Strange Stories in Rosslare
Coastal supernatural tales of County Wexford recorded near Rosslare
The folklore gathered at the Irish Schools’ Collection contains many tall tales, strange happenings and stories of the supernatural spanning the length and breadth of Ireland. The example below, reported by Lill Dempsey of Ballyboher, County Wexford, was told by a parent who did not give their name. It is a legend tied to the identity of Rosslare through feast days in the Catholic liturgical calendar, stories of the Sí or fairies, and the fishing culture of Wexford’s coastal communities. The story focuses on the night of the November the 10th, St. Martin’s Eve. It marks the night before the 11th, Funeral Day of Martin of Tours, patron saint of beggars, wool weavers and tailors, and details a legend of why fishermen must fear the sea and its capricious nature:
St. Martin's night is feared by all fishermen and Rosslare. One night long ago on St. Martin's Day the boats were drawn up for the night and the fishermen pulled them down and their friends and wives told them not to go but they paid little heed to them and they went off. And when it was nearing midnight their friends looked and saw a man on a snow white steed coming across the waters. Like a flash he passed them and big waves hurled against the boats and drowned them all.
They did not mind the warning but they got punished for what they had done. It was a sad sight when all the dead bodies come in. The fishermen never go out on St. Martin's Day now because they know what their comrades got for doing so.
The end of the day marks a thin space between worlds when the supernatural and the natural become blurred. The story of the sailors drowned by an encounter with a water horse or capaill uisce repeats a common folkloric refrain in the legends captured within the pages of the Schools’ Collection in which those walking the shores of bodies such as loughs and oceans encounter a horse or horse-like creature in the waters. The story has been adapted to the legend of St. Martin, who "each year on the night of November the tenth ... rides across the waters of Wexford Bay on a white horse and any-one who is out at sea and sees him will not reach the shore alive". The folkloric stories of water horses mingle with the iconography of Martin of Tours, who was a Roman cavalry officer and is usually depicted in the saddle. On that night, "no prospect or inducement will persuade the hardy seadogs who live around the Faythe and William street (not forgetting Byrne's Lane) Rosslare, Curracloe, Killmore etc., to put to sea".
The tall tales and supernatural incursions that were reported by the elderly relatives of the children askes to participate in the survey give context to long-held beliefs about the force of the non-human: weather, risk, danger, the unknown. These tales, many based on pre-Christian antecedents, mingle with the Catholic observance of feasts such as St. Martin’s Day. Another tale related by Patrick Kirby, age 72, of Passage East in County Waterford demonstrates that St. Martin's Night stories were wide-spread along the Wexford coast:
On St Martin's Eve Patrick Kirby (the pilot-watch) was going home from the watch-house after keeping watch at half past eleven. When he came near the fish house he saw three beautiful race-horses a brown one a white one and a black one. They had very long bushy tails. He flashed his light on them but they still remained walking. He followed them around by the White Wall but immediately they vanished. Patrick Kirby returned to the watch-house and remained there for the night. At the time of the feast of St. Martin a white horse is actually seen.
Other episodes, like the episode of the sailor swallowed by a whale in another story found within this collection, are often whimsical. In the following tale from Jack Cullen, age 60, of Carrick in County Wexford, the extreme weather on freezing night mingles with ghost story and railway accident to create something regionally distinct, amusing and horrific in equal measure:
Two men were working at Rosslare. They were coming home one cold day, and they were walking on the railway line. A train came up very quickly and it cut the head off of one of them. The other man put it back on him again, and it was so cold that it got frozen to him. Both of them walked on until they reached a forge. They went over to the fire to light their pipes. The man's head began to thaw and it fell off around the floor.
The contours of the land around Rosslare and its port emerge clearly from this tale. Tracing the path of the railway through the Rosslare Strand Station as an improvised road used by locals provides an interesting insight into port infrastructure reused for everyday purposes, while the harsh Wexford Coast weather provides a catalyst for a ghost story with a distinctly industrial flavour that has an interesting relationship to other more seemingly timeless tales. It reminds us of the inventiveness and flexible nature of the tales told within communities, reacting to a changing sense of place while capturing a sense of unease about the unknown.