Kennedy Memorial in New Ross

Kennedy Memorial in New Ross

Wed, 1 Apr - Wexford to Waterford

The whole south-eastern corner of Ireland is so steeped in history - going right back to the Vikings, then the Anglo-Norman invasions of the late 12th century (although technically we invited them in, or at least Dermot MacMurrough did, to help him recover his throne as King of Leinster), to its involvement in much of the subsequent internecine warfare and rebellion - that with hindsight it deserved more time than I allowed it. 

So after spending some time in Wexford, I re-traced my steps back to Enniscorthy, and from there to New Ross, ie the alternative route on this map. First I went for a bit of a walk around Wexford. I found the Bull Ring, the scene of a Cromwellian massacre in 1662. It also became a pike-making factory during the 1798 rebellion.

But what I really wanted to see, the ruins of Selskar Abbey, turned out to be shut, contrary to what I was told at the hotel. I had read somewhere that it was where the treaty was signed when the Irish surrendered to Henry II, but none of the information panels around the external walls mentioned this. The Abbey web site explains a couple of plausible options.

As a change of diet from rebellions, massacres and ecclesiastical ruins, my next port of call, on the way North out of Wexford City, was the Wexford Wildfowl Reserve. It was a little bit out of my way, but it sounded interesting. It is certainly an amazing project. A huge area of land has been reclaimed behind dykes which keep the sea out allow the land to be managed in a way that suits the migratory birds, especially the Greenland White-fronted Goose.

About 50% of the total world population of this species migrates to the Wexford "slobs" - yes, the word means "muddy land", look it up if you don't believe me! So the staff feel a particular obligation to take care of them. Unfortunately there wasn't a great deal to see, apart from an informational video running in the visitor centre. So I moved on.

There were two things attracted me to Enniscorthy. First I went to the 1798 Rebellion Centre. It was quite disappointing. The American War of Independence of 1775 - 1783, and the French Revolution, which began in 1789, stirred up dissent in Ireland too. The Society of United Irishmen was founded in Belfast in 1791, led by Theobald Wolfe Tone, a Protestant lawyer from Dublin. Books have been written on this, but briefly the United Irishmen wanted independence from England, reform of parliament, and equality for all religions, including Catholic Emancipation. The Orange Order was founded in 1795 as part of all this ferment. In 1796, a French force of 13,000 evaded the Royal Navy and was close to landing in Bantry Bay, to help the United Irishmen, but the weather prevented a landing.

  • St Selskar's Church, Wexford

  • Greenland White-fronted Goose

  • The National 1798 Rebellion Centre

  • Enniscorthy Castle

As often happens in Ireland, it was informers who triggered British repression of the incipient uprising. To quote from "The British government, threatened by internal conspiracy and foreign invasion, displayed a coercive determination, passing an Insurrection Act in 1796 and suspending the Habeas Corpus Act. During 1797 Gen. Gerard (afterward 1st Viscount) Lake confiscated private arms in the north and suppressed the Northern Star, a lively radical newspaper published in Belfast. In the early months of 1798 the tension greatly increased: the United Irishmen were preparing for rebellion, and the government was desperately trying to break their organization. The government managed to arrest a number of the radical leaders in the spring, but in May the rising broke out.

"Only in eastern Ulster and Wexford was the rising widespread. The rebels in the north were defeated at Antrim and Ballinahinch. In Wexford, where the rebellion assumed a nakedly sectarian form among the Catholic rank and file, many Irish Protestants were killed and others forced to flee, sowing an enduring legacy of sectarian animosity that was compounded by the brutality with which the British put down the rebellion. The Wexford rebels defeated the government troops in some engagements but failed to take New Ross and Arklow. By the middle of June, large forces of government troops under General Lake were concentrated in Wexford, and the rebels were defeated at Vinegar Hill (June 21, 1798)  [just outside Enniscorthy].

