You’d be forgiven if you thought you just stepped into the Scottish Highlands on a visit to the Wicklow Mountains National Park, especially if you’re up on windy Wicklow Gap. The mountain range is rather unusual for Ireland, especially if you picture Ireland as green pastures, dotted with sheep, and pleasant little white cottages. It is the longest continual mountain range in Ireland. It’s highest peak, Lugnaquilla, is just under three quarters of a mile, at 3,035 feet. The mountains have been important to the supply of natural resources, their are composed of granite, with pockets of cooper and lead. Water from the mountains supplies Dublin in the form of reservoirs. The climate of damp, wet summers and cool, wet winters creates a boggy valleys, with heath and grassland suitable for sheep grazing further up the hills.
The National Park was established in 1991 and receives over a million visitors each year. There are interesting sites, like the monastery at Glendalough, Neolithic passage tombs, and for the adventurous, the ruins of a former mining establishment. The Wicklow Way, is joined with the Dublin Mountains Way and Saint Kevin’s Way to give walkers a lot of miles to traverse. There are stops, like the Wicklow Gap, that give panoramic views of the beautiful scenery.
The passage tombs are evidence of the Neolithic inhabitants of Wicklow. There are standing stones, rock art, hill forts and stone circles found in higher elevations. The Glendalough monastery sits at the foot of lake and still has a wonderfully preserved round tower, interesting cemetery, and the ruins of a 6th century monastery. The is a nice and nearly level walking path around the lake that can be done in about a half hour. There are long walks as well. Small waterfalls, bogs and wildlife can be seen on the walk. The visitors center is also located here and has restroom facilities. The monastery was built in the 6th century by Saint Kevin, who was part of the Dál clan who controlled the Wicklow mountains. It became an early Church or Ireland stronghold and by the 8th century nearly 1,000 people were believed to be living at Glendalough. It also became a pilgrimage site.
During the 12th-century Norman Invasion, Richard de Clare, or Strongbow, with the aid of Dermot MacMurrough, sieged Dublin by taking a highland route through the Wicklow Mountains to Dublin. The Norman Invasion lead to Glendalough’s decline and in 1398 the monastery was burned by the Anglo-Normans. Two Gaelic clans, the O’Byrnes and O’Tooles were forced out of their lands in Kildare and into the mountains during this time. For the next four plus centuries the two clans continually harassed, raided and battled against the English. They were most successful in the Glenmalure valley, a u-shaped glacial valley that proved unassailable by the Anglo-Norman army. In 1274 and 1580 the England were overwhelmingly defeated by the clans. The Battle of Glenmalure, during the Desmond Rebellions, was the largest loss of English life seen in any battle in Ireland, with an estimated 800 to 1,000 officers and men killed. The clan army was led by Fiach McHugh O’Byrne. It was guerrilla warfare, where the clans ambushed from behind trees, hid in dips and valleys, and could see the army from high vantage points.
It was only in the Act of Succession, 1652, that the O’Byrnes and O’Tooles lost their highland domain, as the lands were confiscated by the England Commonwealth under Cromwell. Peace lasted until the 1798 Rising. After Ireland’s defeat, many fled to the mountains and like their ancestors, began a long rebellious campaign of ambush and raids.
From 1800 to 1809 a military road, similar to that constructed through the Scottish Highlands, was built through the mountain range, with army barracks and police stations scattered along the road, rebellion quelled and the buildings were abandoned. In the 1800s, the Great Famine decimated the population and in later in the century Victorian tourism made the mountains a popular tourist site. It is still a favorite among visitors and locals alike, with many fine views, walks, wildlife and of course history.