Lore from the Wexford Coast

We can gain a new perspective from stories containing humour, history and anecdote in the folklore gathered by the Irish Schools' Collection of the 1930s, now held in the National Folklore Collection.


The Irish Sea coastline of County Wexford is encrusted with the folklore, knowledges, practices and cultural connections of its people. When the children of the Schools' Collection interviewed elderly relatives and members of the community, they recorded anecdotes, jokes, lore, stories and histories in equal measure:

Ellen Black lived in this district and like all women was very fond of news. Every time she met a neighbour she had always something to tell him. One day however a chap named Jack Hayes met her and after listening to her long tale about the dreadful collision at sea, he asked her did she hear of what happened last night in the fog. She replied - "No: What was it?" "Well", said Jack, "the two Saltee Islands began to float and the big one bumped into the little one. There was a terrible crash and if you had seen what wreckage was floating about the sea, it would have been worth telling the neighbours." Jack ran away quickly after vexing the old woman.

The example above comes from the Oileán Mhuire (Lady's Island) school, was told by Mrs Redmond, age 52, of Buncarrig, Lady’s Island, County Wexford and recorded by Mary Redmond. This story captures a genre of the folklore typical of the Wexford coastline: shipwreck and disaster at sea. The book of recorded lore for Oileán Mhuire school is a catalogue of nautical tragedies, from drownings to wrecks to extreme weather. The example above demonstrates the playful side of these stories: a community with a long memory and serious-minded interest in the lore of the sea, and an image of Ellen Black passing the time trading stories with neighbours and acquaintances. The structures of storytelling are often captured in jokes and quips about the nature of a community where everyone knows the happenings of the parish. The ever-readiness of coastal communities for a nautical tragedy is clear when it is interrupted. In the example below, told by Pat Ellard of Carne, Wexford, proactive members of the local community gather, expecting a disaster off the coast on the Irish Sea, but are mistaken:

One night, 6 years ago, a rather strange incident occurred in Carne. It happened that on this night there was chain lightning, which commenced at about 11 o'clock, and there were flashes of every colour. The people around, thought that a ship had run ashore and naturally they got out of bed to assist the life saving apparatus. In a short time there was a big crowd, including my father, pulling out the apparatus. Rockets were fired but no ship could be seen. Then the Rosslare life-boat came on the scene, and patrolled the coast but it was all in vain, and at length all efforts were given up. Next day the papers were headed with:- "Terrible thunderstorm causes much damage". "Rosslare life-boat and Carne apparatus think that ship has foundered," and such like headlines. Then the people knew that it was lightning caused all the fuss and commotion.

This passage intersects with another common theme of Irish folklore: weather events. It explores the link between community solidarity, the frequency of wrecks off the Wexford coast, the role of the Rosslare lifeboat and the value invested in intergenerational memory of extreme and unusual happenings. Living by the sea brings with it a body of lore that comes to us in the twenty-first century, embedded in the coasts and infused into the Irish Sea. The Irish Folklore Commission (Coimisiún Béaloideasa Éireann) provide us with a record of those stories captured in the 1930s when it was feared that they would be lost. Today they are part of our sense of coastal life, past and present.