New Ross, County Wexford

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JFK Flame, New Ross

Emigrant Flame,The Quay, New Ross,Co Wexford

The next place on our County Wexford itinerary was New Ross, the town from which my grandparents originated. It too had been involved in the 1798 uprising and the battle of New Ross in the June had a very bloody aftermath.  The rebels outnumbered the Crown forces and an emissary was sent over with a white flag to give the Crown troops the chance to surrender – but on the way he was shot. This of course infuriated the rebels who made an enraged charge. They had been instructed to take one of the city’s five gates, The Bullet Gate (so called because in 1649 Cromwell had discharged three cannon shots into it) which they did before pressing on into the town where fighting broke out up and down the steeply sloping streets until the rebels were outnumbered and withdrew. This, however was followed by an appalling massacre by Crown troops in which innocent citizens and trapped rebels were slaughtered.  Could it have been here that my two young ancestors lost their lives?  Knowing that there could be no answer to this question we set off to explore.

Dunbrody famine ship

Dunbrody Famine Ship,New Ross, Co Wexford

New Ross is a pretty little town on the banks of the River Barrow and imposingly situated on the quay is the three-masted Dunbrody Famine Ship, a replica of a real emigrant ship which took thousands of Irish citizens to America following the potato famine in the late 1840s.

We went aboard for the “Irish Emigrant Experience” during which costumed interpreters re-enact the roles of steerage and first class passengers and a guide explains the horrors of the transatlantic journey suffered by the steerage passenger who were packed cheek by jowl below decks with no sanitation which of course resulted in disease.

In fact the original  Dunbrody lost fewer passengers than many other similar ships ( in some 50% died, earning the vessels the title ‘coffin ships’) and in this area the local landowner provided the £7.00 fare to New York for many of his starving tenants.

The Dubrody Experience is part-funded by the JFK Trust.  The Kennedy Homestead museum is at nearby Dunganstown and there is also an arboretum planted in the President’s memory and a flame taken from his grave at Arlington Cemetery burns on the quayside outside the ship. Within the complex there is also a pleasant café in which we met some visiting Americans who, ‘for a small fee’ had signed up their immigrant ancestors on a Wall of Honour.

After this we strolled around the town and noticed some interesting buildings including The Tholsel, an old toll house designed by William Kent in 1749. Although the arched loggias on the ground floor have been blocked up, it retains its elegance. We then climbed the hill and explored the church of St Mary’s, once one of the largest medieval town churches in Ireland. It is an unusual because the roofless chancel and transepts of the original Gothic church built around 1210 were fused with the new church built there in the nineteenth century. It is an eerie and strange structure of secret tunnels, curses and legends.

the Battles in the Kingdom of Ossory as they appear in the Ros tapestry

the Battles in the Kingdom of Ossory as they appear in the Ros tapestry

It was not until we visited what is perhaps the jewel of Wexford’s, if not all Ireland’s, attractions The Ros Tapestry that we learned more about this. The Tapestry – which consist of fifteen huge embroidered panels, was the idea of the rector of New Ross, the Rev Paul Mooney, some fifteen years ago. With the Bayeux Tapestry in mind he wondered if the forgotten importance of New Ross’s Norman origins might be the basis for something similar. He approached the internationally-celebrated artist Ann Griffin Bernstoff who designed the panels while her daughter  Alexis Bernstorff, a professionally qualified textile conservator  not only translated  her mother’s oil cartoons into physically stitchable embroideries but also found and trained 150 local volunteers to execute them. The results are breathtakingly beautiful.

