September 2004 Newsletter
September 2004 Newsletter
With a history stretching back to the 4th century BC, Wexford is as enigmatic a town as you will find in Ireland. Vikings designed the present town in the 8th century AD; Norman adventurers, English planters and its own indigenous business community subsequently developed Wexford to its present format. Of particular interest to the historian is the massacre of the town's rebel garrison during the Cromwellian Wars and the short-lived Republic established in Wexford's Bullring in 1798. The town is twinned with Conerion in France. There's a population of 16,000 people and 93 pubs and a whole heap of restaurants. Wexford's crowning moment comes with the Wexford Opera Festival in the autumn, started in 1951, although races at Wexford Racecourse from February to October are also a good crowd-puller. Wexford also makes an excellent base for those seeking to enjoy the chirrups and coo-cook's of wildfowl in the North Slobs Nature Reserves north of the harbour. The Irish National Heritage Park at Ferrycarrig offers a wealth of historical wonders, while there's a clean, sandy 3-mile beach at Curracloe north of Wexford Town, where that mad opening scene of "Saving Private Ryan" was filmed and where, in times past, pale Vikings used to sunbathe.
Fans of Asterix may recall those enterprising Phoenician sailors who sailed the seas during the heady days of the Roman Empire. About 140 years before Jesus Christ's Immaculate Conception in the Middle East, a Greek geographer called Ptolemy drew up a map of the world as he saw it. On this map he identified a small coastal settlement in Hibernia where modern Wexford Town now lies. He reckoned the residents of this settlement had been dealing with Phoenician traders for some 300 years.
The general verdict is that these were Celts, descendants either of the Belgian Fir Bolgs or of Mediterranean refugees and adventurers who reckoned there was no finer place for setting up shop than sunny old Ireland (as it then was). The Celts were in control of Western Europe from about 450 - 220 BC. Not a lot is known about the Wexford Celts. Guesswork suggests they were handy with a fishing rod and dined regularly on pheasant and other wildfowl from the abundant forests of the land. They seem to have lived a relatively peaceful life, most likely hanging around in the various stone-forts and raths built by them or some forgotten forbears.
ONWARD CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS
In 420 Anno Domini, an inspired young buck called Ibar rocked up on the Wexford coast and began telling everyone about the afore-mentioned carpenter's son from the Sea of Galilee. "Oh yes, a fantabulous miracle-worker he was, like the world has never known, could turn water into wine at the drop of a hat and raised the lepers from the dead. They say he was the natural son of yer man up above, sent to mend our wicked ways and lead us into salvation, but the Jews and the Romans didn't like his attitude and so they nailed him to a cross and left him to die, only he didn't die, he simply rose up into the sky one morning and he's still sitting up there, on the right hand side of his father, waiting for us all to come and pay our respects, so lets all sing "Hallelujah!" and try working out what this fellow was on about".
The story was a catchy one. Ibar founded a small school on a little island called Beggerin (meaning, as it happens, "little island") in the middle of Wexford Harbour and began churning out the first in a long and illustrious line of religious zealots.
Now, students of early Irish Christianity will note that the date Ibar founded his school - 420 AD - is 12 years earlier than the first recorded visit to Ireland by that penitent patron saint of mid-March drinking sessions, Saint Patrick. If truth be told, Ibar's philosophy was a slight different to Paddy's. Although he'd studiously read the Gospels, Ibar still felt rather partial to the old Pagan traditions, the singing-dancing harvest festivals, the sun-worshipping and such like. Paddy, on the other hand, had no time for such nonsense and insisted on a regime of heavy duty "forgive me father for I am a rampant sinner" shenanigans. This latter policy spawned what we now know as Catholic Guilt, the bane of a zillion poor souls for over 1500 years, each one bullied into thinking that no matter how kind-hearted and well-meaning they were, their souls were still irretrievably doomed to burn in blazing fire till the end of time on account of their grandfathers having sinned and quite blatantly not repented.
