WEXFORD (County of), a maritime county of the province of LEINSTER, bounded on the north by the county of Wicklow; on the west by those of Carlow and Kilkenny, and Waterford harbour; on the south by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the east by St. George's channel. It extends from 52° 2' to 52° 44' (N. Lat.), and from 6° 17' to 7° 4' (W: Lon.); comprising an extent, according to the Ordnance survey, of 564,479 statute acres, of which 545,979 are cultivated land, and 18,500 unimproved mountain and bog. The population, in 1821. was 170,806; and in 1831, 182,991.

The whole or the greater portion of the county was inhabited in the time of Ptolemy by the Menapii, whose territory bordered on the Modonus, now called the river Slaney, on the bank of which stood their chief town Menapia, supposed to have occupied the site of the present town of Wexford. They are considered to have derived their origin from the Menapii of Belgic Gaul, perhaps through the Belgae of Britain, and to have been the race styled by Irish annalists Fir-bolgs, i. e., Viri Belgici, or Belgians.

Some writers are of opinion that the peninsula of Hook, the most southern point of the county, is the Hieron Promontorium, or "Sacred Promontory," of the Grecian geographer. Before the arrival of the Danes or English, the county was distinguished by the names Corteigh, Moragh, and Laighion, all signifying the maritime country. The first of these appears to be preserved in the designation of Enniscorthy; the second, it is thought, gave the family name to its chief, Mac Murrough or Mac Murchad; and from the third came the denomination of Leinster, which, in the productions of the Irish, Danish, and Latin writers towards the close of the middle ages, is mostly confined to Wexford. This and the adjoining county of Wicklow were also distinguished by the name of Dalmach-sevel, or "the maritime counties."

Weisford, from which its present name is formed, was given to its chief town by the Danes, who, after devastating the country by predatory incursions, made the town of Wexford the centre of a permanent settlement. In later times, a popular designation of this district was, according to Camden, County Reogh, or "the rough county;" and the northern part was included in Hy Kinselagh, the peculiar territory of the Mac Murroughs, afterwards known by the name of Kavanagh. A principal seat of the royal family of Leinster was at Ferns, in this territory, the favourite place of residence of the last king, Dermod Mac Murrough. Hither he conveyed Dervorghal, wife of O'Rourk, Prince of Breffny, whom he had carried off from her husband; and after he had been driven out of the country by Roderic, King of Ireland, and had engaged the assistance of some English leaders to reinstate him in his authority, he returned hither to await in the privacy of the abbey the arrival of his new allies.

The landing of the first body of the English was at Bagenbon, on the south side of Fethard bay, in the south-western part of the county, in May 1169. This party consisted only of 30 knights, 60 men at arms and 300 archers, under the command of Robert Fitz-Stephen, whom Mac Murrough had engaged in the attempt by the promise of conferring on him the town of Wexford, with a large adjacent territory. Being reinforced by Maurice Prendergast, who landed on the following day at the same place with 10 knights and 200 archers, and joined by Mac Murrough, Fitz-Stephen attacked Wexford; but its Danish inhabitants made a stubborn resistance, and it was not until after a contest of four days that they were induced to surrender on articles, through the interference of the clergy. Mac Murrough then confirmed his grant in favour of Fitz-Stephen and his companion in arms, Maurice Fitzgerald: he also granted two cantreds, which lay between the town of Wexford and the Suir, to Harvey de Monte Marisco or Montmorency, the uncle of Strongbow and associate of Fitz-Stephen.

The successful settlement of the English, whose numbers were augmented by reinforcements from their own country, alarmed the other native princes, and Roderic, King of Ireland, aided by a confederacy of the subordinate chiefs, made an effort to drive out both the rebellious king of Leinster and his allies. To resist this formidable invasion, Mac Murrough fortified himself in a strong position near Ferns, and presented such a front to the assailing army, that hostilities terminated in a treaty between the Irish kings, in which a secret article was inserted for the expulsion of the English. But the arrival of additional forces gave a new direction to Mac Murrough's views. Aided by them he took the city of Dublin from the Danes, and was projecting a scheme for asserting his right to the monarchy of the whole island, when the arrival of Richard de Clare, surnamed Strongbow, Earl of Chepstow, gave a new turn to the aspect of affairs; extending still wider by his conquests the power of the English arms and the ambitious views of Dermod, whose daughter Eva he espoused.

Fitz-Stephen and his party, to secure their new possessions, had erected the castle of Carrigg near Wexford, where the native inhabitants quickly besieged them, and they were induced to surrender on articles by the false intelligence of the death of Strongbow and the extirpation of his followers. On surrendering, most of his men were killed, and Fitz-Stephen himself was committed to the island of Beg-Erin, in Wexford harbour, where all the inhabitants of the town sought safety on the approach of Strongbow with his victorious forces. The latter, however, was deterred from practising hostilities towards them by a threat that Fitz-Stephen's life should be answerable for such a proceeding; so that he remained in captivity until the arrival of Henry II., to whom he was given up by his captors on a promise of redress for any ill treatment inflicted by him on the natives.

After the death of Mac Murrough in 1172, Strong-bow became lord of Leinster, which was confirmed to him as a palatinate in the same year by Henry II., when he visited Ireland. This monarch at first retained the town of Wexford in his immediate possession, but in 1174 he granted it to the earl, who made it one of the principal scats of his power, which extended over the whole of the present county, as well as the other parts of Leinster.

