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.