from the Ice Age to the arrival of the Vikings
In the beginning there was nothing but an icy wilderness
shrouded in the emptiness of winter. But this realm of snow
and ice, completely devoid of man, was to change. Over the
course of four phases, beginning about 18,000 B.C., these
great gatherings of ice retreated, revealing the landscape
that was to become Wicklow.
The retreating ice sculpted the face of Wicklow, hewing
and chiselling its features out of solid rock - creating
a contrasting series of diverse landscapes that ranges from
the uncompromising to the fertile to the hauntingly beautiful.
It is the striking beauty of the uplands of Wicklow that
will always be the enduring vision of this land. There the
rugged granite peak of Lugnaquilla (926 meters) towers supremely
as Wicklow's highest mountain, reigning over the plains
of the men of Kildare and the glacial valleys of Imaal,
Glenmalure, Glendassan and Glendalough.
Amid these barren peaks in the late 500s, Kevin wandered
in his search for God. The saint's wanderings were not to
end until he reached the remote "Glen of the Two Lakes'.
And, he being so struck by the majestic beauty of Glendalough,
Kevin spent the rest of his life on herbs and fish - praying
waist deep in the icy waters along the southern shore of
the upper lake.
To the south-west of Lugnaquilla, the mountains become less
sheer, mellowing into a series of hilly ridges - stretching
southward to the heavy soils where once stood the great
primeval forests of Shillelagh. While to the east, the high
Wicklow plateau descends sharply into a countryside of low
rolling hills to reveal a narrow but fertile plain. This
plain, stretching southward from what is modern Bray to
Arklow, was famed in medieval times as being a great gain-growing
area - exporting to Dublin and other markets on the island.
Yet the landscape here was also diverse. South of what is
modern Kilcoole there stretched salt marshes through Bread
Lough to the mouth of the Vartry at Wicklow, representing
the infill by the sediment of the lagoon formed behind that
great spit of shingle called The Murrough.
The place names of the county enable some picture of the
ecology of early Wicklow to be formed. While the mountains
and ridges of the central uplands were blanketed in bog,
much of early Wicklow lay under the great swathes of forest
that housed goodly stands of oak, ash, elm, Irish pines,
sallows, willows, birches, whitethorn, alders, holly, yew
and hazel. In turn, this forest landscape provided a stable
ecosystem for a diverse range of flora and woodland creatures.
The trees of the forest were home to the hawk for which
Ireland was to become famous, while wild pigs, badgers,
squirrel and deer foraged beneath the boughs. It could be
a place of danger also, for predators such as wolves, pine
martens and foxes also lurked amid the trees. Such was the
abundance of wolves that they were still regularly hunted
in these mountains as late as 1597.
But it was not only the wolf that man would hunt to extinction
in Wicklow, for in 1662, the last mention of of the woodland
bird known as the capercille (also called the cock of the
wood) was recorded. It was killed in the forests near Arklow,
becoming a substantial feast for English officers later
The earliest arrival of man in Ireland had been dated roughly
to about 7,000 BC, signalling the inevitable re-shaping
of the landscape. The first imprint of man in Wicklow was
discovered in 1932 in the form of discarded flints strewn
on a cave floor on St. Bride's Head, a mile east of Wicklow
town, while other finds dated between 5500 and 3300 BC were
found at Brittas Bay. So the first people of Wicklow were
not farmers, but hunter/gatherers living of the land and
hunting animals. But these people would seem to be distinct
from the early farming communities that had begun to colonise
the interior of Ireland. The people who first brought farming
to Wicklow chose the region around Baltinglass as their
home, settling on Baltinglass Hill. It was the dead of these
first farming communities that were buried in the passage
tombs on Baltinglass Hill and neighbouring Seefin. To this
day, the artwork of the tomb builders can be seen still.
It is the great sweep of the mountains through the heart
of the county that makes Wicklow a land of such differing
regions. The mountains not only divide the east from the
west or the north from the south, but they have also always
separated the community of Wicklow from itself.
In past times, this labyrinth of mountains cut off the coastal
strip running from Bray to Arklow from the richer Irish
interior - condemning the region to be a political backwater
in early Ireland. Even so, the mountains failed to lock
cast Wicklow into isolation. Over time, the mountain passes
through Glenmalure, the Wicklow Gap and the Sally Gap became
routeways for trade, connecting the region with the peoples
living in the interior of Ireland. Indeed, Arklow was already
a port of repute before the arrival of the Vikings.
On the other hand, people could also travel form the interior
into the mountains of Wicklow. At this point, it should
be noted that immigration from the interior into Wicklow
was decidedly forced, meaning exile in effect. And so it
was that time after time, the forests and mountains of Wicklow
offered protection and refuge to those fallen kings of the
interior in their retreat from aggressive neighbours and
prosecution. In Wicklow, they got the chance to start again.
The early kings of Iron Age Wicklow sought to define and
consolidate their grip upon the kingdom located in either
the mountains or along the coastal plain. The land scape
of Wicklow was to be their first line of defence. Soon these
kings were building impressive forts such as the one above
the Glen of the Downs to control important access routes
into the Wicklow interior. But the most impressive concentration
of Iron Age hill forts in Wicklow are the seven on the high
ground north of Rathgall and to the east of Baltinglass,
including the massive fortifications at Spinan's Hill and
the Brusselstown complex.
Wicklow too was a land of churches. The most notable and
largest ecclesiastical centres were at Glendalough, Kilcoole,
and at Aghowle near Shillelagh. But the balance among Wicklow's
rival kings and their churchman would receive a series of
most unwelcome jolts with a fresh influx of new people during
Unlike before, when previous immigrations into Wicklow had
been from within the island, these people had left their
homelands far to the north to cross the sea to Ireland.
Skilled seafarers and fierce warriors they were, and they
would make an indelible mark on Wicklow and her people.
In 827 the Vikings announced their presence in the region
by killing the king of east Wicklow, while they sacked the
monastery of Glendalough later, in 834. During the course
of the century, the Vikings began to establish settlements
along the coast astride safe harbours, naming them Wicklow
Wicklow means 'the meadow of the Vikings,' while a Norseman
named Arnkell appears to have founded a settlement to the
mouth of the Avoca, calling it Arklow - meaning 'the meadow
With time, these Vikings communities would intermingle with
the Irish, engaging in war, trade and love - resulting in
the mixing of blood and the emergence of hybrid communities
in the hinterlands of Wicklow and Arklow. To this day, the
blood of the Vikings still lives on in the region through
the Doyle descendants and through those who bear the named
of Harold and Archbold.
Over the course of the next few centuries, Wicklow would
fall under the sway of various overtakings of the interior,
or that of the Viking king of Dublin. This would be the
way until the coming of the Normans.
The writer, Dr. Emmett O'Byrne is a historian at the O Cleirigh
Institute at University College Dublin.
Courtesy of Wicklow People