View of Glendalough in Wicklow, Ireland, by Peter Van Lerberghe

The military roads of county Wicklow

Art historian Finola O’Kane explores the history, design and representation of Wicklow's military roads in military and tourism contexts.

County Wicklow became an important tourist destination for Dublin's landscape enthusiasts over the course of the 18th century. Day trips to see the Powerscourt and Dargle waterfalls, the Sugar-loaf mountain, Glendalough and the county's wealth of valleys and mountain passes became increasingly popular.

View of Powerscourt Park in the County of Wicklow

View of Powerscourt Park in the County of Wicklow

In this view by Peter Van Lerberghe a group of tourists sit on the right bank of the River Dargle, in front of Powerscourt waterfall

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The county's landowners, such as Viscount Powerscourt, encouraged visitors to view their picturesque properties and to spend time (and money) in villages such as Bray or Enniskerry. Tour guides and books of views described many Wicklow sites, yet the Wicklow tour was never as much of a circuit as Killarney's, Ireland's pre-eminent tourist destination by the close of the century. This was partly for geographical reasons – unlike Ireland’s other tours, which were typically structured around a group of lakes (Killarney, Lough Erne) or along a river (the Blackwater, Boyne, Liffey), the Wicklow mountains' physical geography led tourists to visit separate and contained valleys, from which they could not easily travel to other sites.

View of the Seven Churches with a procession of the Catholics at Christmas

View of Glendalough in Wicklow, Ireland, by Peter Van Lerberghe

Glendalough in Wicklow, Ireland, was established as a monastic settlement in the sixth century

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In the aftermath of the United Irishmen's rebellion of 1798, this same unyielding geography became a matter of concern to more than those looking for a pleasant day out. Wicklow's three east-west roads had no north-south road to connect them and this had allowed the remnants of the United Irishmen to find safe retreats in the mountains. The county's valleys, bogs and mountainsides became the haunts of such mythic rebels as Michael Dwyer and the pseudo-'General' Joseph Holt. The overhanging proximity of the Wicklow mountains to Dublin city was also a source of grave concern to the British administration. Wicklow's landed gentry submitted a 'Reason for making the new Military Road in the County of Wicklow' to His Excellency Major Cornwallis in February 1800. Warning the government of the mountains' dangerous 'contiguity' to Dublin from 'which a [rebel] army might pour down in a few hours', they argued for a new road that would open 'the whole range of mountains from nearly south to north' and separate the eastern rebel stations of Aghavannagh, Glenmalure and Seven Churches [of Glendalough] from the western rebel stations of the Glen of Imaal, Blackditches, Blackmoor Hill and Whelp Rock.[1]   

The government moved immediately to instruct the military engineer, surveyor and cartographer Alexander Taylor 'to examine and to reconnoitre the ground'.[2] Born in Aberdeen, Taylor had first worked as a military land surveyor in Scotland, joining the army as a lieutenant in the 81st foot, before transferring to the Royal Irish Engineers in 1778. His brother George was also a surveyor and cartographer and Alexander had collaborated with him and Andrew Skinner on their book Maps of the roads of Ireland and on their survey of Co. Louth, both published in 1778.[3] 

Construction of the military road began in August 1801 and continued until 1809. On 22 August 1801 Taylor wrote of the road's 'considerable advantage, in civilizing and improving' the country and of how the barracks positioned along its route would facilitate law enforcement. Believing that 'the greatest & most useful improvement which the Country knows'  was good roads, he made his own surveys and maps.[4]

New military road, from Mount Venus to Saly Gap and Killmalin, near Dublin, Ireland

New Military Road, from Mount Venus to Saly Gap and Killmalin, near Dublin, Ireland by Alexander Taylor

In the wake of the 1798 United Irishmen’s rebellion, new military roads across Ireland were top of the agenda for the British administration

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Modelled on Scotland's military roads and built by Scottish engineers and soldiers, the road drove a model of loyal Scottish expertise through a less than receptive Irish environment. The Duke of York's Highland fencibles were praised as 'a sturdy race of loyal mountaineers' thought to 'greatly improve the appearance of the country' while strengthening the 'hands of Government'. Years later, the Bog Commissioner Richard Griffith found the military road 'wonderfully level and straight' when he considered the constraints of Wicklow's geography.[5]   

