An Irish Village

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Dunlavin from Early Modern Times to the Present

The sixteenth century witnessed the Reformation. The activities of Martin Luther affected mainland Europe, but King Henry VIII’s Anglican Reformation had a more immediate effect in this area. The Anglican Reformation was much more successful in England than it was in Ireland, where it met with resistance almost from the outset. In 1580 Edmund of Tober supported Viscount Baltinglass and Fiach Mac Hugh O’Byrne when they threw in their lot with the Earl of Desmond, who had rebelled against Queen Elizabeth I. Edmund ended on the losing side, fled and died in Portugal in 1594. Fiach Mac Hugh was killed in 1597 and the upland Donard and Davidstown areas were finally subjugated, resulting in the shiring of Wicklow as a separate county in 1606. The 1640s witnessed another rebellion, after which the local landowner Peter Sarsfield lost his lands hereabouts for having supported the rebels. These lands were acquired by the Church of Ireland archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Launcelot Bulkeley, and the village of Dunlavin was established by Sir Richard Bulkeley in the late seventeenth century. Sir Richard intended building a university here, but due to obstacles, including opposition from the Church of Ireland’s see of Dublin, this plan came to naught.

As well as the establishment of the new village of Dunlavin on its present site, the 1680s and 1690s saw the triumph of the Williamites over the Jacobites, and with it came a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment. The parish priest of the Glen of Imaal, Fr. Laurence O’Toole, hid his vestments and altar vessels in 1692 and went into hiding. The first penal laws were passed in 1695, and penal measures continued to be passed until 1728, mainly aimed at landholding Catholics at first but ultimately threatening the practice of the Catholic religion itself. Catholic services were held in secret and one local site of such services was the Mass Rock in the Glen of Imaal. One local tradition tells of how, when the authorities arrived in the Glen, a member of the congregation took the place of the priest and was hanged at the Mass Rock in an act of self-sacrifice similar to that of Fr. Max Kolbe in Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II.

The penal laws continued into the eighteenth century, but did not stop the development of Dunlavin village, which became a market town for the parish. The fine market house was commissioned in 1737 by Robert Tynte, and it remains a landmark building in the village to this day. The Tyntes had arrived in the area in 1702 when James Worth-Tynte married into the Bulkeley family and they still own some local properties. The unequal division of wealth within eighteenth-century society was one reason behind the United Irish movement of the 1790s. The rebellion of 1798 saw 36 men executed on the fair green of Dunlavin, and more hanged from the pillars of the market house. The fair green executions were beside the site used for Catholic worship, so the scene of the executions was well chosen! Many of those executed came from the Donard area and they included John Dwyer of Seskin. It was another Dwyer, the famous rebel leader Michael, who continued the resistance until December 1803, holding out in the Glen of Imaal long after the rebellion had ceased in the rest of the country. Michael Dwyer was transported to Australia in 1805 and the Dunlavin area quietened down and continued to increase in population as the nineteenth century progressed.

One result of the relative peace and prosperity – and the relaxation of the penal laws – was the building of the new Protestant church the present Catholic church, which both date from c.1815. The first parish priest here was Fr. John Hyland and the earliest parish registers record a continuing growth in population in the early nineteenth century. However this increase was abruptly halted when famine stalked the region in the 1840s. This region was badly hit by the famine. The upland portions of Donard and Davidstown had more in common with the West of Ireland than with lowland Leinster. The small upland farms on the sides of the Glen of Imaal were wiped out and the whole parish suffered terribly during the period from 1845 to 1850. Dunlavin village lost about 25% of its people and the whole parish lost nearly 40% of its inhabitants during these years. The post-famine years witnessed continuing emigration and many people - especially young people - left this area never to return. It was a trend that would continue right up to the 1950s.

After the famine, life changed for those left behind in this parish. Land was no longer subdivided and marriage rates and birth rates dropped as a result. The Catholic ‘devotional revolution’ changed the way that they worshipped and the pattern to St. Nicholas’s holy well in Tornant, for example, became less popular in the later nineteenth century. The emphasis was now heavily on formal devotional practice and Canon James Whittle (a native of Dunlavin who succeeded Canon Hyland on 8 November 1862) was responsible for the building of the Church of Our Lady of Dolours and St. Patrick in Davidstown, which opened its doors on 16 September 1875. The Catholic parish now had three churches for three faith-communities and people in remoter areas of the Glen were closer to a centre of worship. The next parish priest, Fr. Frederick Donovan, was a champion of the land reform and home rule movements of the late nineteenth century. His involvement in the National League and, after the Parnell scandal, the National Federation meant that by the time of his death in 1896 the local farmers of our parish were well on the way to becoming the owners of their own properties.

Dunlavin church was renovated in 1898, during Fr. Maxwell’s tenure as parish priest. As the twentieth century dawned both Dunlavin and the new Davidstown church were in pristine condition, but Donard Church was a cause for concern. The foundation stone for the new church in Donard was eventually laid by archbishop Edward J. Byrne on Sunday 12 July 1925, but before that event took place much had already happened in the first quarter of the present century. The Dunlavin area lost many young men in the First World War, and in its aftermath came the War of Independence. This place was again touched by violence and Donard experienced the Black and Tan tactics, while Dunlavin witnessed the murder of Robert Dixon at his house in Milltown on 2 February 1921. After the treaty came bitter Civil War, when brother turned against brother and families were divided. Peace was eventually restored, but times remained hard and emigration continued to haunt our parish through the hungry thirties, the years of the Emergency in the forties and the stagnant fifties. The 1960s saw the beginning of better times.

The last three decades of our present century have been a time of affluence, despite the recessions of the 70s and 80s. Our overall standard of living in the Dunlavin is probably the highest it has ever been. Over the centuries, our own place has seen terrible events, but is now peaceful and prosperous and we face the future with confidence. We cannot, and should not forget our past, but we can consign it to its proper place and look to a better future and let the early 21st century be remembered by future generations as a time of peace, of growth and of renewal due to the efforts of the present inhabitants of Dunlavin village and its hinterland.