The project is nearing completion and although we saw most of the panels on show in New Ross, the last one is currently being stitched  at Rothe House Kilkenny and we went with Alexis to see it and,  like the Irish Taoieach,  I was actually allowed to put a stitch in. (Dennis managed half a stitch as he got the needle in but couldn’t get it out….) It felt great to have played even this miniscule part in such a wonderful community enterprise  – and to know that the result is a unique  international art treasure.

ros tapestry being worked on at the loom

the Ros tapestry on the loom

The tapestry depicts an early period in the history of New Ross which was founded by the Anglo Norman knight, William Marshall and his wife Isabella de Clare, daughter of Strongbow, at the end of the twelfth century. The panels show in glorious colour many historical  events and incidents including  the building of the (easily recognisable) St Mary’s Church, the erection of the walls of Ross and the international trade that took place in what, by the end of the thirteenth century was the busiest port in Ireland.

Another of the panels depicts the lighthouse at Hook Head and a few days later we set off to see it in the company of guide, Cathy Keane of Enniscorthy. Hook Lighthouse is the oldest intact operational lighthouse in the world and guided tours of the tower are available all year. The rest of the site has been developed as a family-centred attraction with such things as a Pirates Festival, canoeing, windsurfing, snorkelling and scuba diving together with a café and shop but nothing can detract from the amazing  coastline which is  dramatic and unspoilt – and home to seals, dolphins and sometimes whales. Across the Hook peninsula, on the Waterford side of the river Barrow, is the village of Crook and it is said that the saying ‘by Hook or by Crook’ originated here.

Hook Lighthouse

Couple at the Hook Lighthouse, Co Wexford

Feeling almost as if the Ros Tapestry was now dictating the course of our journey, we next set off with Cathy to visit Tintern Minor, the subject of the panel Ex Voto Tintern Abbey William Marshall’s story crossing to Ireland which shows the ship in a stormy sea in which William vowed that if they were saved he would build an abbey where the ship made landfall. This he did and once established, the abbey was used occupied by monks from Tintern Abbey in Wales, hence the name.    The partial-ruin is beautifully sited and very impressive.

We learned that after the dissolution of the monasteries the site was granted to the Colclough (pronounced Coke-lee) family who lived there until it was bequeathed to the Irish state in 1959.We particularly enjoyed a visit to the walled garden where the Garden Manager, Alan Ryan, showed us round this a vast, 2.5 acre walled site which has been impeccably restored to its original 1838 state. It comprises two sections ‘Ornamental’ and ‘Kitchen’ and with a stream running though the middle, it an enormously attractive and productive garden.

On our way back from Hook we came to Loftus Hall which stands out starkly from the already bleak landscape. It is presented in a semi-abandoned state in keeping with its claim to be one of the most haunted houses in Ireland. The story is that a stranger arrived one night and was made welcomed and he and Anne, the daughter of the house, became very close. Then one day when he and the  family  were  playing cards, Anne bent down to pick up a  card from the floor and  in doing so  noticed that the  stranger had  a cloven hoof instead of a foot.  As soon as she spotted this, the stranger, who was of course the devil, shot up through the roof leaving a big hole which apparently can still be seen today. After this Anne went mad and died leaving a poltergeist to wander the hall… and a great story to entertain visitors.

Loftus Hall

Loftus Hall – celebrating its 666th birthday this year. Image c. Loftus Hall

As we drove along Cathy regaled us with many more fascinating stories. Approaching Enniscorthy she pointed out the site of Daphne Castle, now known as The Still which had belonged to the Jameson family of distillers. In the 1800s one of the daughters, Annie had a beautiful voice and wanted to become a singer but the family wouldn’t hear of it. They did however, allow her to go to Italy to study bel canto as a consolation. She stayed with banker friends of her parents in Bologna where she met their son-in-law, a widower with whom she fell in love. Her parents though, considered this match even more unsuitable than Covent Garden and brought her home – but as soon as she was 21 she ran off to marry her beloved Italian lover and some years  later she bore him a son who grew up to change the world we know – Gugliemo Marconi.

We end out trip very satisfied having seen and heard how, from the days of Marshall to Marconi, County Wexford has played an important role in the history of Ireland.

Images and story © Patricia and Dennis Cleveland-Peck

 

 

 

 

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