The Story of a Wicklow Border Town

By Kevin Lee


There is a dear little town in the south east of Ireland,

Where the sun brightly shines,

And by night the pale moon,

It stands on the border of Wicklow and Wexford,

They call it the old-fashioned town of Carnew.




The town of Carnew is located on the southernmost border of County Wicklow. In terms of both historical outlook and socio-economic considerations, it has more in common with its southern neighbouring county of Wexford, than it has with the county of Wicklow. According to nineteenth century topographers the name is derived from Carn an Buadha (‘the mound of victory’). This is an unlikely explanation. Carnew was located in an area of dense uninhabited oak forest at the time when the builders of cairns were traversing our land.

It is more likely that the town’s origins are to be found as a northern outpost in the  Anglo Norman colonisation of the liberty of Wexford. When cartographers were preparing the six inch OS maps during the 1830’s Carnew had at least seven ‘moats’. These are the remnants of motte and baileys, the defensive structures built by the Anglo Normans. These consisted of a circular, and sometimes rectangular, mound of earth, surrounded by a water-filled ditch, or fosse. The mound was surmounted by a palisade and wooden buildings. The remnants of the largest of the town’s moats, ‘Fitzpatrick’s moat’, is located just south of Carnew castle, alongside the road to Ferns. As the colonists consolidated their hold on the area it is likely that this motte and bailey was replaced by a more permanent stone castle.


At the Partition of Leinster in 1247, the parish was temporarily detached from the liberty of Wexford and assigned to the De Bohun family of Dunamase in the liberty of

Kildare. It is significant that the parish was referred to as ‘Carnebot’ and in later records as ‘Carneboth’ or ‘Carnebothe’. Since members of the Carnebothe family received land grants in counties Kilkenny and Carlow it is speculative, but reasonable, to assume that that the colonisation of the town was led by a member of the same family. In any case, the town in 1247 was a borough with its own charter and had a sizeable colony. The town’s inhabitants (burgesses) paid a rental of £72 for their houses (burgages) and burgage plots.


The paucity of Irish mediaeval records means that we will never know the full extent of the colonisation or how effective it was in repelling the attacks of the O’Byrnes and  O’Tooles during the Gaelic revival of the 14th century. It is probable that the castle was destroyed and was not rebuilt until the early 17th century when Sir Henry Harrington was granted the barony of Shillelagh by Elizabeth 1. The Jacobean castle, reputed to have been built by Harrington retains enough Norman features to suggest a much earlier origin. In 1619, a Welshman, Calcott Chambre, leased Carnew castle. During the following two decades he was to establish a large iron smelting industry just outside the town. He also developed one of the country’s largest deer parks, with a radius of about seven Irish miles.




During the rebellion of 1641 the castle became, probably not for the first time in its history, an embattled fortress. For twenty two weeks, Chambre and about 160 English settlers were besieged by an Irish force of around 1,000 led by the Mastersons, Byrnes and Donal Kavanagh of Ballingate.. During the siege the settlers were compelled to feed on carcasses which ‘had long lain in lime pits’. The town’s mediaeval church was destroyed when the rebels ‘pulled down ye pulpits, burned ye seats and defaced and demolished the church of Carnowe’.


When surrender finally came some of the besieged were hanged, some were detained for service while the largest number, including Chambre, were accompanied by a convoy to Dublin in order that they could return to England.


The castle was held by the Knockloe O’Byrnes until 1649, when it was taken by Sir Richard Talbot.. Two years later the castle took a pounding from Cromwell’s Roundheads under the command of Colonel Hewson during the course of which the roof was destroyed.. In 1655 an edict was issued ordering all those’ inhabitants Carne, Coollattin and Clohamon who had not shown good affection’ to be banished and their property shared amongst the Adventurers. The old castle, so central to the town’s history, was to lie in ruins for 147 years. In May 1798 the castle, or rather its underground dungeon would once again enter the vortex of Irish rebellion politics.



The Protestant colony implanted in the second half of the 17th century was assigned lands on a townland basis by the religious zealot William Wentworth Watson. Symbolically, colonial families such as the Symes were given, to bring with them to Ireland, a bible, a portrait of Wentworth’s wife and a packet of seeds. Part of the terms of their lease was that they would build on their holding substantial farm buildings. Thus emerged holdings such as Croneyhorn (Hodginson), Tomacork (Joseph Nickson), Tombreane (Daniel Paine), Rath (Swan), Umrigar (Rev Newton) and Ballingate (Braddell).

