Journal Volume 4 2004

The County Wicklow Military Road (continued/3)

This rent issue was to be a constant fear for the peasant communities living near the Military Road. It engendered hostility to the project for the duration of its construction and certainly helped Dwyer and his men keep anti government sentiment alive. Despite these limitations and Taylor's own prejudices about the natives, he did manage to recruit a number of civilians on the project. Most of these were drawn from the loyalist spectrum of the population and as they gained experience more work was entrusted to them.

Many permanent features of architectural “hard landscape” were incorporated into the road. In its initial ten miles eighty six structures were laid down such as bridges, water sewers, culverts and pavement. Some of the stone required for these was quarried from outcrops along the route, but other material probably originated from a more controversial source, such as the materials from which the Owendoher Bridge were constructed. These may have been stones from an ancient stone ring fort on Killakee Hill. Captain Taylor was not sensitive to the modern ethos of preserving heritage en-route.

Structures like bridges were made on a pattern basis. These were devised when a Scottish master mason in the army would lay down a model bridge to an exact standard. This in turn was faithfully copied by other army masons and contractors and duplicated all along the route, size being the only limitation. In this way uniformity was established throughout the whole length of the Military Road. It is a testament of how well they built that almost two centuries later the same constructions still serve bearing traffic inconceivable to Taylor and his artisans.

Throughout 1800 and the following year the military forged ahead though not without problems. Taylor was constantly plagued by administrative troubles within the army itself. Much of this was outside his control. The loss of skilled manpower was the main problem. Men were constantly being drafted from his small compliment of 200 into the regiments of the line for active service. Though much of the road work was brute strength and heavy mulakin with pick and shovel, this labouring was nonetheless skilled in its way and the constant haemorrhage of his experienced workers and stone layers set back the project completion time considerably.

Pleading with the office of the Lord Lieutenant brought little succour even though the highest in the land was well disposed to the road. In fact Taylor was lucky to be allowed continue at all. With the Peace of Amiens in 1802 huge numbers of troops were stood down in Ireland, as elsewhere, and it looked for a couple of months of that year at any rate that the whole military road project would be wound up as a cost saving exercise. The road’s expense was never without its critics and now that a peace was signed there were those who questioned the need for the Wicklow Military Road at all.

Lord Hardwicke, who succeeded Cornwallis was, if anything an even stronger apostle to the idea of the great military road and he probably kept the project from folding entirely. Powerful too was the lobby of the Wicklow county gentry and local military establishment who were unswerving in supporting the road for their own security. The renewed war with France in 1803 finally ensured the success for the road completion; indeed it took on a new dimension as a national strategic military asset as well as a county defence project. Yet even as the project moved up in the national military requirements and strategic importance, the army still continued to hive off Taylor's best men. This was never resolved and was a situation the engineer had to live with until the whole road was completed.

In 1802 Captain Taylor established a new corps of road builders to be his mainstay in completing the route. These would be drawn from ex soldiers and skilled labourers and would work under military discipline. The corps itself would have quasi-military status with the same conditions of military service as the local yeomanry groups. The new organisation was called the “Glencree Pioneers” because they were bivouacked in the Glencree valley. Accommodation was still in tent camps and sod houses. It was yet another of Taylor's gripes that none of his pioneers could get lodgings and accommodation in the homes of the locals, which he would have liked in preference to the rough and ready temporary dwellings at Glencree. But the locals, as he complained, were always asking far too much for the lodgings.

The situation of a proper permanent barrack might never have been resolved but for the renewing of the war with France in 1803, when it was to continue intermittently until Waterloo in 1815. As the war progressed in intensity Captain Taylor eventually found his cooperation from the War Office easier when instructions from the Lord Lieutenant’s office guaranteed him a steady supply of both men and finance. Indeed the whole scale of the road broadened and where hitherto it was envisaged just as a road for quick communication, now the emphasis changed to that of a road of strategic defence.


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