The Last County - Communications

The Argentine Ptolemy
The Last County
Taylor and Skinner's Road Maps, Dublin to Clonegal and Carnew
The Last County

Although our earliest written record of what is now called Wickow is from the works of Ptolemy (150-200 A.D.) this information is vague as it is given in the form of co-ordinate points rather than in a map. The position and validity of these points has always been disputed. Map-making in Ireland was to remain a very inaccurate discipline until the seventeenth century when the work of great cartographers such as John Speed and William Petty greatly improved their quality.

Prior to this the most accurate maps of the country were from the works of Europeans. A popular map of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, known as The Argentine Ptolemy, can be seen on page 49. Although it is wildly inaccurate in its charting of the west coast, the east coast is relatively well plotted. The many British and Europeans who traded with the settlements on the Irish Sea ensured a familiarity with this side of the country. In this map, aversion of which was used by Pareto as early as 1455, four Wicklow place-names can be clearly identified; Arcello (Arklow), Vicello (Wicklow), Ardroim (Bray Head) and Bre (Bray). Wicklow’s administrative position at the end of the sixteenth century is represented in Boazio’s map of the country in 1599 (see centre spread). The process of conquest together with administrative necessity over the next two hundred years resulted in the first reliable maps of Wicklow being made by William Petty in his Down Survey of 1673.

Wicklow: Unknown Territory

Until its shiring Wicklow was an unknown territory to all but its inhabitants, because of its mountains, woods, lack of roads and substantial bridges. Wicklow, being isolated between both the Dublin and Wexford Pales, lacked the infrastructure of these areas. In fact, even its natives would have been unfamiliar with the county beyond their neighbourhood, as travel was only something undertaken out of necessity. The inhabitants of the coastal towns would have had more contact with Dublin and Wexford than with their own hinterlands, the turbulence of the decades leading to its shiring would have made travel unsafe for long periods. Wheeled vehicles could not have been used, so transport was restricted to what a person or a horse could carry on its back. The general illiteracy of the population meant that messages were usually passed on by word of mouth. Such an unreliable system of communication would have weakened the administrative structure of the new county. The changes in mapping, infrastructure, trade and administration that occurred after 1604 were to enable the opening up of the interior of the county to settlement and facilitate the growth of industries and the development of Wicklow as a modem county.

The Hazards of 17th Century Travel

Travel in the seventeenth century was a potentially dangerous undertaking. Apart from hazardous pathways over mountains, inclement weather, wolves, and a lack of inns in which to pass the night, the traveller was forced to face the peril of raparees or highwaymen. Wicklow afforded these men the same safe refuge it had offered the O’Byrnes, O’Tooles and O’Kavanaghs in the past. The new wealth and settlements in the county made it a profitable place for such pursuits. Well into the eighteenth century the road from Blessington to Dublin was still a notorious route for highwaymen and it was not until the construction of the Military Road that this danger was removed for good. The existence of press-gangs in coastal areas made it even more dangerous for male travellers right up until the nineteenth century. A letter dated 3rd April 1734 from Lord Dorset to the Chief Magistrate of Wicklow Town illustrates this point. It leaves no doubt as to the profitability of forming these gangs for:

“all persons who shall be entrusted with the conducting of such seamen and seafaring men to such vessels shall be paid by the commanding officers thereof for their encouragement twenty shillings for each seaman and seafaring man fit for the said service and six pence a mile for every mile they respectively travel.” (1)

William Petty and The Down Survey

The numerous wars both internally and externally ensured that the press-gang was a constant threat. These wars also brought about the first accurate mapping of the county. The Confederate and Cromwellian war of the 1640s and 1650s was an immense drain on the government’s resources. In order to pay its soldiers and debts Parliament offered vast tracts of land, that had been confiscated from those who had not shown them “constant good affection” during the war, for sale. To facilitate this transfer of land a survey of the entire country was commissioned. William Petty, an English physician of considerable fame (he reputedly revived a dead woman who had been hanged for infanticide, while a professor of anatomy in Oxford), won the contract for what was to become known as the Down Survey. Although not within the scope of his contract he took it upon himself to map the results of his survey, thus giving it its name as it was put ‘down’ on maps. His map of Wicklow, completed in 1673, consisted of individual maps of each barony, or half-barony and a general map of the county.

These maps give a very good idea of the state of the county in the late 17th century. The eastern baronies of Rathdrum, Newcastle and Arklow are well mapped, showing a large number of settlements, as are parts of Talbotstown Upper and Lower. The rest of the county is quite lacking in detail, the mountains and glens proving too inhospitable an environment for effective survey or settlement. Much of what is included, such as “The Liffey Head” is very much out of place, the surveying techniques of the day being unable to cope with the special difficulties in charting highlands.

New Settlement and New Roads

The mountains excepted, Wicklow was now mapped sufficiently to accommodate new settlement. The new towns that had appeared in the sixteenth century began to grow, but the war between James and William temporarily halted this. Upon William and Mary’s joint accession to the throne in 1689, a period of relative peace that was to last for more than a century was ushered in. Earlier in the century the building and maintaining of roads and bridges was the responsibility of local landowners and laborers the former being obliged by law to furnish horses and vehicles for six days per annum and the latter to labour for six days. Now this building was the responsibility of the Grand Juries who were empowered to raise money for the construction of highways, however, the six days compulsory labour was availed of until the 1760s when a local cess or tax was introduced to help pay labourers’ wages. Given the many famines in the country during this century, road building was also used as a form of relief work.