In March 1801 Major Cornwallis was replaced as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland by Philip Yorke, 3rd Earl of Hardwicke. Yorke was well-versed in picturesque tourism. In 1781 he had toured Ireland comprehensively with his brother Charles, finding the Giant's Causeway a 'wonderful production of Nature'. Travelling southwards to Dublin they stopped to view the Boyne Obelisk, which 'conform[ed] a good deal' to a print of it they had seen in the London print shop Hamels.[6] In Wicklow they climbed the Sugarloaf Mountain and visited Devil's Glen, 'an extraordinary feature of Nature' resembling 'the approaches to some of the mountains in Switzerland'.[7] When they paid the then Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Carlisle, a visit in Dublin Castle they found him open to discussing the beauties of the Wicklow but saying 'little of public affairs'. When Philip Yorke returned to Ireland in 1801 to take up his difficult duties as Lord Lieutenant in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion, he reverted to his mode of assessing Ireland's military deficiencies while simultaneously appreciating the country's landscapes. His Chief Secretary Charles Abbot had also toured Wicklow before his appointment, finding 'great truth and propriety of representation,' in Arthur Young's description of Wicklow in Tour of Ireland 1776–1779 but disappointed by the frontispiece Powerscourt waterfall, judging it 'a very bad one'.[8]  

Dargle, County of Wicklow

Dargle, County of Wicklow

Dargle Glen was one of the stop-offs on the so-called ‘Wicklow Tour’

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An exhibition of watercolour landscape views by the artist Thomas Sautelle Roberts, 'chiefly executed for his excellency the Lord Lieutenant', opened in Dublin’s old Parliament House in January 1802.[9] According to the Freeman’s Journal, the paintings were 'principally taken in the County of Wicklow, including the Gold, Copper, and Lead Mines' with the 'most interesting Views taken from the new Military Roads and close Scenes of the Dargle'. Twelve were produced subsequently as prints 'to accompany a Tour through that romantic country', Roberts' projected Illustrations of the Chief Cities, Rivers and Picturesque Scenery of the Kingdom of Ireland, that was never published.[10] Thrilling yet traditional prints of Wicklow's Dargle valley (above) balanced those that sought to re-appropriate Wicklow’s romantic landscape from the rebel cause.

The Military Roads, County of Wicklow

The Military Roads, County of Wicklow: The Roads and Aurora Camp, appear in the Middle ground - in the Fore ground the Lord Lieutenant and Suit - with the Soldiery and Peasantry employed in blasting, and removing the huge rocks

In 1798 the Wicklow Mountains near Dublin became embroiled in a major political uprising

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In the print of The Military Roads, Co. Wicklow, the Lord Lieutenant – direct representative of the Crown – is about to set off home along his brand-new military road to Dublin Castle, his horse impatiently pawing the ground. Having re-taken the mountains he can now leave the more prosaic task of building the road in the hands of the loyal kilted Scottish Highlanders, a beam of sunlight falling onto their new fort of Aurora. Acting as an able witness to such ideological manoeuvres, the print's caption described the 'Fore ground' of 'the Lord Lieutenant and Suit – with the Soldiery and Peasantry employed in blasting, and removing the huge roacks, so numerous in this romantic Country.' Yet the incongruous reality of displaced highlanders in an Irish highland could also serve to highlight rather than align the diverging identities of both Ireland and Scotland in the 1800s. 

When the road was complete the gentlemen of Wicklow suggested that the government buy 'the waste mountain land on either side of the military road, and settle a colony there of Highland soldiers.' Thinking in particular of Scottish emigrants to America who could perhaps be 'induced to change their course and settle in the Wicklow mountains', the proprietors believed that they:

should soon behold a sturdy race of loyal mountaineers, who would not only greatly improve the appearance of the country, but would strengthen the hands of Government by rendering what has lately been considered the shelter for lawless rebels, the residence of a population, grateful to those who had rescued them from a transatlantic emigration.[11] 

Joining the outlawed United Irishmen involved an oath-taking ceremony. Workplaces, particularly mines, where people could congregate without arousing suspicion, were used frequently to enlist new members.[12] Thomas Sautelle Roberts included views of Wicklow's gold mines in his exhibition. In the print made subsequently from one of his watercolours, the mines, like the military road, are inhabited by eager and diligent workmen, another instance of a visibly loyal population displacing one known not to be.

Gold Mines, County of Wicklow

GOLD MINES, COUNTY of WICKLOW: In the Fore-ground are several Figures employed in working or buddeling; in the Middle ground they are seen digging & barrowing the Earth, which contains the particles of Gold: on the first discovery of these Mines, pieces of pure Gold were found valued at eighty pounds and upwards, one of which may be seen at the Levarian Museum. The Scene closes with Croughan and the adjoining Hills

This view by Thomas Sautelle Roberts shows labourers at work at a gold mine near Woodenbridge, County Wicklow

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The caption explained that ''in the foreground are several Figures employed in working or buddeling 'while 'in the Middle Ground they are seen digging and barrowing the Earth'.[13] Croughan Mountain, one of the rebels' last strongholds, 'closes' and overshadows the scene. In both of these prints, memories of recent and ongoing violent insurgency must have been invoked in viewers, and may have acted against the counter-revolutionary agenda that Roberts and his patron, the Lord Lieutenant, hoped to advance. Although these counter-revolutionary views actively undermined the picturesque, other exhibited watercolours that are now lost, such as An Irish Hut and A Rebel Retreat in the Devil’s Glen; General Holt is represented as appointing his evening guards,  suggest a more ambiguous tone.[14] 

Roberts' images document the close temporal adjacency of the insurrection itself, the infrastructural projects it created and the representational projects it seeded. Soldiers, road-builders, surveyors, politicians and artists were engaged in a spatial tug-of war in the mountains concerned with who could use them and who could inhabit them. The dangerously close spatial 'contiguity' of mountain to city is echoed in the close temporal adjacency of violent military activity and painted propaganda. 

