Wicklow Town is a pretty country town that is beside the sea and the mountains. Travelers to the area are always pleasantly surprised as it delivers much more than is described in the guide books. Wicklow is a very typical Irish town with the additional feature of having a harbor and a strong sea connection. There are old castle ruins, an old monastery evidence of the vikings and the Normans too! All of Irish history is here.
Wicklow town takes its name from the Viking invaders of the ninth century. The original name, 'Vykinglo', most likely refers to a meadow or grassland. The old Gaelic name for the town, 'Chill Mhantain' dates back to the time of St Patrick. Attempting to land from a boat Patrick and his followers were given the traditional welcome of the period -the natives stoned the boat from the beach. One of the monks was struck in the mouth and lost his teeth. This monk was christened Mhantain, 'gubby. or 'gap-toothed', and was instructed by Patrick to convert the natives.
Around 1,000 BC, the first settlers in the area lived around the Round Mount along the banks of the local river, the Vartry. They hunted in the deep forests and fished in the sea. The local ruler at the time of St Patrick's arrival was a pagan chief called Nahi.
The first wave of Viking invaders intermarried with the locals and founded alliances that would see them eventually assimilated with the natives. The locals at the time of the invaders' arrival christened their settlement 'bac n saor' or the craftsmen's creek. The second of Scandinavian settlers built their timber fortification to the south of the town, overlooking the Irish Sea- where the ruins of the Black castle now stands.
Another wave of invaders, the Anglo-Normans, arrived in the area around the late 1160s and by 1171 Wicklow was the property of Henry II, which he granted to Strongbow. A stone fortification was built upon the site of the Danes' fort. This was known to locals as the 'Black Castle', due most likely to the dark deeds and bloodletting that took place there. For several hundred years the natives were revolting and waged war upon the castle and its occupants.
In the latter part of the 12th century, the church of St Thomas was constructed close to the site of the Round Mount. An older church, known as The Church of the Vine, was in existence at this site. Buried in the graveyard nearby is Captain Robert Halpin of Great Eastern fame, the man who linked four continents with underwater telegraphic cable. Captain Halpin was born at the Bridge Hotel, Wicklow, an imbibing emporium which dates back to the early 18th century. He laid 26,000 miles of cable. The first transatlantic message linking Newfoundland with County Kerry was 'All right'.
In the middle of the 13th century, Franciscan monks arrived in Wicklow town and founded the Franciscan Abbey.
Wicklow is the capital of the county of the same name and has along and eventful maritime history from sea pirates to smugglers with wrecks galore. The port has always been a hive of industrial activity, exporting goods such as iron, stone, timber, slate, and metallic ores by the late 19th century. The natives continued to revolt for several centuries against any attempt to impose authority upon them. Wicklow town was burned and laid waste by the O'Byrnes and the O'Tooles in the early 14th century and in 1370 the O'Byrnes seized the Black Castle. In 1581 the castle was again under siege by Feagh MacHugh O'Byrne. In 1599 some 200 soldiers of the army of Sir Henry Harrington were wiped out outside of Wicklow town. Wicklow became the last county in Ireland to be created in 1606 and was created a borough in 1613.
The natives, however, refused to be pacified and continued to wage war against those who would impose a foreign authority upon them. A great rebellion began in 1641 that would pitch Old English settlers and native Irish against the anti-royalist puritans. Rebel commander Luke O'Toole attacked the Black Castle in 1641 in an attempt to seize a supply ship. He managed to kill the castle guards and lay waste to most of the castle. This was the catalyst for a massacre of townspeople seeking sanctuary in a church in the area now known as Melancholy Lane. Royalist force commander Sir Charles Coote marched into Wicklow to deal with O'Toole forces. They had however withdrawn. At the local church Fr. Byrne and his congregation died in flames set by Coote's troops or were cut down trying to flee the flames.
In 1645, the Black Castle once again became the target of an assault which would see Reverend Edmund O'Reilly and one Duff Beirne on trial for murder. By the time of his trial O'Reilly was the Vicar-General for the diocese of Dublin. He was not only accused of setting the castle on fire and burning those inside to death, but of returning nine months later to completely tear down the castle. Duff Beirne was found guilty of murder and O'Reilly of being an accessory in the deed. Part of the Black Castle was restored and a constable was recorded as living there years later. After 21 months in gaol, O'Reilly was banished from the country. He returned to Ireland in 1666 and was banished a second time, dying in Brittany in 1669.
Peaceful years followed the end of the rebellion and in 1689 the town was granted a new charter by James II. A stone bridge was constructed across the Vartry river so local farmers could graze their stock on the Murrough, which forms part of the natural lagoon at Wicklow. A new Town Hall was built and the local ducking stool repaired for the convenience of local ne'er-do-wells. The 18th century would see the joining of two large estates with the marriage of Lord Fitzwilliam and Anne Watson-Wentworth in June 1744.
This was the era of highwaymen, footpads, smugglers and wreckers. Many of them used to be 'guests' in residence at Wicklow Gaol, which was constructed in the early years of the 2Oth century and escape attempts were commonplace. In one instance, the roof of nearby Wicklow courthouse was set on fire during a trial but the attempt was foiled. Dueling in Wicklow was as common as elsewhere. In 1797 the young Earl of Meath was fatally wounded by Robert Gore, who was acquitted of murder at Wicklow court- house.
Nowadays the prison is museum where actors play out the part of ancient villains and it has become a more pleasant place to visit.