The area of present-day Kilcoole was doubtless an attractive location for settlement in Ireland’s early history. Flint arrow heads and cutting edges have been found in tilled fields at Ballygannon, northeast of the village. The marshes of Kilcoole would have provided food for early settlers from the many passing waterfowl, as well as a protected place to harbour boats. The elevated land surrounding the Rock of Kilcoole (now the site of the village itself) would have been a natural high ground ideal for observation of the coastal plain, and for defence.
Scholars have posited two competing explanations for the name of Kilcoole. Reference is made in the Annals of the Four Masters (c. AD 790) to Cill Cuile Dumha (the church on the corner of the mound), an apt description for Kilcoole’s old church at the foot of the Rock. Scholarship published in the early 1900s refuted this claim with one source indicating that Cill Cuile Dumha was instead a site in County Laois.
The currently accepted history of the name is associated with Christian monks and the establishment of a monastic cell at Kilcoole. This has led to the modern Irish translation of Kilcoole as Cill Chomhghaill (Church of Comgall). Archbishop Alen’s Register of early church documents references Cellcomgaill in 1179. Subsequent years and sources show a variety of spellings, but all seem to be a reference to a church of Comgall or Comgaill. There are a number of St Comgalls in Ireland’s history, the most famous of whom founded a monastery at Bangor, County Down. Comgall’s followers may have founded other monastic sites between Dublin and Wicklow, leading to the establishment of a religious centre at Kilcoole. (Liam Price, 1939). The association with this original St Comgall is further substantiated by the fact that Kilcoole’s church has also been called after Saint Lughaidh, a companion and kinsman of St Comgall.
The Down Survey of Ireland was taken from 1656 – 1658 in the aftermath of the Cromwellian invasion. This map was produced at a scale of 1:50,000 and clearly shows Kilcoole (“Killcool”) and its surrounding area, including the church.
Before the Railroad: Country Houses and Travel by Stage
Written references to Kilcoole begin to appear regularly in the late 1700s as travel writing became popular. William Wilson published an interesting description of Kilcoole in 1786 in his “Post-Chaise Companion“. Prior to the coming of the railroad in the 1840s, post-chaise was the most common form of long-distance transportation, consisting of a closed-body travelling carriage pulled by four horses and hired from stage to stage. Wilson followed the route from Bray to Wicklow and wrote of Kilcoole:
Half a mile from Mr. Fitzwilliam’s seat, on the L. is Ballygannon, the seat of Sir Hopton Scott; and half a mile further, on the same side, near Kilcool, is Retreat, that of Mr. Brass.
At Kilcool are an inn and the ruins of a church.
Between Kilcool and the sea is the celebrated salt marsh of Cooldross, kept by Mr. Gibbons, remarkably efficacious in curing surfeited horses.
Three quarters of a mile beyond Kilcool, on the R. situated on an eminence, is Woodstock, the beautiful seat of Mr. Knox.
The inn that Wilson refers to is probably a new inn which was opened just that year by one Francis Ellis. This was a typical advertisement of the day:
Another inn is known to have existed before this time, managed by Mark Byrne who died in 1776.
From Topographia Hibernia (published in 1795 by William Wenman Seward) we learn that during this time, fairs in Kilcoole were held on Whit Monday (formerly an important public holiday falling in May or June), and 4th September.
At the end of the 1700s regular news sheets began to be published which sometimes featured items on Kilcoole. An advertisement in the Dublin Evening Post for 13th March, 1787 read:
KILLCOOLE HUNT. The Members thereof are requested to meet at Ellis’s, in Kilcoole, on Monday the 19th day of March instant, to dine and transact business. Sir Hopton Scott in the chair. N.B. A Fox will be unbagged at eight o’clock in the morning, on the Green of Kilcoole.
Most travellers at this time were focused on writing about the beautiful estates of the gentry, but life for the mass of people living in vernacular cabins and the village itself would have been very bleak by modern standards. The Traveller’s Guide of 1815 describes Kilcoole in unflattering terms:
Kilcool Village,–Distant sixteen miles from the Castle of Dublin, appears very much decayed, and the scarcity of fuel materially contributes to increase the wretchedness of its miserable inhabitants, whose precarious existence, depending on the occasional refreshment of car-men and feeding of horses, will be totally annihilated when the new Mail-coach road, running in a more horizontal direction, is finished.
Happily, this prediction of total annihilation did not come to pass, and coaches continued to travel through Kilcoole until these were displaced by the railway.