"The rebellion was almost over when a small French force landed near Killala; it won a victory at Castlebar but was soon surrounded and captured. A large number of the Irish rebels were transported to the penal colonies of Australia."

The chief effect of the rebellion was Prime Minister William Pitt’s Act of Union, which abolished the Irish Parliament, Ireland being henceforth represented in the British Parliament at Westminster.

This photo, pinched from the Wikipedia page on the Society of United Irishmen, shows the grave in Bangor Abbey, County Down, of United Irishman Archibel Wilson, from nearby Conlig, who was hanged for his part in the 1798 rebellion. 

Bangor is Paul's home town, he "guested" in the Abbey choir, and was married there.

FOOTNOTE:  Enniscorthy Castle dates from 1205, but was lived in as a private residence up until 1951. It was sacked by the Earl of Ormonde in 1569, occupied by Cromwell in 1649, and then renovated as a home by the Earl of Portsmouth in 1746. It was used as a prison at the time of the 1798 rebellion, occupied at the time of the 1916 Easter arising. It was in 1848 that it was made into a family home by the Roche family. Click this link for more info about Enniscorthy's history.

Time was getting on, so I made haste for New Ross. My preconceptions that this town on the River Barrow would be particularly attractive were shattered when I saw this monstrosity sitting right beside the main bridge across the river.

The Irish government seems to be doing fantastic work in restoring and maintaining a lot of their historic buildings, but meanwhile local authorities are permitting modern ugliness. I'll show you other examples later.

New Ross has a special connection with the Famine of the 1840s, when the population of Ireland was decimated when blight destroyed the potato crop on multiple seasons, the (British) government's attitude was "tough", and millions either died or emigrated to avoid starvation.

Among the latter category was one Patrick Kennedy, a 28-year-old cooper by trade, who in October 1848 left the family home at Dunganstown, just a few miles South of New Ross, and set sail in the "Dunbrody" for Liverpool, where he trans-shipped to Boston USA.

Soon after arriving there he married Bridget Murphy, also from the New Ross area, and that was the start of the "Kennedy Clan". President John F Kennedy was Patrick's and Bridget's great-grandson. JFK paid the first official visit to Ireland by an American president when he revisited the family home in June 1963 (he had been there in 1947), at the end of his "Ich bin ein Berliner" European tour, and just a few months before his assassination on 22 Nov 1963.

  • Kennedy Centre

  • JFK's rosary beads

  • The exhibition area is just one large room. The White dress is to the left

  • Replica of the "Dunbrody"

It's easy to be cynical and see JFK's visit to Dunganstown as blatant pandering to the Irish-American vote back home, but I get the impression there was a genuine bond with the cousins and the family heritage. I know that he was far from perfect, but it's hard to think of anyone else in my lifetime who had such a positive influence on the world, especially as he got to serve less than 3 years as President. I have to confess that I found the experience quite moving.

The Kennedy Centre has been built on the ancestral property, which, by the way, is still owned and farmed by Kennedy descendants, although mostly through the female line, so that JFK's closest relative at the time of his visit was Margaret Ryan, and the present incumbents are called Grennan. The working farm is separated off from the visitor centre, for which there is a small purpose-built building to house the exhibition (opened by Caroline in June 2013), and a couple of the original buildings have been preserved and tarted up in a slightly sterile manner.

After the assassination the Americans flew Margaret Ryan over for the funeral, as well as some cadets whom JFK had seen drilling during his visit. Later, Jackie even sent Margaret some very personal memorabilia - JFK's rosary beads (which I think they said he had in his pocket at the time he was shot) and his army Commander in Chief dog tags. These are both on display, but of course in glass cases so the photos aren't very clear.

One of the other exhibits was a replica of the White dress Jackie wore for her official First Lady portrait - it was by Irish designer Sibyl Connolly. There's quite a lot about other members of the dynasty too, and I think Edward has visited since JFK's death.


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