The physical landscape is marked by the past. It is a topographical representation of change – the traces humans have left as well as the imprint of time’s passage. The convergence of these forces creates palpable layers of adaptation that form the terrain of today, but these strata are not fixed. They are translucent, tangled fragments – never still. Despite this inherent intricacy, landscape retains a strict sense of binary. It is either functional or beautiful. Ordinary or striking. Yet, the Wicklow Mountains elude this limiting definition. These uplands are the working land of miners as well as an idyllic setting that inspires artists. This dual nature prompted exploration – both historical and physical – of the intersection of place and time in this mountainous region.
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The Wicklow Mountains are the largest continuous upland area in Ireland, with an unbroken area of five hundred square kilometers above three hundred meters. The highest point is the summit of Lugnaquilla, reaching nine hundred and twenty five meters. The mountain chain extends for over one hundred miles, linking Dublin to Clonegal before petering out into hills on either end. Its name comes from the Old Norse word ‘Wykynlo,’ meaning ‘Viking Land.’
The Vikings weren’t the first inhabitants of this mountainous region, though. According to Irish folklore, the Asos Sí, or ‘people of the mounds’ were the first rulers of Ireland. They were also known as the Tuatha Dé Danann people, a name that comes from their ancestor, the goddess Danú. When the final round of mythological invaders, the Milesians, found their way to Ireland, the Asos Sí lost control of the land and fled to a parallel world. Markers of their presence remain on the island, though. Their mounds, now ancient forts, mark the gateways to their present world and hawthorn trees that stand alone, known as Fairy Trees, mark their sacred places.
The first human civilizations of the Mesolithic period left little impact on the landscape. Humans in this period were hunter-gatherers and did not stray far from the narrow salt flats of the coast. As time progressed into the Neolithic period, Norse settlements created lasting marks on the land with farms and tombs, aligning markers of both life and death with the seasons and the sun.
* * *
I begin walking west-south-west. To my left, the land grades haltingly upward. Scattered boulders, clusters of birch trees, and patches of fall bracken interrupt the slope. Dense green moss covers every smooth surface, including the small sections of ground that separate branching roots. The small leaves of the closest birch tree are mostly yellow, though some have already faded to brown and a few remain green. A sharp current of air runs through the branches and the leaves vibrate, making the tree shiver.
To the right of the path, hundreds of younger, thinner-trunked birches hold the soil in place. Narrow paths of fallen leaves wind between the clumps of mossy roots. The trees thrive in this landscape, but the grid they create is too even to be innate. Despite their indigenous nature, these birches have been systematically planted. Before human influence, birch, oak, ash, holly, beech and rowan populated the mountainsides, while alder and willow inhabited the wetter valley floors. Over time, various needs drew humans to harvest the woods, until a breaking point was reached. At the end of World War I, only one percent of the original forest cover still stood. After vast forestation efforts, the Wicklow Mountain region has recovered to eighteen percent, the highest in the country.
As I continue walking, I choose to leave the path. Roots form an uneven set of stairs up the hillside. As I gain altitude, the beams of light scattering through the trees become brighter, less green. The incline ends in a small clearing framed by a dense weave of bracken and bramble. The ferns have a few green leaves left, but most of the bracken’s mass has succumbed to frost, which has dulled the vines to a ruddy brown. The tops of the mountains are visible above the trees and the paler sky at the horizon is interrupted by dense gray fog. Sections of heavily eroded and craggy rock are visible on the facing mountainside, giving even the lack of vegetation a heathery look.
The original topography of these uplands was created during the Caledonian orogeny when the Iapetus Ocean closed. Lateral compression forces the superheated continental plate upward, crumpling the earth’s crust into a mountain range. The plates of granite cooled and cracked and the surrounding rock, shale, absorbed the heat and metamorphosed into schist. Various metal ores filled the veins between the granite and schist, as well as the cracks within the granite itself. The peaks owe the majority of their present topography to the last ice age, though, when glaciers inched over the land, leaving rounded valleys as their wakes.
Eight thousand years after the ice receded, peat began to overtake pine in the uplands. Now, all but the loftiest of these summits is smothered with blanket bog, shrubland habitat and wild grassland. These thin bogs cannot retain large volumes of water, causing surges in surrounding river systems. The uplands source several major rivers, some of which feed into the ribbon lakes that line the basins of these U-shaped glacial valleys.
