Bray People

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Wicklow Irish built fortified houses


Dunganstown Castle was built on colonial ruins.

Dunganstown Castle was built on colonial ruins.

Dunganstown Castle was built on colonial ruins.

THE Irish settlements in Wicklow in the aftermath of the arrival of the Normans (116970) tended to adapt and reflect the country in which they were sited. In the lowlands, it seems clear the Norman and Welsh colonists were intent on parcelling out the land among themselves - which was worked by predominately unfree Irish labour.

That is not to say that Normans were unable to establish manorial systems in the uplands of Wicklow and left the mountains to the Irish. Rather, the Normans were proactive in their establishment of colonists within the Wicklow ranges, as the archbishop of Dublin's manor at Castlekevin near Annamoe and the FitzRhys lordship in Imaal demonstrates. However, is it possible that Irish settlements in lowland and upland Wicklow reflected the culture of the dominant local lord?

It would appear that the settlements of the Irish in the more impenetrable mountain valleys of Wicklow were often surrounded by thick belts of protecting forests.

And within these forests, great clearings were cut out for the cultivation of cereals and pasture.

Clearly, Irish settlements in the mountains must have been built according to three following fundamental tenets. *Was the settlement defensible? *Was the land cultivable? *And was there ready water? Some archaeological evidence from settlements suggests the dwellings of the ordinary people were roughly constructed, small and could be shortlived.

Observations by Tudor officials of the Wicklow Irish during the late 1500s make the distinction between what they term cabins and houses - presumably a house was a better class of a dwelling.

In the mountain areas, it seems that the leaders of the Wicklow Irish built new raths or reoccupied old raths such as the one at Ballinacor near Greenane in Glenmalure - a site that has Iron Age origins.

The archaeologist Harry Long suggests that Ballinacor during the 1500s was a complex comprising of two rings circled by high earthen banks with thick plashed hedges standing atop them.

It would appear; all entrants to the fort had to pass through a main entrance/gate at the front - while there was an escape gate at the back.

With the complex stood a series of mud and daub houses around the wooden hall of its lord.

Mention of the leaders of the Wicklow Irish living in wooden halls comes again 1565-66. Then it was reported that the fugitive Rory Og O'More (sl.1578) was hiding in the wooden hall sited in the Knockrath settlement above the Clara Valley.

The account of the captive Englishman Henry Chrysted (viv.1395) is also illustrative. He speaks of a crannog like settlement in Wicklow that was inhabited during the 1360s. Chrysted said it was called Herpelin: 'A fortified house and town surrounded by woods and stockades and stagnant waters'.

It seems also clear that the Wicklow Irish of the mountains did not build stone castles in the upland regions before 1600.

But after 1606, it would appear that the sons of Feagh McHugh O'Byrne (sl.1597) did build two small castles: one on the Brown Mountain above Ballinacor known as Feilim's castle and a second at Killaveny south of Aughrim. This building of stone fortifications was relatively late, when one considers that the Irish were building castles during the 1400s in the lowlands of east Wicklow. Then the Irish either totally built the castles of Kiltimon, Newrath and Dunganstown or at the very least built upon colonial ruins in the case of Dunganstown. On the other hand, the O'Toole lords often reoccupied colonial sites and were living in the old castles of Castlekevin and Powerscourt after 1541 - secure that their tenure was confirmed by royal grant.