The colonisation coincided with the era when the exploitation of the great oak forest of Shillelagh was at its peak. Thus, it is not surprising that many of the new breed were entrepreneurial speculators or skilled craftsmen who received land in part payment for their knowledge and expertise. Skilled specialists such as bellows makers, founders, finers and hammer men, who worked in the ironworks of Shillelagh, Minmore and Carnew, received only half the going English wage and received land grants in lieu of the other half. These ironworks used vast quantities of oak for the manufacture of charcoal. This was used for smelting the iron ore which was shipped from Bristol. Typical of those who amassed their wealth from the iron industry were the Bacons of Ballyrahan who operated the ironworks at Ballard. In 1692 this family purchased no less than 380,000 cubic feet of oak from Abraham Nickson of Tomacork for use in smelting.

In addition huge quantities of Shillelagh oak were exported for the manufacture of pipe staves, for the construction of ships for the royal navy and as a building material. The roofs of many famous buildings such as Westminister Hall and Trinity College, Dublin, have roof timbers converted from the great Shillelagh oaks.

The new settlers were not all industrialists and speculators. Some of them considered their mission to be the harvesting of souls rather than the harvesting of oak trees. The Symes family, in addition to their great interest in arboriculture and agricultural improvement, provided a long line of TCD educated clerics, most of who are buried in Kilcommon churchyard. Also in this category we find the Newtons of Umrigar and the Nicksons of Tomacork, The latter, in spite of all of their wheeling and dealing in oak found the time to build, during the 1730’s, a new Protestant church in Carnew.



Given the divisions of class and creed, Carnew was always destined to be a flashpoint in the rebellion of 1798. On the night of March 12th 1798, John Sherwood’s farm in Tomacork (the Barracks) was attacked and burned. Built in 1710, it was one of the finest houses in the county and was the ancestral home of the Nicksons, who had contributed so much to the development of the colonial town of Carnew. Sherwood, who owned property throughout the county, was a leading light in the Orange Order. He lost not only the house, but also, all of the outbuildings, seven horses and twenty black cattle.

On May 26th, just days after the commencement of the rebellion, Carnew’s garrison force, the Antrim Militia under Captain Robert Rowan, Captain Wainwright’s Shillelagh Cavalry and local yeomen attacked a rebel camp on Kilthomas Hill. As many as 100 homes were burned and up to 150, mainly from the Kiltilly area, were shot by the government forces. Four or five prisoners were taken and on the following day these together with three or four others were shot in Carnew. These executions were superseded on June 1st, when 41 out of the 61 prisoners held in the castle dungeon were taken out and shot. Eighteen out of the forty one were married men.

On June 4th the government forces evacuated the town and four days later the town was attacked and burned. Buildings spared included the malthouse of the liberal Robert Blayney and the widow Leonard’s  warehouse which had supplied the rebels with provisions. Later reports that up to 260 houses and shops had been burned are exaggerated. According to the Coollattin rental books the town had in 1797 ’14 houses, 2 cabins, several tenements, a church, school, inn and mill’.

On June 30th rebel forces inflicted a heavy defeat on British cavalry at the Balyellis ambush. Crown losses numbered 49 but many more were to die as a result of injuries sustained in the battle. Casualties included 25 of the infamous regiment of Ancient Britons. Following the battle Carnew was once again attacked. The loyalists, under the command of Captain Thomas Swan of Tombreane barricaded themselves in Blayney’s malthouse (now David Quinn’s). The rebels failed in their efforts to either dislodge them or to set the building on fire. They withdrew, having incurred 19 casualties in their efforts to do so.

In August 1798, Carnew’s most infamous daughter,, Bridget ‘Croppy Biddy’ Dolan returned to the town of her birth, having spent three months as a camp follower with the rebels. Bid’s father was a thatcher who spent much of his time away from home. From her experience riding tinkers’ asses and horses in a local forge which she frequented she became an accomplished horse rider at a very young age. As a paid informer she helped to convict many of her former associates and relatives. In 1801 her reputation became so tarnished that her services were deemed to be a liability. Her most notable victim was Billy Byrne of Ballymanus who was hanged in Wicklow Jail in September 1799. On Bid’s evidence, at least nine Carnew men were transported to New South Wales on board Atlas 11 in 1802.   In later life Bid became an unmarried mother.  She was compelled to eke out a living from the poor box in the town’s Protestant Church. She kept two bulldogs for her protection and was stoned by the boys of the town every time she appeared in public. She died, aged 50, on October 29th, 1827, and is the only member of her family to be interred in Carnew churchyard.



