Rathnew is known by several names including ‘The Village,’ ‘The Thatched City,’ and the ‘Khaki Village. This is an area with a long, rich and varied heritage. Rathnew is royal ground due to the genealogy of it’s founder ‘Naoi.’ His father was Sedna Siothbach, King of Leinster, his grandfather was Lugaidh Lorrin, also a Leinster King after whom a Wicklow mountain is named. ‘Naoi’s’ brother Masc founded his settlement or Dun at what is now Dunamase in Portlaoise. (The Dun of masc.) ‘Naoi’ founded his settlement or rath at what is now modern day Rathnew. (The Rath of Naoi.) His name can only be found today in the placename. Anglicised down to Rathnew.
The name Ernene however, or St. Ernene as he later became, can be found in the sporting and cultural life of the village. He founded his church in Naoi’s territory. The remains of his church can be found there to this day at the old graveyard. As a novice monk at Clonmacnoise he was looked down on by his fellow monks. A visitor, Columbanus, later St. Columba, chastised the monks for their treatment of Ernene and predicted that he would do great things. Ernene is associated with the old graveyard at Killadreenan in Newtown. His feast day is August 18th as is the feast day of the patron saint of Portmarnock in Dublin, who share their saint and feast day with Rathnew. St. Ernene died in the mid 630s.
It was recorded that Danish vikings having established a base at Wicklow later occupied Rathnew for a time but there is no physical proof unearthed to back this up.
Drumkay Church was located at modern day Knockrobbin when Wicklow lay in the Parish of Rathnew. Drumkay consisted of three distinct areas covering 8,640 acres. Drumkay Church stood in the smallest of these areas which was less than 8 acres. Drumkay may possibly be associated with two saints, St. Caerde and St. Coen, (St. Kevin.) The actual placename according to theological historians may mean the ‘Holy ridge of St. Coen.’
With the coming of the Anglo-Normans the O’ Byrne clan lost one of the seats from which their leaders were elected. That of Sliocht Donnchadh na h-lubhraighe at Newrath. (‘The place of the Yews.’) The remains of an Anglo-Norman defended farmstead can still be found in the area and another settlement area was at Milltown, where a wealthy Anglo-Norman settler had a nasy divorce case.
By 1609 the area was under the English administration from Dublin Castle, the county of Wicklow was but three years old and it was said that there was a castle to be seen at Newrath at this time. All trace of this has vanished since. By the 1660s the Newrath Inn had been established and was a staging post on the Waterford to Dublin route. John Middleton was the man in charge by the late 1660s and was ably assisted by Darby the Smith. The blacksmith operated his forge from here and the horses were stabled at the Inn. The head of the Crown forces in Ireland and Commissioner of the Poll Tax, Abraham Yarner had settled here and a Lieutenant Yarner was listed as living there in 1668. One of the most famous visitors to Newrath Inn (Hunter’s Hotel) was Sir Walter Scott, the author of the Waverly novels.
When the Battle of the Boyne (1690) was over and King William emerged victorious, the vanquished King James fled south. He stopped at the Milltown stream and washed his hands there. By doing so he transfered his curse to the water. (‘The King’s Evil’ was the name put to the curse and once this happened it was said that the curse would last for eternity.) It is said that while at Dunganstown Castle he sat down on a seat but did not transfere the curse there. The waters of the stream at Milltown have been cursed ever since.
Priests and Rebels:
There are five Parish Priests buried in the old graveyard at Rathnew, these include Rathnew native Fr. William Cavanagh who was listed as living at ‘Ballyloske’ in 1704 and Fr. Andrew O’ Toole who Luke Cullen claimed was murdered by Wicklow Militiamen at Tighe’s Avenue in 1799. Art Murphy the hapless ex-rebel and the man forced into hanging Billy Byrne of Ballymanus is buried here, it was said that he died of a broken heart having been forced at bayonet point to do the bloody deed. It is more likely that Murphy died as a result of the bayonet wounds he received. he was playing a rebel ballad at what is now the corner of Hopkin’s supermarket on the Main Street and Hopkin’s Hill as it is known today, when he was roped in to do the deed. The rebel ballad he was singing apparently upset the soldiers of the execution party and they decided that he needed an abject lesson in loyalty. Two 1798 rebels from the battle of Arklow are also buried in the graveyard as no doubt are survivors of the period who did not die in battle but of old age. The area was a hotbed of rebel activity at this time with John Murphy of Knockrobbin, a hedge school teacher organising the local area and helping set up the Co. Wicklow Committee of United Irishmen. They held their meetings at the Inn owned by John Brett at Ashford. (Modern day Woodpecker.) One of Murphy’s men, Watters, was apprehended as he was heading home after mass, he was a marked man and was strung up from a tree just outside the village. He was left to hang but was cut down by locals, he was still alive. He was never the same man again, having been oxygen starved. Local rebels engaged in marathon drinking sessions in the area and in Ashford and at one point robbed the Mail Coach at Newrath, scattering letters around the Wicklow Hills. Wicklow was a garrison town and a Yeoman Cavalry headquarters but rebels seemed to enjoy an unusual freedom of movement just outside of it. The United Irish rebel activity in the area ceased abruptly with the capture and ‘examination’ (torture and threats) of John Murphy. He was then removed far away from the Wicklow area so as to curtail his influence. His confession told all and led the authorities to target many individuals in the area and did extensive damage to the organisation. Murphy, before being removed from the area, was tried by Courts Martial and sentenced.
