A trip to Kilakee and lunch in the Armoury Restaurant in Glencree took me back through the years and family trips to Wicklow, crossing the mountains oftentimes through one of the two gaps – the Sally Gap or the Wicklow Gap. More especially fond memories returned of sunburning days on the “Featherbed” with neighbours cutting turf, where we as kids were certainly more of a nuisance than helpful. Great times!
Bearna Bhealach Sailearnáin / Sally Gap is located between Mullaghcleevaun and Djouce Mountain. It is evident from the name as well as from the aspect itself that there is a ‘gap’ (bearna) at this location and a ‘road’ or a ‘way’ of some sort (bealach). The final element of the placename is probably a derivative of the Irish word sailearnán, a ‘willow-tree’. And there are certainly plenty of windblown Sallies on the hills.
In more recent times I took a group of young French student teachers across the Gap to admire the bleakness and beauty of the scenery and share historical tales!
Mam often recounted the exploits of Michael Dwyer, his part in the 1798 Rising and his guerrilla campaign from the safety of the Wicklow Mountains, the exasperation of the British forces which prompted the building of the road. The Glencree (Glen of the Heart) Barracks was opened as a station on the road in 1806. But by 1820 all the barracks along the Military Road had closed down.
In 1859 Glencree Barracks became a reformatory for delinquent boys. Following the deprivations of the Famine there was a massive increase in crime especially juvenile crime and large numbers of children were held in adult prison. Public outcry about this led to the establishment of reformatories. Lord Powerscourt, then owner of the land of Glencree, offered a lease on the abandoned barracks for the establishment of St. Kevin’s Reformatory there.
The boys laboured to reclaim and cultivate more than 100 acres of land. It is now said “that the fields under the Glencree Centre are the most stone-free fields in all Wicklow”! However reports in recent years from inmates and others describe the terrible floggings that went on, the starvation rations, the almost complete lack of education and the ill-health that derived from poor diet and virtually no proper health care. In 1941 the reformatory closed down.
It was interesting that even before Government investigation into care of children in institutions, Mam had talked to us about the hardships and cruelty of these institutions. She also acknowledged the initial humane reasons for their establishment. What a balanced view of life I received, a foundation for my belief in the importance of balancing rights and responsibilities.
Today’s visit, however, introduced me to the international history of the place. For a short time during WWI (1914-18) it had been used to house German prisoners of war. During WWII, (1939–45), when Ireland was neutral, Glencree housed German air force pilots who crashed in Ireland as well as German agents who were captured trying to plan anti-British activities with the IRA.
Under Operation Shamrock the Irish Red Cross turned Glencree became a temporary Refugee Centre. The French Sisters of Charity looked after thousands of German and Polish war orphans on UN sponsored three-month rest programmes or en-route to longer-stay fostering in Irish homes. Over a three year period almost 1,000 children were brought to Ireland and, after a settling-in period at Glencree, were fostered by families throughout the country. There are many German named residents around Rockbrook and Tibradden who probably settled with families around the area.
Following lunch another surprise was in store. Just down the road on the banks of the Glencree River, Padraig brought me to the German War Cemetery (Deutscher Soldatenfriedhof) which was dedicated on 9 July 1961 and is administered by the German War Graves Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge). There are 134 graves belonging mostly to air force or navy personnel. Fifty-three are identified, 28 are unknown. Six remains belong to WW1 POWs held by the British. Included also are the victims of the Arandora Star, German civilian detainees sank by U-Boat in July 1940 off Tory Island, Co Donegal. 6 WWI German POW’s who died in a British POW camp are also buried here as is Dr Hermann Görtz who was one of a number of parachutists into Ireland during WWII on espionage and IRA related activities.
In the summer of 1940, Görtz parachuted into Ballivor, County Meath, Ireland he remained at large for a total of eighteen months. On his arrest Görtz was interned first at Mountjoy Prison then later Athlone Military barracks with 9 others until the end of the war. In 1947 under the threat of return to Germany and Soviet captivity he took his life by cyanide capsule.
The quiet of the cemetery with the Glencree River babbling alongside and the commemorative plaque with a poem in 3 languages all lend to the atmosphere. Well worth a visit!
Following the outbreak of hostilities in Northern Ireland in 1969, a voluntary group, with State assistance, set up a Centre for Peace and Reconciliation at Glencree.