* * *
I reach a turning point where I can see a lake through the sparse trees. If I were to walk north, I would find the water’s edge. Instead, I make my way south, starting up a steep incline. A brook surges down toward the lake on my left; the sound it makes as it finds its path around boulders fills my ear. There is no wind to ricochet off the trees that line the path on my right, leaving that ear empty.
As I climb, the land on my left drops more and more steeply. A few small switchbacks reveal the true source of the white noise that envelops my ascent. Across the narrow valley the brook falls through a series of large cataracts. The water appears suspended, even as it crashes on the rocks below. The stepped waterfall looks identical to the miniature, runoff-fueled cascades I found along the first section of my walk.
At the top of the falls, the land flattens again. Bushy, dark firs surround me in shadow, but ahead, light trickles through the trees. The path turns until the sun is directly in front of me, where its bright flare bleaches my vision. A tiny bird darts through the air. All I can see of it is a dark blur of wings. The path changes directions again, over a bridge and up a northeasterly ascent. On the left, small sections of the brook emerge between rowan trees that have lost every adornment but their bright red berries. Swathes of different tree species flank my right peripheral. Many only retain their highest leaves. Their bark appears purple beneath their greenish yellow crowns.
Suddenly the land on my left falls away, revealing the entire glacial valley. Trees coat the lower reaches of the mountainsides, a blanket woven of deep green yarn shot through with mustard yellow flecks. Where the slope steepens, brown winter grass gives the land its color. The lake reflects the line between the empty sky and the clouds hanging above, darker blue on the right, closer to silver on the left. I am high enough above the water that it appears still. Turning, I can see the soles of my hiking boots reproduced on the muddy incline behind me. There are no other sets of prints.
Watching the light move across the ridges of the valley, I feel a drop of water on my face. I look up, but there are no clouds above me. A sun shower. The droplets sound like plastic when they land on my jacket. I glance down just in time to see one bounce off when it hits my rain shell. Hail. To my left, the pellets create a visible path through the slanting light and mist. I turn and begin following the remains of my footfalls back down the slope. The shower ends as simply as it began, taking a few clouds with it. Ahead, the sun-muted hills are flattened into two dimensions, their browns and greens reduced to layered outlines.
* * *
Throughout the many conquests of Ireland, the untamable Wicklow uplands never fell under foreign control for more than a few years. However, in the 1560s, after several periods of serious unrest, Martial law was instated and military garrisons were established in the region. In 1572, a rebel leader who lived in the uplands, Fiach McHugh, was accused of murdering a wealthy Wexford landlord named Robert Browne. He was innocent, but government overreaction provoked a full-scale revolt. In fear of losing control, the British Crown repeatedly and ruthlessly attacked the Gaelic strongholds, massacring any resistors. The rebels were forced to submit to the authority of the English, but it was a restless peace.
Fiach gathered an army of almost seven hundred and launched another revolt in early 1580. Again, the government imposed scorched-earth policies to quell the rebels, ending the uprising within two years. Fiach and the rebels remained quiet until 1594, when they attacked Ardree Castle near Athy. The proximity to Dublin scared the British into reinstituting Martial law. For the next three years, Fiach and the rebels slowly lost the fight. The outcome was ultimately determined when the rebels were awaiting the arrival of a Spanish armada that was destroyed. In late 1597, Fiach was killed in a cave near Glenmalure.
In 1606, the lines of Wicklow County were drawn in hopes of finally containing the dangerous wilderness of the mountainous region. For a few decades, the only disturbances were small rebellions that continued to emerge and be subdued. In 1641, large-scale revolt was again stifled, this time with the help of funds from financial supporters of the government, called ‘adventurers,’ who were granted vast tracts of land upon defeat of the rebels. Just over fifty years later, the implementation of Penal law began. The legislation was designed to cripple the Catholic majority and thereby maintain the supremacy of the minority Anglican Protestants. Catholics were even banned from purchasing land and following traditional inheritance patterns known as gavelkind. A Catholic family could not divide their land among their children. Instead, the eldest son had the opportunity to inherit all the land – on the condition that he converted to Protestantism.