Ibar's name is recalled in Wexford's St. Iberius (Protestant) Church, a fine Georgian building erected in 1760 where, I believe, the Duke of Wellington was married. Ibar's Feast Day is celebrated on 23rd April.
In 819 Anno Domini, four centuries after Ibar's school was founded, some Viking longships cruising around the south east coast of Ireland reckoned this small harbour at the mouth of the River Slaney would make a perfect base for lucrative raids on the reputedly minted abbeys and monasteries of the Slaney Valley. At length they set about constructing a town called "Weissfjord" or "white fjord of the mud flats" and planting it with Danish settlers. In terms of lay-out, Wexford hasn't changed a lot since then, so if you want to blame someone for congestion on Wexford's absurdly narrow streets, then e-mail your complaints to Copenhagen and leave poor old Wexford County Council alone.
Actually, that's not strictly true either. You see, Weissfjord was just one half of the town at this stage. The other half was called Lough Garman and is where the original Irish families continued to live. I'm not sure how well the two groups got on. There must have been a bit of camaraderie and hanky-panky over the years but the fact the Lough Garman lads helped Brian Boru clobber the Vikings at Clontarf in 1014 suggests some class of grudge that never quite died.
At the end of the 12th century, the Welsh-Normans made a trip across the Irish Sea and gave the Vikings the hiding of a lifetime. The Viking fleet in Weissfjord was burnt to a crisp by an incorrigible Welsh mercenary called Robert Fitzstephens in 1169; hence the town flag of burning ships. The Danes and the Norse decided enough was enough and, for the most part, took off to safer shores: the Scottish Isles, Iceland, Greenland and a small place called America.
THE NORMAN CONQUEST
The Normans of England conquered the east coast of Ireland in less than a decade. They were a hardy bunch, veterans of numerous crusades against the eagle-eyed Islamics of the Middle East, the testicle-munching tribes of Scotland, the potion-swilling Gauls of France, you name it. They wore chain-mail and rode high upon magnificent Arabian stallions. Their swordsmen, lancers and archers were unrivalled throughout Europe. They believed in feudalism and they believed in Jesus Christ. The Irish, who'd been politely beating each other up for several hundred centuries, didn't stand a chance. In 1170, Henry II of England arrived waving a slip of paper, signed by the English Pope, granting God's blessing to subjugate and colonise the once famous island of saints and scholars. Some of the Irish nobles ummed and aahed about the legitimacy of this Papal Bull on account of the King's recent involvement in the murder of (later Saint) Thomas a Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral, but when - in the Lent of 1172 - Henry locked himself up in Wexford's very own, brand new Selskar Abbey for 6 weeks of self-flagellation and general penitence, they figured he couldn't be all bad. The Irish nobles rolled the die and decided to get down on bended knees and swear loyalty to the ambitious young monarch.
During his time at Selskar, Henry had Wexford walled as only the Normans knew how. These walls, parts of which remain to this day, survived the ensuing centuries of warfare and rebellion remarkably well. Go to the Cornmarket for a look or try the original Westgate, now home to the town's heritage centre. Following the deaths of Henry II and that other prominent Norman, Strongbow in 1179, Wexford rather dwindled in prominence and business moved elsewhere, to Waterford and Dublin in the main. Moreover, the remaining Norman, Gaelic and Viking inhabitants in Wexford gradually began to find one another quite attractive and a large amount of inter-marriage took place. I hold that this was a Good Thing but sometimes wonder how many of Wexford's citizens today realise their forbears spoke French and passionately believed in Thor?
In 1317, the year of Edward the Bruce's death, Wexford received its first town charter and the mechanisms of urbanisation were put into place - a merchants guild, bailiffs, a mayor and such like. Gradually the town evolved as a lucrative port, even managing to survive the closure of the various monastic schools, hospitals and churches during the 16th century Reformation.
