Aspects of Wicklow Life in the Early Nineteenth Century

The sources transcribed or quoted from below illustrate aspects of life in Wicklow Town from the 1820s to the 1840s. They are drawn from collections in the National Archives at the Four Courts and Dublin Castle and are reproduced by permission of the Director.

During the period covered by these documents Wicklow was a small market town. It was, however, the county town, no longer a parliamentary borough as it had been before the Union, but an assize town with an impressive new courthouse which stood alongside the County Gaol. It was, therefore, an administrative centre of some importance. Its population was rising, from 2046 in 1821 to 2472 in 1831, and this rise continued through the following decade to 2794 by 1841.(1)

The extract from Pigot’s Directory reproduced on p. 46 lists the names of the most prominent inhabitants of the town and its environs in 1824 and gives some idea of the range of trades then carried on. Most commentators writing about Wicklow at this time were agreed that although it was surrounded by some of the finest scenery in Ireland, the town itself was not particularly impressive. Samuel Lewis, in his Topographical Dictionary, published in 1837, gives a rather unflattering description:

The houses are irregularly built and of very inferior appearance: the streets are narrow and neither paved not lighted, but there is an ample supply of water from springs: the town is a place of resort for sea-bathing during the summer months, and would be much more frequented for this purpose were suitable accommodation provided for visitors. Races occasionally take place on the Murrough, a portion of which is kept as a race-course, on which a small stand has been erected. This border of low land, which extends nearly six miles northwards, slopes down gradually to the strand, which at low water mark, sometimes consists merely of fine sand, but at other times of layers of small pebbles, three or four feet in height and of considerable breadth; many of these pebbles are so esteemed for their beauty as to be bought up by the jewellers in Dublin to be wrought into necklaces and other ornaments. Several neat houses have been lately built on the Murrough, and hot and cold baths are in progress of erection. The market is held on Saturday for butchers’ meat, poultry and vegetables, which are exposed for sale in the market-house and the shambles. There are no regular markets for corn, that article being delivered at the merchants’ stores on any day of the week. The fairs are held on March 28th, May 24th, Aug. 12th, and Nov. 25th. The trade is confined to the exportation of grain and of copper and lead ore, of which 400 tons from the neighbouring mines are shipped weekly, and to the importation of coal, culm, limestone, timber and iron. The narrow estuary of the Vartrey, which forms the harbour, is accessible only to vessels of small burden, in consequence of a bar at its entrance, on which there is only eight feet of water at spring and not more than four of five at neap tides, but vessels may ride in the bay in three or four fathoms of water during the prevalence of western winds. Some attempts were made about the year 1760, to diminish this obstruction, when sums to the amount of £800 were granted by parliament, but did not produce any beneficial result. In 1835 an application was made to the Irish government from the merchants and traders of the port, pointing out the advantages of having a large and secure artificial harbour formed here, which has not been acceded to, in consequence of the expense that must be incurred, as, according to the reports of scientific men, the construction of such a harbour would require an outlay of £80,000. ln the same year the number of vessels belonging to the port was 20, varying in burden from 35 to 100 tons, and about 30 small craft…(2))

Extract from Pigot’s City of Dublin and Hibernia Provincial Directory, 1824

The Parliamentary Gazetteer of 1846 also noted the undeveloped potential of the harbour:

The small bay outside the harbour, and extending to Wicklow Head, is completely sheltered from all southerly, westerly, and north-westerly winds…  Though the port, as regards its connection with the circumjacent country, is advantageously situated for commerce, yet, in consequence chiefly of the very limited capacity of its harbour, it possesses comparatively little business.(3)

It did, however note that:

The quantity of trade in the shipment of ores from the mines of the county has of late been increasing, and is likely to experience still further increase.

Apart from the unrealised potential of the harbour as a port Wicklow was an important fishing centre:

A coast-guard station at Wicklow Head gives name to the district in which the fisheries immediately adjoining the town are included; and, in 1836, there were employed in the fisheries within that district 40 half-decked vessels, aggregately of 560 tons, and worked by 240 men.

