Last month I went on my annual longish summer walk through the Irish hills and countryside. This year I decided, as a change from my usual cross-border itineraries, to go far away from the North to the deep south-east. I walked for three days along the less-frequented southern section of the Wicklow Way, from Glenmalure – my favourite glacial valley in the country – to Clonegal, a gentler landscape where counties Wicklow, Wexford and Carlow meet. This is a marvellous walking route, unusually well signposted (for Ireland), and starting to become well-known internationally (I met walkers from the US, Canada, France, Belgium and Holland along the way).
South of Glenmalure, across Slieve Maan and Carrickashane, must be one of the most remote areas in the whole island (despite its relative proximity to Dublin), a bleak upland wilderness of bog, heather and Sitka spruce. It did not help that I chose probably the rainiest day of the summer to walk its 22 kilometres. It was one of those classic Irish days when the walker, however well protected, gets thoroughly soaked in the first half an hour and remains soaked for the following six. I met one person in the entire day: a woman from Quebec doing the same mountain traverse. I was never so grateful for my arrival in Margaret Coogan’s hospitable and comfortable (with superb drying facilities!) Kyle farmhouse in Moyne, near Tinahely.
However even in the rain Wicklow is beautiful. I saw the strange, almost sacramental rings tramped out by sheep on the side of Croaghanmoira; tantalising glimpses of eastern Ireland’s highest mountain, Lugnaquilla, through gaps in the deluge; and several of those marvellously-tended green meadows carved out of the mountainside by the herculean efforts of generations of hill-farmers (the most picturesque of them surrounded by purple rhododendron hedges). And the soft, windless rain of an Irish summer doesn’t disturb the deep peace of the mountains.
On the second day I walked the ring of hills surrounding the pretty town of Tinahely; stopped for a drink in one of Ireland’s quaintest country pubs, ‘The Dying Cow’ at Stranakelly (so-called because when gardai arrived to find the then owner serving locals on a Good Friday in the 1920s, she pleaded “sure you wouldn’t summons an old woman – these men were only helping me with a dying cow”); and walked onto the ‘big house’ village of Shillelagh.
This is a glimpse into Ireland’s colonial past in all its antedeluvian grandeur. For this was the home of the Earls Fitzwilliam, who once owned an estate of over 90,000 acres, a fifth of County Wicklow. One ancestor was Thomas Wentworth, Charles I’s effective but ruthless Lord Deputy in Ireland, who became the king’s chief counsellor and whose execution in 1641 was one of the events which precipitated the English Civil War. Another was the liberal Viceroy Earl Fitzwilliam, whose sacking after only two months in 1795 dismayed those who were seeking Catholic emancipation and turned many of them towards the revolutionary methods of the United Irishmen. [A modern relative by marriage is the oddball far-right MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson’s Leader of the House of Commons.]
Here Irish history trumped any effort to get away from my obsession with the difficult North for a few summer days. Because it is a relatively little known fact that this beautiful wilderness area of south Wicklow saw some of the bloodiest confrontations of the 1798 rebellion: they were often confrontations between Irish republicans and British loyalists; and some of the fiercest of those loyalists were in this part of south Wicklow.
Wicklow was possibly the most violently disturbed county in Ireland during that revolutionary year, and certainly the one where the rebellion lasted longest.¹ The country’s untypically large loyalist community faced 14,000 United Irishmen, the biggest force (although not all of them turned out) in Leinster. When the early phase of the Wexford rebellion drew to a close after the defeats at Vinegar Hill in June and Ballygullen in July, the rump of the rebels retreated to the mountains and waged one of Europe’s first guerrilla campaigns. Their remote stronghold was the area around the Lugnaquilla massif I had just walked across, and their commander-in-chief was a Protestant small farmer and builder from near Roundwood, Joseph Holt.
Wicklow had the largest Protestant community outside Ulster (over 20% of the population) who were well integrated into local society. A significant small number of the rebellion’s leaders (and followers) in that county were Protestants: small farmers, miners, textile workers and army deserters. Holt has been unjustly written out of the history books, partly because of a posthumous and disingenuous 1838 autobiography saying he had been forced to become a rebel, and partly because he was overshadowed by Michael Dwyer from the Glen of Imaal, who fought on until 1803 and whose life was dramatised in a colourful but inaccurate work of fiction in the 1850s.
However the presence of several Protestant United Irish leaders should not blind us to the fact that in Wicklow, as in Wexford, the conflict was in danger at some points of turning into a Catholic ‘peasants revolt’, targetting loyalists and landlords in particular. This was often provoked by the violent loyalism of many of the locally recruited yeomanry units. The tolerant and effective British General John Moore (later to gain fame in the Peninsular War in Spain), who worked hard to curb the excesses of extreme loyalists and to offer amnesties to the rebels, said it was their “harshness and ill-treatment that in great measure drove the peasants and farmers to revolt.” The Viceroy, Lord Cornwallis, while recognising their role in defeating the rebellion, lamented that they had taken “the lead in rapine and murder and every kind of atrocity.”
There were several massacres of rebel prisoners by the Wicklow yeomanry, notably at Dunlavin on 24 May on the first day of the rebellion, when at least 43 men were taken from the jail, bound together on the fair green and shot dead. This incident was mentioned as one of the justifications for the notorious burning to death of around 120 loyalist prisoners at Scullabogue in Wexford on 5 June.
Joseph Holt’s surrender on 10 November effectively ended the rebellion, although Michael Dwyer was to fight on in the mountains with a tiny band of men for several more years. The previous July Holt had taken command of the last serious rebel force in the field, at least 300-400 insurgents, at remote Baravore in Glenmalure, vowing to fight on until the arrival of the French (who landed the following month hopelessly far away in Mayo).
The Wicklow rebellion in 1798 was largely Irish fighting Irish, sometimes heroic, often savage, and ultimately futile given the hugely superior British forces. But I would argue that it was distinctly less tribal and sectarian – despite occasional excesses – than its Provisional republican equivalent nearly 200 years later in the North. One could make the case that on every front the United Irishmen were led by Protestants: Henry Joy McCracken in Antrim, Henry Munro in Down; Bagenal Harvey in Wexford; Joseph Holt in Wicklow; William Aylmer in Kildare (a descendant is chair of my Dublin Unitarian Church) and Bartholomew Teeling in Mayo.
Contrast this with the Provisional IRA and its counterpart groups in modern times. In the 23 years I spent (off and on) in Northern Ireland as a journalist and a promoter of cross-border cooperation, I came across precisely three active Protestant republicans: an IRA man from Portadown whom I prefer not to name for obvious reasons; Ronnie Bunting, a Belfast INLA activist killed by the UDA in 1980, and Sinn Fein councillor and MLA Billy Leonard from Coleraine.
¹ Details of 1798 events (and quotes) are taken from Ruan O’Donnell, The Rebellion in Wicklow 1798 (Irish Academic Press, 1998)