History Of County Wicklow

The Garden of Ireland

A wee look at the History Of County Wicklow

Written by: D.J.Griffiths and transcribed by former IrelandGenWeb County Coordinator


A Viking presence is known at Arklow and Wicklow Town where trading stations became important medieval towns in the Anglo-Norman period. The Anglo-Normans came near the end of the twelfth century. But though this was a much more serious invasion than that of the
Vikings, and though these newcomers continued to make settlements in various parts of the country, the Irish people still adhered everywhere to their native customs. Indeed it is well known that, except in a small district round Dublin, the settlers generally intermarried and became incorporated with the natives, adopting their language, laws, dress, and usage, so as to be quite indistinguishable from them, and becoming "more Irish than the Irish themselves.

The 14th Century saw sporadic war spread throughout the area between Anglo-Norman settlers, indigenous dwellers and the ever encroaching Clann O'Byrne, the latter forced into the East Wicklow Glens from their Kildare lands by the greater military strength of the Earls of Kildare.

A surviving monument to this troubled time is a fragment of tower at Stump House, a mile from Rathdrum. Once Kilcommon Castle, its four towered keep was built in c.1320 by Sir Hugh Lawless, an old Wicklow warrior in his vain attempt to stem the O'Byrne expansion. There is little account of the area after that. Up to the early 16th century, Rathdrum lay 'Beyond the Pale' and the O'Byrne Clann left to rule this place as they saw fit, until after they attached a English led force who had camped near the present Avondale, forcing them to flee all the way back to Wicklow Castle. As a result Rathdrum a permanent garrison post. After this the O'Byrnes were vanquished and the town of Rathdrum confiscated. In 1578 the Coolattin Estates in Wicklow were given to Henry Harrington a adventurer ( a investor) in the queen's (Elizabeth Ist ) disposition to hold land for 21 years. She had confiscated it from the O'Brynes, When he died in 1621 the property passed to a Welshman, The vast woodlands of the area offered long term sources of fuel to extract the metal ore and he maintained a business between Wales and Wicklow

In 1605 the area now know as county Wicklow was Shired.

Thomas Wentworth, the 1stst Earl of Stratford, who in l630 became Lord Deputy of Ireland and within a period of 7 years acquired 60,000 acres in Co. Wicklow. Some of that from Calcott Chambre. Wentworth was executed by Charlies I, however the property went to his son. In 1643 when Oliver Cromwell came to power the Royalist lands were confiscated and after the monarchy was restored under Charles II the lands reverted back to the Wentworth’s of which the Earl of Stratford. The Coolattin Estate was 85,000 acres covering one-fifth of the county of Wicklow and home to 20,000 tenants.

Hardly had the fog of Elizabethan wars began to settle when these new Landlords began to transform the local landscape. By Herculean labour over a generation or so, a hitherto wild topography of trackless woodland, with wolves ( Rathdrum supported a wolf trapper ) and scattered cultivation plots was transformed to a discernible modern countryside.

As woods were felled and land cleared, the contemporary pattern of fields and boundaries, roads, ditches, and plantation came into being. With this transformation came the freehold farm, the coppice wood and ultimately the Big House. As first these were modest structures tending to be a cross between a fortified farm and something more grand, but as peace looked increasingly secure, particularly after the Williamite settlements, some of these houses and demesne were later to be transformed, on the full noon of Ascendancy culture, into mansions the legacy of which still delight the senses and give to County Wicklow its 'Garden County' ethos. From the outset, Stratford set about improving the new town to his particular taste. This entailed encouraging artisans and farmers, some from England, to settle in and around the town. From these beginnings the merchant class was to arise in the 17th and 18th centuries. As well as income for his sometimes opulent lifestyle, Stratford’s leases were couched with conditions to improve his land, the buildings on it, and preserve woodland. Much the result of his, and his successors policies is the present town layout.

The Goal at Wicklow town was built in 1702

On 15th Aug 1649 Oliver Cromwell landed at Ringsend Dublin, his time in Wicklow was brief but his impact, and the later impact of his armies under the control of Edmund Ludlow was great indeed. William of Orange in 1690 led the army that defeated James and his Irish partisans at the Battle of the Boyne. By 1703, 85% of all the land of Ireland had been confiscated from Catholic ownership and transferred to Protestant possession. Many English Officers were given land, instead of pay. Unlike the Norman settlement there was little assimilation between the new settlers and the old inhabitants. In time the transplanted Anglo-Irish Protestant came more and more to identify with Ireland. By half way through the eighteenth century, a Protestant patriot party arose, to demand greater independence. This lead to the establishment in 1782 of an independence Irish Parliament in Dublin. Effect power how ever rested with the English. Dublin prospered, but the Catholic peasants of the countryside remained as wretched as ever.

The Coolattin Estate was inherited by the Fitzwilliam family in the 1780s from the Marquis of Rockingham. and was considered a liberal landlord, paying higher wages, charging lower rents, tolerating Catholicism and financially supporting education. Day to day running of the estate was done, under his supervision, by Robert Chaloner,
In 1792 the Irish Parliament accepted an Act of Union previously enacted at Westminster and Ireland formally entered the United Kingdom.

Wicklow in 1790's had a higher percentage of Protestants than any other county excluding Ulster. In 1798 the United Irishmen rebelled. The rebellion in Wicklow was most violent. Houses all over the county were set on fire, people were killed on suspicion of being either rebels or Orangemen. Houses were burnt. The members of the United Irishmen were both Catholic and Protestants. In 1829 Emancipation Act was passed , this removed the penal laws.

By 1840 the country was now peaceful. There may have been severe poverty for some, but most areas gave a prosperous appearance. The many immigrants became integral part of the Irish make up. Although there was still some tension between Catholics and Protestants, both religions were beginning to learn to live together peacefully. Now that the repressive anti-Catholic laws had been repealed the way was open for equality.

By 1844 (a year before the potato famine), general economic conditions in Ireland had deteriorated to the point that the poverty of the Irish living under the British "tenant system" was deplorable and 28 percent of families in Wicklow county lived in one room mud or stone huts with thatch roofs and uncovered mud floors. To have a fireplace or chimney meant that a home was liable for the "Hearth Money Roll" tax, but most of these people were so poor that they simply lit a fire in the middle of their cabin and the smoke escaped through the thatch or open door. The staple diet of most of the rural Irish was potatoes and buttermilk. In 1845, the potato blight had hit many areas. By 1846, the entire potato crop was destroyed and the economy collapsed. The big landlords, like Lord Fitzwilliam, were hit hard and large scale evictions, known as "clearances" of "uneconomic" tenants began to take place from these estates to reduce costs and avoid bankruptcy. The vast majority of landlords simply turned out the tenants to fend for themselves. Fitzwilliam instead offered assisted emigration" to almost 6000 of the "surplus" tenants that he wished to be rid of. In 1847. The clearance ran from 1847 to 1856 and in that time, 5,995 surplus people sailed to Canada.
The Earl at this time was William Thomas Spencer Wentworth Earl FitzWilliam. His son Rt Hon. Charles William Wentworth FitzWilliam, commonly called Viscount Melton only son, heir apparent of said Earl.

In the early 1970s, the Fitzwilliam family sold the little that remained of the estate and donated the estate papers to the National Library in Dublin.

D.J.Griffiths djgriff@paradise.net.nz


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