Wilds of Wicklow

Wicklow is Ireland’s garden county and the image of lush green fields is her most famous reputation. The real beauty of the county for me is the wilderness landscape of Wicklow National Park, which is not really like a garden at all, but more like a heather mountain desert.

Wicklow is the youngest county in Ireland with the rebels holding out here the longest against the colonials from across the Irish Sea, but her undulating and craggy granite mountains are 500 million years old, which is six times older than the Alps.

It is a great county for touring around in your car and even though parts of the county are among the most remote areas in the whole country, there usually is a wee road passing through the narrow glen or over the high mountain pass. You can pack a lot into a touring holiday and as the famous Irish walker, J.B. Malone, who spent most of his spare time traipsing around the hills of the county, put it “Never walk, when you can ride, drive or be carried.”

When you roll off the ferry at Rosslare and head north you still have to travel the length of Wexford before you get to the southern border of Wicklow. Rather than rushing up the motorway there are a number of worthwhile stops along the way.

The town of Wexford is the bustling capital of the county (the world famous opera festival is held here in October) and it is at least worth a few hours stop for a leisurely stroll along the colourful narrow and winding main street. Although there are scant remains of the historic Viking and Norman legacy of the town, its narrow lanes and tasteful shopfronts still retain a rustic charm and it is one of the friendliest places you could ever be.

A short amble along the quayside will provide a glimpse of the old fishing boats that still ply their trade in the Irish Sea and supply some of the local restaurants. You might eat some of the fisherman’s fresh catch if you decide to spend a night here.

Wexford is famous for its nightlife and there are over 90 pubs in the town if you decide to spend a night here. The nearest pub is always literally just around the corner if you desperately need to quench your thirst.

I’m not sure I would recommend you spend a night’s drinking in the bizarrely named The Electric Chair bar (although one of the locals did recommend it). If you do, you could end up with a permanent physical memento of your trip to the Emerald Isle from the colourful tattoo house next door. You can grab a lunchtime snack in many of the pubs, but expect a menu with tuna melt paninis and other European fare on it (yes Wexford town has embraced the 21st century).

Further up the main road on the way to Wicklow, the historic centre of Ferns (with the ruins of a 6th century abbey in the grounds of St. Auden’s church and a 13th century castle) and the elegant town of Enniscorthy are certainly worth spending an hour or so. If the weather is really hot (you are in the sunny southeast), you might want to head out to the beach and the dunes at Curracloe or the pleasant seaside resort of Courtown further north would be good choices.

Arklow is the most southerly of Wicklow County’s coastal towns and it is a good place to leave the N11 motorway, which heads rapidly northwards towards Dublin. It is a more vibrant place than its Viking cousin Wicklow Town to the north, but the old historic gaol in the county town is well worth a visit.

Heading west and towards the high ground you meet the Vale of Avoca where the waters of the Avonmore and Avonbeg rivers meet. The nearby town of Avoca (home of the Ballykissangel TV series) is worth a visit if only to catch the handweavers at the famous Avoca Handweavers Mill, which is the oldest mill on the Emerald Isle. The finding of a gold nugget in the Gold Mines River near Avoca sparked a goldrush in 1796, but you are unlikely to have any luck panning for gold, as there is not even a sliver of it left. You would have more chance winning the Irish Lotto.

The sixth century monastic settlement founded by St. Kevin at Glendalough (the valley of the two lakes) is a must for any tour of Ireland. You can see why the saintly man decided to settle here to his life of solitude and when he, as legend has it, was trying to avoid the amorous attentions of the gorgeous Kathleen who had chased him around the hills of Wicklow.

It is a mystical place and you feel you are walking on sacred ground when you stroll through the ancient graveyard in the monastic village, especially if you get there early in the morning or you stay on late in the evening after all the crowds have gone.

It is one of the most popular tourist destinations and gets crowded, but if you head off a little off the beaten track on one of the many walking trails you can sample the peace and solitude that make it so popular, and attracted St. Kevin here all of those years ago.

Near the Monastic Viillage is the turn off to one of the high roads of the National Park that leads up through the high Wicklow Gap across to West Wicklow and Blessington Lake. The dramatic scenery on this high road that sometimes seems to lead right up into the clouds has been an inspiration to many movie directors who have filmed here.

It is among these hills that Mel Gibson put together his Oscar winning performance in Braveheart. It was not filmed in Scotland at all, nor in some Southern California studio, although when you descend on the other side of the pass the first town you meet will be Hollywood. This is the real authentic Hollywood, but it does not rival the US tinsel town for glamour, although there is the curious Neolithic Pipers Stones to see. Further along the road to Blessington you can visit Russborough House with its impressive art collection and perhaps have a picnic by one of the lakes.

If you head over the Wicklow Gap to the Western part of the county, then the best way to come back is via the Sally Gap. This is the highest area of the county and arguably the most beautiful area of wild mountain scenery. The Military Road and the Luggala Road cross at the Sally Gap and driving in all four directions will lead you through high mountain bogland with craggy peaks all around. The Military Road runs north to south. Going south you will end in Glendalough via the spectacular Glenmacnass waterfall and valley.

Going north you will pass through bogland where the Liffey River begins its journey to Dublin and the sea, Kippure Mountain and the two remote Lough Bray lakes and you can continue along the road until you reach the outskirts of Dublin City. Going west you will end up at the Blessington lakes. The road east is my favourite as you pass through the Luggala valley.

Here you get spectacular vistas of Lough Tay and the herds of deer way below in the Guinness Estate now owned by Garech a Bruin, the founder of Claddagh records. There are lots of great walks around here and the 82 mile long Wicklow Way passes through on its way south to Glendalough and beyond. This is one to come back to when you get a little fitter.

The Great Sugarloaf Mountain dominates the vistas of Northern Wicklow. Although legend has it that it is an old angry volcano, it is in fact not one at all. The symmetrical conical form is a product of millions of years of erosion to its granite core, which now lays bare to the elements. The climb from the car park is not too strenuous until the last steep bit to the summit. The views from the tops are spectacular on a clear day as you can see the whole of eastern coastline from Dublin Bay down to Wicklow Head. The smaller sister peak nearby is an even less strenuous climb and also provides some great views.

Two places that should be on the itinerary of any visitor to the Garden County are the spectacular private gardens of Mount Usher and Powerscourt House. Mount Usher is near Ashford and is open from March to October. If you are here in the springtime or summer, then the floral displays will take your breath away. Powerscourt House is in Enniskerry and it is open all year round.

These internationally acclaimed gardens are so extensive you could justifiably spend a day wandering around. There is also excellent food to be had here, and you can eat outside on a balcony with a view of the gardens. Powerscourt Waterfall nearby is the highest in Ireland.

Your holiday spent driving around the remote wild countryside of Wicklow will leave you refreshed and revitalized from breathing in the healthiest of fresh air. One thing for sure is that you will want to return to rediscover the wild landscapes of the Garden of Ireland.

Conor Caffrey is a travel writer and photographer.


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