If your time in Ireland is limited, it’s well worth considering a stay in Dublin, followed by a few days high up in the fresh air and magnificent scenery of the Wicklow Mountains. So close to the capital that they’re often called the Dublin Mountains – by Dubliners, at any rate – they rise only to 924m at their highest point, Lugnaquillia, but form the largest area of continuous upland in Ireland. This granite mass is wild, desolate and sparsely populated at its centre, and, despite the influx of outdoorsy city-dwellers at weekends, never feels crowded. The range has been heavily glaciated to form attractive valleys, lakes and corries, while an extensive covering of peat supports purple heather and yellow gorse in abundance. To protect this huge natural playground on Dublin’s doorstep, part of the massif has been designated as a national park, and walkers are signposted onto the Wicklow Way, a managed, long-distance trail that bisects the mountains from north to south. Wicklow Tourism also produces a useful booklet, The Wicklow Walking Guide (available in tourist offices), which covers all manner of hiking across the county, with route maps and descriptions.
Public transport with Dublin Bus will get you to Powerscourt’s beautiful gardens and the neighbouring village of Enniskerry, and to the fine stately home of Russborough House on the western side of the mountains. Further south, the dramatic monastic site of Glendalough and its service town Laragh, along with the lofty village of Roundwood, are all accessible from Dublin on the St Kevin’s Bus service and make good bases from which to explore the mountains. The nearest village to the former home and estate of Charles Stewart Parnell, Avondale House, Rathdrum also has a station on the Dublin–Wexford rail line and a minibus service to Glendalough and quiet, picturesque Glenmalure.Read More
Enniskerry and Powerscourt
Enniskerry and Powerscourt
In the northeastern foothills of the Wicklow Mountains, 19km south of Dublin and less than a kilometre beyond the village of ENNISKERRY, lies the massive Powerscourt Estate, where given fine weather you could easily spend a whole day. Although the estate is now something of an all-round leisure complex, with a golf course, garden centre, craft shops and a luxury Ritz-Carlton hotel, the central attraction remains the formal gardens, whose spectacular design matches their superb setting facing Great Sugar Loaf Mountain.
In the late twelfth century, a castle was built on this strategic site by the Anglo-Norman le Poer (Power) family, from whom it takes its name. However, what you see today dates from the early eighteenth century, when Richard Castle designed one of the largest Palladian mansions in Ireland here, flanked by terraced gardens that were further developed in the nineteenth century. The house remains impressive from a distance, but most of its interior was destroyed by a fire in 1974 (on the eve of a party to celebrate major refurbishment). Parts have since been recreated, notably the colonnaded, double-height ballroom, which is accessible as part of an exhibition, featuring displays on the house’s former grandeur as well as short films on the estate’s history.
The terraced Italian Gardens slope gracefully down from the back of the house. The uppermost terrace, with its winged figures of Fame and Victory flanking Apollo and Diana, was designed in 1843 by the gout-ridden Daniel Robertson, who used to be wheeled about the site in a barrow, cradling a bottle of sherry – the last of the sherry apparently meant the end of the day’s work. A grand staircase leads down to a spirited pair of zinc winged horses guarding the Triton Lake, whose central statue of the sea god (based on Bernini’s fountain in the Piazza Barberini in Rome) fires a jet of water thirty metres skywards.
On the east side of the terraces are the curious Pepper Pot Tower (accurately modelled on the pepper pot from the eighth Viscount Powerscourt’s dinner set), surrounded by fine North American conifers, and a colourful Japanese Garden of maples, azaleas and fortune palms, laid out on reclaimed bogland. To the west of the Italian Gardens lies the walled garden, with its rose beds, herbaceous borders and fine ceremonial entrances: the Chorus Gate, decorated with beautiful golden trumpeters, and the Bamberg Gate, which originally belonged to Bamberg cathedral in Bavaria and features remarkable perspective arches as part of its gilded ironwork design.
The estate’s final attraction, Powerscourt Waterfall, is Ireland’s highest at 120m. The falls leap and bound diagonally down a rock face to replenish the waters of the River Dargle in the valley below. It’s 6km further down the road from the main gate, but well signposted.