Road-building supports the ideology of improvement, so central to Irish eighteenth-century design practice. Yet such projects are hard to frame simply as improvements, particularly when they follow hard upon a period of violence and suppression. In Wicklow the government's plans to improve the military road network aligned with the promotion of Wicklow as a picturesque destination. The eye of the roving tourist, concerned that he might be able to see the most picturesque prospects, neatly coincided with that of the military road surveyor and sometimes with an uncomfortably amoral effect. 

Robert Fraser, cartographer and author of the 1801 A General View of the County of Wicklow, felt a frisson of excitement as he realised that 20 armed rebels were concealed in a cave close to the elegant marquee pitched for the genteel enjoyment of Lugnaquilla mountain.[15] Military roads had been adopted by picturesque tourists before – notably in Scotland, where the military roads of the 1740s accommodated later tourists of the Highlands. The history, design and representation of Wicklow's military road reveals a logical line of descent from military to tourist viewpoint and from maps and topographical drawing to landscape views. Yet it is rare for military and tourism projects to proceed so blatantly and concurrently in tandem. That such overlap should occur during the ongoing Irish insurrections of 1800–1809, suggests the power of images to both support and simultaneously undermine the established point of view. 


[1] Dublin, National Archive of Ireland, O.P. (Official Papers) 293/1(2), 'Reason for making the new Military Road in the County of Wicklow submitted to His Excellency Major Cornwallis by the Royal Proprietors of that County, Feb. 1800', cited in Peter J. O'Keeffe, Alexander Taylor's Roadworks in Ireland, 1780-1827, ([Staines]: Institute of Asphalt Technology, Irish Branch, 1996), p. 31. 

[2] NAI, O.P. 293/1(4), n.d. cited in O'Keeffe, Alexander Taylor's Roadworks in Ireland, pp.  112-3: 'It is important insofar as it is the only document summarising Taylor's own view of events'.

[3] 'Taylor, Alexander', Dictionary of Irish Biography, [accessed 04.02.2016].

[4] Alexander Taylor, Letter to the administration, Dublin 22 August, 1801 (Kew, Public Record Office, TNA PRO 30 - 9 – 172).

[5] O'Keeffe, Alexander Taylor's Roadworks in Ireland, p. 61, footnote 59 refers to 'The Fourth Report of the Commissioners Appointed to enquire into the Nature and Extent of the Several Bogs in Ireland and the practicality of draining them, H.C. 1813-14, (131), VI., second part,  no. 11.

[6] Glin Castle: Tour to Scotland & Ireland in the years 1776 1777…and 1801 etc. to the Honble Mrs Yorke (widow of the Hon. Charles Yorke), Charles Yorke to his mother, Dublin, August 30, 1781.

[7] Glin Castle: Tour to Scotland & Ireland in the years 1776 1777…and 1801 etc. to the Honble Mrs Yorke (widow of the Hon. Charles Yorke), Charles Yorke to his mother, Dublin, September 13, 1781.

[8] Charles Abbott, 'Irish Tour 1792 & Tour through Ireland & N Wales, 1792', transcribed by C. J. Woods.

[9] Freeman's Journal, January 18, 1802, <>, [accessed 6 December, 2013]

[10] Freeman's Journal, January 19, 1802, <> , [accessed 6  December, 2013]

[11] O'Keeffe, Alexander Taylor's Roadworks in Ireland 1780-1827, p. 61, footnote 59.

[12] Ruan O'Donnell, The Rebellion in Wicklow 1798 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1998), pp. 50-51.

[13] ‘Buddle’: a shallow inclined container in which ore is washed, Oxford English Dictionary Online, [accessed 1 March, 2016].

[14] Walter Strickland, A Dictionary of Irish Artists (Dublin, London: Maunsel &Co., 1913), under entry for 'Thomas Sautelle Roberts'.

[15] Robert Fraser, General View of the Agriculture and Mineralogy, Present State and Circumstances of the County of Wicklow (Dublin: Royal Dublin Society, 1801), p. 29. 

  • Finola O'Kane
  • Finola O'Kane is Associate Professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy at University College Dublin and a Member of the Royal Irish Academy.