David Mullen looks at the history of the mountain road built to subdue both United Irish rebels and the vast Wicklow wilderness.
It was February 15th, 1799, and it looked like Michael Dwyer’s time was up. On the run with his band of rebels since the previous year’s uprising, thanks to an informer, the yeomanry had finally caught up with him in a cottage at Derrynamuck in west Wicklow.
Parts of Dwyer’s company were forced to surrender, outgunned as they were by the British. Dwyer decided to hold out and in the ensuing gunfight, the cottage’s thatched roof caught fire. Things were getting worse by the minute.
In a brave act of sacrifice, Dwyer’s comrade, Antrim man Sam McAllister, threw open the door of the cottage, falling as he did in a hail of musket fire. It may have seemed a pointless waste, but the distraction allowed Dwyer to escape out the back of the cottage, to disappear once again into the mountains and to keep the fight for Irish freedom alive.
It simply wouldn’t do for the government in Dublin to have a vast, rebel-infested wilderness on its doorstep. After the Battle of Vinegar Hill in 1798, the United Irishmen fled north across Wexford and into the hills, gradually dispersing. Others like Dwyer and Joseph Holt continued small-scale operations against the army, picking-on small troop parties and raiding barracks.
The loss of life from their actions may not have been significant, but it was enough of a nuisance for the government to decide that it needed to act. After all, what was to stop the rebels regrouping in the hills and launching a sneak attack on Dublin?
What the government felt it needed was a way of getting troops from Dublin down into the Wicklow Mountains within the space of a few days. The only way it could really do that was by building a road right into the heart of the rebel stronghold.