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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
Frederic William Burton
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The Old Military Road

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The Old Military Road

by Suzanne Barrett

In 1798, following the example of France and the American Colonies, the people of Ireland attempted to set up a republic. The effort was doomed, but it set off a frenzy of road building by a British Army bent on expanding their supply routes and determined to pursue and capture Irish rebels before they escaped into the Wicklow Mountain glens and safe houses.

You'll find few soldiers on the Military Road today, but it remains as one of the loveliest, if not one of the loneliest spots in Ireland. A perfect jaunt for a day's getaway.

We begin our tour at the outskirts of Dublin, just past Rathfarnham, where we follow the Sally Gap signposts. From Ballyboden, the road rises into the mountains, at this point called Stocking Lane because it was once a "stocking-up" place for the army before going into the mountains. If you've a quick eye, on your left you can see the lovely home and Georgian offices of Inside Ireland. Continuing up to the top of the hill, you find yourself on the L94. Pause at the Killakee Car Park for a look back over the panorama that is Dublin City and Dublin Bay. It's said that on a clear day one can see beyond to the Mountains of Mourne, however, it has never been visible to me.

Just beyond Killakee, the terrain becomes at once mountainous, then desolate. This is the moorland called "The Featherbed," a heather and bog area high above civilization. Here deer, sheep, and grouse live, and here city dwellers travel from the lowlands to cut turf and get a bit of fresh air, as well as an undeniable link to their ancestral past.

The road turns south at Glencree. We pass a lovely valley, then the road rises again to a vista of great hills, some long and gentle, others sharp and conical. Sixty-six years ago, H.V. Moreton said of this area: "Little brown streams trickle through the peat. The whole landscape is a study in various browns: brown peat like dark chocolate; black brown water; light brown grass; dark brown pyramids of cut peat stacked at intervals along the brown road." Today, only the road color is changed.

At Sally Gap the road continues a southerly route. About eight miles away is another car park and a path to one of the finest waterfalls in Ireland--Glenmacross. Before long, the hills and grass again become their familiar dark green; signs of civilization greet as cottages and farms appear. Straight ahead is the village of Laragh where a right turn leads to Glendalough. This sixth-century monastic settlement grew up in a breathtakingly beautiful valley that is as beautiful and mysterious today as it must have been in St. Kevin's time. Stop to visit the famous round tower, the cemetery with its tilting gravestones, and some of the most charming church buildings. A visitors' center provides craft items, maps and information, and for the energetic, there are two lakes and miles of footpaths where you may strike out on your own. Should you prefer to spend your time in less strenuous pursuits, a nearby, family-run bed and breakfast caters for every convenience.

Back in Laragh, take the road for Rathdrum. One mile farther, turn right to continue on the Military Road. Here it climbs out of oak and beech woodland, along pastureland and moorland, past the valley of Glenmalure, past the ruins of old military barracks, then past the highest mountain in the east of Ireland--Lughnaquilla at 3039 feet.

Four miles beyond Rathdangen is the Dwyer-MacAllister Cottage from where patriot Michael Dwyer escaped in 1799. Beyond the stream is the village of Knockanarrigan, and three miles farther on, the stone circle of Castleruddery. Note the boulders, and that the two facing east are glistening white quartz while the others are granite. At this point you can see the wide open valley known as the Glen of Imaal, a contrast to the steep narrow valleys on the eastern side.

The next village is Donard and beyond, the lovely valley known as Hollywood Glen. Here, film director Neil Jordan recreated his "Bealnabláth" for the ambush scene in Michael Collins."

Just past Woodenboley Wood is another stone circle: the Piper's Stones. Climb over the gate at the signpost and follow the hawthorn hedge up the hill to them. It is said that if you are very quiet, you might hear the piper. The road now turns back toward Glendalough, and you are once again in the hills. A few miles farther is Blessington Lake and the village of Ballyknockan where quarrymen work the granite rock. Beyond the village, the lake narrows and you cross into the quiet township of Blessington. Craft shops and an old world hotel greet visitors.

Turn right past Blessington to return to Sally Gap and Dublin. The road here gives a splendid view of the lake, then as you near the Gap, of Dublin. Turn left and descend into Dublin and civilization. Total distance for this tour is 104 mi. (167 km).

Until next time.

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