Sailing ships needed large crews and a seafarer tradition became an important source of employment in Wexford in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The fishing industry thrived, and with it the prosperity of this coastal community. By 1788 Wexford, with 44 cargo ships and 200 herring boats, was the sixth busiest port in Ireland.
To those living by the shore, the ocean was their source of life, they mined it, sailed it, they died in it. They left and retuned on it. The glorious sunrises, the terrifying storms, the visitors, the sailors, the invaders, the creatures, the huge steam vessels was all inextricably linked to the culture and so, unsurprisingly the folklore and music traditions.
Communities live by oceans the world over, but Ireland had its own way of enduring, surviving and thriving off their ‘ominous companion’. Like the mythology of pre-Christian Ireland that is preserved in oral tradition, called Piseogs, so too is folklore preserved. There were few more superstitious folk than the fishermen.
The ‘Schools Collection’, available on the website ‘Duchas.ie’, compiled by schoolchildren around Ireland in the late 1930s contains many Wexford stories relating to Saint Martin’s Day, and other Wexford seafaring traditions, taboos and tragedies including shipwrecks, drownings, sirens and sea rescues.
One popular Wexford fishing tradition concerns a devotion to Saint Martin of France and the foregoing of fishing entirely on his feast day, the 11th of November. In 1938, schoolgirl Peggy Morris wrote of the tradition of Saint Martin, and a tale her grandfather told of two boatloads of men who encountered the saint riding through the bay of Rosslare on a white horse. Peggy told the story of a storm that arose and a ‘boatload of men was washed upon the shore and six or seven were drowned, but the other boatload returned home safe’. She also described the tradition of killing and eating a cock on Saint Martin's Eve and sprinkling its blood in the door post for good luck.
Literature & Music
Throughout history, the sea provided inspiration for writers. Poet Winifred Mary Letts (1882–1972), who boasted Wexford roots penned ‘The Harbour’. Winifred was inspired by old sailors and fishermen telling stories of their hard life at sea and she considers ‘Our Wexford coast from Arklow to Cahore’ as her ‘native land’.
There are several songs, new and old, referencing life near the Wexford Port. One example is songwriter Patrick Joseph McCall (1861-1919) who wrote the ballad ‘The Wexford Fishing Song’. The song reflected the threat that the sea posed to the Seafarers as expressed ‘ hope for the west wind, For oh, 'tis the best wind, To save our poor fishers from dree’.
In addition, traditional Irish folk music is peppered with themes depicting the challenging journeys the sea farers endured, some would return, others were either lost to the sea or had been forced to emigrate permanently, and the fears for their safety their families left behind endured.
Wexford's long and rich seafaring history is celebrated annually at their Maritime Festival. It was initially established to honor the memory of the Wexford man Commodore John Barry (1745-1803) who is best known as the ‘father of the American Navy’. An integral part of this annual festival is the celebration of the ‘Sea Shanty’.
These referred to ‘Songs sung by seafarers to give their mundane chores a semblance of pleasure and merriment’. Wexford group the ‘South and Sea Shanty Singers’ sing songs like the ‘Rio Grande’, an outward shanty often sang on ships leaving the West Coast of England of which many Wexford men would have sung ‘Oh heave with a will boys, oh heave long and strong, away to Rio’.
Musical folklore plays an important role in the passing on of stories and between the generations. In an island as rich in musical culture as Ireland, the traditions are honoured, shared and enjoyed to the present day. It should be noted that these also refers to the documented work songs of the fishing community on land.
In summary, the role and rich legacy of folklore and music is integral the Wexford fishing community. The expressions of folklife discussed above, from song and music to stories and folklore, as well as the associated festivals, reinforce the deep-rooted elements of place, family and tradition unique to communities like Wexford. It is timely that this tradition is recognised.