The Wyses of the Manor St John were one of the great Waterford families of the 19th century and earlier. I’ve learned more about this family from my research into Thomas Francis Meagher. One of Meagher’s great-great-grandfathers was farmer Thomas Wyse, related to the Manor St John family. This Thomas’s son, James became a wealthy butter merchant in the city helping set up the important trading firm of Wyse, Cashin and Quan. One of the Quans later married Thomas Meagher, Thomas Francis’s father.
The first Wyses came to Ireland in 1170 with the Anglo-Norman invasion. For centuries the Wyses were tenants of the Powers, a wealthy Anglo-Norman family. By 1375 the Wyses were also wealthy and leading Waterford landowners. Maurice Wyse was mayor of Waterford in 1478 and his son John was chief baron of the exchequor in Dublin. Their loyalty was to the crown and John’s son William Wyse was educated at the court of Henry VIII. The king liked the young man and granted him the royal manor of Chapelizod near Dublin in 1523. As reward for his support during the Silken Thomas rebellion of 1534 and the dissolution of the monasteries a few years later, Henry further granted William Wyse the lands of the dissolved Benedictine priory of St John’s and the estate of the Knights Hospitaller in Waterford. Henry also honoured Wyse with a ceremonial hat called a “cap of maintenance” in 1536 and knighted him in 1543. A contemporary historian unsurprisingly wrote Wyse was “a worshipful gentleman (who) stood high in King Henry’s grace.”
The Wyses managed to keep their holdings despite the penal laws of the 18th century against Irish Catholics. From the 1750s Thomas “Bullocks” Wyse (1701-70) tried to organise Catholics into a delegate committee to restore rights while still swearing allegiance to the crown. His son John Wyse commissioned John Roberts to build Newtown House which later became the Quaker school. The Wyse estate eventually passed to “Gentle” Thomas Wyse (1770-1835) whose eldest son, also Thomas Wyse (1791-1862, the one in the portrait above), was an important ally of Daniel O’Connell.
Like Thomas Francis Meagher, Wyse was educated at Stonyhurst College, though unlike Meagher he also went to Trinity College Dublin, where he distinguished himself as a scholar. After the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815 Wyse travelled on a grand tour to Italy, Greece, Egypt and Palestine. In Rome Wyse was introduced to exiled Prince Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s younger brother. Wyse took a shine to Lucien’s eldest daughter Princess Letitia Bonaparte (some spellings called her “Letizia”) then barely 11. Letitia was born in 1804 on the eve of her uncle Napoleon’s coronation as emperor and was rumoured to be her uncle’s favourite.
Though Wyse continued his tour he returned to the Bonaparte residence in Viterbo, Italy “dazzled by the beauty” of Letitia. On March 4, 1821 they married at Canino, Wyse aged 30, Letitia just turned 16. Their first son, Napoleon Alfred was born a year later. The newlyweds were not a good match and after a quarrel Letitia left to enter a convent for six months. From there she wrote letters apologising and begging to see her son. Meanwhile Thomas arranged to go back to Ireland. After finally forgiving his wife they went back to Waterford as a family of three. The old Manor House of St John had been demolished and they lived on the Adelphi, and later a house on the Mall.
Letitia was extremely popular as a niece of Napoleon though “her manners were more suited to sunny Italy than the peculiarities of the clime and people among whom she cast her fortunes.” She and Thomas had a second son William Thomas born in 1826 though the marriage was still troubled and Letitia hated the fickle Irish weather and even more fickle Irish manners. Though a member of the Bonaparte royalty she flew into anger when treated as an inferior by local Protestant aristocracy. At a party she took offence not to be given precedence entering a room. “Such a voice, such a temper!” a local source reported. The same source reported rumours of a separation and they proved correct.
Thomas Wyse was a key figure in the 1826 Waterford election which replaced the Tory Marquis Beresford with the pro-Emancipation candidate Henry Villiers Stuart. Wyse was the secretary of a movement to unseat Beresford who previously took the seat for granted as the leading landholder. Letitia gleefully played her part allowing her orange footwear go through the mud, a calculated insult to the Orange Beresford, which the ladies of Waterford understood and loved. Wyse did not. After an election ball Daniel O’Connell wrote to his wife about his amusement at the contrast between Wyse and Letitia. “You never saw anything so ludicrous – his sepuchral aspect and funeral step and her elegant Italian dancing”.
Letitia increasingly pined for Italy and complained Thomas neglected her. In January 1828 she announced her intention to leave but had to go without her two boys. She wrote to Thomas “our tastes and dispositions are too much opposed.” She returned to Waterford a month later where she signed a deed of separation. The boys were educated in Waterford at the school of the Quan sisters (maternal aunts of Thomas Francis Meagher, who was also educated there). Letitia was denied entry to the house and to the school to see her boys. A local newspaper said “these Bonapartes are troublesome folk” though there was plenty of sympathy for her too as a mother.
There was a scandal on the bridge when one of Wyse’s female relationships hurled abuse at Letitia as she left town. Thomas eventually gave permission for Letitia to see the boys in boarding school. She never saw her husband again. Thomas was elected MP for Tipperary in 1830 after Emancipation. Like O’Connell he supported the Whig Party and voted for the great measures of the reform era. He was chair of a committee into the condition of education in Ireland, and helped establish provincial colleges at Cork, Galway and Belfast.
From 1835 to 1847 he was MP for Waterford City, from 1839 to 1841 he was a Lord of the Treasury, from 1846 to 1849 he was Secretary to the Board of Control, and in 1849 he was sent as British minister to Greece. He was knighted in 1857 and died at Athens on 16 April 1862.
Back in London a depressed Letitia tried to commit suicide when pulled from icy waters by a young soldier, Captain Studholm Hodgson. She and Captain Hodgson travelled around Europe and had three children. She sailed to Greece to confront Thomas to contest his will but he ordered the ship not to land. She died in 1871 in her home town of Viterbo, aged 66.
Despite the failure of the marriage, the offspring all proudly called themselves Bonaparte-Wyse. Their second son Captain William Charles Bonaparte-Wyse became a soldier and poet. He moved to Provençal where he wrote and became known as “lo felibre irlandés”. William’s son Andrew Bonaparte-Wyse (1870-1940) was a British civil servant and for many years the only Catholic in the Northern Ireland administration to rise to the rank of Permanent Secretary.
With my partner in Sydney last month for work, I decided to join her for a few days. I had no time off work so each morning during the week I’d walk past Hyde Park on way to my de facto office at the State Library. This particular morning the sun was gleaming off the 309m Sydney Tower, the city’s tallest structure and the second tallest observation tower in the Southern Hemisphere behind Auckland’s tower.
As I walked further north I passed Sydney’s Catholic Cathedral, St Mary’s (and not St Patrick’s as I’d long assumed). Built on the site of an old church which caught fire in 1865 it was dedicated though still unfinished in 1882. The nave was not completed until 1928 while the spires were not added until 2000.
Across the road is a statue to early governor Lachlan Macquarie. Lachlan Macquarie was a British military officer who from 1810 to 1821 was the last governor of New South Wales with autocratic powers. Historians consider his influence crucial on the transition from a penal colony to a free settlement and he has left a large legacy to Sydney and has given his name to streets, towns, rivers, a university and even a dictionary. An inscription on his tomb in Scotland describes him as “The Father of Australia” but there are solid claims he is a mass murderer. In April 1816, Macquarie ordered his soldiers to kill or capture any Aboriginal people they encountered during a military operation aimed at creating a sense of “terror”. At least 14 men, women and children were brutally killed, some shot, others driven over a cliff.
Macquarie’s name appears on the plaque over the Hyde Park Barracks. Macquarie commissioned the convict-built building which opened in 1819 as the colony’s first convict barracks. Previously, convicts had been allowed to find their own accommodation, but by housing them in a barracks Macquarie hoped to increase their productivity and improve their moral character. The three-storey building with massive shingled roof and a simple yet striking facade was designed by convict architect Francis Greenway, for which Macquarie granted Greenway a full pardon. From 1830 the Barracks also housed a Court of General Session.
Outside the Barracks is the 1999 Australian Monument to the Great Irish Famine. In 1848 Hyde Park Barracks was remodelled as an immigration depot and hiring office for female immigrants. Many women travelled alone to the colony, including thousands of Irish women fleeing the Great Famine. This monument is a memorial to the famine and a celebration of the contribution of Irish immigrants to Australia. A table cuts through the centre of the wall, representing the famine experience on one side and the colonies on the other. There is also a shelf holding potatoes and a loy, a traditional spade for potato digging, leaning against the wall. On two glass panels are the names of 420 women, sandblasted into the glass, who came to Australia as orphans in the Earl Grey Scheme.
One of Macquarie’s first buildings was a new hospital built in 1811. This south wing was one of three buildings. The north wing is now the state parliament while a middle wing was demolished. It became known as the Rum Hospital when Macquarie gave the contractors a monopoly on the import of 45,000 gallons of rum to build it. However the building was deficient and Greenway was called in to fix it up in 1816. The building was the Sydney Mint from 1854 to 1926 and is now a museum.
Il Porcellino, Italian for “the little pig”, is a larger than life-sized bronze wild boar outside Sydney Hospital, facing Macquarie Street. The sculpture is a replica of an original by Pietro Tacca which has stood in Florence since 1633, and shares the Florentine nickname. It was a gift to Sydney from Marchesa Fiaschi Torrigiani in 1968 and is a memorial to her father Thomas Fiaschi and brother Piero Fiaschi who both worked as honorary surgeons at the Hospital, Sydney’s oldest.
Further north on Macquarie St is the state parliament building, also part of the original Rum Hospital. When the Legislative Council was formed in 1824, it did not have a permanent home and met in various locations. In 1829, the Council’s membership increased from five to 15 members, and it began to meet in the Surgeon’s quarters of the hospital, gradually expanding to take over what was the largest building in Sydney at the time.
Moving on to my destination at the State Library I pause to admire the statue of Matthew Flinders. Flinders was a Navy captain who charted much of the Australian coast at the turn of the 19th century. In 1798 he sailed south from Sydney in the sloop Norfolk, passed through Bass Strait and circumnavigated Van Diemens Land (Tasmania), proving it to be an island. From 1801 to 1803 he circumnavigated mainland Australia in HMS Investigator. A smaller statue to the rear commemorates Flinders’ cat Trim who accompanied him on the voyage. Sadly when Flinders tried to return to England in 1803, he was imprisoned for 10 years in Mauritius by a suspicious French governor. Trim went missing in Mauritius, presumed dead.
The State Library of NSW is the oldest library in Australia first established as the Australian Subscription Library in 1826, In 1869 the NSW Government purchased it to form the Sydney Free Public Library. The library had several locations before moving into its own new building in 1845 at Bent and Macquarie Streets. Work on the Mitchell Wing started in 1906 and was completed in 1910. It houses the Mitchell Library reading rooms, work areas and galleries.
In 1922 Matthew Flinders’ grandson Sir Flinders Petrie offered the first Australian state to erect a statue in Flinders’ honour all of his grandfather’s papers. In 1925 Sydney won the honour and the Flinders papers now reside in the Mitchell Library building. This was my magnificent work space for several days, and a great chance to do side research on my own Thomas Francis Meagher project.
At lunchtime it was an easy walk across the road to enjoy the fresh air of the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens with sweeping views over the harbour. Yet another initiative of Macquarie, the 30-hectare garden opened in 1816. It is the oldest scientific institution in Australia and has played a major role in the acclimatisation of plants from other regions.
Hidden beside the gardens is Government House, the heritage-listed home of the governor of New South Wales. Construction of the romantic Gothic revival style building began in 1837 though the first resident, Governor George Gipps, did not move in until 1845. It housed the new Governor-General of Australia from 1901 to 1914 before that eminence moved to Yarralumla, Canberra. It has since housed the state governor apart from an interregnum between 1996 and 2011 when premier Bob Carr kicked them out.
Sydney was enjoying the Vivid sound and light festival when we were there. So it was an enjoyable exercise each night to walk around the harbour and enjoy the light show on Sydney’s great civic architecture including the Opera House.
Another pleasing view of Jørn Utzon’s masterpiece was this one from the Domain. It was fitting as Queensland had just beaten New South Wales at rugby league State of Origin in Sydney when I saw this Queensland bottle tree (Brachychiton rupestris) lording over enemy territory. It is a tree I know well from my days in the Brigalow Belt in Roma in western Queensland.
Mrs Macquarie’s Point is further along the Domain at the north-easterly point of Farm Cove. Here is Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, a sandstone rock formation carved to resemble a bench, named in honour of Macquarie’s wife, Elizabeth in 1810. Elizabeth was supposed to have sat on the rock to watch for ships sailing into the harbour. Above the seat there is an inscription dedicated to Mrs Macquarie’s Road built between 1813 and 1818 which links Government House and Mrs Macquarie’s Point. The road was Macquarie’s idea to benefit his wife, though the passageway no longer remains.
