Brief History of Rathdrum

Detail from Nevils Map of Wicklow 1760

This article has been compiled for the Heritage Office using Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland 1838 and The Irish Tourist Association (ITA) survey 1943 as baseline source information. These valuable historical records are stored in the Local Studies Collection of Wicklow County Council Library service and may be viewed by appointment.

The name Rathdrum means literally the “fort on the hill”The Irish TouristAssociation (ITA) survey from 1943 described Rathdrum as “situated high on a prominence overlooking the AvonmoreRiver and it is believed that at one time a large and important rath was located here from which the town takes its name. There is at the present time no trace whatever of this rath and no remnant of antiquity to link the town with the past” It is thought to have been a strong hold for the Celtic Chieftains of the Crioc-Cuolan. Due to the village’s vantage point high above the Avoca valley, it’s easy to see why the area has been associated with fortifications since ancient times.

In 1595 Sir William Fitzwilliam Lord Deputy of Ireland took control of Rathdrum from Pheagh MacHugh Byrne as a part of the Tudor attempt to extend the pale south from Dublin during the 9 years war. This was the beginning of a concerted effort to dispossess the major indigenous families of the area, the Byrnes and the O’Tooles, and to extend the power of central government in Dublin. The defeat of the Gaelic chieftains in the 9 years war (1594-1603) and the flight of the earlsin 1607 was the beginning of a century that destroyed the power of Gaelic Irish aristocracy. The 17th C saw their titles being granted to mainly English landlords as they met with defeat time and again. First during the English Civil War (1642-1651) when the Catholic Confederation joined the side of King Charles I and later during the Glorious Revolution (1688) when the remaining Gaelic aristocracy backed the dethroned catholic King James II. These series of defeats weakened the position of the Irish Gaelic families all over Ireland. In Wicklow, these events assisted the extension of the pale further into the valleys around Rathdrum and the relegation of the Byrnes and O’Toole’s to lands in the west of the county.

According to Lewis Topographical Dictionary (LTD) in 1838, Rathdrum is described as “a market and post town, and a parish in the barony of Ballinacor, county of Wicklow containing 2688 inhabitants of which number 1054 are in the town”. By 1838 the village had formerly been a center of a flourishing local flannel and woolen cloth trade which had necessitated the erection of a flannel hall in 1795. By 1838 however trade in flannel and woolen cloth had collapsed due to the repeal of protective tithes 12 years earlier. Rathdrum also contained two breweries at the time. The LTD goes on to state that fairs were held “on the last Thursday in Feb., May and Aug, and on April 5th, July 5th, Oct. 10th, and Dec 11th; and at Ballinderry on April 21st, May 16th, and Aug 21st, Oct 29th, the first Monday in Nov, and Dec 2nd. Petty sessions for the barony are held on alternate Thursdays in the flannel hall, and there is a chief constabulary police station in the town.”   

The LTD states that the “parish which contains 33,863 acres, as applotted under the tithe act, is subdivided into the constablewicks of Ballincor, Ballykine, Knockrath and Rathdrum, and comprises the villages of Aughrim, Ballinaclash, Ballinderry, Cappagh, Clara, Greenan, Moycreddin or Carysfort and Sheanna.”. The arable land at the time amounted to “5484 statute acres” and were mainly under tillage the dominant crop being oats, the remainder according to the LTD “is under pasture; the butter made here is (was) of a very superior quality and in high request in the Dublin market.”

The LTD (1838) also recounts that the mountains north of Rathdrum were rich in minerals. At the time there was a lead mine in Ballyfinchogue which was run by the Royal Irish Mining Company. Lewis’ Dictionary records that in 1837“the annual produce is about 300 tons of galena, which was formerly smelted here,but now is merely washed and exported; the ore produces about 75 per cent of pure metal.” Excellent building granite and quartz stone were also found in the area.

By 1943 the Irish Tourist Association (ITA) Topographical and General Survey notes that there were between 700-800 people living in the town indicating a slight decrease in the general population over the previous century. Not however as extreme a population decrease as in some parts of the West of Ireland suffered during the famine, but significant nonetheless. This change in population was more likely due to economic factors such as the decline of agricultural industries and the subsequent drain of emigration to America and Britain which dominated late 19th and early 20th century rural life.




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