St Kevin’s Church

St Kevin’s Church, Glencree.


Built in 1860, St Kevin’s was a chapel for the adjoining reformatory school established in 1858 and run by the Oblates. It is a simple, unfussy Gothic style chapel built by the first superior of the school, Fr. Francis Lynch.



A Panoramic 360º View St Kevins church. Press Play to view
History of the Glencree buildings and site
The Origins of the Glencree BarracksThe 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 RevolutionMany 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.

Wolfe Tone

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 23 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 19.

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 10, 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 9. More than 1,000 rebels died assaulting well-prepared government positions. This was a turning point of the rebellion, because on June 25, 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’Bvrne 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 defenses. In late 1803, five barracks were built to ensure that the road would not fall into local insurgent hands or to foreign enemies.

Glencree Barracks

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.

St. Kevin’s Reformatory School

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.

Operation Shamrock

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.


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