Wicklow People

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Newtown seeks out its ancient heritage

Reporter David Medcalf pulled in off the main road to visit Newtownmountkennedy, where Grace Garde showed him how the village with the long name also has a long past. A new guide has been issued to bring the local heritage to life

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Grace Garde chats with reporter David Medcalf (and Charlie)

Grace Garde chats with reporter David Medcalf (and Charlie)

Reporter David Medcalf with Grace Garde at St Matthew’s Church

Reporter David Medcalf with Grace Garde at St Matthew’s Church

Reporter David Medcalf chatting with Grace Garde under the ‘mighty’ oak tree

Reporter David Medcalf chatting with Grace Garde under the ‘mighty’ oak tree

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Grace Garde chats with reporter David Medcalf (and Charlie)

Not even Newtownmountkennedy's greatest fan would describe the village as the most beautiful in County Wicklow. It lacks the quaintness of a Shillelagh, for example, and is not endowed with the high-altitude scenery of a Roundwood.

Newtownmountkennedy slipped off the radar for most potential visitors years ago when it was bypassed by the N11. No longer on the beaten track, it lacks the benefit of any mega-attraction, such as Enniskerry's Powerscourt or Blessington's Russborough House, to draw the crowds. Far from the sea, it is not the destination for families seeking sun and sand, while most mountain ramblers find handier jumping-off points for the exploring the Wicklow Hills.

Newtownmountkennedy, nevertheless, remains a place that has a history and a presence, endowed with a character all its own. It is home to 3,000 souls who have reason enough to be proud of their one-street, bypassed village. And, though it is far shy of being a Glendalough-style magnet for tourists, it still attracts plenty of people who appreciate its convenience and services.

A bustling supermarket, hotel, eateries and shops testify to the fact that not everyone prefers to skip Newtownmountkennedy and keep pedal to the metal along the Dublin to Wexford main road.

Among those 3,000 souls is Grace Garde, who works giving heritage talks on the wonders of nature in primary schools all over Wicklow and Dublin. Or rather that was what she did until lockdown shut the school doors and confined her to activities closer to home in Newtown. One unexpected result of the Covid-19 restrictions is the recently published 'Newtownmountkennedy Map and Heritage Guide' under her leadership.

The guide is cunningly presented free of charge as a single large sheet of paper which may be folded down to fit neatly in any handbag or back pocket. It suggests a score of things worth looking at on a Sunday stroll or on a passing whim. Here, in one handy package, is a beginner's guide to why Newtownmountkennedy/Newtown/NTMK is a place all its own - so good they named it thrice.

Here we learn at least part of the reason why it is called Newtownmountkennedy in the first place, and that it has had a post office since 1800. The current post office, along with the Parkview Hotel, is a distribution point for copies of the guide. But it is also possible to download the contents onto your smartphone and other devices from the 'Our Wicklow Heritage' website run by the county council. Grace hopes that the NTMK offering will not only provide an insight into the place where she lives for tourists, but that it will also stimulate an interest in the heritage on their doorstep among the locals.

She admits that, until she became involved in compiling the new publication, she was not too well versed herself in Newtownmountkennedy's built heritage. She was much more aware of plants and animals than she was of the background to buildings she sees every day. Now that she has been briefed by experts (notably Therese Hicks and Peter McCormick) in such matters, however, she speaks knowledgeably about how St Matthew's Church of Ireland church was built in 1835 or about how Eugene's shop was once a police station.

Grace is happy to use the man from the 'Wicklow People' as a guinea pig as she prepares to put this newfound expertise to the test. She is one of the speakers rostered to host Heritage Week walks, bringing members of the general public for a gentle ramble through the village. So the reporter is treated to a preview, with both of us clutching copies of 'Newtownmountkennedy Map and Heritage Guide' as our crib-sheet.

Starting from the Texaco garage beside the Dublin Road, we step it out past the headquarters of Coillte, the State-backed forestry company. The Coillte offices are appropriately set amidst forestry and Grace is making a bee-line through the woods towards an enchanting oddity. Most of the trees growing here on the banks of the River Altidore are fine, healthy, young specimens.

But, if you know where to look, there is one mighty oak tree which on its own makes a trip to NTMK worthwhile. Its girth measures 6.2 metres around, making it a very substantial piece of live timber indeed - probably around 600 years old. This venerable gnarled specimen is a 'monster' according to Grace, though certainly not a monster to be scared of. The admirable giant has become a magnet for children who come to swing from its ancient bows, she reports.

Grace had promised to reveal why Newtownmountkennedy is so called and, as we make our way back through forest to the public road, she is as good as her word. The name is derived from the power and influence of one Robert Kennedy who acquired a 15,000-acre estate (or demesne) hereabouts in the 1620s. His former home, long since passed on to other families, along with the apocryphal mount (more of a mound really) is now in private hands, so we turn instead towards the main street of Kennedy's new town.

At the junction of Church Road and the Dublin Road is a building which is listed on the printed guide as 'Old RIC Barracks'. If that word 'barracks' evokes repressive gloom, then such down-beat thought has been banished by the application of lashings of white paint to make a desirable modern residence.

On the other side of the road, Grace reveals that Fishers, the well-known boutique and eatery, is housed in what was once a schoolhouse. For more than half a century, lessons were conducted under a thatched roof, until a slate replacement was installed in 1900 and the place ceased to have an educational purpose in 1940. The young scholars are long gone and the building is alive these days with modern retail life but perceptive customers may still notice the old mullioned windows as a reminder of what was.

The town's Main Street has many more little reminders of the past, for those who have the guide to help them see behind the modern facades. Here was where the stage coach on the Dublin to Wexford run used to pull in for a change of horses. There, in a flower-bed, is the milestone which proclaimed the distance to Bray and Dublin: 'Milestones were all over Wicklow,' says Grace. 'They were the people's map.'

NTMK has played its part in national events and convulsions over the centuries. The bloody 1798 battle of Newtownmountkennedy, for instance, is recalled at a low-key memorial at the south end of the street. It is believed that 170 rebels perished in battle and United Irishman Micheál Neil was also killed. Also memorialised is Captain Robert Monteith who was to the fore in the attempt to land guns in Kerry for the Irish revolutionaries of 1916.

The seeds of all this preoccupation with the heritage of Newtown began in the run-up to the centenary commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising. A series of talks was organised on topics such as the battle in 1798 and the contribution of Monteith to the rising. One of the talks concerned how the local GAA club has been a constant feature of the town for one and a half centuries, the fifth oldest club in the association.

Grace Garde found a rich source of local historical knowledge in the late Canon Jennings who helped to fire curiosity about such matters. This spawned a project with local primary school children who were encouraged to draw on the Dúchas folklore collection. The project backed by Creative Ireland and the enthusiasm of teachers Ms O'Mahoney and Ms Doyle led eventually to production of the guide.

The funds for the publication, which was designed by the ingenious Ann Glynn, came from the heritage section of Wicklow County Council. The application for the money came, by the way, via a specially convened sub-committee of Newtownmountkennedy tidy towns. The end result is a good example of what Grace Garde calls 'place-based education'.

In other words, the various strands of heritage, nature, art and storytelling are pulled together to define what it is that makes Newtown distinctively Newtown. It is an approach that could usefully be copied in any village which has a main street, a local historian and someone with the energy to pull all the strands together.

Bray People