The Last County - Wicklow on the Eve of the Famine

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries Fynes Morryson, secretary to the Lord Deputy, traveled the country and recorded what he saw in his book, ‘Descriptions of Ireland under Elizabeth and James’. Wicklow was omitted from his record of most of the counties of the country “as less affording memorable things.”

Changed Perceptions

Over the next two hundred years the reports of travelers were to change considerably. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the county was to play host to some of the most eminent travel writers of the time. Arthur Young, De Latocnaye, Henry D. Inglis and Mr. and Mrs. Hall, to name a few, waxed lyrical on the beauties they saw in Wicklow. No doubt this difference of opinion was in part due to a change in perception. However, it was also due to the changes that had occurred in the county during the intervening years.

A Peaceful  County

In Fynes Morryson’s time the county was an unruly and dangerous place. Wars and skirmishes had been common and would continue to be so for some time to come. By the 1840s the situation had changed. The county was now peaceful, while its first class physical infrastructure, noted by Robert Fraser in 1801, and its natural wealth had made it one of the wealthiest counties in the south of the country. Its many estates and their parklands gave most areas a prosperous apperance. There may have been severe poverty for some, but a superficial eye could disregard the unsightly. The hotels that had been established to cater for the new phenomenon of tourism bear witness to its growth in the late eighteenth century. The visitor’s book from Hunter’s Hotel for this period includes the names of travelers from all parts of the United Kingdom.

The many immigrants that had settled in the county during the proceeding centuries had by now become an integral part of the region’s social and economic make up. Although there was still some tension between Catholics and Protestants, both religions were beginning to learn to live together peacefully. Now that the repressive anti-Catholic laws had been repealed, the way was open for equality. Unlike many other parts of the country, where small Church of Ireland communities formed an economic elite, Wicklow’s large Anglican community was dispersed amongst all social classes. Catholics and Protestants worked and lived alongside each other. Even in the workhouse records there were many whose religion was entered as Protestant. Shared lives and hardships encouraged tolerance and understanding.

Diminishing Irish Traditions

Many of the old Irish traditions had died out and the Irish language was nothing more than a memory, but many still survived. Elizabeth Smith, of Baltiboys House, in her Irish Journals of 1840-1850 writes about the survival of the Celtic custom of the wrenboys on St. Stephen’s Day. This tradition was kept alive in both communities; the assimilation of elements of each others’ heritage was another step towards greater understanding.


Poverty of the Peasantry

The poverty of the peasantry and laboring classes was a problem that had not been solved by all this progress. The devastation that resulted from the famine, reducing the population of the county by a quarter through death and emigration, had been foretold by earlier ones, but these portents went unheeded. The Great Famine of the late 1840s stretched the county to its limit. The surviving workhouse records from Shillelagh and Rathdrum show that both were continually full during this time. Many inmates were very young and there were quite a number of deserted children some of whose parents had emigrated. The trend of emigration started at this time was to continue long after the famine was over.

Lord Fitzwilliam even assisted many of his tenants to emigrate, the famine having proved the undesirability of small holdings for both landlord and tenant. Others followed Fr. Hoare from Killaveney, who on 2nd November 1850, set sail for New Orleans on board the Ticonderoga, with a ship full of former tenants from Killaveney and its surrounding parishes. The growing unprofitability of the lead mines also encouraged many miners to leave the county.

Parnell and Halpin

However, the famine years and the following years were not all gloom and doom. Although it went unnoticed at the time, 1847 saw the birth of Charles Stuart Parnell in Avondale House, Rathdrum. On a local level he was to become one of the largest employers in the county through mining, quarrying and forestry. More importantly, his political life led to his becoming ‘The Un-crowned King of Ireland’ and his work was to eventually help change the lot of Irish peasants for the better. For the first time ever the Irish peasant was to become the owner of his own land, largely due to the work of Parnell.

The railway was to eventually come to the county by the 1850s, the line carrying it from Dun Laoghaire to Wicklow town being designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the greatest engineer of his day. He was to become associated with the county again at a later date when a ship he designed, the Great Eastern, was captained by Robert Halpin from Wicklow town.

Wicklow’s history has brought with it many mixed blessings. Its many personalities and occurrences has put it in a singular position in Irish history. Sandwiched between the Dublin and Wexford Pales, it was the last region in the country to come under the control of the English Crown. When it did it was eventually to become the most Anglicised of counties in the southern half of the country. Its experiences during the era of the penal laws and the savagery of the 1798 Rebellion were forgotten and, in an island where religious differences run deep, it has seen its two main religious groups learn to live peacefully, side by side.


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