Wicklow 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 that evening.
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 the 800s.

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 and Arklow.

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 of Arnkell'.
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
February 2006