WEXFORD & CROMWELL
Wexford came a cropper during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s. In direct protest at the continued persecution of Irish Catholics by the English authorities in Dublin, the Irish Catholic Confederacy established a rival government 60 miles north of Wexford at Kilkenny. The French and Spanish had offered to give a hand should any help be needed. Wexford thought this right decent and promptly raised the Spanish flag over Wexford Castle. A Dutchman named Van Katt arrived at the port to oversee a major shipbuilding programme. Across the Irish Sea in England, the Civil War concluded with the execution of King Charles and the abolition of the monarchy. Cromwell surmised the situation and concluded that Wexford was a bloody nuisance and needed to be brought down a peg or two.
In October 1649, less than a month after the horrific massacre of the Confederate garrison in Drogheda, Cromwell's army of 7000 infantry and 2000 horsemen arrived at Wexford and let rip. His canons failed to knock down Henry II's ancient walls but the ensuing siege was most effective and eventually the Wexford garrison, under David Sinott, decided to call it a day and raise the white flag. A fat lot of good that did them when Cromwell's army then charged down the surrendering garrison and killed some 2000 on the spot. Cromwell wanted to send a message to all Ireland: any nonsense, you die. It worked a treat.
Following the massacre at Wexford, all other Confederate towns in Ireland capitulated rapidly. By Christmas 1649 almost all of the eastern and southern coasts of Ireland were in the Great Protector's hands. By May 1650 he was able to return to England (or, rather, the deteriorating situation in Scotland) secure in the knowledge that the tide of English conquest was already rolling inland and total subjugation would not be long in the coming: the Generals he left behind - Ireton, Ludlow and Fleetwood - brought Ireland into line by 1653.
18TH CENTURY PENAL LAWS
The Penal Laws affected Wexford Town in much the same way as they affected all Ireland. Catholics had a rotten time. They were evicted from the town and forbidden to be within 5 miles of the walls. A bounty was put out for renegade friars offering the same sort of loot you'd get if you killed a wolf. Prohibited from jobs in both Church and State, the Catholic families turned to Business with a vengeance. By the close of the 18th century, a wealthy and influential Catholic middle class was busily rebuilding their native town - the Quays were erected, John Street and Main Street opened, an embankment started and across the River Slaney, a new bridge built by the Wexford merchants in 1789. Arthur Young arrived here in July 1776 after a long journey through the barony of Forth where he "saw nothing but straw hats for men and women, and found afterwards they were worn through the whole country, and they give a comic appearance to every group one meets". There were 14 or 15 small ships in the port at the time "but a bar at the mouth of the harbour prevents large ones coming in". Today, the quays and wharfs that lie on the banks of the River Slaney evoke a time when Wexford was a busy port but the harbour silted up in the late 19th century driving business elsewhere (to Waterford mainly).
Overlooking the quays is a statue of local hero Commodore John Barry (1745 - 1803), regarded as the "Father of the American Navy".
1789 was a year that saw the onset of two decades of unprecedented political turmoil in Europe. The French lower classes were hard at work guillotining anyone with a handkerchief, the British Empire was still reeling from the shock loss of its former colonies in North America and anyone who could speak was yelling about liberty, equality and fraternity. The Wexford Catholics had inevitably been caught up in the American War of Independence - hadn't their own John Barry been in charge of naval operations during the war?!