Like Lewis, the editors of the Parliamentary Gazetteer were unimpressed by the general appearance of the town and, in these years before the arrival of the railway, also noted its meagre transport facilities:

The streets are narrow, irregular, badly-aligned, and ill adapted to either business or comfort; and they may be regarded as but a degree superior to a group of lanes. The town, in an architectural view, is the poorest of the assize-towns of Ireland; and even in general insignificance, is exceeded only by Lifford… Two small inns in the town, the Acton Arms and the Green Tree, let cars and post-horses; but the beautifully situated hotel at Newrath Bridge is a principal resort of even business visitors to the town during the sitting of the assizes. In 1838 the only public conveyances from the town were two caravans to Dublin; but the Wexford and Dublin mail-coach, though not coming nearer the town than 2 miles, may also be regarded as one of its public conveyances.

Lewis noted that the County Infirmary and Fever Hospital, situated in an airy part of the town, had been built in 1834. The infirmary was supported by county presentments, the petty sessions fines of the whole county, and subscriptions; the fever hospital by subscriptions only. In 1839-40 the infirmary which catered for the entire eastern part of the county, admitted 303 patients (the infirmary in Baltinglass catered for the western side of the county); the fever hospital, which served the district around the town, admitted 376 patients.(4) There was also a parochial almshouse for 15 aged men and widows, supported by the weekly collections of the church, a coal and sick-clothing fund, a fund for supplying the poor with blankets, and a loan fund. The establishment of the Poor Law system in 1838, followed shortly by the opening of the workhouse in Rathdrum, removed some of the responsibility for poor relief from purely local resources, though whether this was to represent an improvement is debatable.

Black Castle. Engraved by J. Greig from a drawing by Geo. Petrie for the Excursions through Ireland 1820.

Wicklow Abbey. From Antiquities of Ireland by Francis Grose, published by N. Hooper 1793.

An example of local response to anticipated crisis is contained in a document, now in the National Archives, which records the decisions of a general meeting held in Halpin’s hotel, Wicklow, on 26 December 1831(5) The immediate reason for the meeting was the anticipated spread of cholera. The epidemic then waging in Europe had reached England in October and was expected to appear in Ireland at any time. The decisions taken at the meeting in Wicklow were printed in the form of a handbill, together with a list of subscriptions, and circulated to raise more funds. The document reads as follows:





The following resolutions were proposed and unanimously adopted:

1st. That a society be now formed for the purpose of ameliorating the condition of the poor of Wicklow, with the view of enabling them to meet the apprehended approach of contagious disease.

2nd. That it appears to this meeting that the best mode of effecting this object will be by promoting cleanliness and warmth in their persons and habitations.

3rd. That we now enter into a subscription and that subscribers of one pound and upwards shall be members of the committee for conducting the business of the society.

4th. That no relief shall be extended without the actual inspection of two or more of the members of this society whose duty it shall be to ascertain the extent and nature of the relief necessary in each case and the most desirable mode of applying it.

5th. That the town shall be divided into six districts, and that two members of the society be appointed to each, who shall immediately inspect the actual condition of the inhabitants of their respective districts and report thereon to a general meeting of the society to be held on the 1st Monday in every month; copies of such report to be laid before the Board of Health.

6th. That Mr. Perrin be requested to act as Treasurer and Mr. A. Nolan as Secretary, with instructions to make application to the non resident gentry and landed proprietors for subscriptions.

7th. That the following members of the society be appointed visitors:

District No.

1. Abbey Lane, Chapel Road, Fitzwilliam Row:

Archdeacon Magee, Rev. John Grant.

2. Back of the Town, Barrack Green, Melancholy Lane:

Rev. H. E. Prior, Mr. J. Rorke.

3. The Street from the entrance to Davis’s, including Miss Coates’s Lane, Mrs. Dudgeon’s Lane:

Mr. Pim, Mr. R. Nolan.

4. From the Archway, rere of the Gaol and Irishtown to P. William’s:

Mr. J. Edwards, Mr. John Reynolds.

5. Remainder of lrishtown and Philip’s Row:

Mr. Perrin, Mr. Halpin.

6. Church Hill, Murrough and Quay:

Mr. Hopkins Mr. A. Nolan.