Such tensions brought about the 1798 Rebellion. Many of the decisive battles took place in the uplands, territory favored by the rebels. While unsuccessful, the uprising did result in a new political entity: the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland. And although the government responded ruthlessly, rebels remained in the mountains. In an attempt to curb these final insurgents, construction of the military road began in 1800. The road took nine years to complete and runs from south county Dublin to south county Wicklow. Until this route, all major paths through the mountains followed the northwest-southeast orientation of the valleys, meaning that this north-south road made previously remote territory accessible. Four years into the construction of the road, Michael Dwyer, the final rebel leader, was forced to surrender and was deported to Australia.
* * *
At the base of my descent, I find my way to the edge of the lake. I look back at the ridge to find my overlook, but dense tree cover obscures the spot. Over the middle of the lake, there are two ravens. One dips sharply, its flight path momentarily shared with the first. Then they split, flying away from me until their wedge-shaped tails are just ashen smudges in the mist.
To my far right, the upper section of the brown hillside is scattered with deadfall and tree trunks stripped of branches. Although most likely the result of a fire, the area gives the impression of slopes cleared for charcoal platforms. Seventy-five similar oval clearings remain in the Glendalough valley. In 1798, when Thomas Weaver discovered lead in the adjacent Glendasan Valley, vast amounts of charcoal were required to smelt the ores that line the granite-schist divides.
* * *
The sun is beginning to wane, stretching my darkened silhouette until I am unnaturally tall. I find my way east and north, back to the remains of a monastic settlement. Crossing a small bridge, I look down at the water beneath it. It is still and dark. An ink reflection. Thick light sits on the surface like cloth.
Walking around the partial structures of the city, I find the cathedral. This settlement began as a religious hermitage in 575 when St. Kevin arrived in Ireland. His place of isolation grew, though, and it supported a sizeable community by the eight century. English forces mostly destroyed the settlement just before 1400. The sun is glancing through the window of the cathedral on its way to the horizon. I emerge from the roofless structure and walk around the graveyard in the diminishing light. The headstones retain no markings other than white moss and dark mold.
The sun is no longer visible, though it is not dark. The sky is still blue, but the clouds are rosy and the horizon is obscured by purple grey fog. Within minutes, the sky is steep and dark, the only light the small moon, bleeding into the mist.
Taken during Physical Research
1. Upper Lake (South-East Overlook, through trees)
2. Birch Grove (East of Upper Lake)
3. Lugduff Brook (North of Poulanass Waterfall)
4. Upper Lake (South-East Overlook)
5. Upper Lake (Eastern Edge at Water Level)
6. St. Kevin’s Cathedral (Monastic City)
Used for Information and Inspiration during Historical Research
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Clark, Thomas A. "In Praise of Walking." Distance & Proximity. Edinburgh: Pocket, 2000. N. pag. Print.
Duffy, Patrick J. Exploring the History and Heritage of Irish Landscapes. Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts, 2007. Print.
EastWest Mapping. The Wicklow Way Map Guide. Clonegal: EastWest Mapping, 2011. Print.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Waldeinsamkeit." Selected Prose and Poetry. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969. N. pag. Print.
Farrington, A. "The Glaciation of the Wicklow Mountains." Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section B: Biological, Geological, and Chemical Science 42 (1934/1935): 173-209. JSTOR. Royal Irish Academy. Web. <http://www.jstor.org /stable/20517070>.
Frost, Robert. "Birches." Complete Poems of Robert Frost. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967. N. pag. Print.
Heaney, Seamus. "Mossbawn Sunlight." The Book of Irish Verse: An Anthology of Irish Poetry from the Sixth Century to the Present. New York: Macmillan, 1976. N. pag. Print.
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Macfarlane, Robert. The Wild Places. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.
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Thomas, Edward. "Aspens." The Poems of Edward Thomas. New York: Handsel, 2003. N. pag. Print.
Thoreau, Henry David. "Walking." The Selected Works of Thoreau. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975. N. pag. Print.
“Wicklow Mountains National Park." Wicklow National Park. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://wicklowmountainsnationalpark.ie/>