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  • Writer's pictureReiltín Murphy

Is there a Promontory Fort hiding at the top of Parnell Street, Wexford?

(This article appears in the Journal of the Wexford Historical Society 2022-2023 and is reproduced here with the Society's kind permission.)

I stood at the top of Parnell Street and looked around for a bowling green.  I stood at point ‘X’ on this c1881 map (chosen for its clarity) and hoped to see the bowling green which was described in the Wexford Independent of July 13th, 1839, as being to the south of the Barracks.  At my toes the land falls away steeply down Parnell Street towards the sea.  At my heels Lambert Place is so steep that just walking down brings a feeling of “wheeee”.  On my left Barrack Street slopes down past the Barracks to Main Street while Kevin Barry Street (formerly Castlehill Street) on my right trudges up to the Faythe.  Ah, I thought, maybe it was on Michael Street which is also to my right and is also leading to the Faythe; Michael Street is comparatively flat but, no, it is not quite in the right place.  I looked down at my feet and sighed - would even a marble balance in this place where bowling was played on a green?

 

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Then I found it. The bowling green is floating over upper Parnell Street - like a magic flying carpet, sticking out in space peopled with the ghosts of long-ago. Once I had mentally clicked the bowling green back into place an entire ancient landscape with earthworks unfolded before my eyes: it looked like a promontory fort.

 

My ‘newly discovered’ promontory is shown on a map of Wexford dated 1764 and printed on page 120 of Billy Colfer’s book ‘Wexford: A Town and its Landscape’.  This finger of land - its outline is now muffled by reclaimed land, housing, and roads - is clearly visible on the map, identified as an area of open land on which sits the barracks.  I have two advantages over this early map, one is a lifelong curiosity about archaeology and the other is a vivid imagination: it was an easy step to move from actual promontory to proposed promontory fort.

 

To one end of this promontory stands the Barracks, on the site of Wexford’s 13th-century castle; this, it has been claimed, was preceded by Norse occupation of the site; but such was surely preceded in turn by something still earlier to take account of the views across to the River Slaney and Wexford’s natural harbour.  At the other end is the Faythe, with possible earthworks under Saint Michael’s graveyard, and a slight rise suggesting a processional walkway leading from Swan View Terrace right down to the far end of the triangle.  The trees are planted on top of the rise, which is visible in the Lawrence Collection photographs of the Faythe.

 

Will you walk the promontory perimeter with me? 

 

(No, don’t fetch the dog - we can take the walk only in our imaginations!)




Looking at the map let us begin at ‘A’ and proceed to ‘B’.  We have begun in the garden of Castle House, as it is called in the map; Taylor’s Castle is its local name - the old Farmers’ Co-Op is another name - throughout the 1800s this eight-bedroomed house was called variously Castle Hill, and Castle House.  Its final inhabitant Charles Taylor called it simply The Castle; it is, peculiarly, a house with no particular name.  Situated at the top of Barrack Street/ Castlehill Street/Kevin Barry Street, the majestic Castle House is described in about 1840 as being in an inferior position for a building of its size.  Looking at maps, it becomes obvious that this Castle House, which now has an entrance off Parnell Street and a beautiful c1840 wall to its south, previously entered via the Faythe.  Castlehill Street/Kevin Barry Street/Barrack Street ran all the way down the hill without a break - but even on the earliest 1800s map that I could find, those comparatively modest houses had tiny back yards only a few feet from the rear of Castle House.  Peel them away completely and the house commands views in every direction.  A bowling green and House can be dated back to about 1630 but I have not yet got further back.  We can get an idea of the ground level of Castle House by peering in through its Parnell Street entrance.  Then, holding that level in mind, we can look in at the Barracks and compare the two levels: I think they are similar, I think our promontory fort was quite flat. 

 

To get an idea of this height above sea-level, I recommend a real visit to the nearby terrace at Fishers Row which overlooks the sea at about the same level as Castle House.

 

The perimeter then breaks to allow Parnell Street to join Trinity Street - both reclaimed from the sea in the early 1800s.  Parnell Street is entirely artificial - its slope is made by pulling down the loose high land of the bowling green and patting it into shape to form a slope - like a giant child adjusting a sandcastle: is it any wonder that the street took such damage in the 1970s during the construction of main drainage?  If we pop the bowling green back into place, we can walk comfortably along the sea edge and can look to see what it was that is called a bowling green.  The name suggests a flat place, and the same Wexford Independent says it was big enough for soldiers to use it for their military exercise.  Was it an enclosed space repurposed as a bowling green by Wexford Castle’s inhabitants when bowling greens were fashionable in the time of the last King Charles?  Was it perhaps, part of an ancient earthworks?

