Journal Volume 5 2006

A Church for Rathdrum

By P J Noonan

The following paper is an edited version of a Wicklow People newspaper article written by P J Noonan circa 1960 and the Society wishes to thank The People Group for permission to use the material in its journal. The article was brought to the attention of the Society by Leo Ireton,


Considering that Rathdrum – the Rath Droma Atha of ancient Ireland, the ‘fort of the ridge of the ford’, which describes its location above the rapid-flowing Avonmore – was the centre of almost unceasing conflict, and of such desperate and prolonged resistance to Anglicisation, records are meagre and incomplete. However, let us first examine what went before 1860, the year the church of Saints Michael and Mary in Rathdrum was solemnly dedicated and what, in a much more peaceful atmosphere, followed that event.

Ancient Ties

An ancient Celtic Church of ‘Disert Keyvyn’ (Kevin’s Hermitage) was mentioned in 1276 in an account of churches in the Deanery of Arklow, and it lay between Rosahane and Rathdrum. It appears that St. Kevin established a house in Glenmalure, and this church continued to be mentioned in records up to 1531. Henry VIII became too masterful for the O’Byrne Clan of the east, but the O’Byrnes of west Wicklow held their territory so that the churches there, in Glenmalure, Macreddin, etc., were outside the jurisdiction of the Archbishops of Dublin. It was this clan who provided for all the churches in their territory, and indeed some of the priests were of ‘noble birth’, that is, O’Byrne chiefs.

On the 26th August 1580 Lord Grey De Walton, Lord Deputy, was ambushed and his army severely punished by Feach Mac Hugh O’Byrne at Rathdrum ford. The Deputy had pushed his way through from Wicklow via Kilnamanagh, where the ‘Deputy’s Pass’ still commemorates his name.

The fort at Rathdrum, it is reported, was taken from the O’Byrnes in 1595 by Sir Wm. Fitzwilliam, Lord Deputy. Feach Mac Hugh O’Byrne was slain in his own glen on the 8th May 1597. In the same year, State papers ordained the setting up of the county of Wicklow, which was to be formed of the baronies of Inisboghin, Ballinacor, Talbotstown, Hollywood and Castlekevin. It was, however, another quarter of a century before this, the last county of Ireland by English orders, was really established, and in the meantime Feach’s son, Phelim, had inflicted the terrific defeat on Sir Henry Harrington’s Army at the Rathdrum ford on the 28th May 1599.

In 1601 the O’Byrnes made terms with their enemies, through Lord Deputy Mountjoy, who, breaking all agreements, awarded the O’Byrnes’ lands and property to the Wingfields.

In the 15th century the Holy See had revived the ancient Diocese of Glendalough. When Henry VIII suppressed the religious houses, the Franciscans from Wicklow Abbey, according to tradition, took up their abode in Glenmalure, on the site of St. Kevin’s Monastery, at Ballinabarney and called it St. Mary’s Abbey. From May 1597, with the death of Feach Mac Hugh O’Byrne, and the burning of the abbey by soldiers from Rathdrum under Captain Thomas Lee, this house ended. For more than a century the district had to depend, so far as that was possible, on Irish priests from the Continent.


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