The Great Military Road runs from Rathfarnham to Aughavannagh, with a side arm from Enniskerry to Glencree. The route from Rathfarnham to Aughavannagh covers 36 miles (58 km). It was constructed between 1801 and 1809, and is still an important north-south route across the Wicklow Mountains. It is also a scenic route for visitors. For a good part of its length it travels through Wicklow Mountains National Park, and is a good way to see the mountain blanket bog habitat.
Route: Rathfarnham – Featherbed – Glencree – past Kippure – Sally Gap – Glenmacnass Waterfall – Laragh – Shay Elliot memorial – Drumgoff (Glenmalure) – Aughavannagh.
During the 1798 Rebellion, the inaccessibility of the Wicklow Mountains proved a problem for the government forces. Four roads crossed the county from east to west, but none ran north south to connect them. The rebel army, initially led by General Joseph Holt, used the Wicklow Mountains as a place to hide. After Holt’s surrender in 1798, the role of rebel leader passed to Michael Dwyer. Dwyer was born in the mountains, and had family and friends there to help him. With a band of followers he lived a fugitive guerrilla life in the mountains.
Towards the end of 1798, Colonel John Skerret of the Durham Fencibles suggested building a military road across the mountains. The idea was simple. The road would enable troops to travel quickly to wherever they were needed. At the same time, it would restrict the rebel’s ability to move unseen. An additional factor was the fear of a potential French invasion on the east coast at this time, that might necessitate rapid movement of troops.
Captain Alexander Taylor of the Royal Irish Engineers surveyed the route between Spring 1800 and spring 1801. He was offered protection in his task by Colonel George Stewart and his troops who were on activities in the mountains at the time, trying to find Dwyer and his men.
Building work was to begin in May 1800, but five weeks of good weather were wasted because the tools for the job had not arrived. Eventually of 200 shovels, 40 wheel barrows, crowbars, hammers and pickaxes arrived, and work began in August 1800.
The road was built mainly by soldiers working in four teams. Each team had an officer and 50 soldiers. Local people were also welcome to help, but most had no desire to. The locals felt that once the road was constructed, land in the area would become more valuable, and their rents would rise. The work was very physical, and the soldiers had to live in tents or houses made of sods.
The bridges along the route were made of local stone. Tragically, by today’s standards, the stone was often taken from local ancient ring forts.
As the threat of a French invasion increased, it was decided to also make four permanent barracks along the route, with a fifth barracks at Glen of Imaal. Private contractors were employed to build barracks at Glencree, Laragh, Drumgoff (Glenmalure), Aughavannagh and Glen of Imaal. Each was to house 100 men, and the Glen of Imaal Barack was to house 200.
Each of these structures was surrounded with a raised redoubt, which is a defensive wall with steep sides from which fire could be brought to bear on all points. The redoubts were armed with two cannon.
The Great Military Road was finally finished in 1809. It cost £43,500, working out at over £1,000 per mile. It was twice what Taylor originally budgeted for.
The five barracks cost £26,500. The contractors were also paid £700 to build a double arched stone bridge at Drumgoff and £1,500 to build a bridge at Aughavannagh.
The soldiers earned a shilling a day, the officers five shillings a day, and Taylor 15 shillings a day.
Dwyer surrendered in December 1803, long before the road was completed. At Waterloo, Napoleon was defeated and the threat of a French invasion receded. Eventually, the road ceased to be purely for military use.
The local civilians were always permitted to use the road. Strangers who wished to travel the route had to obtain a permit of transit by application from the Barrack Master in Dublin. Right from the start, the wild scenery was appreciated by travellers on the road. Even today, over 200 years later, visitors often drive or cycle the scenic route.
The five barracks, built at quite a cost, had a relatively short military history.
Glencree was the headquarters of the Great Military Road, and the place where travellers collected their pass to travel the route. The barracks was only used by the military for 40 years. In the 1840’s the building became a government store. The Ordinance Survey used it as a base for a while, and it was also used by the Post Office.
In the 1850’s a sad chapter in its history began. For the next 100 years, the Oblate Fathers ran an Industrial School in the building.
In 1946-49, German refugee children escaping the war were hosteled here.
Today the barracks is used as a Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. Visitors are welcome. There is a café, gift shop, exhibition, conference rooms, and more. www.glencree.ie
Nothing now remains of the Laragh Barracks. It was demolished in 1955. The site is known as the Ordnance Ground. Its last use was as a private residence, and before that it was used by the Laragh Mill as a store.
Drumgoff Barracks (Glenmalure)
Drumgoff Barrack was only used by the military until 1844. It was then leased to the Wicklow Mining Company and was used as both office and living quarters. By 1868, mining had stopped in the valley, and the barracks site reverted to the land owner – the Kemmis family of Ballinacor House. Only a ruined shell of the building remains today.
Aughavannagh Barracks, still stands today, although it is deteriorating and is no longer considered safe. The building was only used militarily until 1825. The site then reverted to the landowner – William Parnell of Rathdrum, grandfather to Charles Stewart Parnell. They used part of the building as a hunting lodge. For some years the Irish Constabulary used part of the building as a garrison.
Another politician, John Redmond, acquired the property after Charles Stewart Parnell’s death. In 1944, An Óige bought the property for £350. It was used very successfully as a youth hostel until 1998, when unfortunately, the building was declared unsafe and too costly to repair and maintain.
Leitrim Barrack (Glen of Imaal)
Following the surrender of Michael Dwyer in 1803, Leitrim Barracks ceased to be very useful, and was expensive to maintain. A fire in 1914 resulted in the demolition of the building and very little now remains.
County Wicklow’s overall military weakness, from the government’s point of view, was based on the fact that four of the counties crossing routes from east to west had no connecting road from north to south. The new Great Military Road would connect all four inter-county roads by the north-south artery. The road would begin in the Dublin suburb of Rathfarnham, then a distinct township outside the city proper, but close to the main mustering barracks. It would exit the county from Ballyboden and Mount Venus towards Glencree and Aurora. Following a long spur over desolate heath it would intersect with the Blessington – Roundwood road at Sallygap. Continuing across the mountains it would reach Laragh via the scenic and then isolated Glenmacnass. A short stretch of the then existing Grand Jury road was incorporated until at Derrybawn it would cut across mountain country again, descending into Drumgoff in mid Glenmalure. From there it would be cut across to lonely Aughavannagh. In addition there was to be a short portion of road to link the main Military Road with Enniskerry and another to link with Roundwood skirting the heights above Lough Dan. In total the Wicklow Military Road would cover 36 miles and was specified to be 12 to 14 feet wide.