Journal Volume 4 2004
The County Wicklow Military Road (continued/6)
Completion of the Road
At last in 1809 the Great Military Road could be said to have finished and Alexander Taylor submitted his last bill for £1,976. The entire road cost £435,000, working out at about £1,280 per mile. It was twice what Taylor originally budgeted for.
After the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo bringing an end to the Anglo-French war, the history of the road became something of an anti-climax. For a while the idea was touted to give demobbed Highland soldiers plots for small farms and private houses along the road hoping to institute a corps of latter day Janissaries in the Turkish fashion, to live among the native peasantry. The plan was not taken up despite the enthusiasm of Lord Lieutenant Hardwicke, mainly because these would-be farmers of the mountains could not get leases longer than 21 years, and the acknowledged poverty of the actual land itself. So what might have been Irelands last “Plantation” failed, and the hopes articulated by Sir Richard Griffith that:
“With a small portion of land we would soon behold a sturdy race of loyal mountaineers who would strengthen the hands of Government by rendering what has lately been a shelter for lawless rebels, the residence of a grateful Population”
From its completion, the Military Road was available to the local civilian population. Those who resided in the immediate vicinity could use it anytime, as the local military probably knew them. However strangers wishing to travel it were obliged to obtain a permit of transit by application from the Barrack Master in Dublin. Such permission was rarely refused. The hidden benefit of the road, that it was an access to Wicklow's hitherto inaccessible majestic mountain scenery was immediately appreciated. By 1809 early travellers and commentators waxed eloquent about the newly discovered vistas now on view to the public. It was not long before artists and writers were recording the scenes by word, paint and on engravings. Even before the road was fully completed in 1806 the eminent Irish landscapist Thomas Sautelle Roberts (1760-1826) was painting the construction of the section as it traversed Glenmacnass. George Petrie (1790-1866) illustrated a fine study of a lonely Drumgoff Barracks in 1822, along with several other portions of scenery viewed from the Military Road for Wrights “Tour of Wicklow”, one of the best illustrated tour guides of the county published during the Georgian period.
With the declining threat from foreign invasion the marital aspects of the mountain road diminished. But it was not allowed to fall to dereliction, as was the fate of many military installations when the threat of war was removed. From time to time the roads strategic purpose was resurrected in reaction to national issues, as during the land agitation in the 1840's when several platoons of the newly instituted para-military Irish Constabulary occupied several of the barrack buildings. The Fenian rising of 1867 brought back all the latent fears of '98 when the nationalists assembled at Tallaght for an attempt on Dublin. In the wake of that event great manhunts and searches were organised along the road on a scale not seen since the days of Michael Dwyer. Between such crises the military intermittently patrolled the route when they kept a presence in the five barrack buildings.
During the War of Independence from 1916 to 1922 the British army and the notorious Black and Tans scoured along the road in the belief that “Shinners”, as they dubbed the lRA, had many men hiding in the mountains, a claim not without foundation. Up to the Second World War the road continued to play a part in Irish military history. In 1943 it provided access to the Featherbeds and Glencree turf bogs which were of vital economic importance during the country's wartime fuel shortages. So important was the access the road gave to the turf grounds that the portion between Glencree and Sallygap was reconstructed to take laden turf lorries.
The barrack buildings, probably the most conspicuous features of the Wicklow Military Road, have had chequered histories. Within a generation of the roads completion they ceased a purely military use and were given over to other purposes.