In May I flew to Ireland for a quick two week visit, the short timeframe dictated by the amount of time I could get off work. Though I managed trips to Belfast,Glendalough, Clonmacnoise, Ballingarry Famine Warhouse and Dublin, most was spent in my home town of Waterford. While the main reason was to visit my father approaching his mid 80s, it also allowed me to research places associated with Thomas Francis Meagher. I’ve written about Waterford, city and environs, but there is always plenty more to write about its rich history and vibrant present. Waterford was named best place to live in Ireland by the Irish Times in 2021 for “its livability, accessibility and affordability, as well as its vibrancy, unassuming nature and sense of independence.” Waterford’s central square named for great local architect John Roberts is an important public space. Whenever photos of this area from the past, full of cars, are posted on Facebook groups there is a lament the city was much livelier in those days (I see similar complaints on old photos of Australian towns). I disagree. The centre of Waterford is far more attractive without cars and is a living, breathing city.
Irish annals write that foreigners led by Sihtric of Norway arrived in Waterford around 853. Coming initially as raiders, Vikings set up winter camps (longphorts) some which grew to become the most important cities of Ireland, including Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Waterford. Waterford’s name came from Vethrafjorthr (Old Norse Veðrafjörðr), where vethr means ram (wether) and fjorthr means river: Waterford means ‘ram-river’. Waterford was settled in 914, and Vikings traded with farmers and allied themselves with powerful local kings. They chose a ridge of high ground between the Suir and St John’s River (which then flowed where the Mall is now) with a wooden Viking fort in the location now occupied by Reginald’s Tower. Today’s ‘Viking Triangle’ preserves the original shape of the city. Reginald is an anglicised form of Raghnall, itself a Gaelicised form of the Old Norse name Røgnvaldr. It refers to one of many Ragnalls who ruled over the city, possibly Ragnall ua Ímair. Ragnall was King of Northumbria who arrived in Waterford in 917. He left Waterford a year later and died soon afterward.
When the Anglo-Normans invaded Ireland they recognised the usefulness of the Viking settlements and expanded them further into great strongholds. They burnt down the Viking fort on conquering the city. In its place they built Reginald’s Tower in the 12th century when it was known as Dundory Tower (Irish for ‘Fort of the Oak’). It has been repaired and built upwards many times since. Henry II visited as the first English monarch in Ireland in 1171 and King John established a mint here in the 13th century. High up on the walls is a cannonball lodged in 1650 by Cromwell’s besieging army in the last major attack on Waterford until the Irish Civil war in the 20th century.
The 23-metre-long dragon slayer sword had just been installed behind the Tower on Bailey’s New Street last time I visited in 2017 and a new glass information panel explains what the carvings mean. Wood sculptor John Hayes built the world’s longest Viking sword, situated next to the 13th century French Church and the more modern virtual reality 3D-inspired King of the Vikings experience (which is worth a 30 minute mind-bending visit). The first Viking raid on Irish monasteries is recorded in 795 and they were in the Waterford region, likely Woodstown, within a century.
Originally the Mall was the path of John’s River, now further downstream, before the stream was dammed up in the 18th century. There are now many fine Georgian buildings on the street and the finest houses both City Hall and the Theatre Royal. One of many Waterford buildings designed by John Roberts (1712 – 1796) it was built in 1783 incorporating the 12th century town wall to the rear. It was renovated in 1876 and 1996 and extended in 1998. The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage calls it an imposing classical building of national importance: “Very well maintained, the complex retains most of its original form and character, and the survival of the theatre is especially of importance, comprising one of the very few surviving eighteenth-century theatres in Ireland, although its present appearance dates to late nineteenth-century remodelling.”
Next door is the Bishop’s Palace. Built on the site of previous palaces, it was commissioned by Bishop Charles Este in 1743 to the design of Richard Cassel until Cassel left to build Leinster House. Este turned to the dependable Roberts to complete the work. Roberts was nicknamed “Honest John” because he paid his workers reliably, sometimes giving half their pay directly to their wives so that it would not be wasted on alcohol. His and Cassel’s Palace is a fine Palladian building faced in Leinster limestone. The Anglican bishops of Waterford lived here from 1743 to 1919, then it became the Bishop Foy boarding school. Waterford Corporation acquired it in 1967 and used it for offices until 2010. It opened as a museum in June 2011, displaying Georgian and Victorian Waterford treasures.
Behind the Bishop’s Palace is the magnificent neo-classical Christ Church Cathedral, Waterford’s Church of Ireland cathedral. Another John Roberts masterpiece it was built in 1779 as the third church on the site, replacing a 1210 Romanesque cathedral built by King John. The new church hosts artifacts of the old one including a 16th century warrior’s tomb and the tomb of former Waterford mayor James Rice c1482. It is one of the finest cadaver tombs in Ireland and its inscription begs people to lead a good life. “Here lies James Rice, one time citizen of this city….who ever you may be, passer-by, stop, weep and read. I am what you are going to be and I was what you are.”
The French Church is the former Franciscan friary in Waterford, founded in 1241 by Hugh Purcell, grandson of a knight in the Norman invasion of Ireland. Originally called Grey Friars for the Franciscans’ nickname, it became a hospital for the poor during the Reformation in 1541. It acquired its present name when French Huguenots converted the choir for protestant worship. In 1685, King Louis XlV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes peace settlement between Catholics and Protestants. Some French Protestants fled to Ireland and Waterford Corporation passed a resolution in 1673 to provide habitation for 50 families “to start a linen industry” and they used the church until 1815. The Franciscans moved to the nearby Friary in 1830 which they held until 2019 before passing it to a community of nuns.
In Waterford’s early days, Chairman’s Arch was part of the main roadway connecting Reginald’s Tower to the town gate at Peter St. In 1468 Dean John Collyn of Christ Church referred to the Arch as “the king’s highway which leads to the house of Friars Minor”. Collyn built an almshouse on the south side of the lane and its rear wall still forms the southern boundary of the lane. This used to be the main entrance to Cathedral Square until a cemetery was removed in the 18th century.
Though John Roberts was Protestant, he was the obvious choice when Dean Thomas Hearn was looking for an architect to build a new Catholic cathedral in 1792. Then in his seventies, Honest John was busier than ever. In his last years he built the former Infirmary, the Chamber of Commerce premises (originally a house for the Morris family) and this, Waterford’s second cathedral. The first to be erected for Roman Catholics in Ireland since the penal laws, Holy Trinity Cathedral was begun in 1792 after the corporation provided land on Barronstrand Street. Its broad front is decorated with Ionic pilasters beneath a pedimented roofline flanked by balustrades. While working on the project, Roberts died in 1796 at the age of 84.
The excellent Waterford Medieval Museum is the only purpose built museum specialising in medieval history in Ireland. The building opened in 2013 and incorporates two medieval chambers, the 13th century Choristers’ Hall and the 15th century Mayor’s Wine Vault. It also contains the Great Charter Roll of Waterford, designed by Waterford authorities to impress then monarch King Edward III and ensure the city successfully kept its monopoly on the Irish wine trade ahead of rival port New Ross.
A Spanish spy in 1574 reported Waterford was surrounded by stone walls a mile in circumference with 17 towers “and cannons on them to keep off the savages”. The savages are long gone but parts of the wall remain. There are six towers and long stretches of the wall still standing, the largest collection of old walls in Ireland. French Tower is at the top of Castle St and was a strategic spot for defence with its high view over nearby countryside. It’s possible that like the Church, it is named for Waterford French communities though they did not settle in Waterford until after 1690. The French, many of Huguenot origin, were also responsible for the blaa (a corruption of “blanc”), the soft, floury white bread roll beloved of Waterford people, myself included. In 2013 the blaa was awarded Protected Geographic Indication status by the European Commission giving producers protection against imitation.
Also on Castle St is the Double Tower, so named because of its two chambers. In the medieval period it gave access to the Benedictine church for the monks who had a monastery and substantial lands outside the walls. Cromwell attacked the tower in his siege of 1649 and it was half-filled with earth to help soften the impact of cannon fire.
Hidden away on the grounds of St Stephen’s national school on Patrick St is the Semi Lunar tower (the name from its half moon shape). This was a flanking tower and any attackers foolish enough to scale the walls could be shot by archers inside the protruding tower. But as the times became more peaceful, and the town became more wealthy, Waterford’s walls began to be removed in the 18th century. The medieval city was expanding and walls were moved in stages with houses built on their foundations. In 1710 Council books state that John Medlicott gained the right to build upon the wall near Reginald’s Tower while in 1727 Mayor Simon Vashon gained the right to pull down the South Wall within Patrick’s Gate to build a jail. Ballybricken jail was rebuilt in 1861 and was the site of a major disaster in 1943. Then unused, its walls collapsed in heavy rain onto nearby houses, killing nine people and injuring 17. The gaol was demolished in 1949.
Further up town on Barrack St is my old school, Mount Sion. I have mixed schoolday memories and do not miss the intimidating physical punishment handed out by the Christian Brothers and their lay teachers. But it is a historic place, the first school founded by Br Edmund Rice. A wealthy widower, in 1802 he set up a free school for boys in poverty. Rice died in 1844 at Mount Sion where his remains lie in a casket. In my day the casket was in a church at the front of the building but this was demolished to make way for the church at the left of this photo. The monastery was built in 1864 but has part of the original foundation of 1802.
Glass blowing has been associated with Waterford since the 18th century. Between 1780 and 1825 restrictions were lifted on Irish industry and glass was manufactured in Dublin, Belfast and Cork. In 1783 George Penrose and his nephew William began glass manufacture in Waterford employing fellow Quaker, and master glassmaker, John Hill, from Stourbridge, Worcestershire. Hill’s knowledge of glass, chemistry, standards and quality and sense of design quickly established the brilliance of the Waterford product. But by 1826, heavy British duties against crystal glass set back the industry. Despite renown Waterford’s factory shut down in 1851. One hundred years later, WW2 refugee glass cutters and artisans were enticed to Waterford to re-found a crystal factory. The first general manager was Czech immigrant Karel (Charles) Bacik and the chief designer was Slovak Miroslav Havel. The plant employed 100 people and grew rapidly, quickly reclaiming pride of place as Ireland’s foremost glassware company. Waterford Crystal was the great success of post-war Waterford industry and became a world-class brand. Sadly the factory closed in 2009 and although Waterford Crystal still has a local display room, most is now made in Bacik and Havel’s homelands. A few artisan makers such as the Irish Handmade Glass company run by former Crystal workers also work in public from a room in the Cathedral quarter.
A pleasing addition is the Irish Silver Museum, in the old Deanery building in Cathedral Square. Opened in 2021 it offers a journey through Irish history using the story of silver. Many items in the museum have been repatriated from overseas and show the richness and diversity in the craft of silver practiced in Ireland for over a millennium. Museum Director Eamonn McEneaney said silver has been a prized metal and a means of exchange since the Viking period. “Most of the objects in the museum feature the initials of their makers and the coat of arms of their owners which allows each beautifully crafted piece to tell its own story, giving us a remarkable window into the past,” he said. Highlights include the Waterford kite brooch, a sword Edward IV granted to the city, and silver belonging to Dean Jonathan Swift.
Another great new museum in the same quarter is the Irish Museum of Time inside a refurbished gothic-style church. Also opened in 2021, it is the only museum of its kind in Ireland and contains the oldest Irish-made grandfather clocks, table clocks and watches. The product of two Dublin collectors, it features still functioning 300-year-old clocks. Be there on the hour when all the working clocks chime in unison.
This cannon is one of two Crimean war cannons in the People’s Park. Growing up, I was fascinated by the legend on their plaque “Captured 1855 at Sevastopol”. The 11-month Siege of Sevastopol (1854-55) was the final episode of the Crimean War, where British and French Allies defeated the Tsar’s forces. There was a craze for captured materiel and the British war office sent cannons seized at Sevastopol to many towns in the United Kingdom and Europe. In 1857 the mayor of Waterford requested Crimean war “trophies” for the city’s newly opened People’s Park. The war office sent two two-ton cannons. Originals like Waterford’s are now rare. Many cannons sent to British towns were melted down during the Second World War to help that war’s effort and were replaced by replicas.
This building in Ballybricken was the pig buyers headquarters. One historian called Ballybricken hill the “Montmartre of the abattoir world”. In 1900 the Waterford pig market supplied over half of London’s pork and cured bacon. Waterford pork producer Denny’s exported across the world, even supplying the US Army in the Second World War. However the industry faced crisis in 1892 thanks to fierce competition from Denmark. At the time the industry was controlled by the pig buyers association, who had massive influence over Waterford’s economy. Bacon factories decided to cut costs by bypassing the pig buyers and buying direct from farmers. The buyers called on farmers to boycott the factories and a blockade led to violence and intimidation, with rumours the pig buyers planned to blow up a bacon factory. Local MP and lawyer John Redmond successfully defended many of the pig buyers in court. The buyers eventually won their right to act as middle men and gratefully became Redmond’s staunchest supporters. It explains why Waterford stayed Redmondite in 1918 when the rest of Ireland voted for Sinn Fein.
