Wexford is a picturesque port town steeped in medieval history. Situated at the mouth of the River Slaney it was first settled by the Vikings in 850. It was subsequently captured by the Anglo-Normans in 1169. Today, Wexford still exhibits impressive remnants of this vibrant past. Stretches of the town’s wall remain, as does the Westgate, the only survivor of the town’s six gates. Everywhere there are reminders of the past that made the town. The Bull Ring, the town’s market place, was named after the sport of bull baiting popular in from 1641 to the end of the 18th century. The pinnacle of the town’s cultural calendar is the Wexford Opera Festival held every year in late October.
A brief history of Wexford
Before the Vikings arrived, an early medieval settlement was established called Loch Garman at the point where three trails converged. The local people were converted to Christianity by St. Ibar in the 5th century. He founded a monastery in the harbour on Begerin Island and established a place of worship at Loch Garman. The Vikings arrived in the 9th century and built a settlement of their own. They put a wall around it and called the place “Weissfjord”, generally believed to mean the “Harbour of the Mud Flats.” Trading took place between the two communities.
In 1169, an Anglo-Norman army laid siege to the town. They had been invited by the deposed King of Leinster, Diarmad Mc Murrough to help him to retrieve his kingdom. The town surrendered after just two days. By that time, the Wexford Vikings were under the overlordship of the local Irish king and had become to a certain degree, Gaelicised. The Normans built a stone wall around the town following the original Viking defences and extending it to encompass the area of Loch Garman. The wall had six gates and was 1.2 kilometers long. Two thirds of the wall is still standing today.
Wexford adopted the Norman way of life and received its town charter in 1418 from Aylmar De Valance. A large castle was built outside the wall. It served as the meeting place for local government. It also functioned as the court and prison. Settlers were encouraged into the town and were given burgage plots at a rent of one shilling per year. Selskar Abbey was established as an Augustinian priory.
Entry to the medieval town was either through the port or the town gates. There were strict trading laws within the town and only the town mayor or sovereign could fix the price of bread and beer. The townsfolk had to pay a tax for the upkeep of the town wall. This lead to many disputes between the north and south end of the town. The south claimed it was easier for the north to maintain their section as there were more people living on the north side and so had more money!
On 11th October 1649, Wexford’s walls were breached by the Cromwellian army. After a rebellion of eight years, Cromwell sought revenge on the town which had become its chief port, importing Spanish gold, arms and ammunition to help the Confederate cause. Wexford town was almost wiped out by Cromwell and it took many years to restore the population.
Wexford was once more to the forefront of a rebellion in 1798. The town was held by the rebels for three weeks in June 1798. The rebellion was brought to a swift end by General Lake with its leaders being executed on Wexford Bridge. By this stage, the castle had been knocked down and a military barracks built in its place.
The beginning of 19th century was a time of great prosperity in Wexford. During the age of sail, Wexford sailors travelled to places as far away as the Black Sea carrying grain, and St. John’s in Newfoundland for timber. It was also at this time that the Redmond family reclaimed thousands of acres from the sea. One family member, John Edward Redmond MP, succeeded Parnell as leader of the Home Rule Party. The town gates were taken down and Wexford began to expand outside the walls. The age of steam brought an end to Wexford’s importance as a port. Larger steam ships could not negotiate the narrow barred harbour. Today, Wexford is a vibrant town which is proud of its past and its internationally renowned Opera Festival.
For further information on the town’s history contact:
Monica Crofton, Wexford Walking Tours
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