Glencree Barracks -A Short History

Tom Barragry ©

If you have ever rambled up to Prince William’s Seat, or Knocknagunn,or indeed over to Lough Bray the Eagles Crag, and Kippure,then there’s a high chance that you either started or ended your hike by having a leisurely coffee in the small cafe of the Glencree Centre. But have you ever reflected on the interesting history of this building , the locale & its surroundings.?

This building ,the Glencree Barracks, was built in 1806 to house British soldiers employed in policing the newly built Military Road which wound its way through the Wicklow hills. It was after the insurrection of 1798, and following the final battle at Vinegar Hill, that the remaining rebels lead by Micheal Dwyer retreated into the depths of the Wicklow hills and by their guerilla tactics caused havoc to the local landlords and land owners ,making the general area virtually ungovernable. It was lord Cornwallis who would change all that.. Many years previously ,Lord Cornwallis, a senior appointee of King George 3rd ,had been leading the British forces in the American Revolutionary War.
Eventually ,after a long siege, Cornwallis lost the crucial battle of Yorktown, and surrendered to George Washington in 1781, paving the way for the end of the revolutionary war and the birth of the fledgling United States.
Cornwallis returned to Britain in 1782 and while still retaining the confidence of King George 3rd, he was sent to Prussia in August 1785 as an ambassador to the court of Frederick the Great . Shortly afterwards, in 1786 ,Cornwallis was made Governor-General and commander in chief in India. Finally in June 1798 , at a very turbulent time for Ireland,he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and commander in Chief of the British forces there. Upon his arrival in Ireland, Cornwallis was instrumental in securing passage in 1800 of the Act of Union by the Parliament of Ireland, a necessary step in the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
Cornwallis ‘s subsequent aims and responsibilities lay in restoring some stability and normality following the failed insurrection of 1798 and also in endeavouring to underpin Britain’s authority in Ireland following the Act of Union of 1800. He was also charged with keeping a wary eye on the distant possibility of a French invasion of Ireland by Napoleonic forces.
In February 1800 a letter was sent to Cornwallis at Dublin Castle from Lord Powerscourt and other harrassed landowners , pointing out the impossibility of policing the Wicklow wilderness and appealing for the construction of a road through it to flush out the remaining 1798 rebels and to return some discipline and order to Wicklow . Some landowners offered to donate the land for free. Cornwallis held consultative and planning meetings in the Yellow House in Rathfarnham and then acted fast. He decided to build a road, a Military Road over the Wicklow mountains as far as Aughavannagh, to flush out the remaining rebels . This military road would have four to five overseeing military barracks placed strategically along it’s route –one at Glencree, one at Laragh ,one at Drumgoff and one at Aughavannagh and also in the Glen of Imaal. The purpose of all this costly ,infra structural outlay was not just to inhibit Michael Dwyer and his now small rump of remaining rebels, but also to deter a full-fledged French invasion.The British believed that that many United Irishmen and the revolutionary remnants of Dwyer’s and Emmet’s uprisings would side with the French in the event of a French invasion of Ireland, which would of course severely threaten the British mainland. Napoleon was at his zenith of his military powers at this time and the British feared an invasion by the back door. Hence the size, strength and frequency of the Wicklow barracks system along the route of the military road.
Work commenced on the new road very quickly ,in August 1800,as compulsory purchase of land was not necessary . A Scotsman, Captain Alexander Taylor of the Royal Irish Fusiliers took charge of the road building project and 200 soldiers were employed in the construction of the road over difficult and boggy terrain.The occurrence of yet another attempted uprising ,this time from Robet Emmett in 1803, spurred on the whole military road construction project. The undertaking was tough physical spade work and the soldiers had to live in tents or houses made of sods along the route.The road was finished in 1809. It was double the anticipated budget ,costing over £43000 or almost £1000 per mile. It was not long before artists and writers were recording the scenes by word, paint and on engravings. Even before the road was fully completed ,in 1806 the eminent Irish landscapist Thomas Sautelle Roberts (1760-1826) was painting the construction of the section as it traversed Glenmacnass.
Glencree barracks was the headquarters of the military road , and was built on land leased from Lord Powerscourt . Situated at the head of the valley, and nearest to Dublin, it housed 100 soldiers and sometimes more. Initially, passes were issued from the barracks for anyone who wished to travel the military road .The barracks were opened in 1806 but by then the rebel Dwyer had sued for terms and was en route to Australia.The rebellious troubles had abated considerably, the Act of Union was securely in place , and barracks and garrisons were not quite as important anymore.The defeat of Napoleon and the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 eliminated the fear of a French Invasion and also considerably reduced the necessity for keeping numerous well protected barracks and well stocked military garrisons along the route.
Accordingly,by 1820 the barracks,including Glencree, were being run down and they closed completely in the 1840s. After the end of its garrison phase in the 1840s the Glencree building became a government storehouse and was used as a mapping base by the Ordnance Survey, and subsequently by the Irish Post Office.
In 1859 Glencree barracks became a reformatory school -St Kevins Reformatory School-run by the Oblate Fathers. Following a lot of refurbishment ,the grim military barracks at the head of the valley became an “industrial school”. It was the first reformatory school in Ireland . Juvenile delinquency was seen to be big problem at that time hastened in no small way by the famine and post famine years causing poverty, desolation ,despondancy, depression and despair. In 1853 there were over 12,000 children in Irish jails, incarcerated with adult criminals and subject to abuse and malign influences. These jails were really ‘schools for crime’. With no attempt made to reform or educate the children or train them for any future work, the children were released homeless, destitute and prone to turn again to crime. A solution was found in the Reformatory Schools Act 1858 which extended to Ireland a system already operating in Britain and on the Continent to house, educate and reform young juveniles outside the adult penal system while being in the care of persons of their own faith. A Committee of Concerned Laymen and Clergymen was estblished , and with the support of the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Cullen, they approached the Oblate provincial Fr. Robert Cooke with a request to assume responsibility for the work of establishing a reformatory school.
For 82 years Glencree was home to over 200 boys each year , the Oblate community and staff. In a letter to the Superior General dated 5 October 1860 Fr. Robert Cooke noted that the number of boys at Glencree had already reached 210. In the period to 1900 there was an average extra annual intake of 75 boys. Details for one entry group of seventy boys indicate that their ages ranged from ten years to 16 years. The largest group was in the thirteen to fourteen age ranges. They were usually sentenced for five years. By the Reformatory Act of 1893, the Manager was authorized to keep boys up to nineteen years of age. He could also cut the time in half to a minimum of three years with good conduct and a suitable place to go when a boy left the school.
In 1867, Fr. Lynch was succeeded as the Superior and Resident Manager by Fr. Laurence P. Fox. By then the staff at Glencree had increased to 24 Lay Brothers. In 1878 there was a staff of 3 priests and 25 Brothers. This number would remain fairly constant throughout the school’s history. A schoolmaster, bandmaster, a master carpenter and two labourers were employed as well, and the boys were fruitfully involved in the day-to-day running of the school. Many were learning trades. Tailoring, shoemaking, cabinet-making, carpentry, stone cutting and mason work, painting, glazing plumbing, nail making, mat making and the manufacture of gas from coal are all mentioned in the Manager’s Report of 1869, together with work in the house, in the gardens, in the bakery, laundry and in the stables. Peat was cut for fuel and some land was cleared and developed for grazing, making hay and the growing of potatoes and vegetables. A lot of other food still had to be bought and brought up by horse and cart on the rough roads from Enniskerry and Dublin. Livestock included about twenty-five milk cows and two hundred sheep. One of the new dormitories was converted into an infirmary. Sick boys were attended regularly by a doctor from Enniskerry. By 1872 a new bakery had been built, mostly by the boys, and plans were well in hand to set up a printing shop, which developed well in later years and brought in some much needed income. In all some 69 Oblate Brothers and 42 Oblate priests ministered to the boys in St. Kevin’s over the years.

