County Wexford takes its name from Wexford Town, founded on the shore of Wexford Harbour by Vikings who named it Waesfjord (inlet or bay /fjord of the mud-flats”) in the Old Norse language.
Contae Loch Garman, the Gaelic name for the County, also comes from this body of estuarine water, commemorating an obscure hero of conflicting legends about robbers and princess brides, who was supposedly drowned in a flood invoked by a wicked Enchantress.
County Wexford is the largest county in the Province of Leinster, and the tenth largest in Ireland, with a total area (including inland fresh-water areas) of 2,353.19km² / 908.54 mi².
The county is nowadays marketed as (at least part of) “the Sunny South East“, and it is true that the region receives less rainfall than any other part of Ireland. However, this fact hardly makes the county Ireland’s Andalusia, and visitors from more southern climes should not expect to bask lizard-like in semi-tropical heat.
Wexford County History
The southeast was probably one of the earliest areas of Ireland to be inhabited by humans, but evidence is scarce. However, Bronze Age remnants are widespread.
Ptolemy‘s rather fanciful mid- C2nd map of Ireland seems to label Wexford Harbour as Menapia, believed to refer to the Menapii, a branch of the Celtic Belgae people identified by Julius Caesar. The northern part of the territory is shown as inhabited by people called the Coriondoi / Koriondoi, while most of the region is identified as the home of the Brigantes, another Celtic people, mentioned by the Roman historian Tacitus as the most populous tribe in Britain in the mid-C1st AD, who went on to occupy almost all of northern England. (However, similar Celtic names were often unconnected).
Tacitus also remarks, with reference to the year 82 AD, that many Hibernian “approaches and harbours have become better known from merchants who trade there“, indicating that commerce was carried out between Roman Britain and Ireland, probably through the southeast.
The area was Christianised by Pre-Patrician missionaries; Saints Ibar and Kierán are believed to have predated Rome’s envoy Palladius). Other holy folk in the region were Saints Fintan (or Munna / Munnu), Senan, Abban, Evin and Dubhan.The first bishop of of Ferns was Saint Aidan (Maodhóg / Mogue) (d.632 AD).
The Uí Bairrche are believed to have been the dominant tribe in the region until the Uí Cheinnselaig arrived from Ossory in the C5th, first establishing themselves in Rathvilly (Co. Carlow). By the mid-C8th they had established their main base at Ferns, and the old Diocese became identified as the Uí Cheinnselaig / Hy Kinsella region.
The first recorded Viking raid in the area occurred in 819 AD. They plundered Ferns in 835 and burned it in 839 AD. By at least as early as 888 AD, the Vikings had established the settlement that would become Wexford Town, and they fought a battle that year in which they were defeated. They attacked Ferns again in 917 and 919 AD, when they were referred to as “the foreigners of Loch Garman“, and were so identified again as late as 1088.
The strife arising from the disputed Kingship of Leinster in the mid-C11th led to the exile of the Uí Cheinnsealaig chieftain Diarmuid Mac Murrough, who sought aid from King Henry II of England.
The first Normans arrived in Bannow Bay in 1169, and it was not long before the victorious Strongbow distributed the territory amongst his followers. While the northern area of Hy Kinsella retained its Gaelic culture precariously intact under the MacMurrough Kavanagh clan, the rest of Wexford saw one of the heaviest concentrations of medieval English settlements in Ireland, and came to be known for a time as the ‘Wexford Pale’. A Middle English Somerset dialect called Yola continued to be spoken in the baronies of Bargy and Forth right up until the C19th.
The McMurrough Kavanagh clan harrassed the Englishries for several centuries, and profited greatly from a protection racket whereby they received “black rents” from communities wishing to remain undisturbed. King Richard II personally led two unsuccessful military campaigns against Art McMurrough Kavanagh, the second of which efectively cost him his throne. The clan was not finally subdued until the reign of King Henry VIII.
A Plantation of English settlers took place 1612-13 west of the River Slaney. Lands were distributed in pockets of 1000 Irish / Plantation acres or more each over various parts of this large area.
The Wars of the Three Kingdoms saw considerable regional strife, culminating in Oliver Cromwell‘s capture of Ferns and Enniscorthy and bloody sack of Wexford Town in 1649. New Ross wisely surrendered, but Duncannon Fort held out until August 1650. Many landowners were dispossessed, their property given as a reward for their services to Cromwellian soldiers, who often sold them on. Some former landlords were fortunate to get their lands back after the Restoration of the Monarchy,
The Williamite War led to yet more changes in the ownership of real estate. As on previous occasions, the ordinary people were allowed to stay on in their homes to serve as tenants for their new landlords
The Penal Laws oppressed the ordinary people heavily, but resistance was not initially strong. In the early 1770s, Whiteboys were briefly active in northwest Co. Wexford, though they are said to have had little impact on the rest of the county. According to George Taylor they first appeared in Co. Wexford in 1774 but “they were soon quelled, and two of the ringleaders, named Owen Carroll and John Daggan, were found guilty of some heinous offence, and executed near Newtownbarry on the 28th September 1775.” Their chief grievance seems to have been the payment of Tithes – a tax towards the upkeep of the Established Church.
