New Ross (Ros Mhic Thriúin) (pop. 7000), built on a steep hill on the eastern bank of the River Barrow near its junction with the River Nore, is not a particularly elegant town, but has featured prominently in Irish history. (Above image from Wikipedia.)
The town lies on the main road from Rosslare Europort to the major tourist areas of the West, and thousands of visitors pause to enjoy the excellent local travellers’ facilities each year.
Although it is over 30km from the sea, the Port of New Ross does a busy trade.
New Ross is in County Wexford, but Rosbercon, on the opposite side of the River Barrow, effectively a suburb of the town, is actually in County Kilkenny.
New Ross’s bridge across the River Barrow is the seventh in the town’s long and interesting history. (Photo by Pam Brophy).
New Ross History
The town was founded in 1204 at the behest of his wife Isabella by the Seneschal of Leinster, William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, who built the first wooden bridge, regarded as one of the wonders of the time. The early names of the town included Nova Villa Pontis and Rosponte.
Priory Street was named for the Augustinian canons known as the Crutched friars due to the red crosses they bore on their habits. They moved with crusading armies, attending the sick and burying the dead. Their local headquarters were located on boggy ground commanding a good view of shipping, which they taxed on entering or leaving the port until a row with the townspeople resulted in 3 friars and a civilian being drowned. The friars were driven from New Ross and the Abbot cursed the town as they left by boat.
The friars’ treatment caused an international scandal. The Pope ordered the closure of all churches in Ross, and Christian sacraments and burials were prohibited, but this situation soon changed with the 1285 arrival of the Franciscians who took over the friary and had a water mill and fishing weirs on the river.
New Ross was for a time the most important port in Ireland, and old French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian were spoken almost as commonly on the streets of the town as English and Irish.
During its first two centuries of existence, New Ross was the target for attack by local Gaelic chieftains, particularly the McMurrough-Kavanaghs, and for many years the town was forced to pay the clan for “protection”.
The Wars of the Three Kingdoms saw the town defended in March 1643 by Kilkenny Confederacy troops under Thomas Preston, Viscount Tara when it was besieged by the Marquess of Ormonde, whose forces were sufficiently battered for him to withdraw towards the Blackstairs Mountains, where the Confederates foolishly intercepted them, only to be devestated by artillery at the Battle of Ballinvegga, aka the 1st Battle of New Ross.
In 1649 Oliver Cromwell arrived fresh from capturing Wexford Town and slaughtering many of its inhabitants. He discharged three cannon shots at the entrance since known as the Three Bullet Gate. New Ross wisely surrendered, and the garrison under Lucas Taffe was allowed to leave unharmed.
Taffe also wrote to Cromwell requesting “liberty of conscience as such shall stay“. Cromwell wrote a noteworthy reply, indicative of what was to come in subsequent years: “For that which you mention concerning liberty of conscience, I meddle not with any man’s conscience. But if by liberty of conscience you meane a liberty to exercise the masse, I judge it best to use plaine dealing, and to let you know where the Parliament of England hath power that will not be allowed of.”
Cromwell was hospitalised for exhaustion in a building known as the Folly House, later occupied by the Augustinians.
The Tottenham family were prominent landlords, providing MPs for New Ross for many years. In 1731 Charles Tottenham (d. 1759), having hastened some 60 miles, entered the Irish House of Commons in his riding boots and travel-stained clothes just in time to cast the decisive vote against giving a tax surplus to the British government. ‘Tottenham in his boots!” became a popular Patriot toast. His grandson, another Charles, was in Paris at the time of the French Revolution, and was saved from the guillotine by the Augustinians, who were consequently welcomed to New Ross and given land by the Tottenham family in 1792.
The 1798 Rebellion saw the most notorious Battle of New Ross. At sunrise on June 5th the United Irishmen leader Bagenal Harvey (recently released from captivity following the rebel seizure of Wexford Town) attempted to negotiate surrender, but the rebel emissary Matt Furlong was shot down while bearing flag of truce, provoking a furious charge by 500 insurgents led by John Kelly (of ballad fame); to aid their attack, the rebels first drove a herd of cattle through the Three Bullet Gate. Another rebel column attacked the Priory Gate, while a diversionary cavalry charge from the Market Gate was broken with massed pikes. The rebels charged down the steeply sloping streets, and despite strong resistance managed to seize two-thirds of the town. However, the military managed to hold on, and following the arrival of reinforcements, launched a series of counterattacks. One group of soldiers surrounded and set fire to a large house in Mary Street in which about 70 wounded rebels were lying. The screams of the terrified men could be clearly heard, despite the noise of the battle, over much of the town. The well-armed soldiers succeeded in driving away the pike-wielding insurgents, and when the town had been secured, a fearful massacre of prisoners, trapped rebels and civilians began, in which more are believed to have been killed than during the actual fighting. An entry in the Augustinian Friary’s church Mass Book for 5 June 1798 reads “Hodie hostis rebellis repulsa est ab obsidione oppidi cum magna caede, puta 3000“, (“today, the rebel enemy was driven back from the assault of the town with great slaughter, estimated at 3000”).