Dormitories of the old reformatory school

In addition to its role as a reformatory school,during World War 1,the Glencree building was used also to house German prisoners of war and again in WW 2 it housed some German Luftwaffe pilots who crashed in Ireland, as well as some under cover German agents who were believed to be linked to the IRA.
In 1940 the reformatory school finally closed ,and the building essentially lay vacant until 1947.
In 1947 the barracks opened again under “Operation Shamrock”. This was originally an Irish Red Cross initiative to re settle young children from war torn Germany . 1947 was the centenary year of the “Black 47 ” year of the Great Irish Famine ,and this to some extent acted as an impetus , and was seen as a motivator for Ireland to assist others in need … especially -as far as the Irish government was concerned, – those in post war Gernany.
Glencree was used as a reception and arrival centre for young German children (and a few Polish) who had been orphaned or displaced during World War 2. Some indeed were orphans but others had parents incapable of looking after them because of POW or internment status, death or homelessness.The first German children arrived in July 1946 and by the end of 1947 almost 600 children between the ages of 3 and 15 had been received in Glencree for fostering. .They stayed there for a period of three to four weeks before sent to a suitable Irish family for fostering. The Save the German Children Society (SGCS) was founded in 1945 at a meeting in the Shelbourne Hotel , to find foster homes in Ireland, for German orphans from war ravaged Cologne and north Germany.The German catholic charity “Caritas” selected the children mostly from the Ruhr area of North Rhine Westphalia. The Irish Red Cross then arranged their arrival and reception at Glencree centre and then liaised with the SGCS. The children were predominatly catholic and were placed in catholic Irish homes . Some controversy surrounded Operation Shamrock insofar as Ireland was allegedly neutral, and extending the hand of friendship to Britain’s enemy was not seen as quite the thing to do politically. Also no Jewish,and very few Protestant children were brought over from Germany…all were mainly catholic. Over 1000 children in total arrived in Ireland and were placed in Irish foster homes after a waiting period spent in Glencree. Most of the children returned back to their families in post war Germany two or three years later, although fifty of them remained in Ireland.The children had happy memories of Ireland,and in 1997, a fifty year reunion of over 300 foster children and families was held at the German embassy in Dublin. A group of 21 German orphans also returned to Glencree centre for a reunion in 2013 as part of “The Gathering”.
In 1956 a memorial fountain commisioned by the German Gratitude Fund was unveiled in St Stepehens Green Dublin by the West German ambassador to commemorate Operation Shamrock at Glencree. A memorial plaque thanking the Irish people was placed there in St Stephens Green by the German President Roman Hertzog in 1997.
The Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation was founded in 1974 as a response to violent conflict in Irish society, and in light of a conviction that there must be a better way than violence and vandalism, intolerance and sectarianism. A spirit of commitment to these ideals inspired the foundation of the Centre and continues to motivate its varied activities of peace training and peace making. Prince Charles visited the former British barracks at Glencree in 2002 stating inter alia:- “We need to remember that the underlying meaning of peace is not just the absence of conflict. It is equally a climate in which understanding of others goes beyond caricature and where frozen images of hatred and negativity yield to a new vision of shared value and goodness”

World War 2 German orphans reunion at Glencree 2013
Prince Charles plants tree at Glencree 2002
St Kevins Reformatory School Glencree (c 1900)
St Kevins School Boys band in the Front Square 1890
St Stephens Green Memorial