The county of Wexford is one of those erected by King John in 1210, and it formed part of the inheritance of William le Mareschal, who succeeded to the possessions of Earl Strongbow by marriage with his daughter. On the extinction of the male line of William, Earl Marshal, his possessions were divided among his five daughters; and the corpus comitatus of Wexford, with the assizes, perquisites, &c., valued at £50. 12. 6., and the burgh of Wexford, valued at £42. 1. 5., with the manors of Rossclare, Carrick, Ferns, &c., were assigned to the second daughter, Joan, married to Warren de Mountchensy, the richest baron in England. Through this marriage the lordship descended by the female line successively to William de Valence, Earl of Pembroke and half brother of Henry III., and to Lawrence, Lord Hastings of Abergavenny, after the death of whose grandson, John Hastings, Earl of Pembroke, the king, in 1395, ordered possession of all his estates to be given to his next heirs, and the lordship of Wexford came to the family of Talbot, and was inherited by John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, who, in 1446, was created Earl of Waterford and Baron of Dungarvan.

In the mean time, however, in consequence of these changes and the non-residence of the great English lords, the county fell into a state of such confusion, that, in the beginning of the fourteenth century, a great part of it was seized by one of the Kavanaghs, who assumed the title of Mac Murrough, declared himself king of Leinster, and maintained possession of a large portion of Carlow and Wexford by means of his alliance with the O'Tooles and Byrnes, the chieftains of Wicklow. Nor did the county suffer merely from the efforts of the natives to regain their ancient dominion. John Esmond, Bishop of Ferns, having been deprived of his episcopal dignity by the pope in 1349, maintained himself in his castle of Ferns, in defiance of the power of his superiors. The sheriff declared himself unable to execute the king's writ against him, and he was at length with difficulty brought to enter into articles to keep the peace.

His immediate successor was equally warlike, for, when his castle was assaulted by some Irish septs about the year 1360, he made a sortie in person at the head of his servants and retainers, and routed the assailants with considerable slaughter. During the minority of George, great grandson of John, Earl of Shrewsbury, it was enacted by parliament, in 1474, that Gilbert Talbot, Esq., might exercise and enjoy the liberty of the county of Wexford, with cognizance of all pleas and jurisdictions royal, under the name of Seneschal of the Liberty of Wexford, with power to appoint all officers established of old within that liberty.

Earl George afterwards enjoyed it, until 1537, when an act was passed vesting in the crown this and the other possessions of the great absentee lords of Ireland; and the separate jurisdiction of the liberty was thereby terminated. During its existence, the county returned two sets of representatives to the Irish parliament, two members being sent for the liberty, in which the return was made by the lord's seneschal, and two for the Cross, or Church lands within the county, over which was a sheriff appointed by the king, to whom the writs were addressed.

In the year 1571 the people of this county had a feud with the Kavanaghs of Carlow, in which 30 gentlemen of rank in Wexford were killed: but it led to no important consequences. In the civil war which broke out in 1641, it was the scene of important military operations; the Marquess of Ormonde was repulsed, in the early part of it, from before New Ross; and Duncannon fort was afterwards taken by the Catholic party who thus became masters of the whole. But in 1649 it was reduced to submission by Cromwell, who put the garrison of Wexford to the sword in the same sanguinary manner in which Drogheda had been treated.

In the war of the Revolution it was much less distinguished; and from this period the history of the county presents a perfect blank, until 1798, when it acquired a melancholy notoriety as the chief seat of the insurrection of that year. In the month of April the county was subjected to martial law in consequence of the suspicions of the secret organization of the society of United Irishmen, which had already pervaded most of the other counties, having been extended to it; but it was not until after actual hostilities had broken out in other parts that any military force was sent hither.

The burning of the chapel of Boulavogue, in the parish of Kilcormuck, by the military, and the cruel treatment of the peasantry in order to force them to confess their guilt, hastened the assembly of the people in arms on the two neighbouring hills of Oulart and Kilmacthomas. They were immediately driven from the latter position with some loss, but at the former they routed and cut to pieces the detachment of the military sent to disperse them. Increasing now in numbers and confidence, the insurgents attacked Enniscorthy the next day, and forced the garrison to fall back upon Wexford. Having at the same time cut off a party of infantry and artillery that was advancing from Duncannon fort to strengthen the garrison of the latter place, the insurgents moved upon that also, and the garrison made a hasty retreat to Waterford.

At the same time a camp was formed at Vinegar hill, in the immediate vicinity of Enniscorthy, which was the head-quarters of the insurgent army during its short existence. The possession of Wexford gave occasion to the slaughter of many of the loyalists who had not been able to effect a timely escape, and also of several of the prisoners brought in from time to time; nor were these atrocities without their counterpart in the excesses of the royalist soldiery.

At the commencement of hostilities Beauchamp Bagnal Harvey, Esq., a Protestant gentleman of the county, who had long signalised himself as an advocate of the people, and an enemy to the severe measures of the Irish government, was chosen general. A few days after the occupation of Wexford, the insurgents attacked the town of New Ross, but after ten hours hard fighting they were repulsed on all sides with considerable loss. Shortly afterwards Harvey was superseded, and the command was given to a Roman Catholic clergyman named Roche.

The royal forces which had been collecting from various parts now made a simultaneous attack from all sides on the position at Vinegar hill, which was taken with little difficulty, and the main body of insurgents forced to retreat. The re-capture of Wexford immediately followed, and a fresh torrent of blood was poured forth in the punishment of numbers engaged in the rebellion, which was thus terminated in this district, except in the lingering efforts of detached parties.

County Wexford | Wexford Towns and Baronies | Wexford Topography | Wexford Climate | Wexford Agriculture | Wexford Geology | Wexford Manufacturing | Wexford Rivers | Wexford Antiquities | Wexford Town

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