County Wexford has a long history dating back to the Mesolithic period. This includes Stone Age burial sites and one of the finest Stone Age houses in the country which was recently excavated at Dunsinane just outside Enniscorthy. The Bronze Age saw the erection of standing stones and burial mounds which can be seen scattered throughout the county, while an important hoard of gold objects was found at Ballinesker near Curracloe.
During the Iron Age, Wexford seems to have become increasingly ‘Celtic’, just like the rest of Ireland. An Iron Age fort at Baginbun on the Hook Peninsula is still recognisable today. Ferns has an Iron Age burial site but also developed into a Christian site when St. Aidan established a monastery here in 598AD and became the first bishop of Ferns.
Ferns was also the seat of the Kings of Leinster and probably the most famous of these Kings was Diarmuid MacMurrough, who built the first castle here, and the Augustinian abbey of St Mary’s around 1160, which can still be seen today. The Normans arrived in 1169 at King Diarmuid’s behest. 3 ships landed at Bannow Bay and rapidly infiltrated the county as more landings occurred along the coast. During this time King Diarmuid died and was buried in Ferns, passing the ruling torch to Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke otherwise known as Strongbow, now “Lord” of Leinster. Wexford remained a stronghold of the new colony and an ancient form of English, Yola, was spoken in the south county up to modern times.
The richness and diversity of Wexford’s ancient history is vividly captured for the visitor in the many reconstructions at the Irish National Heritage Park, just outside Wexford town. In the 1600s, Wexford played a key role in the Cromwellian wars, building warships and attacking English vessels. The town was sacked by Cromwell in 1649 and the rest of the country was quickly subdued.
Most Old English and Irish families lost everything and were replaced with “planted” Protestant landlords. The Penal Laws of the 18th century made Catholics poor and restricted the rights of Presbyterians as well. The French Revolution inspired Wolfe Tone and the “United Irishmen” to lead Catholics and Protestants alike into rebellion in 1798. The bloodiest of battles were fought over many of the grounds mentioned in this brochure. The National 1798 Centre in Enniscorthy presents a gripping interpretation of those terrible days. The heart-breaking story of the Great Famine of 1845 is told in Johnstown Castle and on the Dunbrody Famine Ship. And from there our story carries on to the 1916 Rising, dealt with in Enniscorthy Castle.