A deep glaciated valley in the heart of the Wicklow Mountains, GLENDALOUGH (“valley of the two lakes”) provides a delightfully atmospheric location for some of the best-preserved monastic sites in Ireland. Despite the coach parties, enough of the valley’s tranquillity remains for you to understand what drew monks and pilgrims here in the first place. The monastery was established in the sixth century by St Kevin (Caoimhín), who retreated to Glendalough to pray in solitude. His piety attracted many followers to the site, especially after his death in 618, and the monastic community here came to rival Clonmacnois for its learning. It was raided by the Vikings at least four times between the eighth and eleventh centuries, then by the English in the fourteenth, and was finally dissolved during the Reformation. Pilgrimages continued, however, as the pope declared that seven visits to Glendalough would earn the same indulgence as one to Rome, but the pilgrims’ abstemious devotions on St Kevin’s Day (June 3) were often followed by drink and debauchery, and in 1862 a local priest banned the gatherings.
The Lower Lake sites
The largest structure within the monastic site is the roofless but impressive cathedral, begun in the early ninth century. Among the tombs outside stands St Kevin’s Cross, one of the best remaining relics from the period, consisting of a granite monolith decorated with an eighth-century carving of a Celtic cross over a wheel; unusually, the quadrants of the cross have not been cut through, which suggests that it was left unfinished. Above the doorway of the nearby twelfth-century Priests’ House, which may have been the site of Kevin’s tomb-shrine, are faint carvings of figures believed to depict the saint and two (later) abbots. Downhill from here stands the two-storey, eleventh-century St Kevin’s Church, whose steeply pitched roof and bell turret so resemble a chimney that the building is also known as “St Kevin’s Kitchen”, although it was almost certainly an oratory. Glendalough’s Round Tower rises to over thirty metres, its conical roof having been restored in 1876. Such tapering stone towers are found only in Ireland and probably had multiple functions, as belfries, watchtowers, treasuries and places of refuge from danger – the entrance is usually well above ground level, accessible by a ladder that could be removed if necessary. To the south of St Kevin’s Church, a footbridge crosses the river to the Deerstone, so called after a legend that claims that a tame doe squirted milk into the hollowed-out stone to feed the twin orphaned babies of one of Kevin’s followers.
The Upper Lake sites
You can drive to the Upper Lake car park along the north side of the valley, but it’s far preferable to walk from the Deerstone along the signposted Green Road (part of the Wicklow Way), a scenic track that skirts the south side of the Lower Lake. After twenty minutes or so, this will bring you to the Upper Lake and the tiny, ruined, late tenth-century Reefert Church, whose small cemetery is thought to contain the graves of local chieftains (its name means “royal burial ground” in Irish). From here a path runs up to St Kevin’s Cell, a typically Celtic, corbel-roofed, “beehive” hut on a promontory overlooking the lake. Further up the cliff, St Kevin’s Bed is a small cave into which the saint reputedly moved to avoid the allures of an admirer called Caitlín; he’s supposed to have offered the final resistance to her advances by chucking the poor woman into the lake.
About 2km south of peaceful RATHDRUM, at the southeastern edge of the Wicklow Mountains, stands Avondale House, birthplace and home of Charles Stewart Parnell, the nineteenth-century campaigner for home rule who was dubbed “the uncrowned king of Ireland”. Completed in 1779 to a design by English architect James Wyatt, the house, which features an audiovisual on Parnell and the history of Avondale and an attractive basement café, is well worth a visit. Over the main door in the hall hangs a poignant banner, representing the arms of Ireland’s four provinces in pastel colours; given to Parnell in the 1880s, when home rule seemed a racing certainty, it was vainly intended for display in the future Irish House of Commons. The beautiful, bright dining room nearby is adorned with delicate, foliate stuccowork in Wedgwood style by the Lafranchini brothers (who also decorated Dublin’s Newman House). Upstairs, the highlight is the master bedroom where Parnell was born, with a bay of large windows overlooking the grounds. Stretching over two hundred hectares, the estate is now owned by the Irish Forestry Board, Coillte, who have laid out several trails, which take between twenty minutes and three hours to cover, through the forested parkland, with its rare tree species and fine views of the Avonmore River.