In the 1838 Ordnance Survey Map, Kilcoole is shown with a number of substantial dwellings and essentially the same major road network as today. Most houses lie along the main street running from the Upper Green to the intersection with Sea Road. Darraghville (later the Convent) was a well established country house in 1838 and shows with its two gate lodges and two areas of walled gardens. Other features familiar to modern readers are the old church (in ruins), Woodstock House, Kilquade House, and The Breaches (an area of marsh connected to the sea). The large Ballygannon Estate is shown in its prime. This map was surveyed in the decade before the coming of the railway and the cottages later built along the sea front. Other features that have since disappeared are the Corn mill along Sea Road, the stream running under the main street to the mill, and Ballydonarea House (later Greyfort) on the Sea Road.
The overall impression from the map is a small, quiet street surrounded by an area of large demesnes and a few smaller but substantial estates.
Travel writers of the mid-1800s make brief mention of Kilcoole. James Fraser wrote in 1843:
Kilcool contains about seventy houses, and many of them are of a very inferior description. In the village fair-green is a detached rock, which affords a good view of the country around, and near its base are the burial-ground and church ruins.
Shipwrecks and naval disasters were a common occurrence in those days. In 1811 the American ship Thucydides wrecked on Kilcoole beach with a cargo of timber, which was auctioned off straight from the beach. In 1822 six boats from Bray, Windgates and Kilcoole were lost at sea while fishing for herring.
An invaluable source of information about mid-1800s Kilcoole is provided by Griffith’s Valuation, a property tax assessment published for County Wicklow in 1852-1854. The valuation uses the 1838 map as a basis and provides the names of people, houses and lands of each occupier, the owner of the land, and a corresponding map indicating exactly where the land was located. More details from the Griffith’s Valuation are included in each page dedicated to points of interest in Kilcoole.
The development of a railway from Dublin down through Wicklow was to greatly improve access to Kilcoole, but despite this new technology, change and growth were slow to arrive. Kilcool Station was opened on 30th October, 1855 on what was then known as the Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford Railway. The new line followed the coast rather than crossing inland, separating the station from the village by about a mile’s journey. An inn or two in the village continued to cater to guests even with the decline and disappearance of the stage route which had been a mainstay of the village proper.
The next phase in the development of Kilcoole did not come until the early 20th century, when modern ideas about social welfare, sanitation and housing began to emerge. The building of cottages for poor labourers began in the second decade of the 1900s and continued up until the automobile began to predominate mid-century. Many of these cottages are well preserved on Main Street, New Road, and Sea Road.
A revision to the Ordnance Map was surveyed in 1908 and published in 1910. The seventy year interval between 1838 and 1908 shows expansion along the main street and Sea Road, the coming of the railway and cottages along the sea, and the change in use from Darraghville House to the Convent. The Corn Mill is still shown on Sea Road, and the Rock, shown on the 1838 map but not labelled, is now called out as Kilcoole Rock. The Upper Green has seen many structures built but does not yet show Forester’s Hall which was built in 1913. The Lower Green has a few houses built. A number of houses have been built on Sea Road some of which are still in existence, including Donarea Lodge, the two large semi-detached dwellings (Elton and Albion), Ballydonarea Lodge and Sonas Sanitorium. The old house marked Ballydonarea on the 1838 map is now Grey Fort.
In the early 1900s a centralised water pump system was installed on Upper Green, and indoor plumbing became a reality for most residents by the 1950s. Electricity came in 1947 replacing oil lamps and candles. The great heavy horse breeds slowly disappeared making way for early tractors. Poverty was slow to disappear, but by the 1960s life in Kilcoole had transformed completely from a century before.
The Schools Collection History (1938)
An important source of information for the early 1900’s in Kilcoole was written by Sister M. Eithne, schoolmaster at Holy Faith Convent. Under direction of the Irish Folklore Commission, schools throughout Ireland wrote down local folklore and tradition. The hand-written journal provided by Sister Eithne amounted to 38 pages of which many were dedicated to local history. Click here to read this interesting account.
Sister Eithne’s history provides some interesting details of Kilcoole, including:
- Events from the 1798 rebellion
- The location of early schools on the Upper Green and Lott Lane
- A record of the Mass Path running from Kilcoole to Kilquade, and other mass paths to Kilquade from Dromin (Drummin) and Carrigower (Kilpedder). Parts of these Mass Paths still exist as a well-used amenity of the local area.
- A description of the origins of Kilquade Church
- The origin of St Comgall’s church (later called after Saint Lughaidh)
- Ballygannon and the tradition about the first Scott family here
- Local fairs
- Woodstock House
- Grey Fort house
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