County Wexford is no stranger to the musical tradition of ballads and the county possesses a rich and varied repertoire of verse. Given the long stretch of coastline that runs along Wexford county and the tradition of fishing, especially for herring, many of these Wexford ballads recount the stories of the Irish Sea and the men who sailed over its waters.
This story on the ballads of Wexford briefly introduces two tragic tales, Fishermen of Wexford and The Tinnaberna Fishermen and discusses their prominence in local Wexford lore and their ability to preserve local history and lore. These ballads ‘speak for the people’ as Matthew Hodgart suggests.
The popular ballad, Fishermen of Wexford begins:
There is an old tradition held in Wexford town
That says ‘Upon St. Martin’s Eve no net shall be let down
No fisherman of Wexford shall, upon that holy day
Set sail or cast a line within the scope of Wexford Bay.
Mariners and their families are often associated with superstitious beliefs and practices. This is not surprising given the perils of working at sea and goes some way to explain why putting faith in superstition offers a sense of control. Fishermen are not known for inviting bad luck upon themselves, their crewmen, their vessels, or their families who await their return, back at shore.
Fishermen of Wexford is a ballad about the local tradition and superstition of not setting sail on St Martin’s Eve, which falls on the November 10th a time of year when sea conditions are unpredictable, and weather is erratic. ‘The tongue that framed the order’ not to sail on this inauspicious day is not known. However, during the national collection of folklore organised by the Irish Folklore Commission and gathered by Irish school children between 1937 and 1939, the tradition of St Martin’s Eve has clearly permeated the consciousness of Wexford locals such as grandparents, parents, and neighbours.
But what exactly is the St Martin’s Eve tradition? Bound in both ballad and local legend is the superstition that each year on November 10th St Martin rides across Wexford Bay on a white horse. Any sailor who is out at sea and unfortunate enough to see St. Martin will not return to the Wexford shore alive. Indeed, the informant of this story from the National Schools’ Collection, says:
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 on that one night in the year.
Interestingly, this quote provides us with some insight into the geographical spread of the legend within the county itself; from the North East of Wexford Bay at Curracloe to the South East at Kilmore, a small fishing village approximately twenty two kilometres away. Places throughout the county where it appears ‘hardy seadogs’ reside.
Yet, this ballad’s central dramatic event tells us what happens to those who are unobservant of the tradition. Fishermen are not known for turning their backs to the sea and certainly not to a ‘wonderous shoal of herring’ that has arrived into Wexford Bay. The dramatic and emotional force of the ballad is heightened when the voices of the fishing community plea for the fishermen not to go out into the bay. The voices of wives, and older fishermen appeal with the younger generation ‘not to do this thing your fathers never dared’ and fatally, of the ‘seventy fishers’ corpses strewed the shores of Wexford Bay’ for their non-adherence of the tradition.
Similarly, the narrative of The Tinnaberna Fishermen, a second Wexford ballad, recounts another tragic event that occurred in the early years of the nineteenth century, when seven fishing boats were blown across St George’s Channel in November 1815. Of the seven boats that ‘put to sea from Tinnaberna Green’ only one survived and reached the Welsh coast.
This tale also appears in the national collection of folklore and when recounting it, the informant says that the fishing cots ‘went out to fish on St. Martin’s Eve’ thus promulgating the tradition. This version of events also mentions that the fishermen where ‘blown on the Rocks of Wales’ and whilst this phrase is not in the ballad, it demonstrates how the collaborative process of song and folklore inform one another as well as the intersections of social, psychological and emotional characteristics that shape folklore. A process that continues into the twenty first century. This tragic event at sea remains prominent in the county’s public consciousness and in 2015 a memorial stone was erected on the two hundredth anniversary of the disaster at Tinnaberna Beach. Thus, folklore informs the built heritage of County Wexford in the present day.
Navigating nautical miles is inherently dangerous and the watery world that Wexford fishermen inhibited was and remains rife with risk. Both ballads commemorate, preserve and transmit Wexford’s enduring sea stories, commenting on the lives of ordinary people, of those ‘wistful eyes’ watching the sea from the shore.