David Deighan takes a look at the Ow Valley in County Wicklow, a hidden gem that is often overlooked in the Garden County.
Poet J.M. Synge spoke of his beloved Wicklow in terms of heading ‘South and west and south again’. If you do so from Dublin city, you may end up in the gorgeous valley of the River Ow – a little known, magical place so far off the beaten path that it rarely turns up in the guide books. The setting, below the tumbling cliffs of Lugnaquilla Mountain, belies the fact that our capital city is only a little over 40 miles over the mountains. The valley runs up from Aughrim, its Irish name of Eachroim translated as ‘Horse Ridge’ a pretty place also known as the ‘granite village’.
Once you leave Aughrim and the 1798 rising memorial, the houses thin out quickly as the road begins a slow but steady climb along the banks of the Ow which rises some miles distant on Lugnaquilla. This is an unusual road for Ireland, in that there are no houses to be seen for miles despite it not being a high pass. Large stands of conifers dominate the landscape and at Ballyteigue Bridge, the road takes a sharp turn and crosses the turf brown gushing river. It is only now that the true majesty of the Wicklow Mountains comes into focus. Ahead and slightly to the left, Lugnaquilla, Wicklow’s highest peak at 925m, dominates the landscape. As the road climbs, the Iron Bridge can be seen below to the right. The Wicklow Way passes here – a lasting legacy to the foresight of JB Malone who conceived Ireland’s best known walking trail as long ago as 1966.
This is a landscape of old drovers’ paths, quiet mountain lanes and hidden in the trees overlooking the valley, the ruined church of Rosahane. Historically Rosahane is thought to be a daughter church of the famous monastic settlement at Glendalough. Rosahane is also reputed to have been an abode of Irish Chieftain Fiach McHugh O’Byrne.
A few kilometres beyond the church at Rosahane, you arrive at the head of the Ow Valley at Aughavannagh, described due to its seclusion as ‘the last place God made’. This is a hill walker’s paradise with the challenge of Lugnaquilla ahead. Other notable summits include Croaghanmoira (664m) and less arduous walks on Ballygobban and Shielstown Hills. The latter offer great views across to the purple Slieve Blooms straddling the distant borders of Laois and Offaly to the west. Southwards is the prominent peak of Mount Leinster, reputedly the home of Ireland’s last wolf -shot for bounty in 1786.
Aughavannagh is also the terminus of the Military Road, constructed after the 1798 rising in order to ensure the establishment of British rule in the mountains. Dominating the valley is the old British barracks, years later a shooting lodge of Charles Stewart Parnell and formerly an An Oige Youth Hostel. This is a mountainous wilderness, with only two roads traversing the mountains between here and Dublin’s suburbs, namely the Wicklow Gap and the Sally Gap. With a bit of luck you can see the Red Kite, recently reintroduced following an enforced absence of many decades. The hope is that the Kite will thrive and prosper in harmony with local farmers in a demonstration of a more enlightened attitude to the delicate ecological balance to be struck in this glorious landscape.
In the valley the silence is palpable as the few roads are little travelled. The wind and the torrent of the Ow are the main sounds. As night falls, the call of the deer often shrieks out from the edge of the woods. The lights of the odd isolated farmhouse twinkle in the distance. The nearest pub is many miles over the pass in Glenmalure.
The road climbing north east out of the valley is Slieve Mann. It reaches the top at Flags Pass at about 1500 feet and is never mentioned on the traffic news, but is often as snowbound as its more famous and slightly higher neighbour at the Sally Gap to the north.
The Irish Times said of Aughavannagh ‘You could be hundreds of miles from Dublin’. This is the Wicklow uplands off the tourist trail – a land of sheep farmers and timbermen making a living from beautiful but often harsh surroundings. Wicklow packs a lot into a relatively small area. The majority of visitors to the Garden County head for Powerscourt and the well known tourist areas and given time constraints and the appeal of the known, this is no surprise. However if you are even a little curious about what lies beyond the mountains which envelope Glendalough, it’s worth taking a little more time to go down the N11 from Dublin and as Synge would have it – heading ‘South and west and south again’.
About The Author
David Deighan is an avid hiker and walker with a particular love for the hidden reaches of South and West Wicklow and with a deep knowledge of the lesser known paths and trails of the area.Aughavannagh Cottage is an old restored farmhouse available to rent at the foot of Luqnaquilla, Wicklow’s highest summit. A favourite with walkers, hikers and climbers, it is set in spectacular surroundings lying just a kilometre off the Wicklow Way and sleeps up to seven.