Wexford Town

Wexford Town

Wexford Town, as seen from Ferrybank.

Wexford is a historic Viking town that sits at the mouth of the River Slaney, overlooking Wexford Harbour. The town was founded at the beginning of the 9th Century when Viking raiders decided to construct a small settlement in the area. At the time, the Vikings would have considered the location to be of strategic value, as it provided access to the River Slaney, which flows through the south-eastern counties of Wexford, Carlow and Wicklow.

Over the centuries, this quaint port town has been in a constant state of change; thanks in no small part to foreign invaders, bloody sieges, an insurrection, the establishment of Ireland’s first republic and the gradual decline of its once-busy harbour.

The name “Wexford” originates from the word Veisafjǫrðr (or Waesfiord; pronounced Veisford), which means “inlet of mud flats” in Old Norse; a northern Germanic language that was spoken by Scandinavian peoples up until the end of the 1300s. In a map that was created in 100AD by Greek geographer Claudius Ptolemy, the area around Wexford Town was marked as “Menapia” (this is disputed, however, as cartography was not as accurate in those days). At the time, County Wexford was said to be occupied by Celtic tribes such as the Brigantes and the Coriondi.

The Vikings.

The Vikings originated from countries such as Sweden, Norway and Finland. Their advanced seafaring skills, coupled with their smash-and-grab tactics, made them a feared enemy (this fear of Viking raiders forced many people in the coastal areas of Ireland to move further inland). By the end of the 8th century, the Vikings had began their “expansionism period”, in which they pillaged Christian monasteries and established bases in coastal areas such as Wexford, Dublin and Waterford. The first recorded raid in Wexford occured in 819AD, when the Vikings plundered the Christian monastery on Begerin Island, which was situated in the North Slob area of Wexford Harbour.

Although the Vikings were persistent in their attacks, evidence suggests that they were met by fierce resistance from the native Irish and that it took decades before they were able to properly insert themselves into the country. After a lengthy period of skirmishes and night-time raids, in which the Norse population of Wexford would have endured several defeats, a second wave of Viking raiders began to arrive. Although these raids persisted, it was through trading and commerce that the Norse made their biggest impact on Ireland.

Following the period of Wexford’s establishment in 800AD, the native Irish and the Norse newcomers began to mesh as one, trading and inter-marrying with one another until the population in the region became a unique mixture of Norse-Irish.

During this period, the Norse, who had once devoted themselves to a form of Germanic paganism, began to accept the tenets of Christianity. This acceptance of Christianity played a huge role in the layout of medieval Wexford, with several small parishes being built in the area. Unlike the Anglo-Normans, who favoured larger parishes, the Norse seem to have preferred a complex system of tightly-knit parishes; most of which were within shouting distance of one another. This would explain why St. Peter’s Church, St. Mary’s Church and St. Patrick’s Church in Wexford Town were all built within a few hundred metres of one another (it takes a few minutes to visit all three of them on foot).

Saint Patrick's Church in Wexford Town.

The ruins of Saint Patrick’s Church in Wexford Town.

The Viking past of Wexford Town is still apparent today, as the town centre is made up of narrow streets, with small lanes that slope down towards the quay. A perfect example of this would be Keyser’s Lane, which is a narrow lane that runs from High Street to the car park on Crescent Quay.

Because of its proximity to busy shipping routes in the Irish Sea, Wexford was considered to be a strategic location throughout much of the medieval ages. Unfortunately for its inhabitants, this made it an attractive “destination” for invading forces.

The Normans.

In May of 1169, a force of roughly 1100 Norman soldiers marched on Wexford Town. These men were led by Robert Fitz Stephen, Maurice de Prendergast and the recently deposed King of Leinster, Diarmait Mac Murchada. Three years previously, Mac Murchada had fled to Wales after being forced to vacate his throne by the High King of Ireland.

While in Britain, Mac Murchada had asked King Henry II of England for his permission to enlist the help of mercenaries from within his kingdom. After Henry II granted him the permission to do so, Mac Murchada immediately began to recruit Norman barons from the Pembroke area of South Wales. In return for their help, Mac Murchada promised them money and land ownership (the Norse town of Wexford was promised to Robert Fitz Stephen and Maurice Fitz Gerald).

