Shillelagh: a special place with a rich past

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Shillelagh: a special place with a rich past

Reporter David Medcalf spoke to outgoing chairman of the Shillelagh People’s Property Company Peter Houlihan about how one village in South Wicklow is fighting back against the spectre of rural decline


Committee members of the Shillelagh People’s Property Company Lar Behan, Peter Houlihan, Tommy Murphy, Gerry Cassidy, Darragh Gregan and Joe Dolan outside Shillelagh Courthouse
Committee members of the Shillelagh People’s Property Company Lar Behan, Peter Houlihan, Tommy Murphy, Gerry Cassidy, Darragh Gregan and Joe Dolan outside Shillelagh Courthouse

Shillelagh, model village. Shillelagh, place of stone. Shillelagh, home of the once mighty Fitzwilliams. Yes, Shillelagh is special, as anyone who has ever passed through the place well knows. Its location in the hills at the butt of the Wicklow Mountains is unique. Its legacy of homes laid out in neat lines and constructed from local rock is striking. Its crumbling Big House heritage speaks of connections to a wider world.

Yet Shillelagh will die a slow death, unless it takes steps to revive itself – that is the worrying conclusion of Peter Houlihan. As he steps down from his position as chairman of the Shillelagh People’s Property Company, he says: ‘The village here is struggling economically. It is a slow form of rot.

‘Lads I am friendly with are working up in Dublin or Baltinglass. It needs life. It needs tourism.’

However, his prognosis is not all gloom and measures are already under way to tackle the malaise. The company was established as a trust to administer land and properties handed over to the residents by the Fitzwilliams. With a population of less than 400, the village is picturesque to the nth degree. Scenery and quaintness will never put much life into the local economy, unless moves are made to encourage visitors stay and pay.

The departing chairman is confident that the right steps are being taken to allow the younger generation some prospect of staying in Shillelagh.

Peter Houlihan brings an outsider’s eye to the topic as he is not a native of the village he has come to know and love. His wife Sandra is from firmly rooted local stock but he traces his roots back to Athenry in Galway and he has long been resident in Dublin.

It was only 15 years ago that the couple established a presence in Sandra’s native town. The way he tells it, the acquisition of the old railway station sounds almost as though it was an accident.

It was back in 2004 that he attended the auction held in Tullow and found himself last man standing at the sale. When the bidding stopped, the Houlihans were the new owners of a piece of history – a very rundown piece of history.

The last passenger train pulled out of the station in 1944, though freight services limped on into the fifties. The redbrick station house served as a GP’s surgery while but showed many signs of neglect by the time its new owners moved in. The family now feel that they are nearing the end of the line in their effort towards restoration.

Their home retains many reminders of its past purpose, complete with waiting room designed for use by the lord who had paid for the line.This is now a pleasant family sitting room, while the waiting room for the plebs serves as kitchen for the 21st century inhabitants. The platform where the trains coming from Woodenbridge used to pull in is still clearly discernible as a seating area out the back.

In their next door field, the site of the old turntable where the locomotives were spun through 180 degrees for the return trip east is still to be seen, as are the remnants of the water tower which served the steam engines. Peter sees the tower being re-built and the turntable being re-incarnated as a 150-seat performance venue.

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In an ideal world.

Peter would also love to see the line revived, half a century on, as a cycle and hiking route. If Mayo can have a Greenway, and if Waterford can have a Greenway, and if Blessington can have a Greenway, then why not Shillelagh/Arklow? Preliminary soundings have been made but the project remains some way from being in reality and in the meantime other moves are well under way.

Peter is a man of relentless energy and he began to find a focus for his get-up-and-go as he read of his favourite adopted village in a couple of books about the area.

One book, written by Lynne McTaggart, relates the tragic and scandalous story of how Kathleen Kennedy – sister of the US President John F Kennedy – fell in love with the 1940s holder of the Fitzwilliam title. Their doomed, adulterous relationship was abruptly terminated by a plane crash in 1948 which claimed the lives of both Kathleen and the already married eighth earl, William Fitzwilliam.