1798 was a weird year for Ireland. As far as I can work out, there was an immense amount of communication breakdown. Everyone in Wexford had been bumbling on in relatively good health, save for a poor harvest and a few unnecessary deaths here and there. In May, the United Irishmen launched a mini-rebellion in Kildare and tried to capture Dublin off the British. The rebellion failed but the ripple effect came hurtling south through the Wicklow Mountains and over the border into County Wexford where, virtually overnight, the Wexford Protestants became 100% convinced they were about to be massacred by the Wexford Catholics and, simultaneously, the Wexford Catholics got it into their heads they were about to be annihilated by the Wexford Protestants. Some people - Catholic Bishops and Protestant magistrates - tried to calm the situation down but faced a major obstacle in that, owing to this mass hysterical paranoia, whole-scale massacres had now begun to happen. These killings were not much different to what you hear about in, say, Algeria or Rwanda today. Crazed maniacs hacking entire families to death with scythes, pitchforks, bullets and pikes. Makes no difference whether the killers were Prods or Catholics, they were all demented with fear. The authorities responded by implementing Martial Law, which amounted to little more than Her Majesty's soldiery joining in the general carnage, through such celebrated party tricks as half-hanging, house burning, pitch caps and gang rape.
The rebel forces took out Wexford Town and declared the First Republic of Ireland in the Bullring. Three weeks later, their army was wiped out at Vinegar Hill, it's leaders either beheaded or shipped west to Botany Bay in Australia. I don't know how many Wexford folk died in the '98. It was the worst affected county in a year when over 30,000 people were killed. Make of that what you will.
THE 19TH CENTURY
It's not easy to rebuild in the aftermath of such a shocking bad year but, against the odds, Wexford buckled down to the job and during the early 19th century the surviving merchants and businessmen managed to recreate and expand their trade links as far afield as Odessa to San Francisco. A concession to Catholics was made when Augustus Pugin was called in to build St. Peter's College meaning Catholics no longer had to go to the Continent to receive a good Roman education. It was Pugin's prize pupil, Richard Pearse, who then built the twin churches.
And then another slump began. The prime reason for this was the growing popularity of steamships who required a deepwater port to load and unload their goods. Wexford Harbour was too shallow. A second ingredient was the Famine which, if the Stoneybatter Workhouse or Pauper's Graveyard are anything to go by, was a gruesome time. Business moved elsewhere.
One of the leading Wexford families during the late 19th century was the Redmonds. There's a monument to them in the town square which, I regret to say, was in a most diabolical condition when last I viewed it, the inscriptions fading to the point of illegibility and the entire obelisk coated in useless graffiti. The sight was particularly sad when, with difficulty, I transcribed the words attributed to John Redmond, MP for the Wexford Borough from 1859 - 1865, and grandfather to the controversial John Redmond who founded the Irish Volunteers.
Allegedly his last words, the inscription reads:
"My heart is with the town of Wexford. Nothing can extinguish that love but the cold sod of the grave. And when that day comes, I hope you will pay me the complement I deserve of saying that I always loved you".
Sorry, Jack, RIP.
THE 20TH CENTURY
Wexford's story in the 20th century is a relatively quiet one. The first decades saw a revival of radical republicanism in the county, partly as a consequence of the centenary commemorations of 1798. However, when Wexford-born John Redmond urged the men of Ireland to put their differences with Britain on hold and help defeat the Germans, 715 Wexford men joined the British army in 1915. In the Easter Rising of the following year, 270 Wexford people were arrested, of whom 150 were interned at Frongoch in north Wales. Indeed so many GAA members from both Wexford and Dublin were at Frongoch that the two counties played the 1916 Leinster football final there! By 1921, it is said that 7% of Wexford men were in the IRA. The GAA has been strong in Wexford since its foundation and the county's senior hurlers have won 6 All-Irelands, the first in 1910 and most recently in 1996. At the time of writing they are scheduled to do battle with Laois for the Leinster Final.
Many merchant sailors from Wexford died serving with the Irish Company in World War Two. Wexford port declined throughout the 20th century, particularly with the advent of bigger ships during the war years, and Rosslare took the roll-on/roll-off business when it began in the late 1960s. Family businesses survived, such as Pierce's agricultural implements and Star engineering, and the National Farmers' Association was established in the county in the 1950s. The Freedom of Wexford was conferred on President Eisenhower who dropped in for a cup of tea in 1956 and John F. Kennedy stayed for supper in 1963.TB©
until this time next month...
Conor B & Turtle.