The Norse-Irish inhabitants of Wexford managed to put up a good fight on the first day of the siege; inflicting casualties on the Norman invaders and repelling them back. However, the next day, they decided to open up negotiations with Mac Murchada, as their confidence in their ability to defend the town had started to falter (Wexford’s stone wall did not exist at the time and the Norman troops would have been of high caliber, so we can only presume that the Norse-Irish inhabitants of Wexford knew that it was only a matter of time before the town fell. In those days, refusing to surrender could lead to horrific consequences).

After the town had surrendered, Diarmait Mac Murchada divided the land up amongst Fitz Stephen and Fitz Gerald and incorporated some of the Norse men of Wexford into his army before marching onward to reclaim his crown. In an effort to fortify the region, Robert Fitz Stephen built a wooden ringwork castle on top of a large rock at Ferrycarrig, overlooking the River Slaney (the defensive ditch is still visible inside the Irish National Heritage Park).

The arrival of the Normans was another important part of Wexford’s lengthy history, as it was the Normans that expanded the town further north; leaving us with historical sites such as Selskar Abbey and Westgate Tower. The arrival of the Normans also led to the construction of Wexford’s town wall, which is a stone wall that used to loop around the town in the shape of the letter C.

Westgate Tower, Wexford

A photograph of Westgate Tower in Wexford Town, Ireland.

The surnames that you come across in Wexford today are an interesting reflection of the changes that have occurred in the region (and throughout the rest of the country). You have old Irish surnames such as Byrne, Buggy, Kavanagh, Healy, Heffernan and Murphy; mixed with surnames such as Sweetman and Doyle, both of which are believed to have originated from Ireland’s Viking invaders. Then, you have Anglo-Norman surnames such as Roche, Devereux, Furlong, Whitty, Hore, Laffan, Hayden, Redmond and Neville. All of these surnames provide us with a record of the kind of changes that Wexford’s population underwent.

The Norman invasion of Wexford also led to the creation of a language called Yola, which evolved from Middle English. Throughout the Middle Ages, this unique dialect of English evolved and continued to flourish in the southern Wexford baronies of Forth and Bargy.

Cromwell.

On a rainy day in October of 1649, another foreign army arrived at the outskirts of Wexford Town. This army, which was led by the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, Oliver Cromwell, set up camp to the north of the town, close to where Carcur and Spawell Road are today.

Two months earlier, Cromwell and his New Model Army had landed in Ireland with the intention of crushing the Irish Catholic Confederation – an alliance of Irish Catholic nobles, clergy members and military leaders that had been in control of Ireland for a number of years. This alliance was considered to be a military threat to the newly-established parliament of England. Throughout the years that preceded Cromwell’s arrival, Wexford’s port had been used as a base by Confederate vessels, many of which had been attacking and stealing from ships belonging to the English Parliament.

A few days after his arrival at Wexford, Cromwell encircled the town to the west before setting up a new camp in ‘The Rocks’, which was located to the south of the town. While negotiations between Cromwell and the garrison of Wexford were still ongoing, Cromwell’s New Model Army managed to capture Wexford Castle. The capture of Wexford Castle panicked the town’s garrison, causing them to flee (the sight of Cromwell’s men turning the guns of Wexford Castle on the town wall would have shocked and dismayed them, especially considering the fact that stories of Cromwell massacring the people of Drogheda would have been at the forefront of their minds). From that point onward, it seems as though Cromwell’s soldiers decided to seize the opportunity to breach the walls of Wexford Town.

Once the walls were breached, Cromwell’s New Model Army rampaged through the streets of Wexford, killing the town’s defenders and massacring its civilians. One such massacre is believed to have taken place at The Bullring, where the townspeople had huddled together (the truth behind this part of the story is hotly contested, as some historians believe that no such massacre took place). However, in his letters, Cromwell did write that his army had entered a market place and that they had put ‘all to the sword’ that ‘came in their way.’ He also recalled how boats of people trying to escape the town had capsized in Wexford Harbour, causing the deaths of 300 people. Over a decade later, during the 1660s, Wexford Town requested compensation from England, arguing that over 1,500 townspeople had been killed during the sacking.

