Upper Glencree was a beautiful but inhospitable place 300 years ago and no-one lived there. Poor land, steep rocky terrain and forests of small oak trees covering all of the more fertile and sheltered parts of the valley which gave it its name – the Valley of Trees.
A rising population and the enclosing of large estates by ascendancy families – notably the Wingfield, or Powerscourt dynasty – compelled landless people to move further up the valleys to find subsistence. Trees were felled, small fields marked out and stones cleared from the land were fashioned into the familiar Wicklow dry-stone walls. Holdings were small – one or two fields per family, with shared mountain pasture and turf-cutting rights on a patch of peat bog. Townlands were identified with names like Ballyleron, Ballycoyle and Tonygarrow.
Later on, the Powerscourt family, whose estates included all of Glencree, caused 2 or 3-room cottages to be built for their tenant families, cobbled lanes and drainage ditches appeared and the population of the Upper Glen began to increase. Subsequently, a shooting lodge was built at Lough Bray and rudimentary roads linked the area with Enniskerry and the walled estate.
In 1858 the grim military barracks at the head of the valley was handed over to the Oblate Brothers who adapted it for use as an industrial school. For 82 years it was home to over 200 boys, the Oblate community and staff. The cluster of grey buildings were both a focal point and an economic centre for the people of Glencree. By that time, Land League reform had given families rights of tenure and many sought to improve their stock with out buildings for housing livestock.
With the foundation of the State, grants were offered to replace thatched roofs with slate or tile and soon the roads to Dublin and Enniskerry were tarred to accommodate the arrival of the motor car. The closure of the Reformatory in 1940 was a blow to the area in more ways than one. However, reaforestation began to change the landscape and provided some employment in the locality where hill-farming could no longer support the needs of a family.
Why Aurora ?
Most of the townland names are of Irish origin – Ballycoyle, Ballyleron, Cloon, Tonygarrow – but this area, west of the Glencree River and up to the head of the valley is named after a Roman goddess. Why? Legend has it that an earlier Lord of Powerscourt, returning perhaps, from a night of revelry in the infamous Hellfire Club, halted his carriage at the top of Glencree, just as the summer sunrise broke above the hills at Barnamire and illuminated that one triangle of dark hillside. He was so overcome by the beauty of it all that he decided to name this corner of his vast estate “ Aurora “ – ancient Roman goddess of the dawn.
Across the river from Aurora is the townland of Old Boleys. A boley was a summer pasture and this part of Glencree, south facing, with deeper soil and better grass than rugged Aurora, is where drovers brought his Lordships cattle every year for their summer quarters.
Where did the Glencree Society come in?
In 1967 a group of youth clubs based in DunLaoghaire borough and Dublin city were renting a farm cottage, known locally as ‘The Grove’, and 60 acres of mostly mountain land at Aurora. Through a committee they shared the responsibility of upkeep and took turns to organise weekend trips to Glencree for their young members. In the summer of that year their short lease expired and the opportunity arose to buy the property. Although it had no money, the group agreed to do so, but they won the support of two very resourceful people – the late Denis Aldridge from Sandycove and the late Fr. Frank McCabe, founder of St.Joseph’s Boys’ AFC in Sallynoggin. The Glencree Society was formed, trustees were appointed and enough finance was found to provide the building which now houses the bedrooms and recreation hall, as well as the purchase price. Oil lamps gave way to electricity and flush toilets made their first appearance.
Denis Aldridge became the Society’s first chairman and served in that role for 13 years.
Just a few years before the first of the youth clubs ventured up to Glencree, The Grove was a working farm, owned by the McGuirk family. It got its name from the shelter belt of trees behind the house – a feature in the landscape where reaforestation had not yet arrived. A stone outbuilding housed a horse and two cows, the enclosed yard was cobbled and pigs were kept outside the perimeter wall. There was a vegetable garden, turf was stacked against the back gable wall and the haggard behind the cottage had a stand on four upright granite columns which kept the winter fodder dry and free from vermin. Hens ranged freely and the flat ‘henstone’ still visible in facing the door was their feeding point.
The house was small but dry and warm. The kitchen, with earthen floor, was where the family lived, cooked and ate and with a small bedroom on either side. (At some point a dairy was built on – now serving as the Grove’s kitchen) There was no electricity, running water or sanitation. Furniture was simple and sparse – a table, a bench, some stools and a settle, which doubled as a bed for children at night. All cooking and baking was done over the open fire. An iron kettle always hung on the crane and the fire never actually went out – banked up at night and rekindled in the morning.
Lough Bray House
Was built as a shooting lodge for the Powerscourt estate towards the end of the 19th century. Later it was bought by the Guinness family and in the last 50 years changed hands several times as a private residence. Sited on the south facing shore of Lower Lough Bray, it can only be seen from the opposite side – from the ridge-top path that leads to the Eagle’s Crag. There was the Lodge itself, the gamekeeper’s house and, out at the roadside, a gatelodge, believed to be the highest inhabited house in Ireland. Later known as ‘McGuirk’s of Lough Bray’, J.M.Synge stayed there and was said to have been inspired to write The Shadow of the Glen as a result. A beach up at the lakeside was created by hauling cartloads of sand from Brittas Bay.
Lough Bray Upper and Lower are corrie lakes, gouged out by the retreating ice-age, brooding and beautiful but extremely deep and dangerous. The stream which drains he lower lake rushes across the valley to join the Glencree River and was the source of fresh water for both The Grove and Aurora House before wells were drilled.
Who was Major Thunder?
Pat Thunder was a genial Irish gentleman who entered the British army during World War Two. Demobbed about 1950 and – like many others since – captivated by Glencree, he bought the 2-storey house at the end of the lane, with its surrounding land. He grew his own vegetables, acquired a rotovater, hiring himself out to farmers in the Glen and at weekends, made his house available as an overflow for the An Oige hostel in the village.
The venue soon developed a sort of cult status – in a village without a pub – and many regular weekenders headed straight for ‘Thunder’s’, leaving the hostel to the hikers. But it wasn’t a very lucrative project and as time went by and money ran out, creditors were pressing and the Major decided to call time. Leaving no forwarding address, he entrusted his house to a couple of dubious friends who soon lost interest, and Aurora House fell into disrepair.
To a generation of youngsters staying at The Grove in those pre-electricity days, ‘Captain’ Thunder who had disappeared so mysteriously, became a scary ghost that haunted the dark ruined house at the end of the equally dark lane. But in 1970 he reappeared. Retired from a teaching post in England, he returned to claim his property. He was horrified to find a stark, roofless shell, stripped of every scrap of timber, where cattle sheltered from the elements.
The outbuilding still had a roof and in November of that year he moved into it, with a plastic window bottled gas cooker, heater and lamp, a pile of books and a cat, and when the weather was fine, he worked at cleaning up the ruined house in preparation for the builder who would come in the spring. The house was duly rebuilt, Mr.Thunder planted trees and shrubs, built a mini swimming pool and restocked his vegetable garden. The old pals were all gone, but he was content to live quietly for seven years until failing health and harsh winters persuaded him to sell up and move to Bray. He offered The Glencree Society first refusal. The Society accepted and in 1977 Aurora House became part of its outward bound location. After a few years the present kitchen was added and new showers and toilets were installed.