Rebuilding Bannow – mapping the abandoned medieval Wexford town
13 December 2016
The ruined church of St Mary’s of Bannow stands on a grassy headland at the mouth of Bannow Bay, in the south-east corner of Ireland. Cows graze up to the low stone walls of the graveyard that surrounds the roofless church. This is all that now remains of the once-thriving medieval town of Bannow.
The location, the extent and the layout of the town have been the subject of speculation; it has been described variously, and erroneously, as having sunk under the sea, an Irish Heracleion, or having been buried under the sand, an Irish Pompeii.
There are no known maps of Bannow to show either the exact location or the layout of the town. The general layout of the town can, however, be established by studying the written descriptions contained in the surveys carried out in during the years following the uprising of 1641 and by referring to the descriptions of what little remained of the town in the mid 1800s, as contained in articles written in the Dublin Penny Journal, the Journal of the Archaeological Society of Kilkenny and Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland of 1837.
In the years following the Irish Rebellion of 1641, various surveys of landholdings and landholders were carried out in order that land, owned by the Catholic Irish involved or considered complicit in the rebellion, could be transferred to those loyal to the English Parliament and those who backed the suppression, including the Cromwellian soldiers.
The document categorised in the National Library of Ireland as The Cromwellian survey of the towns of Wexford, Fethard and Bannow giving the valuation and proprietors in 1641, was transcribed in 1875, by the historian Philip Hore from “books in the Public Record” and subsequently, published in his seminal work History of the Town and County of Wexford.
The manuscript version refers in detail to the towns of Wexford, Bannow and Fethard and includes a written description of the landholdings and buildings within the town of Bannow, giving a description of each plot or building, the street on which it is located, its area and the tenants/possessors at the date of the survey and the proprietors of the same in 1641.
Exploring Bannow on foot
It is reasonable to assume that the surveyor describes the various streets in the order he comes upon them, walking. This assumption is supported by the fact that, upon approaching junctions, he describes the final house plots as facing the next street listed in the survey. Therefore, High Street follows and joins Lackey Street, which joins at ‘the Cross’ with New Street and Little Street etc. It is also highly probable that the sequence of the various holdings as described indicates that each is proximate to the next.
Gardens and house plots are occasionally given approximate locations for example “at the North end of the Street” “South of the Graveyard”, “East of the church”, etc. As the locations of the church, the graveyard and the castle are known; this gives valuable information.
One of the houses is described as adjoining the castle and lands of Nicholas Loftus. The ‘lands’ are, therefore, adjacent to the castle, and as the location of the castle is known the lands around the castle define the extent of the town locally.
The areas of each plot are given. These are rounded to within one tenth of an acre, one fifth of an acre or half an acre. It is clear from these broad measurements that the plots were guessed at, probably by eye, and most likely rounded up to a considerable degree. The plots, therefore, can only be approximate.
The street referred to as Lackey Street is probably originally La Quay, being along the quay of the town. A similar-named street fronts onto the Barrow estuary at Ballyhack.
‘The Cross’ may be the confluence of the four streets, or may be a physical cross, as suggested by Hore (Hore 1910-11, 449). The ‘burgess’ plots (plots leased to the town’s occupants) are generally in multiples of one tenth of an acre. This area is the same as that known to have been allocated to each burgess in New Ross.
Furthermore, it ties in with the areas of the Bannow Survey, the smallest of which is one-tenth of an acre, the larger plots probably being amalgamations of earlier smaller ones.
The Dublin Penny Journal (Vol 2, No 55 p18 – July 20, 1833) describes, in a somewhat fanciful fashion, the area around the church as it pertained at the time. The author describes “heights (of sand) placed parallel and crossed at right angles” and “the summit of an ancient steeple rising in the midst of this solitude”.
This steeple is probably the tall chimney referred to in the subsequent article. The article continues, “The parallel lines clearly indicate the direction of the streets…in following the course of one of the streets…one sees where the sea originally approached it: for on slightly digging, we discovered the remains of an old quay made of bricks.”
The author would have approached the church following the road that currently leads to it. Therefore, the ‘street’ the author took down to the “quay” is another, and is High Street which runs down to the location where the old quay started, and where a stone structure (not brick as described) can be seen today, under the vegetation.
The Dublin Penny Journal (Vol 2, No 56, p32 – July 27 1833) is more detailed and is ascribed by the editor to a Rev Robert Walsh, probably the Waterford-born antiquarian and Trinity College Dublin graduate who lived from circa 1772 to 1852. The author describes entering onto the church yard by an old stile (currently existing) and being advised by his companion that he was “now in the High Street, in the midst of it”.
The west wall of the graveyard may correspond with the east side of High Street and the east wall of the graveyard demarcates Lady Street (possibly Our Lady’s Street originally, changed for Cromwellian sensibilities).
The author describes a “square mass of solid masonry, about seven feet high” rising from the sandy hillocks where blown sand had built up it and asserts that it is “the chimney of the town-house peeping above the soil, while the rest of the edifice was buried beneath it”.
He goes on to confirm that there were “several wide streets, crossing one another… One of them ran down to the sea at the mouth of the harbour” (High Street). He found there “a fine quay at the edge of the water two hundred yards in length and higher up the foundation of a very extensive edifice evidently some public building”.
Derivation of saints’ names
Rev Walshe also writes that “from the Quit rent rolls I examined at Wexford”, the town’s streets included “among others, High Street, Weaver Street, St George’s Street, Upper Street, St Toolock’s street, St Mary’s Street, St Ivory’s Street, Lady Street and Little Street”. The Bannow Survey makes no reference to St George’s Street, Upper Street, St Toolock’s Street, St Ivory’s Street or even St Mary’s Street.