During the course of the C19th, thousands of men, women and children left the quayside to start new lives in North America and the Antipodes. Perhaps the most famous emigrant is Patrick Kennedy, great-grandfather of John F. Kennedy, President of the United States, who returned to visit his ancestral home in June 1963.
New Ross revived a regional reputation for religious intolerance in 1982 when a teacher at a girls’ school run by the Holy Faith Order was sacked for becoming pregnant by a separated man (divorce being then still unavailable in the Republic); Ireland’s international reputation for bigotry was compounded when a craven High Court upheld the nuns’ decision, while in the same part of the country the notorious paedophile priest Fr Sean Fortune was molesting children without legal or ecclesiastical hindrance.
Parts of the old town wall still stand, albeit in poor condition, and the basic medieval layout of the streets has remained virtually unchanged. North, South and Priory Streets, where goods were once sold from stalls in front of the merchants’ premises, are still the main commercial axes.
St Mary’s Abbey, credited to William Marshall and his wife Isabella, dates from between 1207 and 1220. The ruins are well preserved, and contain some very interesting old tombs and plaques. The church, similar in architecture to St John’s in Kilkenny City, was the parish church of New Ross for many centuries. Bishop Barrett restored the Lady Chapel between 1405 and 1409 and further restoration was carried out in 1740. There is a legend that a long tunnel ran from the church, under the river to Rosbercon.
St Mary’s Church (CoI), built over the demolished nave of its predecessor in 1811, is an attractive building. It is used occasionally for classical music concerts, and in recent years has been the main venue for the New Ross Piano Festival, held every September.
The Tholsel (Toll Stall – a place where payments were made for the right of privilege or passage) was designed by William Kent, a London architect who had studied with Sir Christopher Wren, and built in 1749 on the site of the medieval market cross of 1320 and the former Franciscan friary that had served since King Henry VIII’s 1540 Dissolution of the Monasteries as the first Town Hall.
The original timber turret was replaced at the end of the C18th (when the foundations subsided) by the current masonry cupola.
During the local events of the 1798 Rebellion the Tholsel was the main Guard for the Crown forces.
The Tholsel is now the centre of local government. The mace of King Edward III (1374), the mace of King Charles II (1699), the Charter of King James II (1688) (resolving a dispute between the Ports of Ross and Waterford) and minutes of New Ross Corporation dating back to the mid-C17th are preserved in the Tholsel, and displayed during civic events.
The Trinity Houses were built in 1772 by the Tottenham family to replace a 1578 hospital endowed by a charter of Queen Elizabeth I and specialising in caring for elderly ladies. The houses were used during the 1798 Rebellion as refuge for the Palatine Protestants of Old Ross and other threatened rural communities.
St. Michael’s Theatre, built as the parish church in 1806, was converted in 1902 into a Town Hall and later a cinema. Today it is a beautiful theatre, retaining its classical façade. In addition to the wide programme of plays, music and dance throughout the year, the theatre also serves as the local cinema. There are also regular art and sculpture exhibitions in the Foyer and Gallery Café.
The Church of Ss Mary & Michael was completed in 1906 as the new Roman Catholic parish church in New Ross. The beautiful stonework around the altar is the work of William Pearse, father of the 1916 Rising leader, Padraig Pearse, himself commemorated in Pearse Park, the local park on the riverfront
Hanrahan’s Public House, formerly Annsley’s Townhouse, is where King James II is said to have sheltered as he fled from defeat at the Battle of the Boyne.
The statue of JF Kennedy on the Quay was unveiled in 2008 by his sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, former US Ambassador to Ireland and honorary Irish citizen.
The SS Dunbrody Famine Heritage Ship is an accurate, full size, timber-built ocean-going recreation of the actual ship that played a leading part in C19th emigration out of New Ross to the USA. The Visitors’ Centre also houses a café, shop and the local Tourist Office.
The Galley Cruising Restaurant has been plying the Rivers Barrow, Nore and Suir for over thirty years, Lunch, Afternoon Tea and Dinner Cruises are available with an interesting commentary on the passing scene.
The Ros Tapestry Project is an initiative by local embroiderers to create 15 tapestry panels depicting the arrival of the Normans from Wales, their impact on the region and the foundation of New Ross. The idea was born in 1998, with the finished masterpiece scheduled to be put on display in 2010.
Rosbercon (pop. 650), effectively an extension of New Ross on the opposite side of the River Barrow, is technically in County Kilkenny, although treated as part of County Wexford for most administrative purposes.
Rosbercon expanded considerably during the Celtic Tiger years due to immigration; at one point between 34 and 46 percent of its population were immigrants, chiefly from Poland and Brazil. The same period saw the demolition of many old buildings and the construction of modern apartments.
Rosbercon’s C13th Dominican Monastery thrived until King Henry VIII‘s Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540. It was revived in 1680 but was again suppressed in 1698 with the enactment of the Penal Laws. It was still in use up to about 1812.
Rosbercon Castle is a modernised private residence, but actually dates from roughly 1545. It stands on a portion of the site of an ancient monastic community, as does the graveyard of the CoI church.