The area became peaceful after the rebellion but local loyalists still feared the gathering of men at night. A group of men seen in Rathnew village together after dark were reported to Dublin castle as being grouped together for a sinister and disloyal purpose. The mail Coach rider and guard were instructed to report all suspicious activity on their journey which included lights being on in a group of houses in the village after dark.The fear of plots and insurrection would take almost twenty years to ease. A report for Ashford in 1819 declared the area to be ‘peaceful.’
With the founding of the National school system, local children received an education in the local school run by Joseph and Brigid Thomas. They were paid £20 per year and another £30 from private subscriptions. Michael Egan ran the Day School and was paid £28 per year and had free fuel from local parents. At one point the students had to move outside while work was being carried on in the national School, they all had new desks and chairs at the time which was in sharp contrast to the condition of the building. There was a fire in the room with the favoured students allowed closer, milk bottles stood on the ground beside the fire to heat up the cold contents. The London Hibernian Society supplied Michael Egan with a house and free books. his pupils had also to supply him with one penny per week as was common at the time. Local Landlords also promoted private schools and Sunday schools. John McGuiness ran one such school at Clonmannon and it was supported by Mr. Truell, who supplied books free of charge and paid Mr. McGuinness £20 per year. The Sunday schools taught religious instruction. Each pupil was educated in the basics of reading, writing and arithmatic, just enough to get by on with special household and dairy keeping instructions as extra for the girls. It was just enough to keep the pupils clean, God fearing and vice free. A schoolteacher was but a short level ahead of his oldest pupils. Everybody knew their place in society and that was governed more by class than ambition. Pupils were not allowed to have ambitions above their station in life.
The Thatched City:
Fever, disease, grinding poverty and famine dominated the years 1835 to 1880 in the village of Rathnew. In the 1830s farm labourers and their families were evicted by agent Carroll from the Ashford estate. To make sure the former tenants did not return, he had their houses knocked down. These tenants were described as good, decent and honest men. They and their families moved into Rathnew and onto the commons and land in the ownership of Miss Blake of Rathdrum. They erected houses there and did so quickly to give shelter to themselves and their dependents. Each house was mud walled with the thatch made of reeds from the lakeside. Each house was erected in just three days with everyone giving a helping hand. There was a hurried haphazzard nature to building the houses and that was why a front door of one faced a side window or back door of another. The houses lasted for almost a hundred years and gave birth to the title the ‘Thatched City.’ The men then looked for jobs as farm labourers as that was the only industry in the area. They founded a religious celebration which was the forerunner of the Corpus Christi Procession. The villagers also elected a ‘King of the Commons’ each year. In the years that followed there were problems with fever and disease as there was no proper water, sewerage or sanitation and this would remain a problem into the new century. The Famine years had an effect on the village also, with many being removed to the fever hospital to await death, conditions were very bad in the thatched houses and sickness rife. The potato blight started with infected seed potato being exported to Europe from America, which resulted in many casualties across different countries including 10,000 in France. The death figures for the Famine period in Co. Wicklow matched those of France, some of these were from Rathnew. Any problems the villagers had were usually sorted out amongst themselves without involving the law. This changed somewhat with the opening in 1878 of the Royal Irish Constabulary barracks. (Now Rocky’s shop – it closed in 1924.) The hard working and hard drinking citizens at times resented the presence of the police and especially as they were of a nationalist mindset and saw the constables as a foreign oppressive force. This led to trouble and fighting on many occasions. By 1847 there were 544 villagers living in 107 houses in the area, many with large families. The ‘Thatched City’ houses proved to be highly dangerous at times. In one instance a candle set fire to curtains in one of the cabins and three of the buildings were destroyed as a result. In another instance the thatch roof of a cabin began collapsing and the family fled. The woman of the house however realised she had left her favourite shawl behind and ran back inside. The entire roof collapsed and killed her instantly.
The first steam driven velocipede on the bicycle principle in County Wicklow was designed and built by villager John Taylor of Knockrobbin for Mr. Eccles of Cronroe, Ashford. At one point there was a war of words in the local newspaper over who had first taken this honour. John Taylor won by a 40 year period over his rival from Arklow for the earliest built machine. For all intents and purposes this was a three wheel bicycle driven by steam. The steam was produced by a fire to the rear of the rider’s seat. Taylor’s invention reached a top speed of 12 Irish miles per hour.
A Famous Resident:
The most famous resident in Rathnew had to be Captain Robert Halpin of ‘Great Eastern’ and underwater telegraphic cable laying fame. Though Rod Stewart was spotted outside the Captain’s old home, he could not be considered a resident. Captain Halpin laid 26,000 miles of undersea telegraphic cable which linked four continents. As big a milestone as the internet of today with regard to worldwide communications. The Captain built his retirement home in Rathnew, Tinakilly House. While he involved himself in the local community organisations and society in general, he also employed locals to work his land. He and his wife, Newfoundlander, Jessie Halpin would put on parties for Royal birthdays and special celebrations and would always invite local children to the festivities.
