• Military Road via Metro

    In the first of a multi-part series, David Mullen delves into the history of a famous road, aided by an infamous automobile.

    You don’t realise it when you round the corner at The Yellow House pub in Dublin’s leafy suburb of Rathfarnham that you’re driving onto the oldest section of one of the most ambitious and dramatic engineering projects undertaken in 19th century Ireland. But this is it – the beginning of the “Military Road”, the route that thousands of Dubs take every sunny evening and weekend up into the Dublin Mountains and on down into Wicklow.

    The year is 1799 and even with the rebellion of the previous year crushed, bands of guerilla rebels continue to fight on in the Wicklow Mountains, the vast swathe of upland to the south of the capital. Michael Dwyer, the leader of the pack, is the most wanted man in Ireland and the rebels, living deep in the inaccessible mountains and valleys, evade capture at every turn despite the best efforts of the army. The top brass decide that this situation of having an untamed wilderness right on Dublin’s doorstep, a place where insurgents and rogues can move with impunity and plot the very downfall of the government, is just unacceptable. They decide to build a road…

    The car I’m driving on that road, a 1989 Rover Metro 1.3 Automatic, is right at home here in the gentle suburbs. It’s unstressed and feels a lot livelier than it is, thanks to the way it whizzes up through the gears from a set of lights with that familiar A-Series whine. That four-speed auto-box is far better suited to this more level kind of terrain, as we’ll see later-on when we hit the hills. The AP gearbox was already 25 years old by the time it reached this particular Metro, though that was nothing on the engine which had been around since 1951. Both would continue well past their sell-by-dates until around the turn of the Millennium when the Mini finally shuffled off its mortal coil.

    For now though, the going is pleasantly suburban. Housing estates with woody names like Cypress Avenue, Larch Drive and Beech Walk, all very comfortable. What isn’t comfortable is the heat. Though it’s the evening, the temperature is still in the twenties and the single driver’s air vent is blowing out hot air. Even the fully lowered window isn’t doing much. I swear sweat is puddling like rainwater in the footwells.

    The Austin Metro, after a long and troubled development, finally hit the showrooms in 1980 amidst a ticker-tape parade of jingoism. This was the car that would save British Leyland and restore some national pride to a country in industrial decline, which at the time was being invaded by foreigners like the Renault 5, Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo. Underdeveloped, built on a shoestring and late to the party as it was, the Metro was always playing catch-up and by the time 1983 rolled around with the launch of the Fiesta Mk.2 and the second generation of superminis like the Fiat Uno and Peugeot 205, it was already outclassed and feeling distinctly first-gen.

    The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Commander in Chief of the army, Charles Cornwallis, was in the fortunate position of having declared Martial Law in 1798, which meant that any engineering project he saw fit could be fast-tracked in the defence of the realm. A road directly from Dublin Castle into the wilds of Wicklow was one of those projects, but it wasn’t an engineer he appointed to build his road across the mountains; it was a brilliant though unqualified and notoriously cranky Scottish surveyor named Alexander Taylor. It would prove to be a wise move as Taylor worked fast and well, and building began on the road within months of Cornwallis firing the starting gun. The flat 1½ mile section from Rathfarnham to Edmondstown was already in existence and it was just a matter of resurfacing the road. But at a spot called Billy’s Bridge there was, and is, a divergence. Driving the Military Road today, one turns right over the bridge before taking a left onto Stocking Lane and onwards up past the Hellfire Club to the Featherbeds. This was the route that most people took in 1800 if they were heading for the mountains, but Taylor had other ideas…

    Part Two coming soon…