One of the best-known routes through the Wicklow Mountains is the Military Road, originally built in the early 1800s for war-like purposes, but today serving as a wonderfully scenic, high moorland road from Dublin to Glendalough. It began to become popular as a tourist amenity towards the end of the nineteenth century when a general rise in spending power together with the growth of free time encouraged city dwellers to explore the mountains. Cycle tours became popular in the 1880s: the bicycle, although still affordable only to the better-off, had become manageable and versatile, and perhaps more importantly, became an acceptable and loved mode of independent transport for women. The charabanc, at first horse-drawn, but by the early days of the twentieth century motorised, could take picnic groups of twenty to thirty city people to enjoy scenic places such as Glendalough and Lough Bray. Soon, the motor car joined the charabancs and bicycles on tour, and on and off road, hill-walking was becoming popular among the professional classes.
Tea rooms began to spring up along popular routes outside cities to service these tourists, providing tea and fresh country fare such as soda bread, eggs, and home-made jam. While researching an anthology of the walking literature of Ireland [A Walk in Ireland, Atrium Press, 2001], I came across a large number of references to one such tea room which the McGuirk family ran in their tiny mountain cottage close to Lough Bray in Glencree, from the 1880s until the 1960s. All of the mentions referred to Mrs McGuirk insisting that visitors would sign her visitors’ book. I thought such a book would be an interesting find, and, not really expecting it to have survived, I made enquiries about it in Glencree. Imagine my surprise when eight volumes of such books, dating from 1898 to 1960, turned up, carefully preserved in an attic in a house in the valley.
I was able to borrow this treasure for a while, and found the books made fascinating reading. Apart from the long list of notable characters to be found in them, the books presented a unique and often quirky insight into social, political and cultural aspects of a most formative period in Irish history. After writing a magazine article about my find, with the permission of Tom McGuirk, I had the books placed in the National Archives.
During the Covid period, with the approval and assistance of Tom McGuirk, the last surviving member of the family, who lives in Canada, I set to producing a book about the tea room, the McGuirks and their visitors. Over 900 pages had survived, holding over 13,000 signatures, but what made the books particularly interesting was, not only did visitors sign their names, but they often wrote comments about their tour, or their companions, or major events of news. The tiny cottage became a relaxed meeting place for poets, artists, writers, scientists, politicians, lawyers and indeed, representatives of every aspect of Irish society, including some of early twentieth century Ireland’s most influential people. Apart from praise for the food and refreshments enjoyed, there were also verses of poetry, some by well-known poets, and exquisite artwork, some by well-known artists.
The rising popularity from the turn of the century of the Irish language and all things Irish can be sensed through visitors’ entries, with an increasing number of notes in fine, proud Gaelic script. On 20 January 1901 a group of Gaelic Leaguerers from Dublin signed in, including Arthur Griffith, with the note ‘La fluic ar fad. Fuairamar fáilte agus fiche o chlainn Mic Uirk.’ Or ‘very wet day, we received here twenty welcomes from the McGuirk family’.
Apart from the easily recognised names, I spent considerable time seeking the background any names that looked interesting, and found many fascinating stories. The number of Anglo-Irish signatories who later died fighting in WW1 was startling, as was the status, generally, of women in the early years, often getting referred to, after a man’s name, as ‘and wife’.
The playwright J. M Synge boarded with the McGuirks in 1907 to be near Molly Allgood, who was staying nearby. It was to be their last summer together. The cottage at the time of Synge’s visit was a tiny, two-roomed thatched place, and he slept on a ‘press bed’, a rudimentary bed stored in a kind of wardrobe kept beside the fireplace. A number of passages in his book, In Wicklow and West Kerry, give glimpses of his time at McGuirk’s that summer.
The artist Harry Kernoff was a regular, often in the company of teacher and lexicographer Seán Óg OCaomhánaigh, of whom he left a pencil portrait. On another occasion, he is accompanied by the artist Sean O’Sullivan and Shamrock Trench, the first woman to qualify for a pilot’s licence in Ireland. On this occasion, O’Sullivan left a beautiful sketch of Trench. Among the many poetic offerings in the books are verses by Mervyn Wall, Anthony Cronin and Denis Devlin.
Oliver St John Gogarty used to picnic with family and friends at nearby Lough Bray, but when it rained, they repaired to McGuirks, and of course signed the visitors’ book. His companions included Ella Fry, William Orpen, Joseph Hone with his New York wife, Vera, and Hugh Lane, who was to die two years later in the sinking of the Luisitania.
Robert Lloyd Praeger, Austin Clarke, Ellen Duncan, Robert Gibbings, Constantia Maxwell, William Beckett, Bethel Solomons, J B Malone, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Ben Kiely and Ronnie Delaney are among the wide range of people who enjoyed a Wicklow Mountain sojourn and good country fare. In the main, the entries are spontaneous, written snapshots of moments of contentment and relaxation in the lives of people long gone and for many, long forgotten. Well-known or forgotten, in my book, Tales from a Wicklow Tea Room, I tell their stories.
(c) Micheal Fewer
About Tales from a Wicklow Tea Room, 1898–1960:
Tales from a Wicklow Tea Room, 1898–1960 tells the story of a tiny cottage in Glencree in the Wicklow Mountains and the tea room run there by the McGuirk family from the 1880s to the 1960s. It is about those who met and took tea at McGuirk’s during the most momentous years of Ireland’s history, and the world they inhabited.
Over this most formative period in Irish history, the cottage became a meeting place for poets, artists, writers, scientists, politicians, lawyers and, indeed, representatives of every aspect of Irish society, including some of early-twentieth-century Ireland’s most in uential people. Among the host of visitors were William Beckett, Denis Devlin, Ellen Duncan, Oliver St. John Gogarty, Arthur Gri th, Hugh Lane, J.B. Malone, Constantia Maxwell, Robert Lloyd Praeger, J.M. Synge, Mervyn Wall and Ella Webb.
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