Wicklow’s Historic Town

The name of Wicklow town is of Viking origin, with ‘lo’ meaning meadow or grassland. The town occurs just south of The Murrough, where the waters of the Broad Lough enter the sea via the Leitrim River at Wicklow Harbour.

The old Irish name for the town Chill Mhanntain has connections with St. Patrick and translates literally as church of ‘gubby’ or ‘gap toothed’. This is thought to derive from the attempt by St. Patrick and his followers to land at Wicklow in the 5th century. Their boat was stoned by natives and one of the party was struck in the mouth and had teeth knocked out. The follower who lost his teeth was later christened ‘ Mhanntain’ and returned to Wicklow where he founded a church.

The area of ‘Nati’s mound’ which overlooks the river is thought to be the site of the earliest settlers to the town, and later came to be occupied by the Vikings, who also established a timber fort at what is now the ‘Black Castle’. In Norman times the town was centered along Main Street which runs parallel to the natural Harbour. As is the case with most medieval towns, small lanes and streets open off this to the north and south, while the wider parts at the north and south ends may be the location of the market place where stalls would have been erected for fairs and markets. The ruins of a monastery dating back to Norman times can be found at Abbey Grounds. The Black Castle was destroyed in 1641 in an attack which led to the massacre of the Parish Priest and his congregation, it is claimed, in the vicinity of what is now known as Melancholy Lane.

In 1798, Wicklow Gaol housed a large number of rebels, many of whom were executed and disposed of from fishing boats into waters offshore. Today a monument to Billy Byrne of Ballymanus, a famous local rebel leader in the 1798 rebellion who was executed at Gallows Lane, can be found in Market Square. Another monument in Fitzwilliam square commemorates Captain Robert Halpin, a celebrated mariner responsible for laying the first underwater cable communications between Europe and America in the 19th century. For more information about the life of Captain Robert Halpin follow the Halpin Heritage Trail available to download here, or watch a short video here.

The Leitrim River in Wicklow Town is tidal, a mixture of fresh and brackish water, making it an excellent habitat for fish species such as the robust thick-lipped Grey Mullet, young Plaice flatfish and small spiky three-spined Sticklebacks. Green Shore Crabs can be seen from Parnell Bridge when the tide is low and the water is clear. The Bridge is also a great place to observe birdlife with Black-headed Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Grey Herons, Little Egrets, Cormorants, Shags, Kingfishers, Mallard ducks and elegant Mute Swans being just some of the most common bird species on view, either from the bridge or further along the riverside walk towards the Murrough. The Otter is occasionally seen closeby, no doubt attracted to the plentiful fish supply. On some occasions enormous Basking Sharks have been known to enter Wicklow Harbour to feed on plankton at the mouth of the Leitrim. Two rare clover species have been recorded at the gravelly bank of the Leitrim River and the coastal grassland around the Black Castle.

Heading south, Wicklow Head is a rocky headland with extensive exposures of mica-schist, located about 2 km from the town. It is the most easterly part of Ireland. A coastguard station and an attractive octagonal lighthouse dating from 1870 are located on the headland.