History of the Blessington area


The history of Blessington and the Blessington Estate from 1669 is well covered in Kathy Trant's book 'The Blessington Estate 1667 – 1908'


Some years ago Kathy gave a talk to the Lisburn Historical Society on 'The Blessington Estate and the Downshire connection', which is on their website. 


There would be no point in me covering topics already addressed in Kathy's book, so I promise to avoid topics that she has already addressed. 


This website will focus on

  • aspects of local history pre 1667;
  • the mountainy townlands adjacent to Blessington; 
  • events which affected the local people;
  • bringing new perspectives to the Boyles;
  • examining the role of other 'bigwigs', landlords, families and people who have not been looked at previously.


In order to understand the foundation of Blessington as a new town, this website will study its development in the context of:-

  • its continuity with the village of Burgage, and
  • the development of other new towns in Ireland, in particular 'Boyle towns' of the same time.



The early history of West Wicklow is intimately bound up with the 'Coilleach', which  comprised heavily wooded, west-facing slopes of the Wicklow Mountains.


There were few communication routes through the Coilleach, and these were routes were determined by the positions of the passes and the fords for north-south routes and by the river valleys for east-west routes.


The Celtic Church settlements in the area were associated with the monasteries and churches (Kilbride, Templeboden, Hollywood, etc.) which had been established on the these communication routes.  The 'roads' between them comprised pathways for travellers on foot, and these became known by the names of the monasteries or saintly places they connected, such as St Kevin's Road, which led from Hollywood to the Wicklow Gap and on to Glendalough.


The Norman land grants of King John established the framework for the  land ownership pattern of the modern age.  All of the Coilleach of West Wicklow became 'Church land'.  It was allocated to the archbishop of Dublin, who in turn distributed it to the two Cathedrals in Dublin. 


St Patrick's Cathedral took ownership of the area around Blessington, most of the Upper Liffey valley and the northern two thirds the King's River Valley. A long, narrow strip of land from Rathmore in the present-day County Kildare to Manorkilbride, Athdown and on towards Kippure on the northern bank of the Upper Liffey was allocated to the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, a military order with strong links to the Crusaders. 


The 'Coilleach', or great native forest of west Wicklow, was still in existence, so settlement was not possible here.  The land allocation to the Knights of St John of Jerusalem was military-strategic in its nature, their role was to prevent the Irish of south Wicklow from invading the plains of County Kildare and south-west County Dublin.  The order established itself at the great Norman Motte of Rathmore with a daughter religious establishment at Manor Kilbride and a Motte at Athdown. 


Rathmore Motte was strategically located to control access from the east-west route from the Sally Gap to the plains of County Kildare.   Athdown Motte was  strategically located to control the ford and routes where the east-west route along the Upper Liffey leading to the Sally Gap intersected the north-south routes connecting Glenasmole and Saggart to the route south towards the O'Toole country - through Ballylow and Ballynultagh to Billy Byrne's Gap, through Glenbride to Knocknadroose, etc., which led on to the O'Toole country.


By the end of the 13th century the original Norman colony had retrenched, and it shrank again after the Black Death, so north-west Wicklow became part of the 'fasaigh' - the wastes or no-mans lands on the borders of the old Norman colony. 


Desmond occupation

Michael Tregury, Archbishop of Dublin 1449-1471, was constantly in conflict with the Anglo-Irish lords to maintain church control over the mountainy lands.  During this time, the Earl of Desmond occupied this area. Subsequently he became involved in the War of the Roses and while his army was absent in England the O'Tooles overran the area as far north as Saggart, which they occupied from 1471-72.


In 1488, the Pale was defined by act of Parliament.  On the advice of Lord Deputy Poyning, the Pale ditch was constructed, modelled on the defensive double-ditch he had constructed around Calais, the last foothold of the Anglo-Normans in France.  The highest density of castles in Europe was in the Pale salient of South Kildare, which was surrounded by the loop of the River Liffey.  But from Ballymore northwards the Pale did not follow the Liffey, but continued as a double ditch linking castles/mottes at Bishopsland, Rathmore and Kilteel.  East of this line was still the 'Coilleach', which continued to be protected by individual defended positions located on the communication routes. 


