Tuesday 16 October 2018

In step on the Military Road

Reporter David Medcalf took to Wicklow's Military Road with a book on the thoroughfare by Michael Fewer as his guide, before talking to the author about hiking, history and corruption

Author Michael Fewer trekking through County Wicklow
Author Michael Fewer trekking through County Wicklow
‘The Wicklow Mountains are magnificent’ says Michael Fewer who snapped this photo

It is not the most pedestrian friendly route in County Wicklow but author Michael Fewer reckons that the Military Road offers a good starting point for at least 70 different worthwhile walks in the hills. The writer who began life in Waterford before moving to Dublin to study architecture as a young man gives Wicklow the credit for keeping him sane into his seventies.

The county has always provided him a therapeutic safety valve where he could commune with nature and he holds the Military Road in particular esteem as it starts on his doorstep in Rathfarnham.

It climbs through the hills of Dublin and across the border to Glencree, the start of a 40 mile journey through some of Ireland's wildest scenery to the speck on the map which is Aghavannagh.

This journey across ferociously beautiful highlands was installed by a Scottish engineer called Alexander Taylor, as Fewer's history of 'The Wicklow Military Road' recalls.'

It was published in 2007, almost two centuries after Taylor with his team comprising British Army soldiers and local labourers finished their task, and the book remains as fresh now as when it first appeared.

There are no great signs along the way advertising the Military Road, yet the route is more or less unchanged since Taylor plotted the way.

According to Michael Fewer, much of Ireland ended the 18th century fairly well endowed with roads, according to the standards of the time.

However, there were blank spots on the map and inland Wicklow was one of the blankest, a source of worry to the civil service mandarins in Dublin Castle. There were several rough thoroughfares running east/west but nothing which went north/south through the mountainous area.

The fact was that the administration loyal to the Crown received a severe shock in 1796 when Wolfe Tone came within an ace of landing in Kerry with a substantial French military force.

Then followed the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798 presenting a substantial challenge to the established order and in the same year, France belatedly succeeded in landing troops in Mayo.

Both the rebels and the invaders were seen off but the continuing activities of Michael Dwyer and his band of outlaws in West Wicklow served as a reminder that all was not at peace.

Landlords such as Lords Powerscourt and Meath were happy to provide the land so that a road could be built which would allow the army rapid access to parts of the country which had hitherto proved troublesome.

Work began in the year 1800 on the project which featured massive stone built barracks in Glencree, Laragh, Glenmalure and Aghavannagh.

As Michael Fewer tells it, the soldiers earned their seven shillings a week the hard way, hauling boulders from improvised quarries and camping out in some of Ireland's wildest countryside.

Much of the road ran through upland bog which required the laying of foundations made from timber or from bundles of rushes.

The result, after everything settled down, is a surface which rolls and bumps along so that the modern motorist may likely feel seasick after a few miles travel.

The work crews had reached the high point of the junction at Sally Gap by 1802 when Dwyer was still at large but the legendary rebel had long been exiled to Australia by the time they rolled into Laragh in 1806. The Military Road was completed in 1809 but it was largely redundant as a military route by 1825 when the barracks were vacated by army personnel.

Their accommodation in Aghavannagh was later used by the Parnell family to host shooting parties. Now in private hands, it was for many years favoured by ramblers and climbers as a youth hostel, the ideal base from which to tackle the mountains.

Laragh, which barely existed as a village before the road arrived, grew in size and importance thereafter, with the barracks providing an inspirational retreat for novelist Francis Stuart.

Meanwhile, Glencree has become famous a reconciliation ceremony.

Now aged 71, author Michael Fewer enjoyed a lengthy career as an architect, engaged on projects as far away as Prague and Paris, though most of his practice dealt with Dublin clients.

One of his most memorable assignments, however, took him to Annamoe in County Wicklow as a young professional, working on alterations to Glendalough House.

He looks back on his time there as a privilege since the house was the residence of Robert Barton, the last surviving signatory of the Treaty which established the Irish State.

'It is only now that I realise how important that was,' he muses looking back on the afternoon teas he took with the great man who had retired from farming to take up residence in Annamoe…

Michael ponders how he became a hiker of renown, first taking to the hills when looking for a break from the pressures of work at his architectural office in Merrion Square.

'I was never old enough for golf!' he laughs. Instead of taking to formal sport, he first began his explorations on the Dublin side of the county line around the Hellfire Club.

He quotes a 19th century rambler Robert Newell who wrote in the 1820s that 'the only way to explore a country is to walk through it.'

Walking, says Fewer, not only allows access to remoter spots than allowed while driving or cycling, it also brings the hiker closer to the butterflies, rabbits and birds encountered along the way.

And most important of all, it is the best way of meeting people who might enjoy sharing a chat.

A father of four, he brought his daughter and three sons into the hills when they were young and he began to fill in the miles with stories which he invented for their amusement.

He even created a fantasy map illustrated with birds and castles, which prompted a friend to suggest that there might be an audience for his expertise and imagination beyond the family circle. He was persuaded to submit a chapter to publishers Gill & Macmillan who were so impressed that they urged him undertake at full length 'The Wicklow Way - Marley to Glenmalure' which was issued in 1988.

His career as a writer was underway - 'it's hard to stop' - covering history and architecture as well as his adventures on foot,

Since the initial book appeared almost three decades ago, he has produced 20 more.

Titles included 'Walking Across Ireland: From Dublin Bay to Galway Bay', 'Rambling Down the Suir' and 'The Doorways of Ireland'. Since 1993 he has produced more than 400 magazine and newspaper articles as well as turning his hand to illustrating books for others while also being a consultant contributor to the 'Encyclopaedia of Ireland'.

He was still active as an architect when he footslogged 800 miles in a demanding 14 month period during which he researched and wrote his work on his favourite Irish trails.

However, he had retired from the profession by the time 'The Wicklow Military Road: History and Topography' was issued by Ashfield Press in 2007.

In preparing it, he unearthed snippets about celebrities from the Duke of Wellington to WB Yeats who were familiar with the road, to lighten the contents.

He undertook a great deal of background reading, delving into the politics and administration of Ireland in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion, when Captain (promoted to Major by the time he had finished) Alexander Taylor adopted the road as his pet project.

'Taylor was a genius as an engineer but also a genius at brown envelopes - he was a very bright chancer,' reckons Michael after scholarly examination of the financial accounts of the period.

It is believed that Taylor pocketed £10,000 - an enormous sum at the time - from the paving budget of Dublin city, while the Military Road was another lucrative cash cow for him.

In fairness, though he was corrupt, he has left an enduring legacy, selecting a line through the Wicklow wilderness which remains in use to this day by local residents and visitors alike.

Many of the bridges Taylor installed along the way for horse and foot traffic are still intact and capable of carrying hefty modern timber lorries or 40 seater tourist coaches.

Michael Fewer has moved on, buoyed by the recent success of the bestselling 'Naturama' book co-authored with Melissa Doran for children and currently conducting the groundwork on a planned study of the Irish Civil War. But he has not ruled out a return to Wicklow which he calls a favourite place, revealing that he has a manuscript stowed away somewhere on the coast of the county.

'Wicklow has saved my life with the walking I have done there and the Wicklow Mountains are magnificent.'

Bray People