Wexford Town Feature

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The Southeast Through the Ages

The Southeast's coastal and inland areas have long, interesting histories. The kings of Munster had their ceremonial center on the Rock of Cashel, a vast, cathedral-top rock rising above the plain.

Legend has it that St. Patrick converted the High King of Ireland to Christianity here. In the 7th century, Cashel became an important monastic settlement and bishopric, and there were also thriving early Christian monasteries at Kilkenny, Ardmore, and Lismore.

But the quiet life of Christian Ireland was disrupted from the 9th century onward by a series of Viking invasions.

Liking what they found here—a pleasant climate, rich, easily cultivated land, and a series of sheltered harbors—the Vikings stayed on, founding the towns of Wexford and Waterford. (Waterford's name comes from the Norse Vadrefjord, Wexford's from Waesfjord.)

But less than two centuries later, the Southeast was the location of the most significant turning point in Ireland's recorded history.

In 1169 the Normans (who had conquered England a hundred years before) landed at Bannow Bay in County Wexford. It was the beginning of what Irish patriots commonly describe as "800 years of English oppression."

The English were invited into Ireland by the former king of Leinster, Dermot MacMurrough, who hoped to regain his crown with the help of the Norman earl, Richard FitzGilbert de Clare, famously known as "Strongbow." To seal their pact, Dermot's daughter Aoife married Strongbow.

It was symbolic of the way that the Normans, once they had conquered the country, integrated into Irish life. It wasn't long before the Normans were described as being "more Irish than the Irish themselves."

To this day, reminders of the Norman influence on Ireland remain strongest in the Southeast.

Norman surnames are the most obvious indicator of the region's history, as names like Butler, Fitzgerald, Roche, and Fitzmaurice are all commonplace hereabouts. The architectural legacy of the Normans is also easy to spot in this part of Ireland.

The streetscapes of Kilkenny, Wexford, and Waterford cities owe their origins to the Normans. Travel the rural side roads of the region and it won't be long before you come across the ruins of a Norman castle, or "keep."

Some are used to house animals or hay, while the best preserved are those that were integrated into later medieval or Georgian structures.

The Anglo-Normans and the Irish chieftains soon started to intermarry, but the process of integration came to a halt in 1366 with the Statutes of Kilkenny, based on English fears that if such intermingling continued, they would lose whatever control over Ireland they had.

Oliver Cromwell's Irish campaign of 1650, attempted to crush Catholic opposition to the English Parliament, brought widespread woe, as did the failed and bloody rebellion of 1798, which centered on Wicklow and Wexford.

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