The Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation was founded in 1974 as a response to violent conflict in Irish society, and in light of a conviction that there must be a better way than violence and vandalism, intolerance and sectarianism. A spirit of commitment to these ideals inspired the foundation of the Centre and continues to motivate its varied activities of peace training and peace making.
Following a particularly horrifying outbreak of bombing in Belfast, in 1972, a number of people and groups met in Dublin to protest against the atrocities being carried out in the name of Irish people and to voice the grave concern felt by the public at large at the escalating violence. However, concern was not enough. Individuals and peace groups involved soon recognised that reconciliation was the key and that what was needed was a common base from which to spearhead an effective and non-violent approach to the urgent issues both north and south. As a result of their determination to act on their concern, the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation was founded.
The oldest structures at Glencree date from the late eighteenth century, when a military barracks was erected to deter Irish rebellion against British rule. Between the middle years of the nineteenth century and the middle years of the twentieth century, Glencree was occupied by a Catholic religious order which ran it as a boy’s reformatory. Thereafter, it was much neglected and its buildings decayed. The old buildings at Glencree were made available by the government and a large overdraft was then arranged in order that essential works of renovation could be undertaken. These were completed in 2000.
Since its founding Glencree has been the scene of important events and projects. They have been wide-ranging in their scope, including in the fields of education, recreation, fund-raising, work camps and hosting the flow of visitors.
In 1985, Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation marked the completion of its first decade with the publication of an anniversary booklet, “The First Ten Years”, reviewing its work during that period. Click here to read a text transcription of the booklet.
In 2014, “Deepening Reconciliation: Reflection on Glencree Peacebuildling” was published to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation.
The Glencree Barracks was the direct result of over a decade of chronic instability in Ireland. The birth of Irish Republicanism during the French Wars of 1793 to 1815 gravely threatened the security of the British and Irish establishment, the Anglo-Irish (Church of Ireland) Ascendancy. Their rule was deemed to represent only the interests of their class to the detriment of the majority population. The oppressive “penal laws”, including those limiting their right to vote and to sit in parliament, discriminated against Catholics and Presbyterians. The Irish parliament was also considered to be unduly influenced by London.
The French Revolution
Many patriots sympathised with the colonists of British North America who rose in revolt in 1775 against imperial tyranny. Trade and personal links between Ireland and America ensured that concepts such as democracy and personal rights were raised in Dublin and Belfast. Social inequality and a colonial-like regime in Ireland became increasingly intolerable to advocates of reform in the light of the French Revolution of July 1789.
The Society of United Irishmen was founded in Belfast and Dublin in late 1791 to unite Protestants. Catholics and Dissenters (Presbyterians) desiring democracy and emancipation. Some Northern Presbyterians were fearful of extending political rights to Catholics but were reassured by Theobald Wolfe Tone that Catholics were capable of responsible government. The key element of the Society’s thinking was the separation of Ireland from Britain’s sphere of influence. In 1793, Tone went to France via America and attempted to convince the Paris Directory to invade Ireland. In 1796 a 1,200 strong French invasion force arrived in County Cork to assist the United Irishmen, catching the government unprepared. However, bad weather prevented the French from landing.
Rebellion and Aftermath in County Wicklow
General Humbert landed with 1,000 French veterans on August 23rd 1798 and defeated numerically stronger Anglo-Irish forces at Collooney and Castlebar. Joseph Holt’s guerrillas in Wicklow were the only sizeable body of rebels in the field when the French arrived, waging a ruthless war against loyalists and the military. The threat they posed was underlined by their capture of Aughrim on September 19th. Amnesty and attrition reduced their numbers so steadily that their resistance was not viable by the winter. Holt brought the rebellion to a close by surrendering at Powerscourt on November 10th 1798. The Insurrection Act was widely used to quell Republicanism in Ireland. Hundreds of suspects were killed, conscripted or transported overseas. Wicklow’s 14,000 United Irishmen was the largest force in Leinster. One-fifth of the county was protestant. Church of Ireland friends and neighbours fought alongside their Catholic friends. To the south and on the coast, the town of Arklow was the site of a battle on June 9th. More than 1,000 revels died assaulting well-prepared government positions. This was a turning point of the rebellion, because on June 25th six strongpoints were completely destroyed by the rebels partly in response to the atrocities of government forces.
Military Road and Barracks
Survivors of the insurrection sought refuge in the mountains. The construction of a military road through the Wicklow Mountains was first suggested in the 1580s when the Elizabethan Administration of the “Pale” experienced difficulty suppressing the “Tory” fighters of the O’Byrne and O’Toole septs. Construction of the road began in 1800 through parts of the county “infested with insurgent plunderers”. The road commenced from Rathfarnham in Dublin to Killakee and continued over the Featherbed Mountain to Glencree, where a major camp was formed. There were four work parties of fifty men each. Soldiers were paid a shilling a day and overseers earned five shillings daily; but very few local civilians could be induced to accept work and no “dependence” was placed on those that did.
In early 1802, Earl Hardwicke sent 100 militiamen and 75 Highlanders to advance the project. Work continued until late 1809 when in excess of £14,000 had been spent. By then, the strategic value of the project had diminished, because of the destruction of French naval power at Trafalgar and the shift in emphasis to coastal defences. In late 1803, five barracks were built to ensure that the road would not fall into local insurgent hands or to foreign enemies.
This was one of the smaller buildings, designed to accommodate a captain and 100 soldiers. When it was completed in 1806, 75 men were housed there. By that time, some £26,000 had been invested in the five barracks, which like the military road became wholly obsolete in 1815 when the Napoleonic Wars ended.
In the 1850s, Ireland was just recovering from the Great Famine. Poverty and deprivation were widespread, and young people and children suffered greatly. In desperation, many of them fell foul of the laws of the time regarding stealing food, vagrancy, etc. A high increase in such juvenile “crime” and in the number of children in prison led to a public outcry. The British government responded by passing the Irish Reformatory Schools Act in 1858, extending to Ireland the system that prevailed in England. Lord Powerscourt, then owner of the land of Glencree, offered a lease on the abandoned barracks. The religious order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), agreed to establish St. Kevin’s Reformatory there. The first superior, Fr. Francis Lynch, took over Glencree in 1858, and rebuilt the property to house upwards of 300 boys. They toiled hard to reclaim and cultivate more than 100 acres of land. Apart from working on the land, they received some basic education and skills training.
All supplies had to be brought over the Military Road, which was frequently blocked by snowdrifts during the winter. As the number of inmates increased, several buildings were erected over the years, including a dormitory 306 feet long. The boys were sickly, undernourished and in bad health when they arrived at the reformatory. In 1870, one young offender (sentenced for the crime of “petty larceny”) died from exposure on the Featherbed Mountain on the way to Glencree through heavy snowdrifts. He was barefoot and dressed in rags.
Few records are currently available for this long, sad chapter in Glencree’s history. We can only assume that, despite the training, food and exercise provided to the boys, life was harsh and brutal for the most part. The reformatory closed it doors in 1940, when staff and boys moved to Daingean Industrial School, Co. Offaly. The complex then served for a brief time as an Oblate novitiate before passing into the ownership of the Minister of Supply.
From 1945 to 1950 at the end of World War 2, under the auspices of the Irish Red Cross, Glencree became a temporary Refugee Centre. The French Sisters of Charity looked after thousands of German and Polish war orphans on UN sponsored three-month rest programmes or en route to longer-stay fostering in Irish homes.