Waterford was settled because of its river access and was always a port city. King John approved the first city charter in 1215 granting “the great Port of Waterford” to its citizens. As the centre of the Three Sisters river basin and closest Irish port to Europe, it was site of flourishing maritime trade. Waterford’s merchants wine imported on a large scale from the 13th century while exports included local leather, wheat, flour, butter and other agricultural produce. In 1600 Waterford port was second only to Dublin, though these days Cork, Rosslare Harbour and Foynes are also bigger. The port remained in the city centre until 1992 when moved downstream to Belview on the north bank of the Suir. Now the only mementos of the old port are a pair of cranes, this one south of the river, the other at North Wharf. The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage calls the crane an imposing structure of considerable technical and engineering significance: “The crane forms an almost-sculptural piece on the quays, and is an attractive feature of the townscape.”.
One lovely morning I joined my brother-in-law in a run up Minaun Hill, the highest point in the region with a commanding view past the new port to where the Suir and Barrow rivers meet at Cheekpoint. According to local sage Andrew Doherty there is debate over the meaning of Minaun. It could mean “mountain meadow by a river” or perhaps “hill of the kids” (where kids likely mean feral goats who lived on the hill). “The mountain meadow” might refer to the Parcín (little park) where gaelic games were played and is now a private home. However, said Doherty, “given that the Parcín was below the summit and not as obvious a geographical feature as the pudding stone on top, it seems a fanciful speculation.” What is certain is the glorious views down to the rail bridge over the Barrow linking Kilkenny and Wexford counties.
We ran down to Cheekpoint village at the meeting place of the rivers. Opposite is the 140m-tall Scottish-owned Great Island Power Station. Commissioned in 1967 as an oil-fired station, it was converted to gas in 2015 and its 460 megawatts power half a million homes. People have lived and fished in the Cheekpoint (Irish: “Pointe na Síge” point of the fairies) for a thousand years. The quay was the terminal for the mail packet to Wales and in the 18th century there was a limekiln to make lime to wash cottages and for fertiliser to “sweeten” the land. The Cheekpoint salmon and eel fisheries are now closed in part due to the power station as Andrew Doherty again explains. “That the deep water jetty which would be planted smack bang in the center of some of the best local salmon drift netting waters was the principal concern and fishermen were anxious to communicate the loss that this would bring. They got what any of us would have hoped they would, the promise of jobs in the construction phase, and maybe a job thereafter.”
Downstream of Cheekpoint are Moran’s Poles, a breakwater and resting place for vessels. Again Doherty’s Tides and Tales has their story. “As a child it was a working space, an area where the fishermen hauled out their punts and prongs to dry them out over winter and make repairs and paint them up,” he wrote. “It was also a safe anchorage except in easterly wind, and the strongest of SW winds”. Doherty said the Poles are below the house where his mother, Mary Moran, was born. “The name derives from her family and my grandmother said her father and brothers built the poles as a breakwater.”
Past the Poles lie the wide expanse of Waterford Harbour. Passage East, at the lowest point of the Waterford side (right) is where car ferries have plied across the river to Ballyhack, Co Wexford since 1984. Older ferries also crossed here before Waterford’s first bridge was built in 1793. Nearby is New Geneva Barracks a proposed site of Swiss traders that became a notorious prison after the 1798 rebellion.
A recent visit to my birth town of Waterford allowed me to reacquaint myself with the city Thomas Francis Meagher also grew up in. Born in 1823 he spent the first ten years of his life in Waterford before going to Clongowes Wood in Kildare and then Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. He returned to Waterford in 1843 though moved to Dublin to study law. He became engrossed in Irish Repeal politics and was a key figure in the split of the Young Irelanders and the subsequent revolution in 1848 for which he was transported to Van Diemen’s Land before escaping to America in 1852. After serving in the American civil war as a union general and then acting governor of Montana, he died in 1867 without ever seeing his homeland again. This bust of him is outside the house in the Mall where he first raised the green-white-orange tricolour in Ireland.
This photo of the Suir from the Waterford side of the river shows the abandoned Jury’s Hotel, in my day known as the Ardree Hotel (Ard Rí is Irish for High King). Out of sight to the left is Mount Misery, the cliffs overlooking the city which Meagher climbed as a boy. I also used to climb the same cliffs usually ascending through the back of Sallypark and then going down via the Golf Club and the road from the Ardree. The cliffs are now off limit with the access path gone since Sallypark was demolished while the gates are also firmly closed on the Ardree grounds. It’s still possible to access the hill via the Golf Club but that’s a significant walk from the city. Left of the hotel is Cromwell’s Rock in Ferrybank, another vantage point of Meagher’s childhood. The Rock got its name from Cromwell’s siege of Waterford in 1649. While outside the walls of Waterford he demanded the surrender of the city by means of a formal letter to the mayor and City Council, which he signed as “Your Loving friend, Oliver Cromwell”. Waterford survived the siege but Cromwell’s forces stormed the city a year later. In 1974 Stanley Kubrick used the upper floors of the Ardree to film scenes from movie Barry Lyndon.
I walked down the Quay past the handsome Granville Hotel. Next to the door is a plaque which reads “Thomas Francis Meagher: The illustrious ’48 patriot was born in this house on 3rd August 1823 ‘With my country I leave my memory’.” The plaque was erected on the centenary of the 1848 rebellion by the Waterford National Graves Association. The merchant Newport family built this as their family home in the 18th century and it was later the family home of the Quans. When the Meaghers came back to Waterford in 1818 they first lived at now abandoned Ballycanvan House near Faithlegg. By the 1820s they bought the Quan house on the quay and Thomas Meagher junior had married Alicia Quan. All their children, including Thomas Francis, were born in this house. They later rented out the house to Charles Bianconi as headquarters for his coach network and the building became the Cummins Hotel, named for Edward Cummins, Bianconi’s agent in Waterford.
A blue plaque further down the quay notes the spot where thousands sailed annually between 1670 and 1810 to work on the great fisheries of Newfoundland. Migrants in the 1780s likely included Thomas Meagher the Co Tipperary-born grandfather of Thomas Francis Meagher. He settled in St John’s where he became a tailor. He did well after he married a wealthy widow of the man who apprenticed him. Meagher consolidated his wealth in shipping goods to Waterford and as that side of his business grew, he moved to Waterford in 1818, bringing his family over within two years.
Until 1793 Waterford citizens had to pay a ferryman to cross the river. In that year, celebrated as when Irish Catholic men got the vote, a new bridge went up. The builder was Bostonian Lemuel Cox, known in Ireland as the builder of Derry’s bridge in 1792. Built by private subscription, the timber structure known as Old Timbertoes was a toll bridge. It was a controversial toll though Meagher could well afford the ha’penny pedestrian fare to cross it to climb Mount Misery. Despite decades of complaints it remained a toll bridge until 1907. In 1852 a Free Bridge Bill presented to the British House of Commons was thrown out due to a technical error. Waterford Council settled on reducing the tolls in December 1852. The cost to “For every Coach, Breslin, Calash, Chariot, Chaise, or Chair Drawn by 6 or more horses Or other beasts of burden” came down from three to two shillings though the pedestrian toll stayed at a halfpenny for “every Passenger passing Over said Bridge except such persons as shall be Drawn in such Coach, Chariot, Breslin, Calash, Chaise or Chair and The driver or drivers thereof, And the footman or footmen, Stewart or servant thereof, Standing behind same.” OId Timbertoes was replaced by Redmond Bridge in 1911 which was free as was the Edmund Rice bridge that replaced it in 1984. The irony is the 21st century by-pass bridge named for Meagher is tolled, prompting similar complaints to his day.
In the Bishop’s Palace museum is a portrait of Meagher’s father Thomas Meagher (1796-1874). Born in Newfoundland where his father had made his money, Thomas Meagher took over the family business in Waterford in the 1820s. He was first Catholic mayor of Waterford (1843-44) in 150 years and is wearing the mayoral robes in this portrait. He was elected MP for Waterford in 1847 on a O’Connellite Repeal platform, serving for 10 years. Although he did not agree with his son’s revolutionary activities, he supported him financially in Ireland and Tasmania after the revolution. He also brought up Thomas Francis’s son Thomas Bennett Meagher, who never met his father. Meagher retired to Bray and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery
In 1867, Thomas Francis Meagher, then acting-governor of Montana, died after falling off a steamboat into the Missouri river and his body was never found. Meagher was honoured with an equestrian statue outside the new Montana Capitol building when it opened in Helena in 1905 though it took another century before his home town reciprocated. This statue by Catherine Greene sits on the Mall opposite Reginald’s Tower. It was formally opened to mark the May 15, 2004 meeting in Waterford of the Council of the (then) 25 member states of the EU.
There are two buildings on the Mall associated with Meagher, both close to his statue. The first is number 33, a late Georgian building which was the home of the Wolfe Tone Club where Meagher first raised the Irish tricolour flag. The blue plaque on the building says the flag was first hung there on March 7 but i initially thought date was too early. But it seems there was a prior version before his visit to France. The second flag was a gift from a Frenchwomen’s committee during Meagher and Smith O’Brien’s visit to France in late March after its revolution in a failed attempt to get support for similar action in Ireland. When Meagher brought the flag to a meeting in Dublin, he told them, “the white in the centre signifies a lasting truce between the ‘Orange’ and the ‘Green’ and I trust that between its folds the hands of the Irish Protestant and the Irish Catholic may be clasped in generous and heroic brotherhood”. His friend John Mitchel was reported to have said, “I hope to see that flag one day waving as our national banner.” There is an irony given Meagher’s many problems battling alcohol addiction that the ground floor of the building is now the home of a spirit importer.
Further west is number 19 the Mall, known as Derrynane House. This was the home of Meagher’s father in 1848 and the house is named for the Kerry house of Meagher senior’s hero Daniel O’Connell. The blue plaque said it was in this house that Thomas Francis Meagher “young Ireland orator and American civil war hero was arrested 12 July 1848”. This plaque is slightly incorrect. Meagher was arrested the day before, his second of three arrests. The first was in Dublin in March for sedition after which he was freed on bail and later found not guilty. The second was also for sedition for a speech he gave in Rathkeale, Co, Limerick. Upon his arrest, hundreds gathered to protest. Meagher had to restrain his supporters who barricade the bridge to rescue him. He was released again on bail. His third and final arrest came after the revolution when he gave himself up in Co Tipperary and was charged with treason. This time there was no bail. He was found guilty and sentenced to death, commuted to transportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land.
In the Bishop’s Palace across the road there is a room dedicated to Thomas Francis Meagher including this portrait of him as a US brigadier-general in the Civil War. There are also personal artefacts donated by his widow Elizabeth Meagher including an ornate staff officer’s sword, one of his dress uniforms and his school clarinet.
Perhaps the most poignant artifact is a sample of the sprig of boxwood his Irish Brigade soldiers wore into battle at Fredericksburg in December 1862. Most of the Brigade’s flags were torn to pieces at the earlier battle of Antietam and Brigadier-General Meagher wanted to make sure they were identified as Irish after the battle. Fredericksburg was a brutal disaster for the Union as wave after wave of its troops were repulsed on the well defended Marye’s Heights. The Irish Brigade suffered enormous losses with boxwood sprinkled across the bloody battlefield. The Fredericksburg losses were a key factor in Meagher resigning his commission in 1863.
The items also include Meagher’s “Kearny Cross” awarded by Major General Philip Kearny’s officers to Union officers who had performed acts of extreme bravery and heroism in the face of the enemy. Meagher was presented the medal in 1863 in New York after his resignation. The cross had the inscription – “To General Meagher, Kearny’s friend and comrade,”. Another medal presented by the Brigade is now in the Museum of Arts, New York, also donated by Meagher’s wife.
Slievenamon (the mountain of women in Irish) is in county Tipperary, about an hour away from Waterford. It was the site of Thomas Francis Meagher’s monster meeting in July 1848 as he tried to launch a revolution after his second arrest. Some 50,000 people climbed the hill, Meagher at their head, wearing his tricolour sash and gold-braided green cap. Never having climbed it before, I took the 3km walk to the summit from the carpark in his honour, though minus the sash and cap. My day was cloudy and I was completed misted over by the time I reached the top.
A few kilometres out of Waterford on the road to Cheekpoint is Faithlegg church and graveyard. The cemetery hosts the family plot of Thomas Francis Meagher, though as his body was never found, he has no formal burial plot. Those interred here include Meagher’s first wife Catherine, the daughter of a Van Diemen’s Land Irish convict. She died in Waterford aged 22 after giving birth to Meagher’s second son. Meagher’s mother Alicia is also buried here. She died in 1827 aged 28 when Meagher was just four years old. Meagher’s siblings Thomas, Mary and Alicia, his grandfather Thomas, and his brother Henry are also buried in the plot.
I also drove up to Clane, Co Kildare to visit Clongowes Wood College. I was due to meet the school archivist but she had to cancel at the last minute. Meagher got the best Jesuit education money could buy. Regarding Trinity College as anti-Irish and anti-Catholic, his father sent him to Clongowes from 1833-1839. Clongowes was a rambling old estate purchased by the Jesuits in 1814. Meagher complained that Clongowes gave students a classical education about everything except Ireland. “They talked to us about Mount Olympus and the Vale of Tempe; they birched us into a flippant acquaintance with the disreputable Gods and Goddesses of the golden heroic ages; they entangled us in Euclid; turned our brain with the terrestrial globe; chilled our blood in dizzy excursions through the Milky Way…pitched us precipitately into England, amongst the impetuous Normans and stupid Saxons; gave us a look though an interminable telescope, at what was doing in the New World; but as far as Ireland was concerned, they left us like blind and crippled children, in the dark.” However it was in Clongowes’ library where Meagher found a dusty book of O’Connell speeches which electrified him and led him eventually down the path to revolution.
