Enniscorthy: Rebellion and Relaxation

By | Category: Travel destinations
croppy boy model

a model of a croppy boy

We reached the town of Enniscorthy with stress-free ease by travelling directly from Dublin Airport on a comfortable bus. This has in fact opened up a number of possibilities as buses to be found just outside the terminal cover much of the island. Our particular journey took us through the city of Dublin which looked slick and prosperous with obvious signs of recovery from the financial slump of a few years back – and certainly much cleaner than the city I knew and loved when I was a   student there – which I admit is a good while ago.

In fact I had a personal reason for making Enniscorthy our base. As I am part Irish, I had long been interested in Irish history and it was there on Vinegar Hill that the bloodiest battle of the 1798 rising took place. As a result of this two of my ancestors, young men aged 23 and 25 were apparently hanged as rebels. I have always wondered why because it is a well-known fact that the British Lord Lieutenant, Lord Cornwallis who believed a policy of revenge would only prolong upheaval, was in fact comparatively lenient and instead of executing them, had the majority of the rank and file of the rebels transported. Only the leaders were hanged, several on Wexford Bridge. These young brothers Charles and Martin were not amongst them and it is unlikely that they were leaders. All I have to go on is an old family tree on which someone has written ‘rebel, hanged’ after their names. It could have been a mistake – maybe they died fighting – but unfortunately most records of these events were lost.

street in Enniscorthy

Enniscorthy town

In an effort to learn more we made our way up to Enniscorthy’s National 1798 Visitor Centre. This is a new initiative containing the latest in multi-media and interactive exhibits. I have always been a bit wary of these high-tech installations but this one was truly impressive and is well worth a visit. The dioramas are excellently designed with attractive figures and good sound quality. It places the uprising, which was inspired by the French Revolution, in the European context and such things as the giant chessboard representing key figures and the debate between the English Thomas Paine and the Anglo-Irish Edmund Burke are fascinating. The film of the re-enactment of the actual battle of Vinegar Hill is very dramatic but what I found most moving was the seated figure of a young croppy boy (the rebels were so called because they cut their hair short) preparing to go and fight. This of course brought to mind my two young ancestors. Sadly I could find out no more about them there as even if there had been lists of those executed, they too were lost.

We enjoyed exploring the town of Enniscorthy which is beautifully situated with the river Slaney running through it and hills all around. There is an imposing cathedral, St Aidan’s, designed by Pugin which was restored to near-original condition using contemporary materials and techniques in 1994 and is now quite magnificent. After our visit we strolled around looking at the shops in the streets around the Market Square – these are many and varied interspersed by plenty of good little cafes.

In Market Square we noticed a statue commemorating the rebellion which showed a croppy boy together with a priest. We learned that the statue was by Oliver Sheppard, that the priest depicted was Father John Murphy who had played a heroic role during the rebellion and that a similar statue by Sheppard is to be found in Wexford City.

frontage of Athenaeum

the Athenaeum

We were beginning to realise how deeply involved with rebellion this area was but it was a visit to Enniscorthy’s Athenaeum, previously the Town Hall  and later theatre, dance hall, theatre and now museum,  that we learned something new. While the 1916 uprising in Dublin at which, following the battle at the General Post Office, the rebels declared Ireland a Republic, is well known, we had not been aware that three days later a similar rising occurred in Wexford. The Athenaeum was in fact the H.Q of the Irish Volunteer force which seized the town and took control of the county.  Amongst the Volunteers there were three local women who helped to fly the tricolour over the town when the Republic was declared.     All this we learned at an exhibition which tells the story from the rebel point of view. Consisting of six rooms decorated in period style and containing original artefacts, photographs, recordings of the Council of War and contemporary newspapers, the exhibition effectively re creates  the atmosphere of this short-lived revolution.

image of Enniscorthy Castle

Enniscorthy Castle

Although both the Dublin and the Wexford ’16 uprisings failed to achieve the objective of establishing an Irish Republic they did turn the tide in Irish history because prior to this many Irish citizens were strongly opposed to the rebels but the reprisals taken by the British, which included execution of the leaders, including James Connolly who was unable to stand due to his wounds and so was shot sitting in a chair, so horrified them that many changes their minds as to Ireland’s way forward.

We also paid a visit to Enniscorthy Castle which dates from the 1190s and was for many years the home of Roches, a wealthy brewing family. It too is now a museum and there we came across evidence of Enniscorthy’s latest and more relaxing, claim to fame – an exhibition devoted to Brooklyn, the award winning  film based on the book by local author Colm Tóibín which contains sets from the film including  the grocery shop and a 1950s parlour.

Brooklyn is a coming of age tale about a young girl, Eilis from the town who emigrates to America, returns home for a visit and is torn between going back and staying. It echoes the reality in which almost every family in the town had members who had emigrated either to England or the US. One important scene was filmed in The Athenaeum when it was a dance hall – where by coincidence dances were run by Colm Tóibín’s father in the 50s in order to raise money to buy the Castle from the Roche Family.

We were fortunate in that we had made contact with the wonderful local guide Cathy Keane. She not only published an impressive photobook about the filming but  also created the Brooklyn Movie Bus Tour which covers  most of the important sites in the book and film, all of which we saw: the  Cathedral, Eilis’ home in Court Street, Friary Hill,  the hateful Mrs Kelly’s shop  culminating at the beautiful Curracloe Beach a few miles south of the town where another important scene from the book was filmed.

Vinegar Hill with its echo of rebellion still looms over Enniscorthy but it was good to see that for now the focus or this delightful town is on filming rather than fighting.

For more about Enniscorthy, click here.

Images and story © Patricia and Denis Cleveland-Peck

 

 

 

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