Journal Volume 4 2004

The County Wicklow Military Road (continued/2)

Route of Road Mapped Out

In the spring of 1800 the Lord Lieutenant authorised an extensive survey of the proposed Wicklow route. It was entrusted to a 55 year old career soldier from Aberdeen, Captain Alexander Taylor. He would later make a name for himself as one of Ireland’s great road builders. Taylor came to Ireland in 1778 as a surveyor with the Aberdeen Highlanders. In 1789 he was seconded to the newly founded Royal Irish Engineers. As Taylor prepared for his project there was large scale military activity taking place in Wicklow. Since the end of the rebellion strategic encampments had been established in various mountain glens by Colonel George Stewart. Large numbers of troops were deployed from these camps. Stewart organised periodic sweeps through the mountains hoping to flush out the last pockets of resistance and the remnants of the rebel army. It was all a much wasted effort. Michael DwyerMichael Dwyer was prudent enough to keep the head down and out of harms way knowing that his small forces were not in a position to precipitate a new full scale rebellion, or take on Stewart's forces on a one to one basis. Dwyer may have eluded defeat however but under the protection of Colonel Stewart’s forces, the route of the Military Road was fully surveyed and plotted by Taylor without hindrance and this would lead to Dwyer's eventual undoing. Colonel Stewart’s sorties were also used as an opportunity to run any rebel bands away from the new road line. Taylor's final assessment for the road was presented to Cornwallis in late spring 1801.

County Wicklow's overall military weakness, from the government's point of view, was based on the fact that four of the counties crossing routes from east to west had no connecting road from north to south. Military officials were conscious that this had frustrated the destruction of the rebel army in 1798 and a new communication must connect all four inter-county roads by the north-south artery. The road would begin in the Dublin suburb of Rathfarnham, then a distinct township outside the city proper, but close to the main mustering barracks. It would exit the county from Ballyboden and Mount Venus towards Glencree and Aurora. Following a long spur over desolate heath it would intersect with the Blessington - Roundwood road at Sallygap. Continuing across the mountains it would reach Laragh via the scenic and then isolated Glenmacnass. A short stretch of the then existing Grand Jury road was incorporated until at Derrybawn it would cut across mountain country again, descending into Drumgoff in mid Glenmalure. From there it would be cut across to lonely Aughavannagh. In addition there was to be a short portion of road to link the main Military Road with Enniskerry and another to link with Roundwood skirting the heights above Lough Dan. In total the Wicklow Military Road would cover 36 miles and was specified to be 12 to 14 feet wide.

Work Commences on the Road

Lord Cornwallis, always a keen advocate of the project, visited the proposed route in April 1800. On the 15th May Captain Taylor was ordered to commence the work proper. In June 200 soldiers drawn from the North Cork Militia, the Dublin City Militia, The Duke of York's Highlanders, and the Somerset Fencibles moved into the area. They were divided into groups of fifty under the supervision of four officers. Soldier's pay was a shilling a day, all found (12 old pence was equal to 5 pence in modern values, but the purchasing power of money in 1800 should be taken into account). Officers received five shillings a day and Alexander Taylor was paid the princely sum of fifteen shillings per day, the lion's share of the fees.

The headquarters of the project was set up in Glencree. There were initially no plans for permanent manned barracks and the army personnel lived in tents and sod houses constructed from turf, in the Scottish fashion. These were built by members of the 72 Regiment of Seaford Highlanders. It was an irony that Michael Dwyer also used sod houses and dugouts concealed with turf to remain at liberty, often under the noses of these same soldiers.

The bureaucracy of the project was never a smooth running operation and for a month the soldiers stood around awaiting an issue of tools. These were not made until August to the disgust of Taylor, who lamented the loss of a whole six week period of good summer weather when road making could have been carrying on. Eventually 200 shovels, 40 wheel barrows, crowbars, hammers and pickaxes were distributed and work proper began on the 12th August. Some local labour was hired to supplement the soldiers, but generally the potential civilian workforce along the route were not too impressed with the employment opportunities the road works offered. This was not out of any loyalty or fear of reprisal from Michael Dwyer, or from anti-army sentiment but from (as it happened), a justifiable concern, that when the road was completed and functioning the rents for mountain land hitherto set at a very modest figure would steeply increase now that such land was directly accessed. Alexander Taylor recognised this himself when he wrote to his superiors in Dublin “They are not amenable to the discipline of the military and would sooner tend their cattle than work”.


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