A day later I went to the Famine Warhouse site of the ill-fated 1848 rebellion in Tipperary. Meagher and the other leaders tried and failed to raise the population of Kilkenny, Waterford and Carrick-on-Suir leaving a meaningless last stand at Ballingarry, led by William Smith O’Brien. Meagher was in the area the night before for a leaders’ council of war but had set off back south when the “cabbage patch rebellion” took place. Meagher spent weeks hiding in the hills of north Tipperary before giving himself up.
This is the only photo I took of the Thomas Francis Meagher bridge, a long distance shot taken from the new walkway along the river near Ardkeen. The bridge is the white construction in the middle of this image, a few kilometres upstream of Waterford city. When this cable-stayed bridge opened in 2009 it was the first time Waterford had a second road bridge and it was the largest in Ireland until the New Ross bridge over the Barrow opened a couple of years ago. When Irish president Michael D. Higgins officially opened the Waterford bridge he said why Meagher should be remembered. “Few Irish patriots have appealed so warmly to the popular imagination in their own time as has Thomas Francis Meagher in the mid-19th century. Eloquent, generous, passionate, courageous and handsome; in turn orator, journalist, lawyer, revolutionary, convict, soldier in the American civil war and Acting Governor of Montana – there is a picturesque, almost literary, quality to Meagher’s personality and life, which continues to capture our imagination.”
In my whistle-stop trip to Ireland, I had an overnighter in Dublin with the dual aim of catching up with friends and researching Thomas Francis Meagher. There was also a side trip to Glasnevin cemetery to visit the grave of Meagher’s father and other luminaries. I took the early train from Waterford and walked into town along the Liffey. I soon passed St James’s Gate, the spiritual home of Guinness. Originally leased in 1759 to Arthur Guinness at £45 a year for 9000 years, St. James’s Gate has housed his eponymous stout ever since. It remains one of the largest breweries in the world with an annual output of 1.2 million barrels. The 9000-year lease is no longer valid as the company (now multinational brewer Diageo) purchased the lands outright.
The last time I came through Dublin in late 2017, the Four Courts building was obscured by scaffolding for a four-year restoration project after a steel ring encircling the concrete dome rusted into the capital. That project is now complete and the building looks immaculate. James Gandon built the home of the Irish legal system (housing the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, the High Court and the Dublin Circuit Court) from 1786-1802. It was destroyed by fire in the Civil War in 1922 losing a thousand years of public records. The dome was rebuilt in the late 1920s. Though it houses four courts, it used to hold a fifth court until 2010 (the Central Criminal Court). The building was named for four earlier superior courts: Chancery, King’s Bench, Exchequer and Common Pleas.
Further down the Quays towards the city, Christ Church Cathedral peers out from behind anonymous modern council buildings. As well as obscuring the view, the council buildings were built on the site of historic Wood Quay, which was the core of Dublin’s original Viking settlement and a major archaeological site. Protesters occupied the site until thrown out by a court decision in 1979. Excavations ceased two year’s later. The cathedral was founded in the early 11th century under Viking king Sitric Silkenbeard, rebuilt in stone in the late 12th century under Norman lord Strongbow, and enlarged in the early 13th century, using Somerset stones and craftsmen. It partially collapsed in the 16th century and was extensively renovated and rebuilt in the late 19th century.
City Hall on Dame Street is a grand 18th century building. Originally called the Royal Exchange as a stock exchange and meeting place, it was built by English architect Thomas Cooley who won a design competition in 1768. In 1852 Dublin Corporation bought the building and converted it to council headquarters, renaming it City Hall. Dame St has nothing to do with women but takes its corrupted name from a dam built across the River Poddle to provide water power for milling.
Behind City Hall is Dublin Castle. Constructed in the early 13th century on the site of a Viking settlement, Dublin Castle served for centuries as the headquarters of English rule in Ireland. King John built it as a medieval fortress with four corner towers linked by high curtain walls, built around a large central enclosure. Following an 1864 fire, a rebuilding campaign transformed the Castle from a medieval bastion into a Georgian palace. The new building included grand reception rooms, the State Apartments. These palatial spaces became the home of the monarch’s Irish representative, the viceroy of Ireland and the Castle was also the ceremonial and administrative centre. The last viceroy handed over the castle to the new Irish Free State in 1922 and the building is now a government complex, conference centre, and tourist attraction.
In College Green is perhaps my favourite Dublin building, the Bank of Ireland headquarters and formerly the old Irish parliament house. In 1727 parliament voted to spend £6000 on a new building on the site of Chichester House, to be the world’s first purpose-built two-chamber parliament building designed by MP and architect, Edward Lovett Pearce. Poynings’ Law demanded the Irish parliament require approval for bills from the British Privy Council, a subordination that caused Ireland to stagnate economically. In 1782, Patriot movement agitation forced Britain to increase the parliament’s authority leading to a brief period of Irish autonomy and prosperity. It was ended by the 1798 rebellion after which prime minister Pitt the Younger forced through the 1801 Act of Union. In 1803 the new Bank of Ireland bought the building from the British Government for £40,000 and broke the lower house chamber into small offices. The House of Lords chamber survives and is open to the public.
Across the road from parliament house is Trinity College Dublin, Ireland’s oldest university. Queen Elizabeth I founded Trinity in 1592 as “the mother of a university” modelled on the collegiate universities of Oxford and Cambridge, but in Dublin only one college was ever established. Its library is a legal deposit for Ireland and Britain with seven million printed volumes and manuscripts, including the Book of Kells. After the penal laws ended in 1793 Catholics were allowed to apply for admission. However Catholic bishops prohibited their flock from attending in 1871, a ban that lasted a century.
The Mansion House on Dawson Street has been the official residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin since 1715. It was also the meeting place of the first Dáil Éireann from 1919 until 1922. Dawson St is named for merchant and property developer Joshua Dawson who built it as his townhouse in 1705. Still unfinished, Dublin Corporation bought it ten years later. Its famous Round Room was built a century later and housed the first Dáil while the Anglo-Irish Treaty was ratified here two years later. It remains a popular Dublin venue.
My destination on the first day was the reading room at Academy House, home of the Royal Irish Academy on Dawson St. Another remnant of the old Irish parliament’s brief heyday, the Academy was established in 1785. Granted a royal charter a year later it is an academic body that promotes study in science, humanities and social sciences. It used to house the main national collection of Irish antiquities including the Cross of Cong (see below). Built in 1750, Academy House has fine decorative plasterwork and a meeting room designed in 1854, two years after the RIA moved there from Grafton St.
On Kildare St is Leinster House, the seat of the Oireachtas, the current parliament of Ireland. Leinster House was built as Kildare House, the Dublin home of the Earl of Kildare in 1745–48. When the Earl became the first Duke of Leinster in 1766, the residence was renamed Leinster House. Irish architect James Hoban used the first and second floors as the floor model for the White House while the house itself was a model for the original stone-cut White House exterior. The third Duke of Leinster sold Leinster House in 1815 to the Royal Dublin Society. After the 1921 Treaty the new administration hired the RDS Lecture Theatre attached to Leinster House as a temporary Dáil chamber while they searched for a permanent home. In 1924 plans to adapt the Kilmainham Royal Hospital were dropped due to costs, and the government bought out Leinster House. The Oireachtas has remained permanently here since.
Next door to Leinster House is the National Museum of Ireland. Among its treasures is the Cross of Cong, one of finest examples in Western Europe of metalwork and decorative art of the 12th century. The cross was made to enshrine a supposed portion of the True Cross sent from Roma in 1122 to High King of Ireland, Toirrdelbach Ua Conchobair. An inscription records the names of the Ua Conchobair, two high-ranking priests and the craftsmen who made it. The cross is made of oak covered with plain sheets of bronze. The now missing relic was behind the rock crystal at the centre of the cross arms. The cross was made in Co Roscommon and ended up at Cong Abbey in Co Galway before being hidden by locals during the penal era and was housed by the RIA before ending up at the National Museum.
Afterwards I walked down the southside’s premier shopping street, Grafton St. The street was developed from a laneway in the early 1700s, shaped by the now-culverted River Steyne. The street was named for Charles FitzRoy, 2nd Duke of Grafton, an important supporter of George I, who owned land in the area. Initially the street held a mix of residential and commercial properties but after Carlisle Bridge (now O’Connell Bridge) was built in 1758, it became an important north-south thoroughfare and increasingly commercial only. By the 1960s, Grafton St was congested with cars and buses. Pedestrianisation was trialled in 1971 and made permanent in 1982. In 2017 The Irish Times called it the 15th most expensive street in Europe.
This 1966 Edward Delaney bronze statue of Young Irelander Thomas Davis is in the centre of College Green facing Trinity College. Davis was one of the three founders of the influential The Nation newspaper. Davis was a Protestant lawyer from Mallow Co Cork, educated at Trinity. He enrolled in O’Connell’s Repeal Association in 1841 and collaborated with Gavan Duffy and Dillon to produce the Nation to great excitement a year later. Its nationalism embraced all creeds and Davis’s Letters of a Protestant on Repeal stressed the need for Protestant support, something that gradually alienated O’Connell. The Young Irelanders lost faith in O’Connell after prime minister Peel cancelled his Clontarf “monster meeting” in 1843. In the year that followed Davis and O’Connell clashed over a proposed bill to introduce ecumenical colleges which he supported but O’Connell found “godless”. Working hard on the paper and in the Repeal Association, Davis became ill with scarlatina in September 1845 and died within a week, aged just 30. Young Ireland drifted further apart from O’Connell after Davis’s death, leading to the ill-fated rebellion in 1848.
The man that took on Davis’s mantle as Young Ireland leader is remembered on another statue, this one on O’Connell St. Hidden behind O’Connell himself is William Smith O’Brien who led the 1848 rebellion. Like Davis, Smith O’Brien was a Protestant, and from one of the wealthiest families in Ireland. He had been an MP for a rotten borough 1829-31 and then represented Limerick County from 1835. He joined the Repeal movement after O’Connell’s arrest in 1844 and his standing quickly made him a leader of the movement. In the House of Commons he refused to work on committees unrelated to Ireland and was imprisoned in the Tower. As the Famine took hold, he and fellow Irish Confederates became more desperate for change. Eventually the British suspended Habeas Corpus and Smith O’Brien and the rest disappeared into the country in a vain bid to foment rebellion. After Ballingarry he was sentenced to death with Thomas Francis Meagher and had his sentenced commuted to transportation. In Van Diemen’s Land he was an important voice in the struggle to end transportation. Though released in 1854 and pardoned in 1856 he never returned to Irish politics and died in Wales in 1864.
Further up O’Connell St is Clery’s department store. The business dates from 1853 when Mac Swiney, Delany and Co. opened ‘The New or Palatial Mart’. In 1883 the premises was taken over and renamed by M. J. Clery. Situated opposite the GPO, the original building was destroyed in the 1916 Easter Rising. The current building dates from 1922. Meeting “under Clery’s clock” was the most famous rendezvous for many generations of Dubliners. Clery’s went into receivership in 2012 and closed in 2015, The building is being redeveloped into a mixed-use offices, retail and leisure called Clery’s Quarter.
The General Post Office across the road was the most famous battleground of the Easter Rising. Built a century earlier in 1814, the Greek hexastyle porticos were completed by 1818 and the post office opened the same year. On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, Patrick Pearse read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic to bemused passers-by outside the GPO. Only the granite facade survived the bombing that followed. The GPO was rebuilt in 1929 and a visitor’s centre (now GPO Museum) is adjacent to the still-working post office.
North of O’Connell St is a little oasis of calm, the garden of remembrance. The garden is dedicated to the memory of “all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish Freedom” and was opened by president Eamon de Valera on the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966. Centre of the sunken cruciform water-feature is a statue of the Children of Lir by Oisín Kelly, symbolising rebirth and resurrection, added in 1971. It remains a popular lunchtime spot on the inner northside.
The following morning my researches took me to the National Library of Ireland next door to Leinster House on Kildare St. Architect Thomas Newenham Deane and son designed the building in the 1880s for the National Library of Ireland which was established by the Dublin Science and Art Museum Act 1877. However the East Wing, as planned by the architect, was not completed until 1925-26. The Library was transferred to the Department of Education until 1986 when moved to the Department of An Taoiseach. The Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht (now Arts, Sport and Tourism) was established in 1992, and has assumed responsibility for the Library ever since.