There are no such saints as ‘Ivory’ or ‘Toolock’, but St Ivory may be a rendering of St Ibar (also St Ivor and St Iberius). Similarly, St Toolock may be a variation of St Tullogue, the name ascribed by Samuel Lewis to St Doologue’s church in Wexford.
Two further pieces appeared in The Transactions of the Kilkenny Archeological Society (Vol 1, No 2, 1850) ‘The Bay and the Town of Bannow’ Nos I and II and from the second of these further information can be gleaned. JC Tuomey describes the remains of the town around the same time comprising, once, “small sand hills varying from five to fifteen feet in height” and he also mentions the ongoing removal of the sand for use a fertiliser.
He describes the foundations of the houses and walls of houses as being a few feet high and being built of a green flag or slate “to be found up the coast a half mile to the south-east” (presumably around Clammers Point), and also of rounded beach stone.
Tuomey formed the erroneous opinion that the houses around the church were suburbs of a town located further north around an old coastguard station, facing north into the bay (around Brandane). He went on to describe the chimney at the south-west side of the graveyard as “a funnel of eighteen inches square” and “the sides of it being the same dimensions”; you could “trace its length for twelve feet (fallen) where a gravestone cuts it” and that locals recall it being “thirty to forty feet in length its stones having been used to build this (the graveyard) walls”.
This chimney was used to post election notices on but Tuomey states that he saw no reason to consider that it may have been a ‘tholsel’ (town hall). The Bannow Survey, however, describes one particular building as “the stone walls of a house before the cross” measuring 60 feet x 24 feet: a sizeable structure. Its location is consistent with Toumey’s description of it in the south-west corner of the graveyard.
It is probable that this building, of which the chimney formed part, was indeed the town hall. This is further supported by the fact that legal notices in respect of elections were fixed to this ‘chimney’.
Layout at time of Bannow Survey
Figure 4 shows how the town would have appeared at the time of the Bannow Survey. Every plot of land and house described (in ruins or otherwise) has been plotted and ‘best fitted’ into the overall plan. The size of the town is, therefore, broadly accurate, being a sum of the various landholdings described.
The locations of the castle and the church are certain. The location of the town hall is approximate and is located near the Cross. The location of Lackey Street (almost certainly La Quay originally) is near the obvious location for the Quay, and is the first street surveyed arriving from the north.
High Street definitely ran north to south, and was located west of the church as shown. An area off High Street, north of the church, remains unaccounted for. It is possible that some of the land holdings that have been presumed to lie west of the street in fact lay in this area. This would modify the plan somewhat though not substantially. It is more likely that some or all of this area was commonage, Little Street and New Street converge at the Cross and Little Street ran east-west as shown. The Cross (where markets would have been held) is located near the town hall, which is logical.
The location of Lady’s Street is the most difficult to estimate. The location shown is a ‘best fit’ and is supported by the presumption that it ran to the Church of St Mary (being originally possibly Our Lady’s Street) and with the fact that it runs past the location of Lady’s Well. Weaver Street meets Lady’s Street and Little Street and is, therefore, probably as shown. The convergence of these streets is difficult to map with a level of certainty.
Having established, with a reasonable degree of confidence, the layout of the town at the time of the Bannow Survey in 1655, and finding it consistent with the general morphology of planned Anglo-Norman towns of the period, the writer feels that it is reasonable to take it that this morphology or layout originated during the 13th century.
Bannow possessed a quay, a church and a castle, a town hall and market square, and comprised perhaps 50 to 75 burgage plots. Taking the multiple of at least five persons per burgage, this suggests a population of 250-400 inhabitants. Such a layout is shown in Figure 4 providing views of the town as it may broadly have appeared in the late-medieval period.
Figure 5 shows a view northward of the location of the town today. Figure 6 shows the town as it may have looked in the 1300s. The causeway which formed the dam for a tidal mill can be seen (still) in the top (centre) of the picture. The channel that existed in the middle ages between the town and Bannow Island can has now become solid land, which silting up led to the decline of the town, as it no longer served as an effective port and trade moved to New Ross.
Ian Magahy, chartered engineer, BE, MBA, CDip. AF, CEng, MIEI, qualified from University College Cork in 1984 and worked in Ove Arup & Partners in Ireland and the UK. Having graduated with a MBA from Trinity College, Dublin in 1990 he joined NJ O’Gorman & Associates Ltd Consulting Engineers and worked as an associate director until 1998, when he set up his own practice, Ian Magahy Associates – now Magahy Broderick Associates with partner Kieron Broderick.
Medieval Wexford: Essays in memory of Billy Colfer (Ian Doyle & Bernard Browne, editors) explores the medieval period in Co Wexford, as seen through history, archaeology, language, settlement and landscape. These essays acknowledge the interests and writings of the late historian Dr Billy Colfer. The landscapes of Wexford are closely associated with the Anglo-Norman conquest of the 12th–13th centuries. This rich legacy is illuminated in this collection by papers on Dunbrody abbey, the deserted medieval boroughs of Bannow and Old Ross as well as the history and archaeology of the towns of New Ross and Wexford and the villages of Ferns and Taghmon. The history and architecture of the 13th-century Tower of Hook lighthouse is detailed and a new analysis is presented of the ecclesiastical buildings at Ferns. The role of the medieval frontier and the interactions between Gaelic-Irish and colonisers is set out in studies on personal names and plantation settlements, and in the identification of a Brehon law school settlement at Ballyorley. The book also includes essays on post-medieval millstone extraction and on the chequered career of the antiquarian and genealogist Col Hervey de Montmorency-Morres. 540pp; 16pp colour plates + 200 b/w ills. Hardback. ISBN 978-1-84682-570-5 [Retail: €50/£45] For more information, see: http://www.fourcourtspress.ie/books/2016/medieval-wexford/
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