French connection in shared heritage
The possibility of new and exciting cultural and tourism connections based on our shared Norman heritage was mooted when French Ambassador Jean-Pierre Thébault addressed the 'Gaelic Capital and Norman Stronghold' conference held recently in the Ferns Castle Visitor Centre.
Responding to discussion on the origins of the Norman invaders, the ambassador, well versed in Irish and Norman history, said that developing connections between Wexford and the other Norman areas of Europe, including of course Normandy itself, would be mutually advantageous.
There were many possibilities for connection which could be explored. The ambassador saw the development of clear cultural identities lying at the heart of this. Referring to sporting similarities between southeast Ireland and Normandy, he spoke of a medieval game called 'La Choule Crosse' which is played with a stick and wondered if this was related to hurling.
Catherine MacPartlin, of the Ferns Heritage Project group who organised the conference with Ronan O'Flaherty, Crane Bag Consulting, said that the ambassador had detailed knowledge of Norman history and previously toured Ferns Castle and other historic sites in the county.
'The conference was hugely successful with a waiting list for people seeking to attend,' she said.
'The location and content was highly praised by both professional historians and archaeologists and by those who attended as a means to developing their knowledge of the complexity of the period of transition from the dominance of the Gaelic kings to the rapid expansion of Norman lordship.'
In closing the conference she thanked the speakers, the volunteers on the day, the OPW guides who conducted the Castle tours and Ronan O'Flaherty who acted as Conference Chair. There were many questions asked and debated at the conference, with lively contributions from delegates including Nicholas Furlong, author of 'Diarmait, King of Leinster'. She had particular praise for the support of Wexford County Council and the OPW, as without their support the conference would not have taken place.
The theme of the Conference was the transformation of Gaelic society with the arrival of the Normans, and the significance of Ferns in that process as the 'Ancient Capital of Leinster'. Dr Edel Bhreathnach, CEO of the Discovery Programme, looked at two ambitious Kings - Diarmuid MacMurrough and his great grandfather Diarmait mac Maíl na mBó. She portrayed Diarmuid MacMurrough as a man of his time, a King who sought to defend what he had and who created and strengthened alliances with those who could help him retain his power, but was also a patron of the arts and of church reform.
The section of the conference which dealt with the geophysical study of the area surrounding St. Mary's Abbey in Ferns proved of great interest as it revealed the remains of a substantial settlement underground, of which no surface trace now remains.
Dr Ger Dowling, who led The Discovery Ireland team which conducted the study, described the results of the survey as 'impressive and important' and further investigations are planned this year.
Great interest was also shown in the paper from Professor Elizabeth Fitzpatrick of NUI Galway which dealt with the inauguration sites of the Ui Cinnseallaigh and MacMurchadha dynasties, including investigations into the surviving inauguration stone at nearby Knockavocca and the bardic school at Ballyorley.
Dr Stephen Harrison of Glasgow University described the various Anglo Noman settlement types in Wexford, while Dr. Adrian Empey, spoke of William the Marshal's connection to Ferns and Wexford, and how he set about consolidating an internationally powerful lordship in Leinster.
Given the central role of the Gaelic Kings of Leinster to the business of this conference, it was entirely appropriate that two lineal descendants of the Royal House of MacMurrough were present - The O Morchoe, hereditary Chief of his Name, and Morgan Kavanagh of Borris House, who provided a visually stunning tour of his ancestral home.
A sweeping presentation by Dr Eamonn MacEneaney of Waterford's Museum of Treasures showed how investment in cultural heritage has transformed a hitherto neglected quarter of Ireland's oldest city and provided a suitably uplifting close to the formal presentations.
A short workshop led by Michael Starrett CEO of the Heritage Council began the process of exploring how Ferns and indeed Wexford could hope to realise its own huge heritage potential. The scope of that potential was picked-up by John Carley, Director of Services, Wexford County Council who outlined the ongoing plans for a new Norman Trail throughout the county.
The success of this first Ferns Heritage Conference has convinced The Ferns Heritage Project group that Ferns can play a leading role in interpreting both Gaelic Kingship and the Norman world for a much wider audience.