banqueting hall, set high up on a platform looking out over the landscape. It must have been quite an undertaking, bringing food, furnishings and serving staff up from the ‘big house’: there are remains of tunnels said to have been used for this purpose. Most intriguingly . . .

. . . The estate at Ballydonagh comprised 300 acres, with fine views across the Glen of the Downs and towards the Irish Sea. David, the younger La Touche, built his favourite country retreat here between 1754 and 1756, at a cost of £30,000, and called it Bellevue. Beautiful gardens were laid out with winding paths and “extras” built by David and his son, Peter, when he inherited in 1785. Among these was the Octagon, built in 1766, with a panther on springs, which could be made to jump out at unwary visitors. The house was most famous for its huge glasshouse, built between 1783 and 1793, in which many exotic plants were grown . . .


Judith Flannery, The Story of Delgany, 1990

There is no doubt that the building was superbly sited to maximise the good views. Beyond that, it’s hard to fathom how the architecture functioned – and the panther on springs remains a puzzle! Over years of exposure to the elements, and inquisitive visitors, the Octagon has gained a patina of graffiti – which adds, perhaps, to its character and attributes.

The practice of ‘making one’s mark’ seems to have migrated to trees surrounding the site: perhaps some of these can be attributed to people who lived in them once! In 1997 eco-warriors staged a protest campaign when plans were put forward to upgrade and widen the N11 road, involving felling over 1,700 mature beech, oak and ash trees. The protesters ‘occupied’ the trees for over two years (below), ‘climbing down’ eventually when the Courts upheld the highway authority proposals.

The road has since been widened, and the intrusive traffic sound within the Glen of the Downs has accordingly increased manyfold. Interestingly, there are currently proposals under discussion to further improve the N11/M11 route in this same locality – including the possibility of a road tunnel which might even remove traffic altogether. Meanwhile, the trees continue to present us with messages for our own complex times . . .

For all its ups and downs, and possibly mixed messages, the Glen of the Downs woodland walk is beautiful, and well worth a visit. Who knows what – or who – you might encounter among the trees?

Wicklow Ways

There is a world beyond West Cork! In fact, we quite often visit Wicklow and Ireland’s ‘Ancient East’: it’s a contrast to our wild Mizen, and currently looking verdant in the early summer sunlight. We have taken a trip to Ireland’s ‘garden county’ to celebrate a bit of a let-up in the long, hard lockdown that we have all endured for most of this year. We based ourselves in Greystones (that’s the entrance to Greystones Harbour in the header pic). On a hot weekend it was buzzing with people, but we did all have to keep our distance from each other which, in Ireland particularly, is a sad state of affairs.

Greystones (evidently named after the ‘grey stones’ on the beach) has transformed itself from the sleepy seaside town and small harbour photographed by Co Wicklow man Robert French in the late 19th century (above). You can see many more of his photographs in this excellent website. Today it boasts a smart new marina and harbour, modern houses and apartments, and a major amenity park giving access to the old cliff walk that leads to Bray. It’s an attractive and vibrant venue in the 21st century, popular with residents and visitors alike.

Greystones : nautical connections, dancing in the new park, aqua shades and Patrick O’Reilly’s wonderful ‘Marching Bear’ sculpture on the sea-front. When this statue was unveiled in 2014 it created quite a stir. Some locals claimed it was an eyesore and ‘spoiled the sweeping sea views’. The striking feature cost the town nothing, as it was donated by Dermod Dwyer – a local property developer and guardian of Ireland’s National Gallery – in memory of his daughter Caroline who, sadly, had died of cancer.

Not far from Greystones is Killruddery House and estate. This was founded by William Brabazon of Leicestershire in the 1500s and went through several incarnations, with the present house being substantially reconstructed between 1820 and 1830. The Brabazon family and their descendants remain in the house to the present day: they became the Earls of Meath, a title created in 1627. The estate, which amounts to 800 acres, is open to the public as an amenity and it is possible to perambulate the grounds for a small fee. We visited: in fact, Finola is descended from the Brabazons somewhere down the line, and she knows her way about!

The demesne is beautiful, and elegantly laid out, with canals, pools, fountains and well placed statues. In its fresh summer greenery it is an impressive place to explore. Finola’s post today is all about Killruddery.

On another day we revisited a further Co Wicklow treasure – Glendalough, and admired again the extensive Monastic City, its fine examples of Romanesque architecture, round tower and stone crosses.

Amanda (Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry) and Peter (Hikelines) were with us on our Glendalough visit and, to my own surprise and delight, we were led to St Kevin’s holy well in the grounds of Glendalough which we had never known about previously. It took a bit of finding, but it was complete with a rag tree – and cures for headaches and eye ailments.

I hope you will agree that County Wicklow has something to offer everyone. We have just dipped in to its treasures in our few days away from West Cork. There is so much more to be discovered… But, of course, the same can be said of all parts of Ireland.