A town steeped in history
“The town of Enniscorthy stands beside the Slaney in the centre of Wexford county; a steep town with street climbing above street from the Norman Castle up to where Pugin’s Cathedral overlooks the scene. It is a homely, handsome place with spacious fair-green and squares, convents, factories, mills, stores, fine schools; overall an air of prosperity that comes from the goodness of the surrounding land and the industry of the people; a democratic place, Irish as the quartz rock on which it stands. From the centre, you look across the river meadow to another hill, Vinegar Hill, on the east bank, crowned by an ancient windmill tower, and wider prospects are through woods to the purple folds of the mountains. If it were in France or Italy, the world would hear of Enniscorthy’s beauty, painters and etchers would depict it in a hundred aspects.”
So wrote Aodh de Blacam in 1949. The Enniscorthy of the factories and mills have changed with the consolidation and rationalisation of industry and the changing face of agriculture. With the onset of urban renewal and the Celtic Tiger much has changed in the ancient town over the past twenty years. It is generally accepted that in spite of the regeneration and architectural revival of some prominent areas of the town, much has remained the same.
Enniscorthy is an old town, proud of its past and history and looking forward to an inspiring future. The origins of the town go back to 510 AD, when St. Senan from County Clare founded a monastic settlement on the eastern side of the River Slaney in the area now known as Templeshannon.
Enniscorthy was to the forefront in the fight for freedom and democracy with two of the great battles of the 1798 Rising fought in the town. The first, on the 28th May, when the Insurgents achieved a great victory and the second, fought in the town and on Vinegar Hill, which the Insurgents lost. It was the last great battle of the Rising. Vinegar Hill is one of the pre-eminent historic hills in Ireland, not alone famous as the site of the battle but the views of the Wexford countryside and of the town of Enniscorthy from its summit are magnificent.
The 1798 Rising is memorialised with a very impressive monument in the Market Square designed by Oliver Sheppard RHA, which was erected in 1908. During the Bicentenary Commemoration of the 1798 Rising a state of the art interpretative centre (the 1798 National Rebellion Centre) was established and it does a fine job of explaining the background to one of Ireland’s pivotal historical events. The exhibition has won a number of awards.
The Norman Castle in the centre of the town is well worth a visit and it displays various exhibitions from time to time. A short distance away is St. Aidan’s Cathedral designed by Augustus Welby Pugin. Construction began in 1843, and it was triumphantly restored in 1994. Pugin was the leading architect of his day and is best known for his work on the Palace of Westminster in London and the Clock Tower of Big Ben.
Between the Castle and the Cathedral lies the historic Athenaeum Theatre, built in 1892, the location of the first encounter between Micheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards in 1927. They founded the Gate Theatre in Dublin in 1928 and became the most famous partnership in the history of Irish theatre.
The Athenaeum was the headquarters of the Irish Volunteers during the 1916 Rising. Enniscorthy was the only urban centre outside Dublin to rise and was the last to surrender.
Just outside the town are situated two more historic buildings – St. Senan’s Hospital, built in 1863-6 and described as one of the most important components of the nineteenth century built heritage of County Wexford, and nearby Brownswood – a magnificent country house dating from 1896, with panoramic views over the Slaney and once home to the internationally renowned architect and designer, Eileen Gray. Although dead since 1976, she is still making headline news; her ‘Dragons’ armchair fetched almost €22 million at the Yves Saint Laurent sale of the century.
The town hosted many big events over the years – the All-Ireland Ploughing Championship in 1994, Bastille Day in 1989, Vinegar Day in 1998, Stage Start of the Tour de France in 1998 and Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in 1999 and 2000.
Enniscorthy has produced many writers, best known of whom are Colm Tóibín, Anthony Cronin and Éamonn Wall.