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Descendants retrace the footsteps of General Holt

There's the tourist who arrives with bucket and spade, heading for the strand at Brittas. There's the tourist with feet encased in cumbersome hiking boots, tramping through the hills with Ordinance survey map at the ready. Then there's the tourist who glides up to Glendalough in an air-conditioned coach to sit in wonder at the feet of Saint Kevin.

We are all familiar with the beach brigade, the ramblers and the guided tour parties. They have become an unremarked part of the scenery themselves in County Wicklow. But another, less common class of visitor has also been known to descend on these shores. This unusual specimen comes armed with greater knowledge of the county and its bloody heritage than most of the folk who live here full time. Meet Lionel Fowler, head man of the Holt family fellowship.

Lionel is a man who knows his Powerscourt from his Poulaphouca, his Aughrim from his Arklow. He surveys Glenmalure with the eye of an expert thoroughly versed in his subject, which is surprising in someone who lives most of his life in or around Sydney. He's probably back in New South Wales by the time you read this, sipping a glass of Wolf Blass and sifting through the holiday snaps taken on his recent tour of the Emerald Isle.

Lionel arrived in the Northern Hemisphere a couple of weeks ago with a dozen companions who had this much in common - they were all descended from (or married to people descended from) that great Wicklow man, General Joseph Holt. The fact that the year 2006 is the 250th anniversary of the general's birth seemed as good a reason as any for the Aussies to take the plane to the Emerald Isle.

It is wonderful to think that the memory of Joseph Holt is kept alive over ten thousand miles from the place where he grew up. It is all the more wonderful considering that the great man was one of the few emigrants to Australia who actually managed to return home in those early days when the place Down Under was more a penal colony than a land of opportunity. He died in respectable old age in Dublin, nowhere near the Sydney suburb of Leppington where he spent much of his exile.

Yet, though the general spent only a few years there, he managed to make an enduring mark during his banishment. Lionel Fowler reveals proudly that he is great great great grandson of Joseph Holt, descended from his granddaughter, Elizabeth, who married a Fowler. Joseph's descendants haves traced 1,600 people of Fowler blood in Australia out of a total of over 3,000 Holt descendants all told. They are automatically enrolled in The Holt Family Fellowship at birth.

Lionel believes passionately that Joseph Holt is worth remembering and he makes a good case. As a military commander, Joseph was enterprising to the extent that he gathered an army of 10,000 men behind him. He was considered so dangerous a rebel that the British put a price of three hundred pounds on his head, an enormous amount of money in 1798.

Joseph Holt won more battles than he lost, chalking up successes at Ballyellis, Glenmalure and Aughrim. A canny strategist, he was highly critical of the spectacular but doomed approach of other United Irishmen leaders who led their army to carnage and defeat at Vinegar Hill.

He survived the upheavals of '98 because he knew when he was beaten, surrendering once it was clear that the French were unable to provide reinforcements on a scale that would have allowed the insurgents to keep the forces of the Crown permanently at bay and set up an independent state. While rebels captured on the battlefield often met a grisly end, Joseph Holt was exported in a ship called 'Minerva'. It set sail from Cobh, accompanied by wife Hester, already pregnant with a child, Joseph Harrison Holt, who, with elder brother Joshua Holt, later made a contribution to producing all those thousands of descendants.

By the way, while he was in Australia, the general was allocated a patch of land next door to another famous Wicklow rebel. Michael Dwyer, his former lieutenant, kept the struggle going in the Glens long after his commander had been shipped over seas but eventually found himself in the same situation, trying to hack a living from the soil of Leppington.

'My grandmother told me when I was four years old always to remember the name of Joseph Holt,' says Lionel Fowler, clearly a man who does what he is told. The 250th anniversary was a good excuse to take tour of Wicklow with some of the Holts, such as Sonny and Fergus. They nosed around Dublin on arrival in Ireland and finished in Cobh, sailing out into the harbour to give themselves some idea of how Ireland must have looked from the 'Minerva' as it embarked for Australia.

In between, they made a thorough examination of their hero's native county, including, Roundwood, Delgany and assorted battlefields, with a stop in Ballydonnell where the general was born. They were also present for the unveiling of a Joseph Holt plaque in Tinahely and they were treated to a lecture from Professor Ruan O'Donnell. Not a bucket or spade in sight.

By David Metcalf, Wicklow People & Wexford People.

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