Pitiful Harbours

Where possible, water was still the preferred mode of transport. Apart from the Irish Sea, the only other waterway of importance in the county was the Slaney river in the west. This had long been used, since the days of Thomas Wentworth in the 1630s, to transport timber from the Shillelagh oak woods and was still used for similar purposes for the remainder of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The coastal ports of the county do not appear to have been of any great importance, as they were quite often dismissed by travellers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. De Latocnayne in 1796 finds fault with Arklow, as ships could come to no more than a mile near the shore. Later in 1815 Wicklow harbour “might be much improved by constructing a pier” (2). Bray was shown in an even worse light since

“as long as its harbour is suffered to remain destitute of either quay or pier for the accommodation of shipping, it must continue a summer lodging and bathing station, for which purpose it is extremely well adapted, but can never enjoy the benefit derivable from the establishment of a manufactory, requiring plenty of fuel cheaply conveyed by water” (3).

In the 1830s Edward Wakefield was to write that “Wicklow and Arklow scarcely deserve the name harbours, and therefore any description of them is useless” (4).

Introduction of a Postal System

The improvement of roads in the eighteenth century facilitated the introduction of the Penny Post. After this act was passed in 1765, Dublin and London were the first cities to introduce it. Bray, Enniskerry and Delgany were to fall within the range of the Dublin city network. Before this, post was erratic and unregulated as the post chaise was the only regular means of post or travel. It was much slower than that which replaced it. It did however have the advantage of allowing its passengers sample the delights of the many inns on its route, most noteably Hunter’s Hotel, near Rathnew.

Now 2d. would ensure the quick and safe delivery of a letter from Enniskerry to Dublin and an extra charge would ensure an equally safe delivery to London. In 1784 a separate Post Office was established in Ireland and the Post Master General was empowered to improve and construct roads. By the nineteenth century a mail coach service was in operation. Wicklow was served by two lines, Dublin to Naas and Dublin to Wexford via Rathdrum. This brought the towns of Arklow, Ashford, Blessington, Bray, Camew, Delgany,Newtownmountkennedy, Rathdrum and Tinahely within a nationwide mail-coach network. Wicklow town and Baltinglass were connected to these routes by foot. Price depended on distance from Dublin, 4d. from Blessington to Dublin, 6d. from Rathdrum to Dublin and 10d. from Blessington to Rathdrum. This system was to remain until the introduction of uniform postage in the United Kingdom in 1839.

Military Road

Again in 1798 communications were disrupted by war, but this time the improved infrastructure, which had been very accurately mapped in 1778 by Taylor and Skinner, allowed the rapid deployment of troops which helped lead to the relatively quick suppression of the rebel forces. The last remnants of the Rebellion hiding in the mountains under the leadership of Michael Dwyer were to help bring about a most important chapter in the history of communication in Wicklow, the building of the Military Road. Finding it impossible to capture the insurgents the government decided to rid itself of its problem of the Wicklow mountains for ever. The road was based on an earlier successful measure taken in the Scottish Highlands, “when they were infested with banditties and was the means of rooting them out and securing the peace of the country” (5). The commanding officer in the mountains was Lieut. Col. George Stewart who on 19th June 1800, issued the following proclamation;

“Notice is hereby given that the mountain roads are now opened by the troops under my command. The possession of those roads, passes and mountains will most effectually open the country, and enable me to protect the persons and property of all its loyal inhabitants, in and near them and to protect them when carrying the produce of the country to the markets of the towns below, and will afford them an opportunity of destroying the banditti that now infest the country; it will also enable the people to travel with safety to the mountains at all times, and to bring provisions to His Majesty’s troops there, who will pay the market price for it; and I will give immediate protection to any of the inhabitants who shall assist me, or any detachment of the troops, in securing any of the gang of Robbers headed by Michael Dwyer” (6).

Two hundred soldiers were paid five shillings per day, while extra help was given by local inhabitants for one penny per day. The military road was the first purpose built road in the country and as such it was well serviced with five barracks at Glencree, Laragh, Drumgoff, Aghavannagh and Leitrim. Beginning in Rathfarnham, the road branches off at Glencree towards Enniskerry and the main road continues towards the Sally Gap. From here it enters Glenmacnass and exits at Laragh, it then crosses the mountains into Glenmalure and out again at Aghavannagh. The last section of the road then turns towards the Glen of Imaal. This road and its links with existing roads managed to encircle the centre of the county and thus cut off any lines of retreat for Dwyer and his men.

It was estimated that a cost of over £24,000 would be incurred by its completion in 1803. Over 500 men were stationed in the five barracks along its length and in due time Dwyer and his men were forced to surrender. For the first time there was now a road linking the mountains with the outside world. That Wicklow’s transport routes were in excellent condition at the turn of the nineteenth century is attested to by Robert Fraser who stated that “the roads are in general uncommonly good, both the direct and cross roads. They are also accommodated with convenient bridges” (7).

All of these improvements eased the lot of the traveller in Wicklow. The years between the 1770s to the 1840s were the golden age of the traveller and the surveyor in Ireland. Arthur Young, De Latocnaye, Wright, Inglis, Robert Fraser and Richard Griffith, to name a few, were all active in Wicklow at this time. Their writings and maps gave invaluable information on every subject from geology to diet.


(1) Wicklow Town Minutes 1734.
(2) The Travellers New Guide Through Ireland, John Cumming (pub) (Dublin, 1815), p. 62.
(3) Ibid. p. 58-9.
(4) Wakefield, Edward, An Account of Ireland Statistical and Political, Volume 1, p. 50.
(5) Freeman’s Journal, 10th of June, 1800.
(6) Ibid., 20th June.
(7) Fraser, Robert, General View of the County Wicklow, The Dublin Society (Dublin. 1801), p. 255.



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