The following subscriptions have been made; further subscriptions will be received by the Treasurer or Secretary:

Archdeacon Magee£10-0-0Rev. H.E. Prior1-10-0
Mr. Perrin5-0-0Mr. James Halpin1-10-0
Mrs. Edwards Mr. Nicholas Hopkins1-10-0
(Friars Hill)2-0-0Mr. Nolan3-0-0
Rev. Mr. Grant3-0-0Mr. John Edwards2-2-0
Mr. Pim1-0-0Mr. R. Nolan1-0-0
Mr. A. Nolan5-0-0Mr. Jas. Edwards1-10-0
Lord Milton20-0-0Mr. Reynolds1-10-0
Miss Ronan3-0-0Mr. J. Rorke1-10-0
Miss Keoghoe2-0-0Mr. McDowell1-0-0
Mr. Travers3-0-0Mr. S. Smith1-0-0
Mr. G. Halbert1-0-0Mr.Owens1-0-0
Dr. Hamilton£2-0-0  
Together with sundry small sums  

The decision to establish this committee at such an early stage was wise. Cholera made its appearance in Ireland in March 1832 and for the next year ravaged the country, killing many thousands and striking particularly badly in urban areas, where the density of people and houses facilitated its spread. In Sligo town alone it was reported that the disease had been responsible for 643 deaths.(6) In Co. Wicklow the urban areas of Bray and Arklow seem to have been worst affected. The disease made its first appearance in Arklow on 7th April 1832 and between then and April 1833 there were 83 reported cases, 51 of which had resulted in deaths. Other areas of the county affected were the villages of Kilcoole, where there was an outbreak of cholera in July 1832, resulting in three deaths, and Delgany, where the disease made a late appearance in November 1833 with 28 reported cases and three deaths. Board of Health Cholera Reports in the National Archives include no reference to the disease having made an appearance in Wicklow Town.(7) Perhaps this was due to the timely efforts of the committee which was established on St. Stephen’s Day 1831.

• • • • • • • • • • •

Although the town may have been spared the horror of a cholera epidemic, it did not fully escape the popular panic with which it was accompanied. Central to this was the complete ignorance of what was causing the disease. In place of more rational explanations there was a widespread currency of rumour. Among the suggested causes were intemperance, sea-bathing, and the deliberate poisoning of wells, while the possibility of divine displeasure at the Electoral Reform Bill of 1832 was suggested in the House of Commons.(8) It is not surprising, therefore, that among the populace at large there were disturbances associated with the disease. Bridges were destroyed and roads blocked to isolate areas where the disease had already broken out. Cholera hospitals, among them those in Blackrock, Co. Dublin, and in the collieries at Castlecomer, were physical attacked in the not altogether mistaken belief that they were more likely to spread the disease than to cure it. Doctors were attacked for the same reason and meetings called to establish local boars of health, such as the one which had been held in Wicklow on St. Stephen’s Day 1831, were broken up by the crowds once the disease had made its appearance.(9) Even without the epidemic, popular feelings were running high. The mass campaign for Catholic Emancipation which reached a sudden successful conclusion in 1829 and the renewed agrarian violence of the 1830s, directed against the payment of tithes, increased popular tensions. Both campaigns had their prophetic and apocalyptic elements, with wild talk about the imminent overthrow of Protestantism and the appearance of mystical signs to this effect.  On such fertile ground the more exotic theories as to the causes of the cholera and what might be required to remedy it were quick to take hold.

On the night of 12 June 1832 the Sub Inspector of Police in Wicklow, William Johnston, received an alarming report from the Chief Constable at Rathdrum.


June 12 1832


I beg to inform you that this town is in the greatest state of alarm possible by several men running into it without either shoes or stockings – several had not even a hat on – throwing bits of turf in to the houses of Roman Catholics, telling them to take the cure and pray to keep the cholera away, as several hundreds are dead at the other side of the mountains. I sent up to Glenmalure to find out and one person told my man that they were burning the towns at the other side in consequence of the plague. However, all the Protestants think there is going to be a general rising immediately. The state of alarm is beyond description.(10)

At 3:00 a.m. the next morning, the Sub Inspector at Wicklow wrote in some panic to his superiors in Dublin Castle to alert them of this and other extraordinary occurrences in the neighbourhood:

This communication was forwarded from one house to another by the signal of a piece of burnt stick, or turf and the ostensible reasons given for this proceeding were to preserve the inmates from the cholera which was said to have broken out at Glenmalure, to protect them from a ball of fire which it was stated had burnt up the town of Carlow, with other reasons equally preposterous.