That afternoon I walked to Heuston Station for my train back to Waterford. Running early I called in at the National Museum of Ireland in Collins Barracks, Arbour Hill. The barracks is the second oldest public building in Dublin after the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, built from 1701 by Surveyor General under Queen Anne, Thomas de Burgh. Completed in 1704, it housed the military for 290 years before being taken over by the National Museum of Ireland in 1994. In British days it was called the Royal Barracks holding up to 1500 soldiers. It was handed over to the Free State in 1922 and immediately renamed for the recently assassinated Irish leader Michael Collins.
In an Collins Barracks annex is the Asgard, a 15m gaff-rigged yacht built in 1904. The Asgard was owned by the English-born writer and Irish nationalist Erskine Childers and wife Molly. The couple used the yacht in the Howth gun-running of 1914. With a small crew they filled the hold with 1500 rifles from Germany to arm the Irish Volunteers in response to the Ulster Volunteers arming by the Larne gun-running three months earlier. Though antiquated, the guns were used in the Easter Rising in 2016. Erskine Childers was executed as a Republican in the civil war and Molly sold the ship in 1928. It ended up in a Cornwall dry dock until 1968. The Irish government purchased the yacht for use as a sail training vessel for young people conducting sail training cruises until 1974. Restored in 2007 it has been on permanent display since 2012.
My knowledge of Belfast is scant, limited previously to a day trip in the 1980s and a few times passing through on my way to other places. So when my brother-in-law was heading up for a couple of days to take in a gig, I heartily took his invite to come along. We arrived on the day of the Stormont elections and I assumed the crowd gathering at the building opposite our hotel was election-related. I was wrong. This is the Presbyterian Assembly Buildings and ministers from across the island of Ireland were meeting that week in assembly. Designed in the architectural style of a Scottish baronial castle, the gothic structure boasts a 40m high clock tower and a bell tower housing Belfast’s only peal of 12 bells, which chime hymns and carols on the hour. The building was officially opened by The Duke of Argyll, brother-in-law of King Edward VII in 1905 General Assembly Week.
Down the road is a more famous Belfast hotel, the Europa. It’s ironic there is a vehicle marked “fire” parked in front as the Europa has seen its fair share of fire this past half century. Built on the site of the Great Northern Railway in 1966 in a brief time of optimism before the Troubles, the 12-storey building was then Belfast’s tallest. When the conflict broke out, it was an obvious target. It was first bombed in August 1971 five days before its official opening which went ahead anyway. Over the years it became “the most bombed hotel in Europe” and hosted more journalists than tourists. The Europa was bombed over 30 times in total but was never destroyed and only closed its doors twice briefly. The four-star hotel is still going strong despite COVID and celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2021. It remains fondly loved by locals and a large clientele including Bill Clinton.
A two minute walk away from the Europa, and beloved of thirsty journalists, is Belfast’s most famous pub, the Crown Liquor Saloon. This magnificent ornate pub was opened in 1826 by Felix O’Hanlon to service the Lisburn stagecoach. It was renamed the Railway Tavern when the nearby Belfast – Lisburn rail line opened in 1839. In the 1850s, O’Hanlon sold the bar to the Flanagan family. In 1885, architecture student Patrick Flanagan returned home after travels impressed by the coffee houses and beer-halls of Europe. He hired Italian craftsmen to do the tiling, glasswork and rich ornamental woodwork. When the sun beams through the decorative windows, the pub seems more like a baroque church. There are ten elaborately carved wooden snugs, lettered A-J, guarded by heraldic lions or gryffons. The snugs feature black upholstered seats, nickel plates for striking matches, and an antique push-bell system to contact staff.
Also nearby is Belfast’s Grand Opera House. Built in 1895 at the height of Belfast’s power as Britain’s premier shipbuilding city, it had several name changes before settling on the Grand Opera House in 1909. On January 13, 1944 the US Army presented Irving Berlin’s ‘This is The Army’ at the Opera House, watched by General Dwight Eisenhower, who was awarded the Freedom of the City of Belfast. A few months later Eisenhower led his army into France on D-Day. The Opera House, like the Crown bar, suffered collateral damage when the Europa was bombed but kept its doors open. It underwent a major restoration in 2020 for its 125th anniversary.
Another five minutes away is Donegall Square, home of Belfast’s ornate city hall. Belfast thrived in the 18th century as a merchant town, importing goods from Britain and exporting linen products in return. In 1784 plans were drawn up for the White Linen Hall along with new streets, Donegall Square and Donegall Place. In the 19th century, Belfast became Ireland’s pre-eminent industrial city with industries in linen, heavy engineering, tobacco and shipbuilding dominating trade. When Belfast achieved city status in 1888, the old White Linen Hall was not considered imposing enough. This magnificent Edwardian wedding cake building costing £360,000 replaced the old structure. The Dome is 53 metres high and above the door is the figure of Hibernia encouraging and promoting the commerce and arts of the city.
A 10 minute walk from city hall is Belfast’s “flat iron” pub Bittles Bar. Founded in 1868 the bar was originally called the Shakespeare reflecting its theatrical clientele. Bright oils of Irish literary luminaries including Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett drape the walls, all painted by a customer now in his 80s, and a cluster of local murals evoke the contested history of Northern Ireland. Bittles was firebombed during the Troubles and also suffered damage due to its proximity to Belfast courts.
Another 500m away in the Cathedral Quarter is the Albert Memorial Clock. This handsome clock tower completed in 1869 is one of the best known landmarks of Belfast. In 1865, Ulster Hall designer WJ Barre won a competition for the design of a memorial to Queen Victoria’s late husband Prince Albert. Organisers secretly gave the contract to the second-placed entry but after public outcry Barre got the contract. The £2500 construction cost was raised by public subscription. The tower in French and Italian Gothic styles is 35m tall and a statue of Prince Albert is on the western side. A two-tonne bell is housed in the tower. Because it was built on marshy reclaimed land, the top of the tower leans 1.2m off the perpendicular giving rise to the expression the tower “has the time and the inclination.”
Nearby was our destination that first evening, an open space near the clock tower where a marquee was set up for the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. Live on stage that evening was Scottish band Mogwai. Not entirely my cup of tea and I would have liked more than just the one vocal track, but I always enjoy live music, particularly grateful post COVID. These guys were LOUD.
The following morning we wandered down towards the river Lagan. First up is a giant sculpture called Bigfish, a printed ceramic mosaic sculpture by John Kindness. Commonly known as the “Salmon of Knowledge” the sculpture is based on a character from “The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn” which tells of a fish that eats hazelnuts which fell into the Well of Wisdom. After eating the nuts, the salmon gained all the knowledge in the world. The legend says the first person to eat the fish would then inherit all its knowledge. Bigfish was constructed in 1999 to celebrate the return of fish to the river. Each tile is decorated with texts or images that relate to Belfast’s history.
The reason salmon are returning is the Lagan Weir. Completed in 1994 for £14m, the weir controls the water level upstream and reduces mud flats at low tide. The weir is a series of massive steel barriers raised as the tide retreats to keep the river at an artificially constant level. The Lagan rises from the Slieve Croob mountain in County Down and meanders 86km north where it enters the sea at Belfast Lough. Abhainn an Lagáin is Irish for ‘river of the low-lying district’.
The three Belfast Buoys are landmarks with a new home on the Maritime Mile. The Commissioners of Irish Lights gave them to Belfast City Council in 1983. They were originally located in the Cathedral Gardens, known as ‘Buoy Park’. Regeneration around Ulster University meant they needed a new home. Maritime Belfast worked with Titanic Quarter Limited and Belfast City Council to bring the buoys to the Abercorn Basin. Buoys were recorded in Spain in 1295 (‘boyar’ means to float in Spanish) and first used around Ireland in the 1800s as shipping and trade boomed. The three 80-year-old Belfast buoys were used by mariners to find a safe channel to and from port. The red-can shaped buoy marked the left side of the channel, the black conical buoy the right side, and the red spherical striped buoy marked the junction in the channel, or middle ground. They weigh three tonnes and are made of thick steel plates riveted together. They are hollow, filled with air to allow them to float, and they were secured in place by mooring chains, attached to a cast iron sinker on the sea bed.
Behind the Maritime Mile on Queen’s Island are two giant Harland and Wolff gantry cranes, named for the biblical figures, Samson and Goliath. German engineering firm Krupp constructed the cranes, completing Goliath (pictured) in 1969 and Samson, in 1974. Goliath stands 96 metres tall, while Samson is taller at 106m. The last ship launched at the yard was a ferry in 2003 and since then the yard focused on design and structural engineering and ship repair. Harland and Wolff went bust in 2019, but the cranes were retained as part of the dry dock facility, scheduled as historic monuments in 1995.
As we walk closer to the Titanic museum, we pass the dry dock of SS Nomadic, tender to the Titanic. SS Nomadic was launched on April 25, 1911 in Belfast. She and running mate SS Traffic were built to transfer passengers and cargo from RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic. In 1912 SS Nomadic transported 274 passengers to the Titanic from Cherbourg including New York millionaire John Jacob Astor IV and new wife Madeleine. The French government used Nomadic as a minesweeper in the First World War and in 1940 she took part in the evacuation of Cherbourg. Nomadic was requisitioned by the Royal Navy and operated as an accommodation ship in Portsmouth. She returned to Cherbourg after the war for tendering duties before being retired in 1968. She was set for the scrap heap in 2005 before the Northern Irish government bought her at auction for the Titanic precinct. She is the only White Star Line vessel in existence today.
On to the magnificent Titanic museum. This huge space was opened in 2012, on the 100 year anniversary of the sinking. It is a monument to Belfast’s maritime heritage on the site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyard as well as celebrating where the RMS Titanic was built. The £77 million building is on Queen’s Island, an ambitious land reclaiming project undertaken by the forward-thinking Belfast Harbour Commissioners in the mid-19th century. It became Britain’s largest shipping yards though was derelict by the early 21st century. The building’s angular form imitates the shape of ships’ prows, with its main prow angled down the middle of the Titanic and Olympic slipways towards the river. It is 38m tall, the same height as Titanic’s hull.
HMS Titanic, the supposedly unsinkable flagship of the White Star went down in mid Atlantic on its maiden voyage at 2.20am on April 15, 1912, with the deaths of 1517 passengers and crew. It was the worst disaster at sea ever at the time and remains among the top peacetime sinking today behind the Filipino Dona Paz (1987) and the Senegalese La Joola (2002) disasters, neither of which have inspired Hollywood movies. Over 110 years later Titanic has lost none of its grip on the public imagination and the museum was packed with post-COVID visitors. It is a fantastic museum with many interactive exhibits and it captures the scale of ship and the great people of Belfast that built it. My one criticism is it did not address the sectarianism at the heart of the shipyard. In the 1920s, Catholic workers were expelled from the yards while the shipyard workers were the target of nationalist gunmen. The violence of the unionist retaliation was an exacerbating factor in the troubles of 1969.
On the walk back to town afterwards, I stuck my head inside St Anne’s, Belfast’s Protestant cathedral. The imposing church was built from 1899-1903 though a 40-metre stainless steel spire, the “Spire of Hope” was not installed until 2007. The base section of the spire is visible from the nave through a glass platform in the roof. Leader of the Unionist cause in the First World War, Sir Edward Carson, was buried here in 1935.
All that walking was making us thirsty and we called in at the Sunflower for a pint. Known as the Tavern during the Troubles, the distinctive green cage was added in the late 1980s as a security measure after a shooting at the pub. It is now the last of its kind in Belfast. There was uproar in 2013 when a government department wanted the pub to remove the cage as “an impediment on the road”. The owners who had “become very fond of it” successfully mounted a campaign to keep it and it remains an Instagram-worthy reminder of times past.
There were more reminders of times past when I took a walk up the Falls Road on the last morning of our visit. The Falls road is the heart of Catholic west Belfast and has many impressive murals such as this one in the Belfast Gaeltacht district. Éirí Amach na Cásca is Irish for the Easter Rising, the 1916 event which led to the War of Independence in 1919-21. The mural was painted for the 90th anniversary of the rising in 2006 and reproduces a 1941 Victor Brown stamp showing an armed volunteer outside the Dublin GPO. The Rising also led to the Government of Ireland Act 1920 which set up six-county Northern Ireland as a separate statelet apart from the rest of Ireland, something Belfast Catholics never accepted. The 1969 Troubles began when streets around the Falls Road were burnt out by armed ‘B’ Specials (Police Reserve) and loyalists in August 1969 murdering six Catholics and setting off a chain of events that led to 30 years of armed violence. These days the Falls Road is quieter but still portrays an air of defiance with graffiti such as “PSNI, British Army, MI5 not welcome here”. Though the Belfast hills are nearby, the Falls Road derives its name from the Irish túath na bhFál, an Irish kingdom meaning “territory of the enclosures”.
It being a Saturday morning, my destination was Falls Park, for my first parkrun outside of Australia. Situated just past Belfast cemetery, Falls Park was part of a 40 hectare reserve Belfast corporation bought in 1866, some of which was used for the cemetery. Falls Park was established in 1873 and was a great spot for a bracing run in the shadow of the hills to cast off the shackles of the previous night’s imbibing.
