Larry Smith is a passionate man; about Ireland, about our history and about Ferns as the ground zero of Irish history. An erudite and loquacious OPW guide at Ferns castle, Co. Wexford, he has had an adventurous life as a Garda who has seen service with the UN in a range of conflict zones around the globe. He knows how history works and how people fare when conflict engulfs them. From the roof of Ferns castle a stunning vista of Wexford bocage beckons. Larry points to a conical hill, the infamous Vinegar Hill of 1798, and quotes Heaney’s Requiem for the Croppies, where the hill ‘blushed’ with the blood of the rebels and their families as British grapeshot slaughtered them.
But Larry has a bone to pick. Not enough visitors come to Ferns. Yet it is the fulcrum of our history, the home and conspiratorial centre of the infamous Dermot MacMurrough who invited the Normans to our conquest. Where would history have taken us without this deed? This is a question to test the imagination. Had there not been a Norman conquest, we would hardly be commemorating the centenary of 1916 not least because small changes magnify through time and the coming of the Normans was to prove no small thing to Ireland at any number of levels.
The Normans altered Ireland in more ways than we like to concede. They brought villages, cottages, markets, manors, estates, revenue, proper castles and incorporated cities. They altered the pattern of regnal wars fought by petty Irish kings and produced great new dynasties that dominated Irish politics for hundreds of years, most notably the FitzGeralds.
Through allegiance to Henry II and King John, the Normans established the connection to the English crown. John founded Dublin Castle initially as a treasury but ultimately as the irreducible foreign presence that would endure without interruption as the heart of the Pale and seat of British power until 1922.
So Ferns is the holy of holies of Irish history, the fundament of our conquest. We can only understand the significance of 1916 by spanning the time back to the 12th century when Dermot made his plans from his fortress there and acted as agent for the small band of Normans who landed at Bannow Bay and seized Wexford city. They were preparing the way for their Marcher Lord, Richard de Clare, known as Strongbow to arrive with the main force.
And amidst the carnage of Waterford city, Dermot would play father of the bride as he gave his daughter’s hand to the victorious Richard de Clare, Strongbow. Their march north through Wicklow, evading the waiting Irish to the west under the High King Rory O’Connor, would see them take Dublin, a prize the colonists held thereafter for eight hundred years.
When the rebels struck in 1916, their plan to take and hold Dublin was as much a psychological act of defiance. And for the week that they did so, they achieved something unprecedented in our history of conquest and colonisation.
Dermot would pay a heavy price; his son was hostage to the High King whom Tiernan O’Rourke persuaded to kill after Strongbow and Dermot raided O’Rourke’s kingdom of Breifne. Dermot would retire to Ferns in the winter of 1170, evidently a broken man, to sicken and die in May 1171.
So think about heading to Ferns for a day trip. If you live in Dublin, it is just over an hour south of the M50. The visitor’s centre is discrete and pleasant and Larry and his team of guides to the castle enthusiastic. The tower that is intact is charming and evocative and the view from the roof is magnificent. You can see why the Normans grabbed this lush and fertile land. The whipped ice cream in the shop across the road is some of the best in Ireland. Wander down the road to the site of McMurragh’s burial and the ruins of the abbey which he had funded and where he died.
If you’re up for it, head back up the M11 and turn off at Arklow to drive up through Avoca, Glendalough, passing by Lough Tay and via Glencree into Dublin. You will not only be passing through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the east of Ireland but you also might just be tracing that first and fateful Norman march to Dublin.
Coda: Dermot’s fortress was made of wood and had been burned before he had died. Strongbow and Aoife had a daughter, Isabel, who as a young girl of sixteen was married to probably the greatest knight in Christendom, William Marshall. As the daughter of Strongbow, she was an immensely rich heiress. Marshall was in his forties, a tall and impressive man of unequalled martial accomplishments and ties of loyalty to the crown. Their marriage was apparently a happy one. With her husband, Isabel returned to Ferns and stood on the knoll of her grandfather’s fortress. There they built a castle of stone in the Norman manner. It can only be seen as a act of reclamation by her, a statement of affirmation of her grandfather and his ambitions, and a defiant gesture to the local Gaelic chiefs displaced by the Normans. Its remains today bear all the scars of subsequent Irish history but the restoration of the remaining tower has preserved its original Norman features and is one of the most evocative and intriguing ones of its kind.