Sunday 22 September 2019

Rosslare Fort ruins emerge from the sea

The remains of Rosslare Fort, visible at low tide. RIGHT: A painting of Rosslare Fort in all its glory by Brian Cleare.
The remains of Rosslare Fort, visible at low tide. RIGHT: A painting of Rosslare Fort in all its glory by Brian Cleare.
John (Jack) and Mary Anne Sheil who lived on the Fort.
Mary Shiel and baby Tony Coy.

By David Tucker

ONCE Rosslare Fort stood as a sentinel, its guns defending the narrow approaches to Wexford Harbour. Now, its sea-shrouded ruins are rarely seen.

At low tide a few jagged pieces of seaweed- and barnacle-encrusted masonry sometimes emerge from the waves, all that remains of a once-thriving settlement which at its height was home to 50 families.

Members of Wexford RNLI were recently surveying the harbour approaches when they discovered that parts of the fort were visible and that they could actually walk on them, the pictures they took evoking memories for people whose ancestors were born and reared at the fort on the tip of a peninsula abandoned to the sea in 1925.

Lorraine Galvin, from Wexford RNLI, said the crew which visited the remains of the fort - which can sometimes be seen from the Raven - found bricks from houses which once stood there as well as a trapdoor going to who knows where.

'It's not normally visible. It's the most exposed we've seen it in our lifetimes and is very special to the members of the volunteer crew because there were two lifeboats based there, including the James Stevens which took part in the Mexico rescue,' said Lorraine.

'The reason we were out there is because the sandbanks of Wexford are always changing and even in the winter months we go out to see where they lie.. when we came across the ruins of the fort it was an extra bonus,' said Lorraine.

Madeleine Quirke, the CEO of Wexford Chamber, said her maternal grandmother Mary Sheil was born at the fort, which she left in 1908 to get married, one of a hardy band who inhabited this scrap of sea- and wind-swept land.

'I recall many stories told by my mother of very strong sense of community the families had on Rosslare Fort, the values handed down to their children and to their grand children, their love of all things to do with the sea,' said Madeleine.

At Rosslare Harbour Maritime Museum is to be found a detailed record of the fort, with memorabilia including canon balls caught in fishermen's nets.

There Leo Coy and John Boyce are keen to show off the pictures of the fort and its people, some of their ancestors among them, with references to its role as a lifeboat station and census records detailing the lives and times of the people who called it home.

The earliest reference to the fort dates back to Giovanni Boazio's 1599 map of Ireland. In his book 'Rosslare Fort and its People,' Gerard Kehoe, says John Speed's map of 1610 shows a structure on the peninsula 'so it is reasonable to assume that defences, probably incorporating a lighthouse, existed here at the end of the 16th Century'.

In 1641, Wexford town, which was completely walled on the land side, became the naval base and port of entry for the Confederation of Kilkenny.

Kehoe says that around 1642, a substantial stone fort, comprising seven great guns, was erected near the top of the peninsula by the confederate army and placed under the control of one Paul Turner. The confederates hoped that the fort would repel and sea-borne invasion of the port,however in 1649 when Cromwell landed, he sent a force of dragoons who approached the fort from the peninsula, the confederates fleeing without firing a shot.

As a result, Cromwell's fleet sailed unhindered into Wexford Harbour, landing six siege guns which were positioned on the Rocks.

There is little on record in the intervening years. However, the fort was given prominence by Hore in 1649 when he wrote that it was decreed that it should be preserved for the defence of the kingdom.

In 1800, its first Catholic commander, named Warren, had a Catholic church opened in the village at the fort which had 40 or 50 dwellings and a school, but numbers declined and in the late 1850s, the customs were withdrawn.

The settlement was dominated by a central square with a 70-foot flagstaff at its centre.

A lifeboat station was opened at the fort in 1838, with the station lapsing between 1851 until 1858, when a small lifeboat was stationed at it.

Following the loss of the emigrant ship Pomona in 1859, with the loss of 386 out of 409 people on board, a public outcry resulted in the establishment of a second station at the fort.

One of the most spectacular rescues the Wexford lifeboat was involved with came in 1914, when the James Stevens was towed by a tug from the fort to Fethard and the foundering Mexico.

Life at the fort at times was difficult with some making weekly rowing boat trips to Wexford for supplies, although when the south easterlies blew this was nigh on impossible.

Some of its younger residents had a reputation for throwing stones at ships passing through the narrow channel, the sailors throwing back lumps of coal which would be eagerly collected and harvested as free fuel.

Many of those who left the fort 90 or 100 years ago settled in Rosslare Strand and Harbour, the Sheils, Kavanaghs and Duggans amongst them, their descendents playing a key role in the future of local communities which grew up with the sea.

Wexford People

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