That left just enough time for breakfast afterwards before we had to leave town. We had to queue a while to get into this place, called Harlem. It was packed with a diverse crowd of tourists, hipsters, hen parties and families and the great food and ambience made it well worth the wait. Harlem is a symbol of 21st century Belfast: tasteful, vibrant, confident, forward looking and content in its own brilliance. Belfast is simply a great place to spend a while.
My two days in Dublin were busy, both catching up with friends and doing research in the National Library of Ireland and Royal Irish Academy. But I was determined to get outside too and walked the 3km from town to Glasnevin cemetery on the northside. The cemetery opened in 1832 and in the 1840s several towers, like this one below, held nightwatchmen who guarded the graveyard against “resurrectionists” who supplied the medical profession with corpses for anatomy students.
My immediate aim was to find the grave of Thomas Meagher MP (1796–1874), father of my research topic, Thomas Francis Meagher. Meagher senior was important in his own right as Waterford’s first Catholic mayor in 150 years and a staunch Pro-Repeal Westminster MP for 10 years between 1847-57. He was born in Newfoundland, and I had assumed he was buried in the family tomb at Faithlegg, Co Waterford. However in later years he retired to Bray and was buried at Glasnevin.
The cemetery archivist gave me his grave number “NC47” but admitted I wouldn’t find it without her help. She walked with me to a grave she believed was the correct one and I thanked her profusely. After she left I closely read the faded inscription and realised it was not Meagher but someone from Tipperary. After a search of a few minutes scrambling past other plots, I found Meagher’s grave in the vicinity. The inscription is too faint to read in its entirety but the bit I could make out read “Thomas Meagh… ESQR, formerly MP for …ford” and I could also read “died at Bray 28 February 1874”. However I could not make out the text of two lines underneath. Given Meagher’s importance, the neglected grave could do with some love from Waterford Council or a local historical society.
With the investigative part of my mission complete, I had time to check out some of Glasnevin’s better known (and better maintained) graves. I was drawn to the dominating O’Connell tower in the middle of the cemetery. Before Glasnevin, Irish Catholics had no cemeteries as repressive Penal Laws forced them to conduct services in Protestant graveyards. After an 1823 funeral when a Protestant sexton reprimanded a Catholic priest for conducting mass in his graveyard, Daniel O’Connell launched a campaign saying there was no law forbidding praying for a dead Catholic in a graveyard. In 1828 O’Connell established the Dublin Cemeteries Committee to provide dignified burial space “for those of all religions and none”. Glasnevin (initially Prospect Cemetery) was opened four years later. O’Connell’s achievements were huge and spanned half a century but he was most closely associated with two movements, Catholic Emancipation which he achieved in the 1820s and Repeal of the Union which he failed to achieve in the 1840s. When the Liberator died in 1847, he was buried here. In 1855 Dublin architect Patrick Byrne completed the O’Connell Tower and in 1869, O’Connell was reinterred in an ornate crypt at the base of the tower. The tower is 55 metres tall and is still one of the highest structures in Dublin.
In the O’Connell circle surrounding the tower lie many well-known graves. Most poignant is Thomas Davis, Protestant founder of the Young Ireland revolutionary movement and the Nation newspaper that inspired it. Davis and others were dissatisfied by the pace of reform of O’Connell’s Repeal Association. Young Ireland split off after O’Connell struck a deal to support the Whig government in Westminster in 1846 and launched a failed rebellion in 1848 amid Ireland’s worst Famine (Glasnevin has hundreds of thousands of famine victims in unmarked graves). Davis saw none of this. He died of scarlet fever in 1845, aged just 30 and was mourned across the nation, almost as much as O’Connell was two years later.
Also buried in the O’Connell circle is a more controversial figure, William Martin Murphy (1845-1919). When his Cork building contractor father Denis William Murphy (1799-1863) died, William took over the family business and his enterprise and business acumen expanded it. He was elected an Irish Parliamentary Party MP in 1885. When the party split in 1890 over Charles Stewart Parnell’s leadership, Murphy sided with the majority Anti-Parnellites. However, Dublin remained a Parnellite stronghold and in the bitter general election of 1892, Murphy lost his seat. In 1900, he bought the insolvent Irish Daily Independent merging it with the Daily Nation. In 1905 he re-launched this as a cheap mass-circulation newspaper, the Irish Independent, which became Ireland’s most popular nationalist paper. His anti-union attitude in the 1913 Dublin Lockout caused notoriety as did his calls for the execution of the 1916 Easter Rising leaders. He also opposed the 1918 rise of Sinn Fein but died in 1919 aged 74 just before the war of independence took hold.
Also in the circle is a Young Irelander with strong Australian connections, Charles Gavan Duffy. Duffy was the son of a Monaghan Catholic shopkeeper and edited newspapers in Belfast before becoming the first editor of The Nation. He is acknowledged as one of the newspaper’s three founders in 1842 along with Davis and John Blake Dillon. Though arrested for sedition in 1848 he survived five trials before being released. He restarted the Nation but became disillusioned with Irish politics and moved to Melbourne four years later. He entered the politics of Victoria on a platform of land reform and served as deputy premier under another Irish Catholic, John O’Shanassy. In 1871-72 he became the colony’s 8th Premier, though was disliked by the colony’s Protestant majority. He died in Nice, France in 1903, aged 86.
Buried nearby is perhaps the greatest Irishman of the 20th century, Roger Casement. He was an Irish patriot, poet and revolutionary, and an important human rights advocate who was also a British diplomat. For the Foreign Office he investigated ioutrages against indigenous people in the Congo and Brazil enslaved to supply rubber for western manufacturers. In 1911, he was knighted for his courage and integrity in the long struggle against international slavery. Yet in 1916 Britain hanged Roger Casement for treason. He was arrested in Kerry after trying to smuggle in 20,000 guns from a German U-Boat for the Irish republican cause. Casement got the death sentence despite being a knight of the realm with a 30 year career in the British Foreign Service. His trial unearthed diaries of his homosexual sexual conquests in Africa and Brazil. Casement was hanged, as much for his sexuality as his political attitudes, at Pentonville Prison in London on August 3, 1916. He was 51 years old.
The mortuary chapel at Glasnevin was designed by J.J. McCarthy (1817-1882), Ireland’s pre-eminent architect of Catholic churches. The church is Hiberno-Romanesque in style, a symbol of Catholic Ireland of the late nineteenth century. Outside is a monument to the Great Famine, an Gorta Mór, unveiled by Irish president Michael D. Higgins in 2016 on the 170th anniversary of the famine. One million people died in six years from 1846-52 and another one million people emigrated. The combined population of the island of Ireland today is seven million, still a million less than 1845.
Unsurprisingly, Catholic prelates have a dominant position in the cemetery. One of the more imposing monuments is for Edward McCabe (b. 1816), Archbishop of Dublin from 1879 until his death in 1885 and a Cardinal from 1882. His six years as Archbishop were the years of the Land League and of the National League, of violent agitation including the Phoenix Park murders and savage coercion. Like his more famous predecessor Paul Cullen, McCabe distrusted popular movements and supported the British government against agitation. Nationalist newspapers and public men attacked him as a (Dublin) “Castle bishop”. His life was threatened and for a time he was under the protection of the police.
Because of the Easter Rising and its aftermath, the Irish tend to under-commemorate the First World War. That is a pity because Irish lives – Protestant and Catholic – were sacrificed in enormous numbers during the 1914-18 war. Over 200,000 Irishmen fought in the war and 30,000 died serving in Irish regiments of the British forces. As many as 50,000 may have died altogether. President Higgins and the Duke of Kent dedicated this cross of sacrifice in 2014 “to the memory of all the soldiers from Ireland who died in the World Wars”.
This poignant memorial honours those who died in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 1974. The 30-year Northern Ireland conflict mostly left the 26 counties aside but Protestant paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force brought the war to the Republic on May 17, 1974 during the Ulster Workers Council strike, detonating four bombs without warning. Three bombs exploded in Dublin during the evening rush hour and a fourth exploded in Monaghan 90 minutes later. They killed 33 civilians and injured almost 300. The bombings were the deadliest attack of the conflict and the deadliest attack in the Republic’s history.
On O’Connell circle is another man with statue on O’Connell St, Sir John Gray (1815-1875). Gray was a doctor and owner of the Freeman’s Journal and MP for Kilkenny from 1865 until his death. He supported O’Connell’s Repeal movement, and later, Parnell. Gray was elected Dublin Corporation councillor in 1852 and as chairman of the committee for a new water supply to Dublin, he promoted a reservoir scheme to dam the Vartry river in Wicklow, and build water pipes and filtering systems to carry fresh water to the city. The Vartry Scheme improved sanitation and helped reduce outbreaks of cholera, typhus and other diseases associated with contaminated water.
Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (Diarmaid Ó Donnabháin Rosa) 1831-1915 was an Irish Fenian leader and member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. A west Cork man, he established the Phoenix National and Literary Society in 1856 “to liberate Ireland by force of arms” and his organisation merged with the IRB two years later in Dublin. In 1858, he was jailed without trial until July 1859. In 1865 he was arrested again on charges of treason felony. He was sentenced to penal servitude for life due to previous convictions. He served his time in Pentonville, Portland, Millbank and Chatham prisons in England. In an 1869 by-election, he was elected MP for Tipperary but the election was declared invalid because Rossa was an imprisoned felon. Released in 1870 he went to America where he joined Clan na Gael and the Fenian Brotherhood and established his own newspaper. Rossa organised the first ever Republican bombings of English cities in the “dynamite campaign”. The campaign lasted through the 1880s and made him infamous in Britain. His death in 1915 and graveside oration by Patrick Pearse was one of the major catalysts for the Easter Rising the following year.
Near Rossa’s grave lies another crucial Irish-American revolutionary, John Devoy (1842-1928). In 60 years of activism he played a role in the 1867 Fenian Rising, the 1916 Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence 1919–1921. Devoy was chief Fenian organiser in the British Army in Ireland. The British got wind of a revolution plan and Devoy was arrested in February 1866. After serving five years in English prisons he was released and emigrated to America with Rossa. He was one of the organisers of the Catalpa escape from Western Australia and was the most important Irish nationalist fundraiser in America. He fell out with De Valera on his American visit in 1920 and he supported the pro-Treaty forces in the civil war.
Another man on an O’Connell St statue, Jim Larkin (1878-1947), was an Irish unionist and implacably opposed to William Martin Murphy in the 1913 Dublin Lockout. Born in Liverpool to Irish parents, he got involved in Merseyside docks unions and in 1907 took his organising skills to Belfast and later to Dublin, Cork and Waterford. Larkin founded the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1908 and helped found the Irish Labour Party in 1912. In 1913 Murphy, then chairman of the Dublin United Tramway Company, refused to allow the ITGWU to unionise his workforce and dismissed 340 workers leading to a tramway workers strike. Murphy got 400 city employers to require their workers to sign a pledge not to be a member of the ITGWU. The strike was the most severe in Ireland’s history and lasted seven months. Larkin was arrested for sedition and served seven months. Afterwards he left for America where he joined the Wobblies and other socialist organisations. He was sentenced to five to 10 years in Sing Sing for his left-wing activism and later came back to Ireland to continue advocating for the Labour party and unionism.
Maud Gonne (1867-1953) was one of the great heroines of the Irish revolution. Born in Aldershot she moved to Ireland when her army officer father was posted to Dublin in 1882. She became independently wealthy in 1887 on the death of her mother and met WB Yeats two years later, the poet falling hopelessly in love with her, though his love was unrequited. She was more in love with Irish nationalism and the plight of evicted people in the Land Wars. In 1903 in Paris, Maud married Major John MacBride, who had led the Irish Transvaal Brigade against the British in the Second Boer War. Their son Seán MacBride (also buried here) was born a year later. McBride senior was executed in May 1916 for his role in the Easter Rising. Still in Paris in 1921, Gonne opposed the Treaty and moved to Dublin in 1922 before being arrested a year later, serving 20 days. Gonne was a leading figure in the Catholic monetary reform movement in Ireland in the 1930s and a member of the Irish Social Credit Party committed to reforming Ireland’s financial and economic systems.
Probably the single most-visited grave in Glasnevin is that of Michael Collins (1890-1922). Another Cork man, Collins moved to London where he got involved in the IRB. He returned to Ireland to fight in the Easter Rising as Joseph Plunkett’s aide-de-camp in the GPO and became a leader of the interned Irish after that revolution. In the 1918 Sinn Fein landslide election, Collins was elected MP for South Cork but took his place in the first Dublin parliament instead and was appointed Minister for Finance in the First Dáil. In the War of Independence, he was Director of Organisation and Adjutant General for the Irish Volunteers, and Director of Intelligence of the Irish Republican Army. He was a brilliant guerrilla warfare strategist, planning many successful attacks on British forces. After the July 1921 ceasefire, Collins was a key plenipotentiary sent to negotiate peace terms in London. The resulting Anglo-Irish Treaty, signed in December 1921, established the Irish Free State but depended on an oath of allegiance to the Crown. Collins viewed the treaty as offering “the freedom to achieve freedom”, and persuaded a narrow Dáil majority to ratify the treaty. He was chair of the provisional government in early 1922. In the Irish Civil War, Collins was commander-in-chief of the National Army. He was shot and killed in an ambush by anti-Treaty forces on August 22, 1922.
