The Wicklow Mountains form the largest continuous upland area in the Republic of Ireland, having an unbroken area of over 190 square miles over 1,000 feet. They occupy the whole centre of County Wicklow and stretch outside its borders into the counties of Carlow, Wexford and Dublin. Where the mountains extend into County Dublin, they are known locally as the Dublin Mountains.
In form, the Wicklow Mountains are remarkable for their steep, sharp shapes against the horizon. They are visible from much of Leinster and stand pround against the sky from the City of Dublin, and on a clear day they can be seen across the sea from Caernarfonshire and from the Isle of Man.
The Wicklow Mountains are a major attraction for tourism and recreation. The entire upland area is designated as a Special Area of Conservation and as a Special Protection Area under European Union law. The Wicklow Mountains National Park was established in 1991 to conserve the local biodiversity and landscape.
Shape of the land
The mountains are primarily composed of granite surrounded by an envelope of mica-schist and much older rocks such as quartzite. They were pushed up during the Caledonian orogeny at the start of the Devonian period and form part of the Leinster Chain, the largest continuous area of granite in Ireland and Britain. The mountains owe much of their present topography to the effects of the last ice age, which deepened the valleys and created corries and ribbon lakes.
Copper and lead have been the main metals mined in the mountains and a brief gold rush occurred in the 18th century.
The dominant habitat of the uplands consists of blanket bog, heath and upland grassland. The uplands support a number of threatened bird species, including merlin and peregrine falcon. The valleys are a mixture of coniferous and deciduous woodland.
An early name for the whole area of the Wicklow Mountains in the Irish language was Cualu. There are also historic names for various territories in the mountains held by local clans: the north part of Wicklow and south Dublin was known as Cualann while the Glen of Imaal takes its name from the territory of Hy Mail. A sept of the O'Byrne family called the Gaval Rannall possessed the area around Glenmalure, known as Gaval-Rannall or Ranelagh. During the Middle Ages, until County Wicklow itself was properly establisahed, the administration in Dublin Castle referred to the region as the Leinster Mountains.
The general direction of the Wicklow mountain ranges is from north-east to south-west. They are formed into several distinct groups:
- Kippure in the north, on the boundary of Dublin and Wicklow
- Djouce, Tonelagee, Camaderry and Lugnaquilla in the centre
- Church Mountain and Keadeen in the west
- Croghan Kinsella to the south.
- Great Sugar Loaf, Little Sugar Loaf and Bray Head grouped to the east, separated from the rest of the range by the Vartry Plateau.
Lugnaquilla is the highest peak in the Wicklow Mountains at 3,035 feet and the 13th highest in the Republic of Ireland. It is also the highest peak in Leinster and is the only Irish Furth Munro to be found outside of Munster.
There are a total of 39 peaks over 2,000 feet in the Wicklow Mountains. There are only three passes through the mountains under 2,000 feet and the Sally Gap (carrying the R759 road) at 1,634 feet and the Wicklow Gap (carrying the R756) at 1,567 feet are the highest road passes in the country.
Several major river systems have their source in the mountains, such as the Liffey, Dargle, Slaney and Avoca rivers. A number of these rivers have been harnessed to create reservoirs for drinking water for Dublin and its surroundings. The Wicklow Mountains have a thin layer of blanket bog which cannot hold great quantities of water, so in season many of its rivers burst suddenly in their courses, filling rapidly after heavy rain.
- The River Liffey rises between the mountains of Kippure and Tonduff at Liffey Head Bog. One of its major tributaries, the River Dodder, rises nearby on slopes on Kippure. The King's River rises on Mullaghcleevaun and joins the Liffey near Blessington.
- The River Vartry rises on the slopes of Djouce Mountain.
- The River Dargle rises between Tonduff and War Hill, falling 397 feet as the Powerscourt Waterfall, Ireland's tallest. The cliff over which it falls was formed anciently by a glacier at the contact point between the granite and mica-schist of the Wicklow Mountains. The waterfalls at the heads of the valleys of Glendalough, Glenmacnass and Glendasan also occur approximately at the schist-granite junctions, as does the Carrawaystick waterfall in Glenmalure.
- The River Slaney rises in the North Prison of Lugnaquilla mountain and winds through the Glen of Imaal where it is joined by the Leoh, Knickeen and Little Slaney. Another of its tributaries, the River Derreen, rises on Lugnaquilla's southern side.
- The River Avoca rises in branches, the Avonmore, the Avonbeg and the Aughrim, all amongst the Wicklow Mountains.
- The Avonmore and Avonbeg rivers unite to form the Avoca at the Meeting of the Waters in the Vale of Avoca, celebrated in the song The Meeting of the Waters by Thomas Moore. At Woodenbridge it is joined by the Aughrim, sometimes referred to as the "Second Meeting of the Waters".
The mountains have been inhabited since Neolithic times and a number of typical monuments, in particular a series of passage tombs, survive to the present day.
The monastery at Glendalough, founded in the late 6th century by Saint Kevin, was an important centre of the Early Church in Ireland. After the Norman invasion in the 12th century, the Wicklow Mountains became a stronghold and hiding place for Irish clans opposed to Norman-English rule. The O'Byrne and O'Toole families carried out a campaign of harassment against the settlers for almost five centuries. Later the mountains harboured rebels during the 1798 Rising.
After the defeat of the '98 rebellion peace returned though the Wicklow Military Road was driven over the mountains. Soon the mountains began to attract tourists to the ruins at Glendalough and to admire the mountain scenery, as they still do.
