An Irish Village

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Historical, Mythical, Mystical Dunlavin

Dunlavin, an Irish village in west Wicklow, has a long history of settlement. The name Dunlavin has two explanations. Firstly it refers to the Fort of Liamhán, who was a legendary princess of North Leinster, supposedly slain for eloping with a prince from South Leinster. The scene of her death was Tournant Moat, a Celtic mound or fort about a mile from the present village. The other explanation of the name is the Fort of the Elms, surely a reference to the well-wooded appearance of these parts in Celtic times. The whole area surrounding Dunlavin was settled even before the arrival of the Celts. Stone circles like those at Castleruddery and Brewel could date from c.2,000B.C. There was an Iron Age Hill Fort on Spinan’s Hill, between Dunlavin and Baltinglass.The Celts established themselves here during the bronze Age, and they were quick to embrace Christianity when it arrived in Ireland during the fifth century A.D. Traditionally, St. Patrick is the man credited with the genesis of the new religion in Ireland, but there were already some pockets of Christianity existing before St. Patrick’s arrival. One such pocket existed in the Dunlavin area and was due to the work of St. Palladius. Palladius was born in Britain and was the son of a high-ranking Byzantine official of the Roman Empire. The ‘Annals of Ulster’ state that: ‘To the Irish believing in Christ, Palladius, ordained by Pope Celestine, was sent as their first bishop’. In the year 431 Palladius and a group of companions landed at Wicklow harbour and moved inland, establishing three religious settlements: one in Tigroney near Avoca, one on the summit of Church mountain near Donard and one near Cillín Cormac to the Northeast of which is Dunlavin. The name Donard, it has been suggested, is a shortened form of Domnacha Arda ‘the church of the high field’ and refers to the Church mountain site established by St. Sylvester, a disciple of Palladius. The first Dunlavin Christian settlement was called Cell Fine ‘the church of the septs’.The early work of Palladius was strengthened by the arrival of St. Patrick, and the centuries following the establishment of Christianity in this area witnessed the growth of the monastic way of life. Glendalough was the great Wicklow monastery, but there was also one at Tober, near Dunlavin, and the fishpond on the river Griese was first constructed by the Tober monks. The Irish monasteries provided a place of refuge in a violent world. Many local placenames hint at this violence; names that include Dun and Rath for example refer to defensive sites. Dunlavin and Rathsallagh were violent places caught in a cockpit of wars between the old Celtic kingdoms of North Leinster and South Leinster. Two large battles were fought at Dun Bolg in 598A.D. and in 870A.D. The final years of the first millennium also saw the threat of Viking raids and the end of the monastic ‘golden age’. The Dunlavin area bade farewell to the first millennium with the Battle of Glen Mama in 999 or 1000 A.D., when Brian Boru defeated the Vikings and Leinstermen, as he would do once again at Clontarf in 1014 - but this time at the cost of his own life.The second thousand years after the birth of Christ began with a move to reform the Celtic church. However, reform was not fast enough for Pope Adrian IV and a papal bull in 1155 granted permission for a Norman invasion of Ireland. This happened in 1169 and by about 1200 the O’Toole and O’Byrne families had been driven into the Wicklow Mountains, including the Donard and Davidstown areas, just above Dunlavin. Normans had settled the lowlands of neighbouring Kildare and the Dunlavin area once again became a cockpit of war. The year 1275 saw this area being fortified against attacks from the Irish mountain-dwellers. These continued into the fourteenth century and one of the worst incidents happened in 1332.When the Normans arrived they re-organised the structure of the Irish church. Many Irish chieftains did not accept these changes and Norman churches were often burnt by the marauding Irish. In 1332 Fryanstown church (near Dunlavin) was burnt, along with 80 people who had fled to the church for sanctuary from the violence. Records state that ‘when a certain chaplain of the said church, clothed in sacred vestments wished to leave the building with the body of the Lord, they drove him back with their lances and burnt him with the others’. This incident resulted in the excommunication of ‘O’Toole and his accomplices, enemies and rebels of the King’. This area remained a dangerous place into the fifteenth century. Archbishop Tregury of Dublin would not visit Dunlavin in 1468 because ‘it lay in the Irish territory on the marches of the Pale so he dared not visit on account of the war in those parts’.

To be continued…