There is a long fighting tradition in the village and while dying may not be the best way to earn a living, many villagers for financial, patriotic and adventurous reasons signed up. Rathnew men took part in the battle of Trafalgar, in the Spanish-American War, (on land and sea) the Boer War and two World Wars. Many did not return, such as Privates Collard and Marah from WW1. Many of the men returned from foreign battlefields with wives in tow and from this the gypsy association sprang up. It is a false assumption that Rathnew was a gypsy village. During one year in WW1 the village had the highest number of eligible men fighting at the front per head of population of any small village in the British Isles, it was said there were just two men of eligible age left in the area, Newtown was in second place on the table. A Sinn Fein Band decided to march out to the village from Wicklow in what can only be described as a provocative event. They were accompanied by a band from Ashford. The women of Rathnew were not about to sit back and let this happen when their men were fighting in the trenches at the front. They wiped the floor with the members of the two bands and sent them back where they came from. That is not to say however that all locals were anti Sinn Fein, far from it. Locals were very active in the War of Independence and afterwards in the cause of nationalism. There is a term used which denotes people from Rathnew, ‘shonny,’ which comes from the old Irish and means in translation ‘servant of the English.’ The origin of this term lies in the number of fighting men down through the years who donned the British Army uniform. The term is sometimes thrown out in a derogatory manner but is in fact a back handed compliment when used in this way.
The Corpus Christi Procession:
The Corpus Christi Procession started in Rathnew before the outbreak of WW1 in 1914. The religious procession replaced an earlier religious celebration of the 19th century. The Procession drew considerable numbers in the early years, one attendance was registered at 10,000. Down through the years the numbers fell from thousands to a few hundred. The village would always be decorated for the big day with evergreen and bunting with banners. The houses would all get a new whitewash and the area was cleaned up. Benediction through the years was held in several local fields with a march to and from the venue back to the church. In the war years prayers were said for the locals at the front and the growing list of dead. The parade was always made up of clergy, (local and visitors,) nuns, Children of Mary, schoolchildren, Men’s Sodality, choirs, and even an Old IRA column in the 1920s which was later replaced by the local LSF and then FCA. The Rathnew Fife and Drum Band attended as did St. Patrick’s Wicklow Pipe Band (to give it the original name) from 1946. Locals, villagers and visitors also attended with special buses laid on from Wicklow Town by CIE for the event. In 2014 the centenary of the procession will be celebrated.
The Rathnew Brickworks:
Bricks were made by hand on the site from the 1860s and a Mr. Thompson, while on visit saw the potential for mass production of the fine quality bricks. By 1896 he was open for business. This was the first non agricultural industry to set up in the area and it lasted until 1915. With the impact of war, a decline in building work and a strike the business closed down. It later opened for a further period of one year. (For a full history of the brickworks see the article ‘The Rathnew Brickworks,’ by this author, on this site.)
The Band hall:
The Band Hall in Rathnew is exactly that, a hall for the local band. The hall was built by voluntary donations and voluntary labour which was finished in 1927. The hall has served many community groups and organisations down through the years and was a venue for dances, music performances and drama productions. The hall was also the headquarters of the Rathnew Fife and Drum Band and was used to store their equipment and instruments. The hall also served as the local dispensary and in modern times is used by the Corpus Christi Procession organisers for storage.
St. Brigid’s Hall:
The hall was built by 1928 and has served many different groups and organisations until it recently closed. Rathnew GAA, the Pigeon Club and the old Boxing Club held meetings there. The hall was used for dances, film shows, fundraisers, parties, disco’s, drama performances and concerts. The hall was home to the multi-award winning St. Brigid’s Dramatic Society in the late 1950s and early 1960s and the drama tradition continued down to the present with the Village Players performances. Religious plays were also performed here and the hall was a makeshift church for Mass as renovations were carried out on the church. The Corpus Christi Procession organisers also held meetings here. The hall was the headquarters for the local company of the LSF (1939-45) and the local company of the FCA. (1950s) In political terms the hall was used by various parties for local meetings and public meetings. The hall was also used by the Rathnew Development Association to carry out vital work on behalf of the villagers, and as an ANCO centre in the 1980s. After this the hall was used as a Traveller Training Centre. The local Youth Club held many activities here and put on disco’s for local children and at one point the hall served as a welfare office. A new, fully modern, purpose built hall will now serve the needs of the local community well into the future.
Rathnew has a long and varied sporting heritage which included cricket, wrestling, cock fighting, horse and dog racing in the older times to the multi-award and trophy winning teams and individuals in running and track events, boxing, GAA, soccer and equestrian events of modern times.
Rathnew can lay claim to two All Ireland award winning groups. St. Brigid’s Dramatic Society in the late 1950s and 1960s, winning many awards on the All Ireland circuit and in the performance of religious plays. The second All Ireland award winners were the Tug of War team which was at its height in the mid 1970s.