Geological formation and legacy
The Wicklow Mountains are primarily composed of granite surrounded by an envelope of mica-schist and much older rocks such as quartzite. The oldest rocks are the quartzites of the Bray Group that include Bray Head and the Little Sugar Loaf and Great Sugar Loaf mountains. These metamorphosed from sandstone deposited in the deep waters of the primeval Iapetus Ocean during the Cambrian period (542-488 million years ago). Layers of sediment continued to form slates and shales along the ocean floor mixed with volcanic rock pushed up as Iapetus began to shrink by the process of subduction during the Ordovician period (488-443 million years ago). These rocks now underlie the uplifted peneplain of the Vartry Plateau between the Bray Group and the main range.
Iapetus closed up completely at the end of the Silurian period (443-415 million years ago) and the Wicklow Mountains were uplifted during the main phase of the Caledonian orogeny at the start of the Devonian period (415-358 million years ago) when the continents of Baltica and Laurentia collided. The collision pushed up a large batholith of granite, known as the Leinster Chain: this is the largest continuous area of granite in Ireland and Britain and runs from the coast at Dun Laoghaire in County Dublin to New Ross in County Wexford and includes the Wicklow and Blackstairs Mountains. The heat generated by the collision metamorphosed the slates and shales surrounding the granite into schists which formed an aureole (shell) around the granite. Erosion has removed much of the surrounding schist from the mountain tops, exposing the underlying granite. Some remnants of the schist roof remain on some of the mountain tops, most notably Lugnaquilla. The round granite topped peaks contrast with the sharper schist peaks: for example, War Hill (granite) and Djouce (schist).
The last major geological event to shape the Wicklow Mountains was the Quaternary glaciation during the Pleistocene epoch (2.6 million to 11,700 years ago). The ice deepened and moulded the valleys into the U-shape that characterises the Wicklow Glens, such as Glendalough and Glenmacnass. As the ice melted, small glaciers were left in corries where moraines now dam lakes such as at Loughs Bray and Nahanagan. Corries without lakes also occur, such as the North Prison and South Prison of Lugnaquilla. Escaping meltwater cut narrow rocky gorges at several locations including the Glen of the Downs, the Devil's Glen and The Scalp. Ribbon lakes, such as Lough Dan and the lakes of Glendalough, also formed.
Mining and quarrying
Ireland's most significant metalliferous belt is in the Wicklow Hills and mining has taken place since at least the Bronze Age. The most important mining sites have been at Avoca and Glendalough. Iron ore was mined between the 12th and 17th centuries, then lead mining up to the mid 18th century. The principal mining from 1720 to the closure of the last mine in 1982 was for copper. Sulphur has also been dug at certain times and, in smaller quantities, gold, silver and zinc.
Lead mining has been the principal activity in the Glendalough valley and its neighbouring valleys of Glendasan and Glenmalure. Lead was first discovered in Glendasan in the early 19th century and the lead veins were later followed through Camaderry mountain to Glendalough. Mining on a smaller scale took place in Glenmalure. The last mine closed in 1957.
In 1795, a local schoolmaster discovered gold in the Aughatinavought River, a tributary of the River Aughrim since renamed Gold Mines River that rises on the slopes of Croghan Kinsella mountain. During the ensuing gold rush, some 180 lb of gold was recovered from the river by local prospectors, including a single nugget weighing 24 oz, the largest lump of gold ever discovered in the British Isles. The mine workings were subsequently taken over by the government, whose enterprise extracted a further 660 lb of gold. Various attempts have been made to locate the motherlode on Croghan Kinsella but to no avail.
Granite from the Wicklow Mountains has been used as a material for many buildings in Wicklow and Dublin and beyond. The quarries at Ballyknockan have provided material for buildings such as the Bank of Ireland on College Green in Dublin and Dun Laoghaire lighthouse. Quarries at Glencullen provided stone for such buildings as the General Post Office on O'Connell Street and the Industry and Commerce building on Kildare Street in Dublin. Barnacullia, on the slopes of Three Rock Mountain, supplied paving stones to Dublin Corporation. The quarry at Dalkey supplied granite for Dun Laoghaire Harbour and the Thames Embankment.
The principal farming activity in the uplands is sheep grazing, using mainly the Wicklow Cheviot breed. Land is also used for forestry and turf cutting.
Tourism and recreation are also major activities in the uplands. Glendalough remains the most popular destination, receiving around one million visitors each year for sightseeing, walking, rock climbing, fishing and cycling.
Hillwalking in the Wicklow Mountains was first popularised by J B Malone through a weekly column he wrote in the Evening Herald newspaper. Malone was later instrumental in the creation of the Wicklow Way, Ireland's first National Waymarked Trail, which opened in 1980 and crosses the Wicklow Mountains. The Wicklow Way has been joined by the Dublin Mountains Way and the Saint Kevin's Way pilgrim path, both of which also traverse parts of the mountains.
On foot of concerns about environmental degradation and undesirable development of the Wicklow Uplands, the Government announced the creation of the Wicklow Mountains National Park in 1990 to conserve the area's biodiversity and landscape. The park was officially established in 1991 and now encompasses an area of around 80 square miles. In addition, the Wicklow Mountains (including areas outside the National Park) are classed as a "Special Area of Conservation" and as a "Special Protection Area".
- Wicklow Mountains National Park
- Dublin Mountains Partnership
- Wicklow Cheviot Sheep Owners Association
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