His fortune passed to his daughter Lady Julia who divested herself of much of the property held by the family in both Britain and Ireland. The clan was famed in the UK as coal-mining oligarchs who made a vast fortune from the mines and who created one of the biggest residences constructed anywhere in the world during the 18th century – Wentworth House in Staffordshire. This monumental pile and its smaller Irish counterpart, Coolattin House, were detailed in the second book on Peter Houlihan’s reading list, ‘Black Diamonds’ by Catherine Bailey.

His studies led him deeper into how the coalmining aristocrats, not only created vast homes for their own comfort, but also ordered the building of model villages in both Wicklow and Staffordshire for their employees.

He became convinced that all the old stuff held the key to future developments as modern day Shillelagh begins to examine ways of persuading tourists to come and share the wonders of the special place. The outsider was drafted on to the Shillelagh People’s Property Company in 2010, happy to become involved as he diagnosed a community drifting slowly backwards.

‘I could not understand why nothing was happening,’ the 53-year-old recalls, one of several fresh recruits drafted in to make sure that something would indeed start to happen. And the SPPC was in a position to give Shillelagh a shove into action, with land and buildings passed to it in trust by the Fitzwilliam estate. Some of that land was used to create a very popular children’s playground in the centre of the village, opened in 2012.

Some of the land has been used to provide the Shillelagh GAA and athletics clubs with marvellous facilities. The old courthouse, also part of the property portfolio run by the trustees, has been smartened up – its landmark clock now telling the correct time – to serve as a community centre. Last year, the great and good were invited to the unveiling of a statue which draws attention to the village’s most famous export – the eponymous Shillelagh stick.

Since then, plaques have begun to sprout on various points of interest, to assist visitors make sense of local heritage, including places of worship and the long disused hydroelectric scheme which used to poser the street lights. Peter insists that that all the wealth of history is no more than a starting point for development and links must be found to bring the public to the doorstep.

Links already created include the Wicklow Way, the route of which passes close to the village, with the Dying Cow pub providing an alluring stopping (or maybe starting) point for the walkers. The less strenuous Tomnafinnogue railway walk – also accessible from the Dying Cow – provides the connection on foot to Tinahely.

Meanwhile the SPPC is exploring ways of a bringing links to Wentworth alive, with the prospect of a wave of two-way visitor traffic between the Wicklow hills and the English midlands. They have a great asset in specialist historians Gerry Cassidy and Joe Dolan, with the invaluable backing of county council heritage officer Deirdre Burns

The ex-chairman takes your reporter on a helter-skelter run around some of the points of interest in this most distinctive of places. Here are some of the highlights, all of them open to exploration or at least admiration by the general public, and all featured on the fascinating Shillelagh Heritage Trail.

We start at the great conundrum which is Coolattin House, long unlived in and standing in need of a €200 million investment. The golf club which owns it will surely never find that sort of money.

Then comes the imposing Ardeen Cheshire Home, one of the houses built for various office holders on the Fitzwilliam estate – in this case for the chief agent. In 1962, adults with severe physical and neurological disabilities moved in.

The Church of Ireland church is an imposing stone structure but the neighbouring Roman Catholic church of the Immaculate Conception arguably has a more interesting tale to tell. A much plainer structure, it was first opened in 1842 as the ‘workhouse’ for the Shillelagh Poor Law Union.

The Dying Cow stands a couple of kilometres out of town up from the village. It is not believed to have benefited in its construction from the Fitzwilliam largesse but is thought to be at least 300 years old, full of nooks and crannies, and still in the hands of the Tallon/Dolan family as it has been for generations…

The board of Shillelagh People’s Property Company Limited comprises: Lar Behan, Joe Dolan, Aidan Gregan, Daragh Gregan, Betty Gray, Peter Houlihan, Tommy Murphy, and Michelle Rossiter.

Bray People