County Wicklow on screen

The unique and natural beauty of Wicklow that continues to attract filmmakers from all over the world

Words Dolores O’Donoghue

County Wicklow has served as the backdrop for many iconic moments on the silver screen. Enhanced by a diverse set of landscapes, from glacial lakes and valleys to rugged coastlines and winding country roads, films shot here capture a certain essence that cannot be replicated elsewhere.

Ever since May 1958, when the Wicklow based Ardmore Studios were opened by the then Minister for Industry and Commerce Sean Lemass, Wicklow has welcomed A-list actors such as James Cagney, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole in the early years and Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Christian Bale, Julia Roberts and Matt Damon in recent years.

Three film trails, developed by the Wicklow Film Commission, loop through the county linking the stunning locations.
Follow the signposts to take the Braveheart Drive, Excalibur Drive or Michael Collins Drive through the enchanting landscape that continues to fascinate international filmmakers. These seven awe-inspiring locations are worth a visit: with the increasing popularity of staycations, many of us have come to realise that when in search of scenic beauty, we need look no further than our own little country. Here are some of Ireland’s most spectacular and beautiful masterpieces that are well worth adding to the list when planning a day trip or a holiday at home. 

Killruddery House and Gardens, County Wicklow

Killruddery House and Gardens

Home to the Brabazon family (the Earls of Meath) since 1618, Killruddery House is a stunning Elizabethan-Revival mansion with one of the oldest gardens in Ireland.

The magnificent 800-acre estate has a sustainable bio-diverse working farm, flowering woodland and long ponds. The house is surrounded by painterly formal seventeenth-century gardens, a high-hedge sylvan theatre and a Victorian walled garden. Special family-orientated features include a faerie woodland village and a giant sandpit in the apple orchard.

The gardens, which are open from April to October, are overseen by the family, the 15th Earl of Meath and the next generation Anthony and Fionnuala, Lord and Lady Ardee. The family are direct descendants of the first Brabazons to reside at Kilruddery. The gardens and farm produce vegetables, cut flowers and meat for Killruddery’s kitchen.

The estate’s heritage horse yard has a garden-to-plate café, a farm shop and a weekly farm market. There are numerous activities and events to enjoy including a treetop climbing experience with squirrel scramble, traditional skills from botanical arts to foraging, talks or engagements on topics of bio-diversity and horticulture, pop-up suppers, music and theatre.

Killruddery has been used as a shooting location for both movies and television series, which include Ella Enchanted, The Count of Monte Cristo, Camelot and Becoming Jane.

Monastic remains at Glendalough, Ireland

Glendalough

This stunning glacial valley has attracted pilgrims and visitors over many centuries for its hallowed surroundings, its traditions and its spectacular scenery. The name is derived from the Irish Gleann Dá Loch, meaning ‘Valley of Two Lakes’. The ancient monastic city whose remains are dotted across the glen was founded in the sixth century by Saint Kevin and soon became one of the most famous religious centres in Europe.

The ruins of the gateway at what was the original entrance to the city are still to be seen. This is one of the most important monuments at the site as it is the only surviving ecclesiastical gateway from early medieval Ireland.

While the round tower is the most prominent building on the site, there is a remarkable collection of early Christian churches and related buildings, including a once-grand cathedral.

One of the sites associated with Kevin himself is a man-made cave reputedly carved from the rock by Kevin with his bare hands. As this is where he slept, it is known as St Kevin’s Bed.

Although Leap Year was filmed all over Ireland, some of the most memorable scenes were filmed in Glendalough. Scenes from Reign of Fire and Northanger Abbey were also filmed in the valleys and lakes of Glendalough.

Bray Head to Greystones Cliff Walk, Ireland

Bray Head to Greystones Cliff Walk

This stunning coastal path from Bray to Greystones takes in some of the best of rugged east coast scenery and is one of the highlights of walking in County Wicklow. Much of the walk follows the railway line around Bray Head that was built in the 1840s along the cliffs. The hiking trail known today as the Cliff Walk was built parallel to the rail line to serve as a supply road during the construction phase.

It is a walk of great contrasts with magnificent panoramic views of the Irish Sea, the Dublin Mountains, the Wicklow Mountains and the urban sprawl of Dublin City. Along the walk there are many rare plants and it is also an important habitat for sea birds.

On arrival at Greystones there is an option to return on the Bray Head Looped Trail or by the DART light rail along the most spectacular commuter railway line in Ireland. Bray Head was featured in Neil Jordan’s My Left Foot and Breakfast on Pluto while some scenes from Angela’s Ashes were shot in Greystones. Ardmore Studios is based in Bray and has been the base for many major Irish and international film productions including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Excalibur, Veronica Guerin and Ella Enchanted.