Regardless of whether any such massacre took place, there is no denying that the town of Wexford had been left in a terrible state. In fact, the town had been so badly damaged that Cromwell and his men expressed their regret at not being able to use it as a quarters for the winter period. In the aftermath of the sacking, many of the remaining Catholics in Wexford decided to flee; choosing to hide-out in the countryside until the following spring. After returning, many of them learned that they were now tenants in their own homes; their lands and their houses having been confiscated.

In the period that followed, the land around Wexford was seized and handed over to a Protestant minority; marking yet another change in the history of the town. For centuries to come, Catholicism was repressed and the town of Wexford was placed under the control of an English elite. This would explain why many of the old Catholic churches of Wexford were allowed to fall into ruination, with many of them being plundered for building supplies (St. Peter’s Church being one such example).

1798 Rebellion.

We are the boys of Wexford, who fought with heart and hand.

As the 18th Century was coming to a close, the anger and the frustration of the Catholic community was beginning to boil. For decades, they had lived under a system that was privileged towards Protestants – an unfair system that saw them suffer economically. In the years leading up to the Rebellion of 1798, both America and France had erupted into revolution, fueled by the ideals of equality, justice and democracy. Events in other countries eventually led to the creation of a group of nationalists called the United Irishmen, who were made up of both Catholics and Protestants, all of which believed in the establishment of a secular democracy.

In County Wexford, the sense of anger with the establishment continued to build, thanks in no small part to the events that transpired at Wygram in Wexford Town in 1793. There, a number of Irish rebels from Bunclody were halted by members of the 56th regiment as they attempted to free two of their neighbours from Wexford Gaol. During a skirmish between the two sides, eleven of the Irish rebels were shot and killed, with nearly a hundred more dying of their wounds as they attempted to flee the town. Afterwards, a number of survivors were captured and sentenced to death by hanging. This event is sometimes referred to as The First Rebellion, simply because it helped to fuel a sense of enmity that would eventually culminate in the insurrection of 1798.

The town of Wexford was not immediately involved in the 1798 Rebellion, as the rising had initially started in the north of the county. At the end of May in 1798, a force of about 10,000 rebel soldiers arrived at Three Rocks on Forth Mountain, which is on the outskirts of Wexford Town. At this point, the United Irishmen had a reason to feel confident, as they had already seized the town of Enniscorthy. At the time, they also had no idea that the uprising had been squashed in other parts of the country.

The arrival of this large force of Irish rebels sent the loyalist inhabitants of Wexford into a state of panic, as many of them were worried about what would happen to them if the town were to fall. The town’s garrison was small in comparison to the rebels and it was unable to adequately strengthen the town’s defenses in time. Rebel forces had also started to gather at Ferrybank, which is on the opposite side of Wexford Quay.

A statue in Barntown commemorates the Pike Men.

A statue in Barntown commemorates the Pike Men.

After British reinforcements from Duncormick retreated from the area and the town garrison experienced a heavy loss at the hands of the rebels, the remaining soldiers inside the town discarded their weapons and abandoned their posts, allowing the United Irishmen to walk into the town unopposed.

The first Republic of Ireland had been born.

During this phase of the 1798 Rebellion, a republican regime was established in Wexford under a civilian leadership. After a period of law and order within the town, an extremist faction of Pike Men led by Thomas Dixon managed to gain control of the streets of Wexford. Before that, loyalist prisoners had been protected from the random executions that seemed to be occurring elsewhere, simply because the moderate leadership within the United Irishmen saw them as a potential bargaining chip. This changed, however, as the more-moderate leaders of the United Irishmen were drawn to events that were occurring elsewhere in the county. This eroded the authority of the civilian leadership, allowing extremist factions within the town to take control.

When the leaders of the United Irishmen returned to Wexford, they were greeted with the horrible news that an atrocity had occurred. In their absence, roughly 100 loyalists had been put on “trial” by Dixon. These prisoners had been sentenced to death before being executed on Wexford Bridge.

The execution of these prisoners proved to be fatal for the leaders of the 1798 Rebellion, as many of them were executed on Wexford Bridge after the rising had been squashed and the British had regained control of the town.

Further reading: Articles about Wexford’s history.

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