On the western edge of the Wicklow Mountains and 3km south of the village of Blessington stands Russborough House, a lavish Palladian country house designed by Richard Castle for Joseph Leeson, later Lord Russborough and the Earl of Milltown, whose family had made their money in the brewing trade. Castle died before the project was completed, leaving Francis Bindon to oversee the fulfilment of his grand design. Completed in 1751, the Wicklow-granite building’s 200-metre frontage, with its curving colonnaded wings, is the longest of its kind in Ireland.
Russborough has gained widespread fame for its art collections, under both the Milltowns and latterly the Beits, who derived their fortune from the De Beers Diamond Mining Company and bought the house in 1952 (both families made substantial donations of artworks to the National Gallery in Dublin). Unfortunately, this fame has attracted the wrong kind of attention: the house has been burgled on no fewer than four occasions, though almost all of the stolen paintings have subsequently been recovered. The first burglary was in 1974, when nineteen paintings were stolen by Englishwoman Rose Dugdale in order to raise funds for the IRA. The house was again broken into in 1986, by “The General”, aka Martin Cahill, one of Dublin’s most notorious criminals (this episode featured prominently in John Boorman’s 1998 film The General). Russborough was burgled again in 2001, possibly by an associate of Cahill’s, when a Gainsborough portrait was stolen for the third time, along with a work by Bellotto. Both were recovered in September 2002, only days before a fourth break-in, which netted five pictures including two by Rubens.
Much of the Beit Collection is now in the National Gallery for safekeeping, but with or without the paintings, the interior of the house is sumptuous, featuring baroque plasterwork ceilings by the Lafranchini brothers, notably in the saloon, depicting the four seasons, and in the music room, where the ingenious geometrical design seems to add height to the room. Further beautiful stuccowork, representing hunting and garlands, adorns the cantilevered main staircase, which was ornately carved out of dark Cuban mahogany by Irish craftsmen in the eighteenth century. Other highlights include the Italian-marble fireplace in the dining room depicting Bacchus and vines, and a series of French clocks dating back as far as the fifteenth century, which are still wound every Tuesday. The house has a pleasant café, while in the grounds are a maze (€3) and a 2km trail through the parkland, which will take you past a walled garden and a bog garden.
The Wicklow Way
The Wicklow Way
The Republic’s oldest designated long-distance walk, opened in 1982, the Wicklow Way runs the length of the Wicklow Mountains from Dublin’s southern suburbs, taking in wild uplands and picturesque valleys, as well as long, boring stretches of conifer plantation. The trail cuts across the Glencree valley, passes Lough Tay and continues to Glendalough, before entering Glenmalure and skirting Lugnaquillia, the highest Wicklow peak; the walk finishes after 130km at Clonegall on the Wexford–Carlow border. The whole route is waymarked with yellow signs and can be walked in five to six days, though some people take as many as ten.
The Way begins at Marlay Park in Dublin’s southern suburbs – take the #16 bus from O’Connell Street or South Great George’s Street to get there. Its highlight – if you lack the time or inclination to complete the whole Way – is probably the 29km section from Knockree to Glendalough, which passes the Powerscourt waterfall and can be covered in one very long day – or preferably two, with a short detour to overnight at Roundwood.
Finding accommodation is not usually a problem, and some B&Bs will collect you from, or deliver you to, parts of the route, or ferry your bags to your next resting place, if given prior notice. Three An Óige hostels line the route – at Knockree, Glendalough and Glenmalure. Accommodation in Roundwood, Laragh/Glendalough and Glenmalure is detailed in the text. An excellent website, wwww.wicklowway.com, gives full details of other accommodation along the route, as well as trail descriptions, maps and other useful advice.
Ordnance Survey maps nos. 56 and 62 cover almost the whole route at 1:50,000, with nos. 50 and 61 picking up the extremities. EastWest Mapping (wwww.eastwestmapping.ie) also produce The Wicklow Way Map Guide, a booklet of 1:50,000 maps with accompanying text.