On Wednesday March 23rd, 2022, the sun shone brightly over Wexford when I was visiting historic Ferns to meet Catherine Mac Partlin, manager of Medieval Ferns Experience, who promised to guide me through the rich historical tapestry of this village with a population of 1415. It has evidence of settlement from the iron age and a huge amount of medieval history dating back to the 6th century St Aidan [the fiery one]. founded a monastery there. It is difficult to comprehend so much history packed into such a small area.
It is equally great to see a dynamic local community in a village bringing this fantastic compact tourism project to fruition.
We started our tour in the Medieval Ferns Experience which intertwines all the historical strands of Ferns medieval story. It is well worth a visit, and I found it very helpful before I went on the guided tour. It is a very attractive unit based in the community centre in Main Street, Ferns which was only opened in August 2021. I was greeted on arrival by the very friendly receptionist, Margaret Christopher. On the wall behind the reception desk was a lovely print of Diarmait Mc Murrough by local artist Cloida Morris immediately drawing you into his territory.
There is also a well-presented sensory area. I am afraid I did not do too well in this department, but I will not ruin your fun when you visit. I loved their virtual reality headsets where you could experience the the breath-taking images of Castle walls, the basement area, and some other historic areas of Ferns. It really gives you a sense that you are in a truly historic place.
I then went into the next area to view an excellent 8-minute audio visual presentation with voice over by Ann Doyle, a Ferns native and ex RTE newsreader. This puts the history of Ferns in context and gives a lovely introduction to the Medieval story of Ferns. It is truly breath-taking to watch buildings and people from as far back as the 6th century virtually coming to life before your eyes and knowing that the remains of Ancient High Crosses, Cathedral, Chapter house and many other historical buildings are still there in historic Ferns, and you get the chance to physically stand on areas of the monastic settlement and late 6th century Christian period. The name Ferns comes from ‘Fearna’, The place of the Alders which had a great place in Irish mythology being the tree of war, death and of fire.
I was fascinated by the story of Aoife aged 17, Daughter of Diarmait who in 1170 married Richard de Clare or Strongbow who was twice her age. This was not only a marriage of two cultures but also of England and Ireland which changed the face of Ireland forever. Whenever I visit the National Art Gallery, I am forever drawn to the painting of the Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife and this amazing painting features strongly in the audio-visual piece in the Medieval Ferns Experience.
As I moved from this lovely informative presentation, I stepped into the inauguration stone challenge. This is very popular with groups and families. I first listened to a Brehon lawyer telling me about the inauguration of the king and he suggested I answer a question to see if I was fit to be king. I answered correctly that I was ready to follow my quest for power and was deemed to be a royal candidate. I was really chuffed with this. The old Brehon law school was in Boolavogue.
Having passed the royal test, I had a word with St Aidan while St David of Wales popped in a few times during the chat in a well-presented audio presentation in the reception area. Interestingly David would be right at home today with health-conscious people as he was reputed to be a vegetarian surviving mainly on a diet of leeks and water.
After I immersed myself in the contextual history of the area in the medieval experience we ventured into the great outdoors for an introduction to the trail where you can explore Ferns, founded 1400 years ago by St. Aidan. I loved the Norman helmets strategically located around the streets of Ferns with each of them giving you a little gem of local lore. I really liked the one dealing with the Giant’s bed. On the horizon ahead of me I could see the low hill Carrigrew. The big dent in the middle of this low hill was caused by a giant striding from Scotland to the Giants Causeway. He plonked himself down on the hill for a rest and when he stood up, he left the imprint of his bum on the hill. Believe it or believe it not.
At the back of the Medieval Experience, I saw a very packed children’s medieval themed playground with children running over drawbridges and into castles. This was a lovely setting for a fun area which adds to the tourism attractiveness of the village in a greenfield site. The fact that it was a sunny day added to its attractiveness.
On walking through the Cathedral graveyard dating back to the sixth century, I noted the grave of Diarmait Mc Murrough, King of Leinster [1110- 1171] and his son Domhnall Caomhanac [1128-1175]. Any scholar of history will know that he is the same Diarmait who invited the Normans to Ireland in 1169. There is also clearly visible a broken granite shaft of a high cross to mark his grave.
As I stand at the grave I can see St Mary’s Abbey, built by Mc Murrough in 1158 and in 1167/8 he waited in it for the Normans to come to his aid.
The charred part remains of Fr John Murphy, of 1798 rebellion fame, are also reputed to lie in this Cathedral graveyard.
My final visit was to St Edan’s Cathedral which stands on the site of an early 13th century medieval Cathedral and has many historical artefacts including an effigy of Bishop John St John who built the Cathedral. It is also said that St Aidan, the first bishop of Ferns is buried under the Cathedral. This building is a real gem to visit and to enjoy all it contains. If you visit on a sunny day, please note the lovely stained glass window depicting St Patrick.
No visit to Ferns during May to September would be complete without visiting Ferns Castle where among other artefacts you can view the Ferns Tapestry in the visitor centre. This tapestry consists of 25 panels representing pre-Norman history in the area.
I must say I really enjoyed my packed 2 hours in Ferns. I have visited many historic places around Ireland and abroad but it has taken me over 55 years to immerse myself in the rich history of neighbouring Ferns with so much history packed into such a small place. Because of its importance to Irelands Medieval story Ferns Heritage Group bring renowned historians and archaeologists together every year to share thoughts on Ferns.
Ferns is truly a place to visit if you have any interest in Irish history. Make sure you visit the Medieval Ferns Experience or book a guided walking tour by phone on 08949469725 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
It is worthwhile visiting their page on the Ferns Village website https://fernsvillage.ie/medieval-ferns-experience where they display pictorially some of the wall panels which feature in the experience as well as giving you details of booking, opening times and entry fees.
Go on, start your research now and follow the road to Ferns, The Ancient Capital of Leinster and Gateway to Norman Wexford. You will be enriched historically.
Walk in the footsteps of saints, Gaelic kings and Norman knights by taking a guided walking tour of key medieval sites in Ferns. You can pre-book a tour by contacting the Medieval Ferns Experience on 08949469725.
Michael O’ Callaghan