Although adjacent to the Pale and well within the reach of English power, Wicklow was not organised as a county until 1606, making it the youngest of the thirty two. Wicklow town replaced Newcastle as the seat of power. It had been established as a port for well nigh a thousand years with a deep natural harbour where the Vartry flowed into the sea, and also the nearest part of Ireland to the Kingdom of England. Today, the town has a population of ten and a half thousand people.
The name Wicklow derives from the Vikings who were top dogs here from the end of the eight century. From the Danish, Vykinglo, it means Viking’s meadow, although bay of the meadows is another possible translation. After the Norman invasion, control was taken by Maurice Fitzgerald who built the Black Castle on high ground guarding the harbour.
Fearsome as the fortress must have been, sheer stone rising from a rocky crag battered by boiling seas, it was frequently captured by local clans, the O’Byrnes and O’Toole’s. A particular thorn in the side of the English crown was Fiach Mac Hugh O’Byrne. When the English determined to flush him from his fastness at Glenmalure, Fiach inflicted a crushing defeat upon them in 1580. This was during the Desmond Rebellions, the revolt of the Geraldines, the once ruling FitzGerald dynasty. When the rebellion petered out, Fiach received pardon, but the peace proved uneasy. Sporadic outbreaks saw him pursued by English forces until cornered and killed in 1597.
Fiach is the Irish for raven. This large and ominous crow haunts the Wicklow Mountains, and its mystical associations make it a suitably heroic name. A raven is displayed on the town’s coat of arms, above a flaming beacon. The Vikings are the assumed origin, but where there’s fire, the O’Byrnes can’t be far off. Fiach’s fiery exploits excited Planxty into song with Follow Me Up to Carlow. Written by Patrick McCall to a traditional marching tune, Planxty’s rendition marries revolutionary zeal with acoustic rock and roll. It’s a song to storm the castle by.
Lift MacCahir Óg your face, a-brooding o’er the old disgrace
That black Fitzwilliam stormed your place, drove you to the Fern
Grey said victory was sure, soon the firebrand he’d secure;
Until he met at Glenmalure with Fiach Mac Hugh O’Byrne.
The castle can be reached by way of South Quay. It occupies a green mound above the harbour. and was ultimately destroyed in an attack by the O’Byrnes in 1645. The skeletal ruin is a jagged reminder of Wicklow’s fearsome history.
For me, it marks a part of my rite of passage. Here, myself and M first set out on our first heroic adventure. The bus from Dublin had deposited us here, and we found our way to the Black Castle, our tents and our groundsheets rolled up tight. Over forty years ago, the ruins were spectacularly overgrown and we camped near some other reprobates, In the evening, well blasted by sun and wind, we’d head down to Phil Healy’s pub in Fitzwilliam Square. Founded in 1861, like all good pubs it lives in it own varnished time capsule, and remains to carry us travellers on.
From Fitzwilliam Square, Main Street snakes south. The road, rather weirdly, divides onto two levels, the lower being known as the Mall. In the shade of trees it’s suggestive of an ancient fortification and exudes a rusted, uncertain charm. There are steps up to Main Street. Further on, the roads reconcile, before opening onto Market Square. Market Square is the quintessence of loneliness. The bustling town recedes and the square teeters on the edge, somehow forgotten. It is the nearest you get to being in a painting by De Chirico.
The grim courthouse from 1824 frames Market Square on the south side. On the east is the Town Hall. This austere gable fronted building is the town’s oldest, dating back to 1670. It was originally known as the Market House. The plaza is pedestrianised and shaded, with a coffee shop and Ernie’s Bar opening onto it. The more rough hewn charms of Ta Se are in traditional premises where a laneway leads down to the docks.
Uphill from the Courthouse is the stern and stoney edifice of the Gaol. Wicklow Gaol was built at the start of the eighteenth century and intended as a civilising presence in this , the youngest and wildest Irish county. It became also a stopover for transportation. Successive uprisings furnished plenty of candidates for that, and the usual range of inmates, from murderers to vagrants, and rebels of course, were often bound, for America and Australia, East and West Indies.
Famous inmates included Napper Tandy, leader of the United Irishmen and Erskine Childers. Childers was English born but raised by the Barton family in Glendalough. He wrote the spy thriller, the Riddle of the Sands, in 1903 but lived the part of the swashbuckling hero too. He was a decorated officer with the Royal Navy during the Great War, although he had earlier used his yacht, the Asgard, to run guns for the rebels in the Howth Gun Running of 1914. Returning to the fold of Irish Independence he was a key participant at the Treaty negotiations after the War of Independence, but fatally rejected it. His brothers in arms did for him in the end. Captured in Glendalough during the Civil War, he was held in Wicklow before execution at Beggar’s Bush in Dublin. His son, also Erskine, would become the fourth President of Ireland.
A visit to the Gaol includes these and other narratives. You may already have noted the presence of Billy Byrne of Ballymanus. He was a leader in the rebellion of 1798, and was executed in Wicklow Gaol. His ghostly figure, pike in hand, dominates the Market Square. His gesture towards the Town Hall, perhaps a cautionary one, a reminder of where true power resides.
The Gaol closed in 1900 but made a comeback in the early twenties before the last Civil War prisoner was released in 1924. It reopened as a museum in 1998 and features immersive virtual reality tours, guided tours with period costume participants or self guided with free audio. The Jailer’s Rest Bistro and wine bar offers a good menu. I can vouch that it does a hearty breakfast, appropriately titled the Condemned Man’s. To die for!
The town library is located in a small modernist pavilion off the forecourt. This is where I started working for the service at the start of the Millennium. Wicklow’s first county librarian was Geoffrey Phibbs, an Anglo Irish poet who married artist Norah McGuinness. They divorced in 1930 owing to Phibbs’s affair with poet Laura Riding. He also resigned, finding it difficult to reconcile the position of County Librarian with his Bohemian lifestyle.
Phibbs had an assistant: a Corkonian called Michael O’Donovan. O’Donovan is better known as Frank O’Connor. He had fought in the War of Independence, but took the Anti-Treaty side and was imprisoned in Cork Gaol. On release, Lennox Robinson, Secretary of the Irish Carnegie Trust set him up with a job first in Sligo and then in Wicklow.
Lennox Robinson wrote the short story the Madonna of Slieve Dun telling of the rape of a country girl who believes the child she conceives is the Second Coming. Catholic clergy were outraged, backed by prominent Protestants. The library project was seen as godless. Robinson was forced to resign from the Carnegie Trust in 1924. O’Connor took note. Wishing to avoid subsequent controversy, he was influenced to adopt a pseudonym. He established himself as a leading short story writer, essayist and novelist. Amongst his most famous stories is Guests of the Nation, which inspired Neil Jordan’s film, the Crying Game.
In my days in Wicklow, the hotel bar across the road drew much of its clientele from the Courthouse. Solicitors and the bewigged formed one coterie, defendants another. Once during the 2002 World Cup finals, my anxious pacing of the library floor caused the librarian to dismiss me to the hotel and watch the game. Ireland were a goal down going into the last few minutes. I had drained my pint and begun to ebb towards the door, leaving a handful at the bar steeped in sorrow. Along came Robbie Keane to thump the ball into the roof of the German net and turn cartwheels out to the corner flag. Full time blows and I emerge into sunlight on Market Square. It’s thronged with revellers, cars streaming past, horns blaring, passengers half out the windows waving flags and cheering. Market Square, the centre of happiness.