Collins’ alter ego and frenemy is Eamon De Valera, buried a discreet distance away in the De Valera family plot. Born George de Valero in Brooklyn, and known to all as Dev, he was a senior leader in the 1916 Rising but his American birth saved him from a death sentence. De Valera spent much of the war that followed in America raising money (and making an enemy of Devoy). He opposed the Treaty but sat out the civil war. He eventually rehabilitated himself, founding the Fianna Fail political party and the Irish press newspaper. He would dominate Irish politics for 60 years. He was influential on both sides of the border, a thorn in the British side and also had a massive impact on American affairs between 1918 and 1945. Ireland was such a pain to White House administrations, it was left out of the Marshall Plan that revitalised post-war allies and enemies alike. By the late 1950s de Valera’s economy naivete left the Irish economy in deep trouble. By then he was an almost totally blind caricature of the remote and exotic president of the Irish Republic he helped create and shape in his deeply religious image. Yet he clung onto power until 1959 when aged 76 he was forcibly retired upstairs as president in “the Park”. There in a supposed ceremonial role, he wielded enormous influence for 14 more years in two terms. He died in 1975 aged 92.
There was one last grave I wanted to visit, an imposing stone slab well away from the other notables. That was the grave of Charles Stewart Parnell. If Casement was the greatest Irishman of the 20th century, fellow Protestant Parnell was my greatest of the 19th, just shading O’Connell. Parnell emerged from a powerful Anglo-Irish Protestant Wicklow landowning family to become the most effective Irish nationalist politician of his era and an MP from 1875 to 1891. He led the Home Rule League from 1880 to 1882 and transformed the Irish Parliamentary Party into the first modern political party, holding the balance of power during the Home Rule debates of 1885–1886. He was imprisoned in Kilmainham in 1882, but he was released after renouncing violent action. His party discipline forced Gladstone to adopt Irish Home Rule as Liberal Party policy. The Irish Parliamentary Party split in 1890, following the revelation of Parnell’s long adulterous love affair. He never recovered from the scandal and he died a broken man a year later. Pro and anti Parnell feelings ran high for 20 years and was second only to the civil war in divisiveness in Irish politics. His gravestone of unhewn Wicklow granite, erected in 1940 reads only “Parnell” and is all the more impressive for its stern brevity.
Deep in the hills of Kilkenny – Tipperary border country lies the Ballingarry Famine Warhouse of 1848. This imposing house was the scene of the ill-fated 1848 Young Ireland rebellion. Though the revolution barely deserves that name as it was little more than a skirmish where just two people died, the house is an under-recognised but important site of Irish history. The Famine Warhouse is now a state-run museum under the stewardship of 76-year-old John Webster and John kindly showed me around on my recent visit. I was there as part of my research into Young Ireland leader and later American civil war general, Thomas Francis Meagher. Meagher was not present at the house on the day of the battle of July 29, though John assured me he had been in the area the night before.
The Young Ireland movement emerged as a dissatisfied clique unhappy with the pace of reform of Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Association which aimed to repeal the 1801 Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland. Spurred on by the European year of revolution in 1848, the Young Irelanders tried to raise the Irish population but were watched closely by British authorities. Westminster suspended habeas corpus in Ireland on July 22, 1848. Led by Westminster MP William Smith O’Brien, they went on the run to foment rebellion in south-east Ireland amid the country’s worst ever Famine. A million died of famine fever (typhus spread by lice), and dysentery and dropsy caused by lack of food. The Young Irelanders had some success in raising willing rebels in Kilkenny and Carrick-on-Suir but each time they moved on, priests would discourage the locals from fighting.
O’Brien had some success in the Mullinahone-Ballingarry coalmining region of northern Tipperary and on July 28 he and his fellow leaders Meagher, John Blake Dillon, Terence Bellew MacManus, James Stephens, John O’Mahony, Michael Doheny, Maurice Leyne, James Cantwell, Patrick O’Donohue, and Thomas Devin Reilly met for the last time in The Commons to discuss strategy. They then scattered to try to raise more troops but the only action was among those who remained a day later at the nearby Warhouse. At Ballingarry there were 600 peasants but only 50 had muskets and 150 had scythes, pitchforks or pikes. O’Brien exercised the men in the streets practising firing their muskets into hedges while Dillon drilled them in charges.
The Warhouse was built in 1844 around an older house as the home of mine owner Thomas McCormack and his wife Margaret. There they farmed 65 acres but Thomas died in the Famine leaving Margaret to raise seven children alone. The house is at Farranfory, a townland 5km from Ballingarry, set in what is now beautiful woodlands. But in 1848 it was unwooded and clearly visible from the closest settlement of The Commons, a small coal mining town just north of Ballingarry. There O’Brien gathered three hundred people to construct a barricade to repel the expected police force. Liverpool wool broker Terence Bellew MacManus handed out a small amount of guns as well as powder and ball.
A force of 47 Royal Irish Constabulary officers from Callan was seen heading north near Ballingarry. The rebels steadied themselves at the barricade under the cover of coal dust. At the last moment police veered off right on the road to Farranfory. According to rebel eye witness John Kavanagh the police “ran like cowards”. The rebels thought they were heading to Kilkenny and gave chase. Suddenly the police turned up a byroad where they found the Warhouse. They barricaded themselves in using furniture and beds in a “very strong position” according to Kavanagh.
When the rebels arrived at the house it was pouring rain. O’Brien and MacManus reconnoitred and their men occupied the outside walls, outhouses and haggard (hay) stand. MacManus called on rebels to set the hay alight to smoke out the police but O’Brien overruled him. Five of Mrs McCormack’s children were in the house. Mrs McCormack had gone to The Commons to collect the other two from school. Eldest daughter Catherine, 12 was in charge of the smaller children and the Illustrated London News of August 12 quoted her saying, “we all set up a cry when the police came in”. Youngest child Maggy, 2, put her head in Catherine’s lap and asked “Will they kill us?” The guns went off “like thunder” and the children screamed. Suddenly Mrs McCormack appeared from behind in tears and pushed through the cabbage patch past the rebels demanding to see her children. O’Brien followed her to a window.
Police refused her request to release the five hostages while O’Brien demanded they give up their arms. While the lower ranked police inside the room gave him a cheer, their leader Sub-Inspector Trent was less welcoming believing they could last 48 hours without provisions. As rebels threw stones, Trent ordered a volley of shots. Kavanagh was hit in the thigh and injured. Local man Patrick McBride fell dead beside him. Thomas Walsh was also shot dead as he dashed across the yard though O’Brien and Mrs McCormack were untouched beside the wall. Stephens pulled O’Brien out of the line of fire. The two sides exchanged fire for two to three hours. Local priest Fr Philip Fitzgerald tried to make the peace but neither side would compromise. After they heard another police force were on the way from Cashel, Fitzgerald strongly advised the rebels to disperse saying “enough mischief had been done”. The rebels fled ahead of the police reinforcements who relieved the house. The rebellion, “so much talked of for years. seemed at one blow to have been utterly and forever extinguished”, the priest said. In the days that followed troops under General McDonald arrived and arrested 21 locals.
O’Brien was sheltered for a week after the rebellion. While Doheny, Stephens and O’Mahony escaped to Paris and then America, O’Brien was captured attempting to board a train in Thurles for his estate at Cahirmoyle in Co Limerick. MacManus made it to a ship in Cork bound for America but was recognised aboard and arrested. Along with Meagher and O’Donohue, they were tried for high treason in Clonmel and sentenced to death before their sentence was commuted to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land. All bar O’Brien later escaped to America. He was the only one to ever return to Ireland, though never again to political office. His statue is on O’Connell St. Dublin near his great rival Daniel O’Connell. As historian Tony Moore argues the Young Irelander success came after their departure from Ireland. Though the rebellion was a miserable failure dismissed as “the cabbage patch rebellion” by English newspapers, Young Ireland invented a new cultural vocabulary of nationalism, gifting Ireland the idea of an independent nation that Britain could never kill off. The words of the Young Irelanders inspired the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising to the view that Britain would only grant some independence through violent means.
As for the Warhouse, the McCormacks left for America in 1853 and it passed to the Walsh family and then the Morris family then the Connollys who sold it to the Irish state in 1998. It was renovated in 2000–01 and was renamed “Famine Warhouse 1848” in 2004. Today it houses a museum with informative exhibits on the Famine and the rebellion and its aftermath amid the upheaval that rocked Europe during that turbulent year.
After a visit to Glendalough in Co Wicklow, it was time for another even older monastic settlement a day later. Clonmacnoise, meaning “Meadow of the Sons of Nós” is in the heart of the Irish midlands on the Co Offaly side of the Shannon River, south of Athlone. Arriving at the site a half hour before opening, I had time to admire the broad majestic Shannon and nearby Clonmacnoise Castle. In the 12th century the Anglo-Normans built a motte-and-bailey castle with a wooden keep on a raised area of ground called a motte. The wooden castle was destroyed by fire and in 1214 the Justiciar of Ireland, Henry of London, built a stone castle on the motte to gain control over the midlands and guard the bridge across the River Shannon. This marks the time when Clonmacnoise went into decline as a monastic city.
The monastic city next door therefore is of older vintage to the crumbling ruin of the castle. These lands belonged to the abbot of Clonmacnoise before the Normans arrived. I initially enjoyed the view from outside the grounds.
Clonmacnoise was founded by Saint Ciarán (born c. 516, died c. 549). With Saints Columba and Brendan, Ciarán was educated by Abbot St. Finnian at the Monastery of Clonard on the Esker Riada, Ireland’s great east-west road. After studying under Abbot St Enda at Aranmore Island in Galway, he settled with eight companions at Clonmacnoise where the Esker Riada met the Shannon. In 548 he founded an abbey that subsequently developed into one of the most famous Irish monastic cities and by the 9th century it was a great centre of learning.
Outside the entrance is a sculpture by Jackie McKenna called The pilgrim. The subtext says Aedh, son of the chief of Oriel, died on pilgrimage 606 AD. In its World Heritage Site application, Clonmacnoise is listed as “the finest example in the world of an early medieval Insular city”. Unlike Iona or Lindisfarne which were abandoned after Viking raids, Clonmacnoise continued to develop. It did not grow into a modern metropolis like its medieval rival, Armagh, declining in the late twelfth century, but it left “a superb example of a relict monastic city.”
I visited the museum first rather than the outside exhibits. The three high crosses now on display in the Visitor Centre originally stood at Clonmacnoise in a semi-circle to the west, south and north of the cathedral. Due to deteriorating environmental conditions damaging the stonework and because of their importance as examples of insular art, the three upstanding crosses were moved inside in 1992. High quality replicas cast from resin were placed on their original sites. The best known is the West Cross, the Cross of the Scriptures. The Cross was mentioned twice in the Annals of the Four Masters and is 4m tall. The shaft and head is carved from one piece of sandstone and this is slotted into the sandstone base. A ring surrounds the arms and shaft but its unique upward tilt lends lightness and vibrancy. The west face depicts scenes from Jesus’s life while the east face panel commemorates the foundation of Clonmacnoise.
The South Cross is also a ringed cross and it originally stood at the south-west corner of Temple Dowling. It bears a crucifixion scene on the west side of the shaft and a faint inscription suggests that it may have been commissioned by the father of King Flann, Maelsechnaill Mac Maelruanaid, High King of Ireland 846-862. This cross is carved from one piece of sandstone. The entire surface is covered in panels of interlace, geometric ornament and spirals.
Only the shaft of the North Cross survives with the remains of a tenon at the top, over which the head would have fitted. Three sides of the shaft are decorated; the fourth side on the east is blank possibly because it may have stood against a building. Its ornaments includes interlaced human figures, animals and panels and it has been been dated to around 800. The art work is typically insular with spiral motifs. The animals are similar to carved slabs in Scotland, while the human figures have parallels in the Book of Kells.
O’Rourke’s Tower is one of 120 examples of round towers around Ireland thought to have existed, though only 18-20 are still in good condition plus three more in Scotland and one in the Isle of Man. They were principally bell towers as their Irish name cloigthech (bell-house) confirms. They imitated popular European style of bell tower. Its door faces the west doorway of the church. The round tower is dated by annalistic evidence to 1124 when finished by Gillachrist Ua Maoileóin, successor of Ciarán, and Toirdelbach Ua Conchobar, king of Connacht, and aspirant to the high kingship of Ireland. It is 5.6 metres in diameter at the base and tapers evenly towards the top at 19 metres, but is missing one third of its original height and its conical cap. It was struck by lightening in 1135 and the reconstructed upper three metres probably dates to the later medieval period. It is composed of well-shaped rectangular grey limestone blocks quarried at nearby Rocks of Clorhane to the level of the bell-storey windows where the late medieval work uses smaller and more irregular stone. There are 10 windows, one above the doorway and another lintelled window faces north to the Shannon. The other eight reconstructed lintelled windows are at the bell-storey level facing the cardinal compass points. The tower was re-roofed in the 1980s and fixed ladders were inserted between the floors.