 

Having walked past the bowling green, we arrive at the Barracks and can easily continue round the outside of its high wall enclosure where the sea lapped against the base of this steep hill long ago – see page 76 of Billy Colfer’s ‘Wexford: A Town and its Landscape’ for his lovely painting of Wexford Castle which stood on this site.  As we round the top of the hill to where we join Barrack Street, we shall take a break at point ‘B’.

 

Hop with me to point ’E’ at the top of the map.  We are standing on Main Street with our backs to Boylesports Bookmakers - and the sea - and are facing the exit of Stonebridge carpark just beside ‘The Sky And The Ground’ pub.  We are, in fact, standing on the old stone bridge.  Look right and see how the land slopes up Main Street, left and it bumps along to cross King Street and to meet Barrack Street which slopes steeply up.  Let the town dissolve, let the years peel back, let even the stone bridge beneath our feet disappear, leaving us hovering in a gap between two rocky outcrops looking up a valley where the Bishopswater River now flows mainly underground.  But back then, long, long ago, might the river have met the sea at this gap in the rocks, and backfilled to become a lake? The Vikings settled on Bride Street to our right - were they lakeside dwellers and did they bring their longship into the lake to moor at their doorstep?  But where is this lake now - well, the land is flat within this valley (or so it seems to me) and I suggest that the lake silted up, perhaps due to the building of the stone bridge - because surely a stone bridge would be unnecessary once the area had become firm?

 

Let us return to ‘B’ and proceed to ‘C’ at The Folly.  A steep hill (with Bishopswater River or my lake) would have been its boundary long ago - that the hill is steep, is clear when we get to Lambert Place (Bunker’s Hill in local memory).  Lambert Place connects the top of Parnell Street down to King Street and was constructed after Parnell Street.  Some more houses on Michael Street bring us as far as a gap known locally as the Folly, called Mill Road on this map of 1881: Folly House still exists. 

 

In ‘The Story of Wexford Town’, page 3, Monica Crofton suggests that the name Folly might be Irish for ‘walls’, and as I think Swan View Terrace at ‘D’ respects the line of ancient ramparts, it all fits nicely together.  (Maybe that is just my imagination).  At a mid-point of Swan View Terrace, the raised processional walkway marches off down the Faythe to the far point of its peculiar triangle. Archaeologist  Dr. Ronan O’Flaherty pointed out to me that the name ‘Faythe’ which comes from the Irish faithche  means a ‘green’, and specifically the green in front of a dwelling place or a fort.  He also advised that the triangular character of the Faythe does call to mind the shape of early Iron Age processional ways.

 

Did anyone live at the Faythe long, long ago before the Vikings?  It seems that at least three people did: two buried in urns and, presumably, the one who buried those urns so carefully.  Where did I encounter this Beckett-like trio?  The ‘Wexford Independent’ of May 20th, 1840, tells us that a “man digging in his garden in the Faythe last Friday uncovered two flat stones surrounded by many smaller ones placed edgewise. On removing them two urns were discovered containing on the top ashes of a fine and perfectly dry kind and filled with particles of calcined bones and wood…. The urns were of unbaked clay, nearly all of one shape and bell-mouthed, about 21 inches by 9, and destitute of any ornament. …. On exposure to the air, and rain falling at the time, but more particularly to the contact of ignorant curiosity, they have nearly crumbled to pieces….”  Within just a week this “Pot of Gold”, this cist burial - after so many years in the ground - had crumbled away.

 

Let us return to our original ‘X’.  From where we stand, the bases of headstones in Saint Michael’s graveyard are clearly visible, high up above Michael Street where the ground level is far higher than anywhere else.  An entrance to the graveyard is off Kevin Barry Street (Castle Hill Street) and steep steps lead up to the graves.  Saint Michael’s church is long gone, but I remember that places dedicated to Saint Michael, tend to be high up and not only is this position high above the sea and surrounding land but if I am correct about ramparts, then this is the highest place at an already high place.  It is difficult to see where the church once stood but I wonder if Michael Street is the street which lead from the Faythe to the church for the ordinary folk to attend Mass?  The now Kevin Barry Street which joins the easterly end of Swan View Terrace (and is very close to an earlier mapped entrance to Castle House) may have been the entrance to Castle House, the bowling green, and Wexford Castle?

 

Does all this point to it being a promontory fort – a castle, a bowling green, an unexpectedly high area, a faint ridge down a road?  One thing is certain - the top of Parnell Street has a few acres crammed with interest.  Discovering more about possible earthworks is beyond my abilities: I hope someone will be interested enough to take this project further.




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