Journal Volume 4 2004
The County Wicklow Military Road (continued/1)
Rebellion of 1798
The Rebellion of 1798 precipitated many changes in Ireland, not least of which was its state of military preparations, or rather lack of them. After the scare of Bantry Bay and the actual invasion by French forces in Killala, the military authorities made a searching review of the state of Ireland’s defences. This was to have far flung effects, some of which are manifest today in some of the more impressive military monuments like the famous Martello Towers around the coast, the fort at Shannonbridge and the fortifications on Spike Island. Closer to home was the formidable military camp at Loughlinstown, now obliterated by modern housing developments.
Circumstances in County Wicklow presented unique problems. Geographically large swathes of the county were inaccessible, indeed it was this very feature, which received prominent notice in Jacob Nevill’s county map of 1760 and was later commented on by his nephew Abraham Nevill on his revision map in 1797. As the rebellion ran its course through 1798 a sizable portion of the rebel army retreated into Wicklow's heartland after Vinegar Hill. Using local knowledge of tracks, glens and the hidden defiles along the length of the Wicklow Mountains, the rebels under Joseph Holt gave a good account of themselves and avoided all efforts to ensnare them in a set piece battle against overwhelming military odds in which they would surely have been destroyed.
During the autumn of '98 the idea of a military road across the mountains was mooted by Colonel John Skerret of the Durham Fencibles. Skerret was a respected soldier and was looked upon by many as the true victor of the decisive Battle of Arklow (June 9 1798). His strategy was simple, a road would restrict the rebels ability to move their columns around the trackless moor lands and would allow the government to saturate an area swiftly with troops. He intended to move significant numbers of men into hostile areas quickly and snuff out any potential build up of rebel forces. It was appreciated by now, late 1798, that months of living in the field and combat experience had given the rebel host formidable fighting skills and a large unbroken body of such fighters could not be tolerated especially so near the city and coast.
In December the military road idea received a further significant boost when Graves Archer, the captain of the NewtownmountKennedy yeomanry, and a zealous loyalist magistrate wrote a memorial to the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Cornwallis, outlining a road and a system of blockhouses for the defence of the county. In January 1800, following a number of meetings by the Ascendancy minded Grand Jury, another petition was sent to the viceroy signed by almost all the county nobility, gentry and influential loyalists. Cornwallis was sympathetic to such a project from the outset and had already set preliminary surveys for a military road in train.
General Joseph Holt nominal chief of the Wicklow rebels had surrendered in November 1798 and the mantle of leadership passed to the formidable Michael Dwyer of Glen Imaal. A local born guerrilla leader, Dwyer carved himself a formidable reputation for courage, resourcefulness and skill in the battlefield He remained an avowed and uncompromising foe of authority, especially to its localised leadership. Dwyer knew his mountain background intimately where, with the support of an extended family and the goodwill of mountain residents, he lived a fugitive's life along with a shifting number of equally determined followers. Though never in a position to mount any large scale operation against the Crown forces, Dwyer's occasional forays and small attacks kept the local yeomanry off balance and the ascendancy gentlemen, especially those resident in the mountain areas, in a constant anxiety. Militarily impotent as he was however, Michael Dwyer worried Dublin Castle while “he hung over the town”. In truth his government enemies were not too sure how many armed men lay behind the Wicklow rebel leader or what support he could muster if insurrection flared up again. Another factor in their thinking was what possible part Dwyer might play in the event of a French landing on the east coast. All of these issues, and the sleeping ambition since the days of the Tudor wars, helped sway the decision to construct a military road across the Wicklow Mountains that was agreed in February of 1800.
Such a road as proposed by the army was not a novel concept in the British Isles. From 1716, military and social conditions in the Scottish highlands following the Jacobite Rebellion were to be mirrored in rebel Wicklow 80 years later. Access to the remote Scottish highlands following the 1716 campaign became a military priority then. The building of several lengthy roads and a system of fortified blockhouses over a ten year period from 1725 was entrusted to an army general of outstanding engineering ability, George Wade (1673-1748); a native of County Westmeath. Wade’s system became a standard model for other army road projects in different countries. One of his most enduring innovations were the “Wades Bridges”, of which over forty were constructed in Scotland and most of which still serve today. The Scottish Military Roads were well laid and metalled all weather highways, on which six men could march comfortably abreast with full kit, and which allowed horse drawn artillery to traverse without becoming bogged down. At various strategic stages along the route fortified stone blockhouses were built, strong enough to withstand a short local siege on the supposition that reinforcements could be swiftly brought to bear and relieve them. General Wade's system was the one adapted, with some modification, to the Wicklow situation.