Temple Ciarán dates from the 9th-10th century and is one of only six examples of the unique architectural type of the early Irish shrine chapel, the earliest mortared stone structures in Ireland. The others are found at Iona, Ardmore Co. Waterford, Inishmurray, Co. Sligo, Inchcleraun, Co. Longford and Labbamolaga, Co. Cork. Temple Ciarán is the only one to have a true-arched doorway. This shrine chapel complements the cathedral or damliag and is an example of the deliberate separation of reliquary and liturgical space practised by Irish clerics of the eighth and ninth centuries. It was built over what was believed to be the burial place of St Ciarán.
At the heart of the monastic complex is the largest building, the Cathedral (damliag), also referred to as Temple Mac Dermot. It was built by Flann mac Maeleachlainn, (879-916) and Colmán (abbot of Clonmacnoise, d.926) as recorded in the 909 annals. This was a year after Flann’s defeat of king Cormac mac Cuilennáin of Munster, in the battle of Belach Mugna after which Flann became high king of Ireland. His erection of the cathedral and high cross at Clonmacnoise was an act of thanksgiving to God, and a symbol of royal power and patronage. The church is the largest pre-Romanesque church in Ireland and its core and unicameral appearance have been carefully and deliberately maintained, throughout the medieval and modern period.
Alterations to the Cathedral in the twelfth century included a new west door and east window, and a sacristy added to the south. In the 13-14th century the south wall was demolished and moved northward by two metres, probably due to structural problems, leaving the west doorway off-centre. In the 15th century, the eastern end of the cathedral was vaulted and a spectacular north doorway was added with a fine limestone carving in perpendicular gothic style and complicated mouldings around the pointed opening.
The cathedral is the resting place of Turlough Ua Conchobair, King of Connaught (buried in 1156) and his son, Ruairi Ua Conchobair, the last high king of Ireland (interred in 1198). Ruari abdicated and spent his final years in retirement in the Augustinian abbey of Cong. In 1207 his remains were disinterred and deposited in a stone shrine, and this may have been when the transitional west doorway and sacristy were added.
The doorway of the Cathedral is surmounted with high reliefs of three saints: Dominic, Patrick and Francis (Francis’s head is missing) each identified by inscription. An inscription reads: ‘DNS ODO DECANUS CLUAN ME FIERI FECIT’ indicating Dean Odo, who died in 1461, commissioned the work. It is also known as the Whispering Door for a whisper which travels from one side to the other. Legend says this enabled lepers to get confession without priests having to get too close to them.
Temple Finghin, also known as McCarthy’s Church, is unusually integrated into a round tower. Thought to date from 1160-70 it is similar to Cormac’s Chapel at Cashel 1127-34, (usually considered the key building in the introduction of the Romanesque style to Ireland). The Romanesque chancel arch was damaged by fire and its inner order is a limestone replacement. Often called the second round tower of Clonmacnoise, it is 16.7 metres high with a diameter of four meters at the base. The conical cap, with its unusual herringbone pattern, was taken down and reset in 1879-80. The tower has a door at ground level with no indications that the usual raised door ever existed. Also unusual is the lack of the traditional four bell-storey windows, as there are just two at this level – north and south – lower than the usual bell-storey windows of other towers. Vandalism of the crosses and Temple Finghin chancel arch led to a Kilkenny Archaeological Society investigation. In 1864, the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland raised funds to prosecute John Glennon for “wanton vandalism”. The case failed but it was a key test case for legislation for the protection of public monuments in the United Kingdom, previously only used for museums.
Believers say St Ciarán’s burial at Clonmacnoise ensures all those interred with him will avail of his intervention and gain rapid entry into heaven. The Old Burial Ground dates from the mid-6th century.. The graveyards are a part of the sacral landscape especially for people from Clonmacnoise parish. As the old burial ground was full after 1200 years Offaly County Council closed it in 1955 and provided a new burial ground on the east side.
The Nuns’ Church was completed by Derbforgaill (1109-93) in 1167. Derbforgaill was the daughter of the king of Mide (Meath), and wife of Tigernán Ua Ruairc of Bréifne. Her abduction by the king of Leinster, Diarmait Mac Murchada, in a 1152 raid was a key reason for the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in Ireland, and the end of the Gaelic order. According to the Annals of Clonmacnoise, Mac Murchada “kept her for a long space to satisfy his insatiable, carnall and adulterous lust”. She was returned to her husband the following year but in 1166, Ua Ruairc and his allies drove Mac Murchada out of his kingdom into exile. Mac Murchada enlisted the aid of Henry II of England and precipitated the Anglo-Norman invasion in 1169.
High crosses exist from the 7th century in Ireland, and were later seen in Scotland and Northumbria. High crosses are Ireland’s greatest contribution to Western European art of the middle ages with illuminated manuscripts like the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow. Most Irish high crosses have the distinctive shape of the ringed Celtic Cross, feature figural decoration and are usually larger and more massive than those elsewhere. High crosses were status symbols, either for a monastery or for a sponsor or patron. Most recorded crosses in Britain were destroyed after the Reformation.
Pope John Paul II visited Clonmacnoise on Sunday, September 30, 1979 during his Irish visit. In a supposed “private” devotion, the Pope was joined by a crowd of 30,000 thronged outside the graveyard, many sleeping on nearby slopes in overnight wait. According to the local newspaper the pope knelt in prayer before the open air altar and admired diocesan treasures brought to him. In his speech he wanted to “recall and honour the great monastic contribution to Ireland that was made here on this revered spot for one thousand years and whose influence was carried all over Europe by missionary monks and by students of the monastic school of Clonmacnoise”.
While the buildings promote reverence, it is the River Shannon that truly inspires. As well as being a major transport route (which the Vikings exploited), Ireland’s longest river provided the monastery with food and raw materials. Salmon, eels, sturgeon as well as geese and ducks were important food sources. Monks used reeds to thatch roofs and lime-rich shell marl as fertiliser. Winter and summer flooding also enriched the land creating a rich mosaic of flora and fauna.
In a return visit to Ireland, one itch I wanted to scratch was the famous monastic settlement at Glendalough Co Wicklow, a place I’d somehow managed to avoid in all my years living in nearby Dublin. Glendalough combines stunning scenery with evocative ruined architecture, including distinctively Irish styles such as its famous round tower. Gleann Dá Loch is Irish for valley of two lakes. The valley was carved out by Ice Age glaciers and the two lakes were formed when the ice eventually thawed. The valley is home to one of Ireland’s most impressive monastic sites founded by St. Kevin in the sixth century. St Kevin’s austere life attracted many followers leading to a monastic city and eventually a site of great pilgrimage.
Glendalough is a monastic settlement known as the city of the seven churches. Saint Kevin, or Cóemgen, died in 618 or 622 at the supposed age of 120, and his story is preserved in three Saints Lives, all composed many years after his death. Saint Kevin was a Leinster nobleman turned priest who retreated into the wilderness to be closer to God. Initially he spent his time in isolation at the shores of the Upper Lake, but after seven years he founded the main monastic complex at the eastern end of the Lower Lake in the late sixth / early seventh century. The monastery rose to a position of pre-dominance before subsequent decline. Most buildings that survive today date from the 10-12th centuries. Despite attacks by Vikings, Glendalough thrived as one of Ireland’s great ecclesiastical foundations and schools of learning until the Normans destroyed the monastery in 1214.
Glendalough was enclosed within a circular wall. Early medieval monastic enclosures were enclosed for defence but also defined sacred space. The gatehouse marks the formal entrance to the complex, although the steps are a recent addition. The entrance arch is Ireland’s only surviving example of a medieval gateway to an early monastic city. The Roman style columns have the stones cut specifically to scale and they held themselves up without mortar. This structure was originally two-storied with two fine granite arches.
St. Kevin’s Church, better known as St. Kevin’s Kitchen, is a nave-and-chancel church of the 12th century. People believed the bell tower was a chimney to a kitchen but no food was cooked there. This stone-roofed building originally had a nave only, with entrance at the west end and a small round-headed window in the east gable. The belfry with its conical cap and four small windows rises from the west end of the stone roof in the form of a miniature round tower.
Monasteries were not just places of contemplation, but also centres of political and economic power. As Glendalough grew in significance, it became entangled in broader political conflicts. The importance and wealth of the monastery saw it targeted by Viking raids in 836. The destruction of the “dertrach” (“oak house”, probably meaning timber church) is noted in the Annals. Through the late tenth and eleventh century it was repeatedly attacked by Viking and Irish raiders, with several records of the area being burnt.
West of St Kevin’s Cross lies a small Romanesque building known as the Priest’s house with a decorative arch at the east end. The name derives from an 18th century practice of bringing the priests to be readied for burial and also burying priests in the floor. The house was almost totally reconstructed from the original stones, based on a 1779 sketch made by Beranger. Its original purpose is unknown although it may have been used to house relics of St. Kevin.
The Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul is the largest of the seven churches in Glendalough. It was built in several phases from the 10th through the early 13th century.
Large mica schist stones, which form the foundation of the cathedral to the height of the west doorway, were re-used from an earlier smaller church. The earliest part is the nave with antae for supporting the wooden roof. The chancel, sacristy, and north door were added in the late 12th and early 13th centuries as was the north doorway. Inside there is a wall cupboard, a stone font, grave slabs, and the remains of a decorated arch. The original cathedral was probably built c1100 as Glendalough became the seat of a bishopric. The walls of the cathedral include distinctive stones reused from an earlier stone church, which appears to have been entirely removed and rebuilt.
The round tower probably dates to c1100 and is 30 metres high, with an entrance 3.5 metres from the base. It was built of mica-slate interspersed with granite. The tower originally had six timber floors, connected by ladders. The top storey has four windows facing the cardinal compass points while the four storeys below have one small window. The roof was reconstructed in 1876. Round towers were built as bell towers to summon the monks to prayer, but also served as store-houses and as places of refuge during attacks.
Near the cathedral is the large St Kevin’s Cross of uncertain date. This unpierced ring cross combines Christian and pagan motifs with a circle representing the sun.
By the later eleventh century, Muirchertach Ua Briain, High King of Munster promoted Glendalough as a rival to Dublin. In 1111 Dublin was subsumed into the Diocese of Glendalough. Many of the ecclesiastical buildings valley date to this period – the height of its power and influence in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries. However, by the later twelfth century Glendalough’s influence declined as Munster’s influence waned: Glendalough was burned again in 1163. In 1214 the Archbishop of Tuam reported that “although anciently held in great veneration (Glendalough) became waste and desolate, and has been so for years past, instead of a church it became a den of thieves and a nest of robbers, occasioned by its being a vast and solitary desert”. By 1216 it was incorporated into the Diocese of Dublin.
The graveyard, which is still in active use for burial, contains examples of reused early medieval cross marked grave slabs. The graveyard contains over 2000 grave markers. The earliest graves are east of the Priest’s House, where plain slabs date to the 11th century. The earliest grave marker commemorates Murlagh Doyle and dates to 1697.
There are many fine examples of Aughrim granite gravestones which date from the late 18th century. The inscription on this one is “Here lieth ye | body of The | Reverd PHELIN | BRYAN Decd Ma | y 3rd 1759 aged | 57 yrs”.
The popular walk along the north shore of the Upper Lake follows the miners road, and the remains of miner’s cottages are found along it. The miners planted a million trees in the mid-nineteenth century alone, mainly to use as pit props but also as a commercial crop.
The Upper Lake is closely associated with the story of Kevin’s retreat into the wilderness. The lawns east of the lake were formerly known as Kevin’s Desert (Disert Chaoimhghin), supposedly a wilderness and place for the classic early Christian retreat into nature. However there was little good archaeological evidence for early activity at the Upper Lake. Some simple mica schist crosses and cross slabs are likely early medieval, but there was nothing that could be associated with the supposed period of Kevin’s presence apart from the ‘caher’ near the lake – a circular stone and earth wall – which UCD researchers have radiocarbon dated early activity to c. 428–593.
Situated in the Glendalough Woods Nature Reserve is Poulanass waterfall. It marks a sudden drop where a hanging valley meets the main Glendalough Valley. During the last Ice Age a glacier flowing down the small valley was cut off when a larger glacier carved a deeper channel in the Glendalough Valley
Prehistoric communities were present in the area and excavations have recovered small amounts of prehistoric artefact such Neolithic/Bronze Age stone tools and possible early Neolithic carinated bowl pottery. Over 100 charcoal production platforms are recorded around the Upper Lake mainly now located in woodland. These sites are platforms cut into the hill slopes, providing a flat surface on which wood could be stacked, covered and then fired during summer time.
The Wicklow Way follows the old pilgrimage route down the valley to Glendalough and the flagstones of the old pilgrimage road are visible in sections. It’s hard to believe this beautiful site is just 50km from Dublin.
St Kevin’s Way follows the footsteps of St Kevin to Glendalough. Medieval pilgrims came from far and wide to visit his tomb after his death in 618. Main routes come from Hollywood and Valleymount and they join at Ballinagee Bridge before climbing to the highest point on the route at Wicklow Gap, a classic wind gap (a dry valley once occupied by a stream or river, since captured by another stream).