An “incident” sometimes referred to as the ‘First Rebellion’ took place near Wexford town on 11th July 1793. A large group of people from the northwest and west of Co. Wexford, members of a secret organization called the Right Boys, approached the town armed with guns, pikes, scythes, and similar weapons in an attempt to free two prisoners. They had earlier captured a Lieutenant Buckby as their prisoner. At about two o’clock the 56th regiment of infantry, commanded by Major Vallotton were sent out to meet them, “at the sight of which it was imagined they would disperse“. A parley was agreed and Vallotton stepped forward to meet their leader, 22-year-old John Moore of Robinstown. For some reason they came to blows, Vallotton striking Moore with his sword and receiving a severe wound in his groin from the latter’s scythe. The soldiers opened fire and 11 of the protestors were killed on the spot; perhaps another 90 later died from their wounds in the fields around the town, some given the coup de grace by local militia under the command of James Boyd. Lieutenant Buckby escaped. Moore died that day and was buried at Carnagh. Vallotton died a few days later, and a monument was later erected to his memory at Wexford town. Many of the Right Boys were made prisoners, “five of whom, James Kenney, Patrick Flannery, Patrick Neil, Michael Carty, and John Crawford, were found guilty at the ensuing assizes and executed” on 26th July 1793.
The main brunt of the 1798 Rebellion took place in Co. Wexford, and numerous 1798 memorials are scattered throughout the county.
Many areas of the county, especially in the northwest, were very much involved in the Tithe War (1831-36).
The Great Famine had less impact on Co. Wexford than other parts of Ireland, but nonetheless affected the county severely. In 1841 the population was 202,033. In 1851 it had dropped by 21,875, and continued to decline for the rest of the century.
Later in the C19th, the Land War created widespread unrest in the county. A large number of tenants were notoriously evicted at Coolgreany in 1887.
John Redmond, leader of the Home Rule movement, was the scion of a political dynasty that dominated Wexford for half a century.
Over 500 men from Co. Wexford enlisted in the British Army to fight the Germans in WWI, only to die in the trenches.
Co. Wexford was one of the few places outside Dublin that saw rebel activity during the 1916 Uprising (In Enniscorthy).
During the Troubles, the IRA launched several attacks against railways, Post Offices, RIC, Black & Tan and British military targets as part of the War of Independence, while the subsequent Civil War (in which more people died, both regionally and nationally) saw anti-Treaty republicans derailing trains, mindlessly burning Big Houses and engaging in vicious tit-for-tat killings with their former comrades.
Wexford is where the first Magpies in Ireland were observed, in about 1676. Robert Leigh of Rosegarland (near Clongeen), wrote in 1684: “About 8 yeares agoe there landed in those parts a new sort of planters, out of Wales, a parcell of Magpies (forced I suppose by stormey weather), which now breed in severall places in ye Barony of Forth, and at a place called Baldinstowne, in the Barony of Bargy, and in the wood off Rose Garland, before menconed, in ye Barony of Shilmaleere. ”
Wexford is nicknamed “The Model County“, but nobody seems to know why. Theories vary from the notion that the county was the first to be brought under Norman control, and thus a model to be followed by their successors, to the suggesti0n that the county was at the forefront of good or model agricultural practice using modern technology a hundred years ago. It has also been pointed out that the area of County Wexford is roughly the same as that of Ireland divided by 32.
Wexford’s sports players (especially GAA hurlers) are often caled “Yellowbellies“.
The term is said to have originated during the lifetime of the legendary landlord patron of hurling, Sir Caesar Colclough (1696 – 1776) of Duffry Hall near Enniscorthy, honoured as “the Great Caesar”. He was on friendly terms with King George I and often boasted of the hurling skill of his south Wexford tenants and neighbours.
The story goes that “the King challenged him to bring over 21 Wexford men to play an equal number of Cornish men, whose skill, no doubt inherited because of their Celtic origin, made them foremost among the English” as wielders of the caman. “The Wexford men were accorded a royal reception. The Cornishmen looked with contempt on their Slaneyside opponents as they stripped. But, Sir Caesar gave his men a glass of whiskey apiece and told them to tie yellow kerchiefs around their middles so that they would easily recognise each other on the field. This they did and then trooped on to that Cornish Croke Park. Of course they literally hurled their opponents off the field,” exhibiting, in the course of doing so, such a degree of skill and craft that William and his queen were heard to shout “Well done, yellowbellies“, “Fine fellows, yellowbellies“.
(A small problem pointed out with regard to this charming tale is that the Cornish game of hyrlian (“hurling the silver ball”), although of Celtic origin, is very different from the Gaelic game of hurling, and does not involve any sticks.) (“Details, details, and to Hell with the begrudgers!“)