You will perceive from the enclosed letter from Mr. Lefroy, Chie Constable, that great alarm prevailed at Rathdrum – I beg also to state that the inhabitants of Wicklow have been in considerable consternation and that many families have sat up during the night. Several persons without shoes, stockings or hat, who were found knocking at doors with burnt sticks in their hands have been taken into custody by the inhabitants.

I propose making the magistrates acquainted with all these circumstances immediately in order that the matter may be fully investigated.(11)

What was taking place in Co. Wicklow on the 12th and 13th of June was part of a wider phenomenon that swept most of the country from Cork to Donegal in the week between Saturday 9 June and Friday 15 June 1832.(12) Although the exact details varied from place to place there were elements in common. All involved reports either of an outbreak of cholera in a neighbouring locality or of the destruction of that place by supernatural forces. There were reports of apparitions, usually involving the Blessed Virgin, and warnings of impending disaster unless certain steps were taken. All involved the distribution of “blessed” turf, straw, or sticks, usually to seven households at each of which prayers were to be said. Although in retrospect most commentators believed the origins of the reports to have been innocent, or at worst mischievous, rather than a widespread conspiracy, the speed with which the reports spread to opposite ends of the country was cause for official disquiet. There were suspicions that what had taken place was some kind of test to see how quickly clandestine messages could be sent through the country.

When Sub Inspector Johnston had time to take stock of the situation in Wicklow he wrote again to his superiors.


12 June 1832

Having just returned from a meeting of magistrates which was held here this day, I have the honour to report that nothing further was elicited on the subject of the communications carried on through the entire of this part of the country last night and yesterday.

The eleven men taken up last night were questioned and they agreed in stating that others had come to their houses, who said that Carlow was consumed by a fire ball and that they were to say certain prayers, and each person to carry the intelligence to seven houses, which had not been previously warned.

Nothing further appeared against these persons who were discharged by the magistrates in consequence.(13)

One Magistrate, John Lees, who lived near Aughrim made his own report to Dublin Castle on 15 June giving his impressions of what had happened in the county.

The servers of notice on one occasion, in my presence declared that Dr. Doyle of Carlow [the Catholic Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin] and the blessed priests were out, heading the people, and endeavouring to stop the disease. . .

There appears to be great apprehension existing among the people in this part of the county, in the mountainous district between Arklow and Tinahely. One of my tenants told me they were bound under the threat of having their houses burnt to turn out on the sounding of a horn on the town lands. On Wednesday evening after dark I distinctly heard horns sounding on Ballycooge and Coolahurler lands and although the night was exceedingly wet, yet in the course of that time the people had erected a very large signal tower on the very pinnacle of the mountain, over those two town lands. There are five of these towers on the hills surrounding my property…(14)

Signal towers and fires on hills featured in reports from several part of East and South Wicklow including Newtownmountkennedy, Tinahely and Rathdrum. The Sub Inspector at Wicklow wrote on 16th June enclosing some of these reports and referring to the erection of mounds of earth on hills towards Arklow. By then the situation had eased considerably:

Some older inhabitants claimed that there had been similar alarms and movements of people in the summer of 1798 just before the rebellion and many were convinced that a massacre of Protestants was about to take place. Indeed there was a danger that some of these rumours would become self-fulfilling prophecies as panic gripped both sides. In Tinahely a man had galloped into the town and said that the rebels were rising. He later swore on oath that he had passed a party of twenty men armed with pikes on the road between Aughrim and Tinahely. The Protestant inhabitants of the surrounding countryside had flocked to the town and sought refuge in the market house from where they petitioned the Lord Lieutenant for a military force to be sent to the village and for the yeomanry to be mobilised.(16)

• • • • • • • • • •

In fact the policing of the county at this time was, and continued to be, a fairly low-profile operation. From one report in the National Archives it appears that the magistrates had decided there were times when discretion was the better part of valour. That the annual races on the Murrough was one of these occasions is clear from a letter sent by Chief Constable Lefroy to the Sub Inspector in Bray on 13 July 1836:

