Nearing the north of Wicklow town, it’s time to bid farewell, for a while, to the railway line. From Wicklow Station the Wexford line curves inland and serves Rathdrum before swinging back to the coast just before Arklow. Wicklow station has long been something of an outpost. You suspect the train has left you in the middle of nowhere, rather than the county town. These days, the town is expanding somewhat and it’s beginning to lap the shores of the lonesome outpost. The county council’s modern offices are situated next door with a couple of large shopping centres beyond at the main road. The route from the rail station into town is just over a kilometre and takes about fifteen minutes. You reach the town at a bridge over a small river.
The Grand Hotel occupies a commanding position across the road. Dating from 1896 it has been considerably altered over time. This was a major venue for functions in its day but is currently operating as a centre for asylum seekers. Across the stream, the Old Forge pub has run aground on hard times. Many’s the happy hour I’ve spent over a reflective pint here while waiting for, and occasionally missing, the bus home to Bray.
The Abbey Grounds are on our left hand side. This informal park is in the gardens of the Parochial House and include the picturesque ruins of the Franciscan Abbey. The abbey was founded in the mid thirteenth century during a brief hiatus when the local clans, the O’Byrnes and O’Tooles had ousted the Fitzgeralds. While temporal rulers continued their merry dance, the Franciscans presided for three centuries until the disastrous Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII. Although the Franciscans later attempted a comeback, they were ousted again by Cromwell and the Abbey, after a brief spell as a courthouse, fell into ruin. Visiting on a sunny day, I was struck by its harmony of beauty and sadness, also nearly by a football. Some kids were having a kickabout, with the girls nearby enjoying loud music. A woman with a buggy had found a quieter spot to read, and over all, the padre presided benignly from his chair outside the Parochial House.
The vista is dominated by St. Patrick’s Church on the hill rising to the west of the town. A dramatic gothic structure, St Patrick’s was built in the 1840s. on land donated by the Fitzwilliams family. Dedicated to Ireland’s patron saint whose mission of conversion began here. Sandstone used in its construction was ironically transported from Skerries, where Patrick sought refuge after his hostile reception, bringing a neat conclusion to Wicklow’s ecclesiastic narrative. The church interior is pleasant, if plain, as in most Irish Catholic churches. Most interesting is the stained glass window in the west trancept by Harry Clarke, depicting the birth of Christ.
The steep climb to the church is rewarded with magnificent views over North Wicklow. The granite mountains hug the horizon off to the west, and the far end of the coastal plain is marked by the Sugarloaf Mountains and Bray Head in the far north. Looking seawards, you can spot the distinctive onion domed tower of Saint Livinius Church and graveyard. This was the original Church of Ireland place of worship. Built in about 1600, it was decommissioned in 1900.
It remains a prominent feature on Church Hill. The graveyard is the last resting place of master mariner and local hero, Robert Halpin.
And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
the lines, which I’ve quoted before, are from Suzanne, Leonard Cohen’s debut single, included on his 1967 album, Songs of Leonard Cohen.
The main road shimmies down to become Main Street. There’s a Pay and Display carpark to the left beside the supermarket with a couple of coffee shops and small independent outlets. An attractive range of murals is inconveniently cited. Obscured by cars, you could say. It gives a good outline of what to look out for in the town, a quick cartoon strip if Vikings and other seafarers, saints and sinners and landmark buildings. Back on Main Street, it’s only a few yards to the town centre at Fitzwilliam Square, which is triangular.
If arriving into Wicklow along the coastal path, it’s a simple case of continuing along the Murrough, heading due south. This section goes through a dreary industrial estate to begin with, but older, and more consoling, architecture emerges at Marine House, built in 1839 and now a training project. A bit further on is a spot to wet your whistle. Once the Leitrim Lounge, it has recently been rebranded as the Brass Fox, painted a disconcerting black and amber. A pedestrian bridge crosses to the town.
From here, the Vartry is contained by quaysides, lined by period houses and shaded by trees. This short stretch is referred to as the Leitrim River. The houses were built in the 1840s to house officers of the Leitrim Regiment which was stationed here. Either side makes for a pleasant stroll either by Leitrim Place or Bachelor’s Walk on the west bank.
The stone bridge marks the point where the Vartry becomes a deepwater port. There can be arresting visuals here, a contrast of the homely harbour town with outsize ships docked in the narrow waterway. The Bridge Inn awaits on the other side. This is where Robert Halpin was born. This is a fine pub with good food, and a timber veranda to the rear suspended above the river port. From the Bridge it’s a short walk uphill to Fitzwilliam Square, the town centre, and still triangular.