Blessington Lakes, County Wicklow

Blessington Lakes

The magnificent Blessington Lakes sit peacefully amid the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains just outside the town of Blessington and cover 5000 acres of water. The Lakes were formed in the late 1930s by the building of the Poulaphouca Dam and hydroelectric station. So what appears to be an incredible area of unspoiled natural beauty is actually a man-made reservoir.

Today the lakes serve a dual purpose of providing a power and water supply to the Dublin region and also a popular location for water-based activities such as rowing, kayaking, wind-surfing and fishing. Drive or cycle the 26km looped route around the lake for amazing views over the reservoir and the Wicklow Mountains.

While the reservoir is now admired as an area of great beauty, the hardship endured by the people who once lived and farmed in this valley must not be forgotten. The residents of the village of Ballinahown and the surrounding area were effectively evicted by the State. They were bought out by compulsory order at prices that were particularly low at the time and were cut off from each other and forced into long detours. Those who did not own land but made a living from rights to bogland were hardest hit, as they were not entitled to compensation and were essentially left destitute.

It’s ironic that the area was featured in the miniseries Neverland, which used the tagline, ‘Journey back to where it all began’.

Luggala Estate, County Wicklow

Luggala

Nestled in the Wicklow Mountains lies the magical Luggala Valley and Estate that extends to over 1800 hectares and is one of the most spectacular landscapes in Wicklow. In the hollow of the valley and set against a backdrop of breath-taking natural beauty sits the Gothic-Revival-style house that Peter La Touche, a Dublin banker of Huguenot origin, built in 1787. It was acquired by Ernest Guinness early in the last century and given as a wedding present to his daughter, Oonagh Guinness. The estate was passed on to Oonagh’s son, the Honourable Garech Browne who kept up his mother’s tradition of hosting Irish and international musicians, writers and artists until his death in 2018. 

The Luggala Estate was the setting for John Boorman’s Excalibur and some of the best-loved scenes from History Channel’s Vikings series were shot there. The historical dramas King Arthur and The Tudors both used Luggala as a location.

The Great Sugar Loaf peak, Ireland

Sugarloaf

In the far north-eastern section of the Wicklow Mountains lies one of Ireland’s most iconic peaks, the Great Sugar Loaf, which is instantly recognisable by its conical shape. At just 501 metres tall, it is not County Wicklow’s highest summit, but it stands apart from the rest of the upland and dominates the skyline on the road from Dublin to Wicklow. 

Popularly mistaken for an extinct volcano, it’s actually composed of Cambrian Period quartzite bedrock. The summit commands fine views of Dublin City and the Wicklow Mountains and, on a clear day, across the coast to the mountains of Snowdonia in Wales.

The Great Sugar Loaf Mountain can be seen in Henry V, the directorial debut of Laurence Olivier, who also co-produced and starred in the film. More recently it can be seen in Reign of Fire

The Sally Gap, County Wicklow

The Sally Gap

A crossroads which lies approximately 503 metres above sea level in the Wicklow Mountains that leads north to Dublin, south to Glendalough, west to Blessington and east to the village of Roundwood. The roads in all four directions are spectacular and the scenery is magnificent and unexpected.

The Military Road runs north-south across the spine of the Wicklow Mountains. It was constructed in the aftermath of the United Irishmen’s Rebellion of 1798. The inaccessibility of the Wicklow Mountains was proving a problem for the British forces as the rebel army took refuge in the county’s valleys, bogs and mountainsides, where they found safe retreats. Military Road joins the R759 at Sally Gap.

The surrounding region has numerous beauty spots including:

• Liffey Head Bog, the source of Dublin’s River Liffey. An area of outstanding scenic beauty, it is also a very significant ecological site, being the best example of mountain blanket bog in the east of Ireland. 

• Glenmacnass Waterfall: Between the Sally Gap crossroads and Laragh, the Glenmacnass River tumbles over the edge of Mullaghcleevaun Mountain forming a spectacular eighty-metre foaming cascade in three staggered drops. 

• Lough Tay (The Guinness Lake) between the mountains of Djouce and Luggala. Although on a private estate, it is easily viewed from one of the several car parks along the road above.

The Sally Gap has long been a favoured location with filmmakers and features in Braveheart, Dancing at Lughnasa, Laws of Attraction and P.S. I Love You

  • ‘County Wicklow on screen’ is published in Anthology Volume 16. Read more features from this volume or buy it now.
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