The power of the Desmonds was sapped by their participation in the War of the Roses and they were supplanted by the Earls of Kildare, based at Maynooth Castle, as Lord Deputies. 


Earl of Kildare

The Earl of Kildare persuaded parliament to approve his taking possession of 'abandoned' lands and on this pretext he occupied much of north-west Wicklow, despite the opposition of the Archbishop.  From then onwards title to this land was disputed between the Church, the Civil Power and the local occupants. 


In the late 1400s and early 1500s the Earl of Kildare waged war to extend the English zone of influence into North Leinster and South Ulster.  He extended the area of the Pale by conquering Cavan (the O'Reilly territory, and their associates, the Bradys); he conquered South Down (its local septs being the Whites and Hanlons).  He recruited Galloglaigh from among the McDonnells of County Antrim and employed them to defend his castles at Maynooth under the command of James Boys, from County Meath, who was Constable of the Earls castles.


Kildare's settlement of the area

In order for the Desmond lands he had occupied in County Wicklow not to be categorised as 'abandoned' it was necessary for Kildare to settle them. 

  • As landlords in the area from Rathmore to Kilbride, Kildare chose his allies from County Meath - families such as Rice, Nugent, Plunkett, Fitzsimons - who were landlords here until circa 1800. 
  • Settlers were brought from the areas of North Leinster and South Ulster which Kildare had conquered - Reillys, Bradys, Whites, Hanlons, etc.
  • The fort/castle at Baltyboys and the Castle at ThreeCastles were placed under the command of James Boys, Constable of Kildare’s main castle at Maynooth. 
  • Boys was in command of Kildare's Galloglaigh, recruited from the McDonnells of County Antrim, and many of them settled around Baltyboys and Threecastles. 


Evidence of Transhumance

We have evidence of their presence here from at least 1513, and it is this group of occupants to whom we can trace the first evidence of transhumance between Baltyboys and the Ballynultagh and Ballydonell townlands.


James Boys and the McDonnell Galloglaigh did not support the rebellion of Silken Thomas, the Earl of Kildare's son, in 1534.  They remained loyal to the crown and were part of the royal army which besieged and destroyed Maynooth castle in 1536.  


Confiscation of monastic lands

The first phase of confiscation of monastic lands was implemented in 1539-40.  Kilbride and Rathmore were granted to the Allen family, who had come from  Norfolk and lived at St Wolstan's, on the Liffey near Celbridge. 


1580 to 1600

This was a period of war in much of Ireland due to the Desmond rebellion in Munster and then the Nine Years War in Ulster which culminated in the battle of Kinsale.


The Eustace family of Ballymore joined the Desmond rebellion.  This led to a campaign against them in Wicklow.  A series of castles was built surrounding the county from the 1580s onwards.  Following the war of attrition against the rebels in Wicklow, the county was shired in 1606, i.e., an Anglo-Irish administration was put in place.  In fact, Wicklow as the final county to be created in Ireland.


Ireland in 1600s

Around 1600 Ireland had a population of about 1 million and was a predominantly pastoral and wooded country with few towns.  


The wars and colonisation of the following 100 years transformed Ireland’s economy, society and culture; integrated Ireland into the English world and opened up export trade-routes to America.


Starting in the 1600s, the landed estate system became dominant in the countryside, land rights became controlled by leases, a market economy came into existence and agricultural output became price responsive and flexible, so as to meet external market demands.   Irish agriculture, settlement and society was reorganised into a market-based economy, fairs and markets developed and new villages proliferated.

The agricultural revolution in Ireland in the 1600s introduced new crops (hemp and rape), vegetables (potato), trees (lime and chestnut), crop rotations, improved breeds of sheep and cattle, technical improvements and farming practices (liming, draining, enclosures).


These changes led to massively increased output and exports, a surge in population (from 1 million in 1600 to 3 million in 1700, peaking at 8.5 million in 1845) and income from rents. The landed estate became the engine of growth, fuelled by a rent-paying tenantry, which generated increasing funds, allowing the landowning classes to build the demesnes and ‘big houses’ starting in the late 1600s.  (construction of Blessington House commenced in 1673).  Building of ‘big houses’ continued at an even faster rate from about 1730 and reached a peak about 1770 before collapsing in the 1790s due to the war with France, followed by the Rebellion in 1798.