The early decades of  the 19th century brought a welter of building and rebuilding activity on the part of Coollattin Estate. Plans to develop an estate town in Coollattin were abandoned and the available monies diverted to rebuilding the towns of Carnew and Tinahely In addition to the rebuilding of Main Street, twelve impressive houses were built in Pavey’s Garden (now School Height) and named Brunswick Row A row of fiteen more humble dwellings was built on Coollattin Road. Tenants undertaking private building development were fifty per cent funded by the estate.

A major undertaking was the reconstruction of Carnew castle which, apart from is use as a guardhouse, had lain derelict for one and a half centuries. It was re-roofed, its windows widened and generally togged out as a Georgian pile for the Revd. Ponsonby who arrived as rector in 1813. Ponsonby did not last long in the castle. He was a brother in law of Earl Fitzwilliam, was upwardly mobile, had connections in the right places, and was soon to become Bishop of Derry

Rebuilding the town was one thing. Healing the scars on the minds and in the hearts of its inhabitants was to prove more difficult. Sectarian strife was never far below the surface. In 1850 Carnew’s constable Laurence Farrell requested police reinforcements when he was informed that ‘a large number of country people from the county of Wexford will assemble on this evening at Carnew for the purpose of tearing down any emblems, flags or poles that may be exhibited or hoisted in the town of Carnew on this 12th day of July 1850’. Conflict was avoided when, at the last minute, the contentious flags were peacefully removed after the intervention of the Coollattin agent, Bob Challoner. During the latter part of the century there were prosecutions for the removal of a Union Jack from the churchyard on July 12th. In court discretion prevailed over valour and the offenders were generally released with a warning regarding their future behaviour.

Earl Fitzwilliam and his agent Bob Challoner turned to the provision of interdenominational education as a means for healing old wounds. An impressive two storey school (now Carnew Enterprise Centre) was built n 1829. The nature of the education and the role of the Catholic clergy in its provision proved a bridge too far for the town’s rector, Rev. Henry Moore. He sought to have a school built for his own parishioners. There ensued a protracted struggle between two determined protagonists. In the end, following a chancery court ruling Moore got his way and was allowed to build a school on the only site available to him, the corner of the churchyard. Fitzwilliam reaction was to evict the rector from the castle.

In addition to Upper Primary school Rev. Moore left two other monuments to his memory. In the 1840’s he built All Saints Church to replace the church built by the Nicksons in the 1720’s. The clock tower and the spire which had been added to the old church in the early 19th century were left standing. He also built the twelve foot high castle wall, thus shrouding from the public gaze the old grey dense castle walls which re-echo so many tragic chapters in the history of the town of Carnew.



In the autumn of 1903 an era spanning almost four centuries came to a conclusion with the transfer of the Coollattin estate to the ownership of its tenants. This took place under the terms of the 1903 Land Act and was carried through with a minimum of fuss, consultation and arbitration. Following a meeting between the tenant and the agent, Frank Brooke, Fitzwilliam replied in the affirmative. In his letter, dated October 3rd, 1903, one detects an air of poignancy, when he says, ‘I must confess that I am not in the least anxious to part with the Estate, which has formed a direct heritage in my family for generations, but as times change we have to change with them, and I have, therefore, with much regret, decided to meet the request my tenants have made’.

There were only two conditions to be met. The estate had to go, lock stock and barrel; remaining on as a Coollattin tenant was not an option. Secondly, he said, since he had, ‘such pleasant memories through many successive generations’, he wished to retain the right to hunt, fish and shoot on the lands.



Today, Carnew is witnessing a building boom whose only parallel is to be found in the post rebellion years of the 19th century. To an eye in the sky it would appear that the town is once again under siege. On the approach roads to the town are platoon like housing estates with evocative names such as Cove’s Brook, Beechmount, Highfield and Brookfield. The influx of new inhabitants is stretching the Dublin commuter belt further and further southwards. Herein lies a danger, a danger that Carnew (or ‘Curnoo’ to locals), and the connotation that it evokes, is in danger of losing its identity. One way or another, future development of the town is destined to fall under the influence of greater Dublin rather than the influence of the Wexford plains.