Living history and heritage of Bannow Bay

By Dan Walsh

A visit to Bannow is always refreshing. Snooping in the footprints of the Normans who took full advantage of the beautiful bay to set foot on Irish soil for the first time in 1169 and changed the course of Irish history.

The well preserved ruins of ST. MARY’S CHURCH at Bannow

Today, the Norman Trail is part of our history and heritage. Many popular surnames owe their origins to the Normans, and, in physical terms, the greatest living legacy are the fortified ruins of St. Mary’s Church, believed to have been founded before 1200 AD.

The historic town of Bannow dates to the early 13th century. It is recorded that in the mid-17th century it had, at least, six streets, eleven proprietors, a castle, two stone houses, five thatched houses, seven cabins, one house, five ruined houses, and at least sixteen house plots, presumably deserted and decayed buildings as the town had been long in decline at that time.

In the opening paragraph on Bannow in Edward Culleton’s volume one of On Our Own Ground; Parish by Parish, tells us that “At Bannow Island the first Anglo-Norman soldiers disembarked and quickly established a town nearby which later gave rise to the story of the ‘buried city of Bannow’, although, in truth, it was never buried but simply decayed and was gradually covered by a thin layer of wind-blown sand.”

While in the ancient graveyard, I noticed a headstone erected by Peter Ffrench, MP, Harpoonstown, in memory of his parents and other members of the family. Ffrench himself was 85 years old when he died in 1929.

Born in Bannow, Peter Ffrench was elected on the Irish Nationalist Parnellite ticket for South Wexford in the 1893 election and spent 25 years in the House of Commons. He lost his seat to James Ryan, a medical student from Tomcoole, and member of Sinn Féin in the 1918 General Election.

Presumably, Mr Ffrench abstained from alcohol. On July 1st, 1911, he addressed a large crowd at the Temperance Demonstration on Vinegar Hill, overlooking Enniscorthy, where he declared; “Our homes would be brighter, happier and more prosperous if we did not consume so much intoxicating drink. Our country would be more prosperous and more productive, our people more physically, morally and intellectually fit to fight the great battle of life if we did not consume so much intoxicating drink.”

And before we leave historic Bannow a glimpse out across the bay. The silhouette of Baginbun and the Martello tower points out to sea where generations of seafarers perished in the lonely shipping lanes known as ‘the graveyard of a thousand ships’

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