1641 Rebellion

By 1641 New English settlers were in occupation of the western parts of the County.  Their presence was resented by earlier settlers, so in 1641 the McDonnells, who themselves had settled in the area about 130 years earlier, joined the rebellion.  This led to their removal from lands in Baltyboys and surrounding areas, although the name has remained widespread in the Kings River Valley. 


1660s  - Colonial settlement of the area

The next phase of settlement commenced in the area in the 1660s following the Restoration of the Monarchy.  It was Colonial in its nature and had many parallels with the Munster Plantation:-

  • the extraction of timber and the destruction of the great forests;
  • the production of charcoal for smelting;
  • the establishment of temporary work camps/villages to support these industries;
  • the introduction of a new landlord class from the early 1660s.  These were Protestant, New English settlers;
  • the establishment of the New Town of Blessington based on a charter granted in 1669, with Blessington House completed in 1684 and St Mary's Church consecrated in 1684;
  • the beginnings of the estate system of landholding, with the establishment and expansion of the Blessington Estate in the period up to 1704.


The lands on the east bank of the Liffey were integrated into the estate progressively:-

  •  by the building of Blessington bridge and a road as far as Woodend by 1760;
  • the higher lands on the east bank of the Liffey and into the Kings River Valley were cleared of woodland by the early 1700s - one of the last areas of woodland in Wicklow to be cleared;
  • efforts were made to establish charcoal manufacturing and smelting in parallel with the timber extraction, which were of limited success;
  • this proto-industry led to the establishment of an industrial settlement in the area of Oldcourt/Woodend.


Establishment of Partnership farms and cluster settlements

Following the clearance of the woodlands, the Blessington Estate showed no interest in managing the settlement of these lands directly, preferring to allocate them to the Finnemore family. 


Generations of Finnemores lived in their 'defended house' at Ballyward and controlled the mountainy townlands, acting as middlemen of the Blessington Estate.  They let the mountain townlands to native Irish, many of whom had been in the area from the time of Kildare’s settlement (Bradys, Reillys, Hanlons, Whites, etc.).  Settlement in the mountainy townlands was based on  'partnership farms', cluster settlements and pasturage, tillage being limited to small cleared area close to each house cluster.


Generations of Finnemores lived there in a defended house and exploited the mountainy townlands.


So from then on we essentially have Blessington and the farms on the lower down, good lands, farmed mainly by protestant tenants, most of whom were colonists.  The upper lands were for the Irish, partnership farms, under the management of Finnemore largely, until their leases reverted to the estate in 1843.


Settlement clusters in the West Wicklow uplands
While commercialised farming dominated the lowlands of Ireland in the 1700s, the west of Ireland and upland areas were dominated by small farms, based on subsistence farming.  As the population exploded from 1 million in 1600 to 8.5 million in 1845, there was pressure to reclaim land and to expand farming into previously unsettled mountainy and boggy areas. 


The clachan and rundale system of settlement and agriculture facilitated this expansion and was compatible with farming poorer land as it  provided a generous labour supply and required minimal tools and equipment.  When combined with the potato, the lazy bed, and access to turf, a clachan community was self sufficient and independent, although poor in material goods and always under pressure to generate sufficient money income to pay the rent to the landlord.


In many cases, clachan communities which had practiced booleying (moving their cattle to mountainy areas for the summer grazing with part of the community remaining there with the cattle in booley huts) occupied the former booley lands on a permanent basis.  In this way the extensive tracts of non-arable land in the west of Ireland and the uplands west of the Wicklow Mountains came to be permanently occupied. 


Evidence for this transformation of former booleys into permanent settlements exists in the number of townlands which include the term ‘baile’ (anglicised to ‘Bally’ or ‘booley’) in the placename.   





This page is in the course of development by John Hussey.  This draft 14 December 2018.


The Author













John Hussey is a historical-geography.  His studies focus on human settlement and industry in north-west of County Wicklow - the area extending from Blessington into the upper Liffey valley and the Kings River valley.


He has researched and written on the region's Granite Quarrying Industry, its Weaving Industry and its Quaker community.


His most recent research has focused on the Woolpack Road, along which the region's wool and cloth was transported to Dublin. 


His book on the Quaker community of Baltyboys was published by the Irish Society of Friends (Quakers) in July 2017.