I beg to report to you that the Races of Wicklow are fixed for the 18th inst. and have to state that for several years past the police have not attended, it being the wish of the magistrates as in June 1829 they were attacked by a mob. You will therefore have the kindness to give me your orders and instructions as to what force is to attend and if they are to go on the course or remain in the barracks.(17)

The reply from headquarters was straight and to the point: the police should attend in force and the stipendiary magistrate should also attend.(18)

It is not recorded in official sources how the renewed presence of the police in such numbers was received nor is it clear from the reports of 1829 why the original disturbances had taken place. A digest of a report from Chief Constable Lefroy on 8 June 1829 merely stated that the police were attacked at the Races of Wicklow by an immense mob who threw several stones at them. Lefroy added that the district was in general peaceable but political feeling was much agitated by party spirit.(19) Perhaps some clue to the reasons both for the attendance of the police and for their less than rapturous reception on these occasions by the race-going fraternity of Wicklow is contained in the register of Wicklow Gaol which records in June 1846 the incarceration of three locals who had been found gambling on the Race Course.(20)

Police reports, gaol registers, census reports, maps and directories are among the many sources for Wicklow local history available in the National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office of Ireland and the State Paper Office) in the Four Courts and Dublin Castle. The reading rooms are open to the public from 10.00 until 5.00, Monday to Friday. There is no charge to readers.


(1) Census of Population 1821, Parliamentary Gazetteer of Ireland, Vol. 111, 1846, p. 566.

(2) Samuel Lewis, Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, London, 1837.

(3) Parliamentary Gazetteer of Ireland, Vol. 111, 1846.

(4) ibid, p. 566

(5) National Archives, M6856

(6) Archdeacon T. O’Rorke, The History of Sligo Town and County, Dublin 1889, Vol 1, p. 384. For a detailed account of this and other 19th Century epidemics in Ireland see Timothy P. O’Neill, ‘Fever and public health in pre-Famine Ireland’ in Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 0111, 1973, pp. 16-24.

(7) National Archives, Board of Health Cholera Reports for Co. Wicklow, 1833- 34.

(8) National Archives, Board of Health Cholera Papers, various papers;

O’Rorke, op cit p. 380; Asa Briggs, The Age of Improvement, London, 1959, p. 254.

(9) National Archives, Board of Health Cholera Papers, Various Papers; National Archives, State Paper Office, CSORP Outrage Reports, 1832/ 15479 (popular disturbances in Sligo), CSORP Outrage Reports, 1832/ 1915 (disturbances in Castlecomer).

(10) National Archives, State Paper Office, CSORP Outrage Reports 1832/ 1010.

(11) ibid.

(12) The most comprehensive account of these events is in S. J. Connolly, ‘The “blessed turf”: cholera and popular panic in Ireland, June 1832’, Irish Historical Studies, Vol. XXIII, No. 91, May 1983, pp. 214-232.

(13) National Archives, State Paper Office, CSORP Outrage Reports 1832/ 1010.

(14) “Memorandum on the late turf burning transaction in the Co. of Wicklow”, National Archives, State Paper Office, CSORP Outrage Reports 1832/ 1077.

(15) National Archives, State Paper Office, CSORP Outrage Reports 1832/950.

(16) ibid and CSORP Outrage Reports 1832/1047.

(17) National Archives, State Paper Office, CSORP Outrage Reports 1836/32/ 100.

(18) ibid

(19) National Archives, State Paper Office, Constabulary Monthly Statement of Outrages, June 1829, Leinster. (I am grateful to Dr. P. Connolly of the National Archives for bringing this document to my attention).

(20) National Archives, Prison Registers.


Did you know that in Sept. 1753 it was illegal to spread dung out to dry on the Barrack Green. Borough Council Records record the following order:-

“That no person or persons lay any dung on the Fair or Barrack Green or dig any clay out of the same, on pain of forfeiting five shillings (25p) for every offence and losing the dung laid on the same, and that all persons that have dung on the said green have time till the first day of March next to take or draw the same away.”

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