In January of 2018 the Digging the Lost Town of Carrig archaeological project commenced at Carrick ringwork (SMR WX037-028002-) in the Irish National Heritage Park (INHP), Ferrycarrig, Co. Wexford. The project, established as a partnership between the Irish Archaeology Field School (IAFS) and INHP (with support from Wexford County Council), aims to assess one of the most historically significant, but lesser known, medieval sites in Ireland. The Carrig project is centred on a major research excavation of the ringwork, which hopes to draw the site into the park as a ‘key attraction’, in the process providing added economic and amenity value to the local community. Crucially, through heritage engagement and education initiatives, the project aims to instill the site into public consciousness both locally and nationally.
The site, founded in the winter of 1169 by Robert FitzStephen, was the first Anglo-Norman stronghold in the country being constructed the year before the main Anglo-Norman landing party at Baginbun. A stone castle, medieval borough and deerpark developed close to (or on) the site of the ringwork in the 13th century. However, despite the historical importance of the ringwork, its location within a heritage park, or the occurrence of previous excavations at the site in the 1980s, the site does not feature heavily in public memory; our work is an important step in establishing Carrick’s rightful importance to the medieval histories of both Co. Wexford and the nation.
The 2018 excavations initiated a ‘soft launch’ for the project, with a recognition from the offset of the importance of the impending 850th anniversary of both the Anglo-Norman landing and the Carrick site in 2019, when the official project launch takes place. However, progress in 2018 exceeded expectations with the groundwork laid in terms of excavation, non-invasive survey, historical research and academic collaboration to make this volume just a year after the project start.
While the site is commonly referred to as Ferrycarrig, Carrick ringwork is in fact located in the townland of Newtown (named after Carrick’s medieval borough, a ‘Newtown’ to Wexford) on the southern side of the River Slaney approximately 4km west of Wexford town. The site is situated at the head of a ‘promontory’ of land which falls dramatically in a sheer escarpment toward the river.
There is no clear archaeological evidence for occupation at the site before its 1169 foundation date, although a collared urn burial (WX037-029—-) is located within Newtown Townland c. 200m south east of the site. The historical importance of Carrick in the medieval period is, however, well documented and it features in both Expugnatio Hibernica and The Song of Dermot and the Earl.
In May of 1169 a force of approximately 500 to 600 Anglo-Normans led by Robert FitzStephen and Maurice de Prendergast landed at Bannow Bay on the south coast of Wexford. They were joined by Diarmait Mac Murchada with a force of 500 men, before marching and capturing the Hiberno-Norse town of Wexford. Lands, including the town of Wexford, were granted to FitzStephen and Maurice FitzGerald, with the former fortifying his new grant by constructing a ‘ringwork’ castle on top of a large rock at Ferrycarrig (or Carrick). Carrick was attacked by Domnall, son of Diarmait Mac Murchada, with a purported force of 3000 men in 1171, forcing FitzStephen into surrender. Accounts of the siege indicate that in 1171 the site consisted of a bank and fosse, with a wooden palisade (as well as a presumably wooden castle and potentially a wooden gatehouse).
The site, along with Wexford town, was given to Strongbow in 1173, subsequently passing to Strongbow’s daughter Isabella de Clare upon his death in 1176. A stone castle at the site was almost certainly constructed between 1189 and 1231 when Carrick was under the control of the Marshal family. Certainly, the first reference to a castle of Carrick is recorded at the time of William Marshal II’s death in 1231. Carrick was established as a borough at some stage during the early 13th century, as an inquisition in 1307 records a borough with c. 111 houses; the borough is now understood to have grown up to the east of the ringwork, having since been separated from the ringwork and stone castle in the modern landscape by the construction of the main N11 road in the 1980s. A deepark, one of a handful of recorded examples in Ireland and perhaps one of the earliest, was also established at the site by the mid-13th century.
By the early 14th century Carrick is recorded as ruinous (a ruined hall and chapel are documented within the enclosure at this time). The decline of the town in the 14th century mirrors the experience of the Anglo-Norman colony in much of Co. Wexford and Ireland in general. The manor of Carrick, and a number of land sales, continue to be recorded in the 15th and 16th centuries, with the castle last recorded as ‘still remaining’ as late as 1587. The final destruction of the castle is likely to have resulted from quarrying in the 18th or 19th centuries, for use in buildings such as Wexford Bridge in the 1790s or Belmont House (1km from the site) in c. 1800. Stone from the castle was also used during the construction of a replica of an early medieval round tower (WX037-028001), constructed as a Crimean War Memorial in the middle of the ringwork, in 1857/58.
In 1987, following the construction of the N11 road, the landscape surrounding the park was established as the INHP, a 14-hectare outdoor museum that depicts 9000 years of re-created Irish history within natural forestry and wet woodlands. Covering prehistoric through to Anglo-Norman periods and featuring various buildings and structures typical of each period, the INHP has been educating the general public on Irish heritage for over 30 years. Despite the Carrick ringwork being the only authentic archaeological site within the park it did not feature heavily as an attraction. To encourage both public understanding of the site and increase tourist footfall to this area of the park, the INHP invited the IAFS to commence an archaeological project at the site in 2018. This was spearheaded by an international field school, which has grown in popularity exponentially in recent years as an alternative to traditional campus based third level education.
Archaeological excavations have been undertaken at Carrick ringwork on three different occasions prior to the IAFS, in 1984, 1986/87 and 2015. The first occurred in 1984 when several cuttings, including one through the ringwork, were excavated by Isabel Bennett in advance of the construction of the INHP. Further excavations were undertaken at the site by Claire Cotter in 1986 and 1987, when six cuttings were excavated through the ditch and a further four were excavated on the interior of the site. Finally, keyhole excavations were also undertaken at the base of the Crimean War Monument (round tower), to facilitate the placement of lightning conductor mats for the monument, in 2015 by Emmet Stafford.
In January 2018, the IAFS commenced archaeological excavations at the site under license to the National Monuments Service (License Number 17E0318). The main agenda for initial excavation and associated works was to ready the project for its official launch in 2019. For the site these works included: a) clearing the site of vegetative overgrowth, to define the monuments form; b) re-exposing the 1980s cuttings, before undertaking a selective program of excavation and environmental sampling, in advance of radiometric and c) incorporating the dig into a full program of historical and archaeological research, so that Carrick and might be better understood within its wider landscape. This program of research included commissioning high resolution geophysical surveys and 3D scans in partnership with the University of Bournemouth and Ithaca College respectively. A geological assessment of the masonry remains on the site and the round tower was also undertaken.
The inaugural year saw considerable progress, with all three internal cuttings that contained archaeology in the 1980s re-exposed and re-recorded. An additional new cutting was also opened. These excavations helped assess the original 12th century defenses, 12th century structures and 13th-14th century masonry buildings on the site, as well as their overlying deposits.
The 12th century defenses include a large external ditch (c. 2m in depth by 5m+ in width) and a c. 2m high bank; a large possible defensive wall, or wall of a defensive structure (1.8m wide and 10.20m long), was also found crowning a part of the bank. The ephemeral remains of 12th century wooden structures were recorded on the ringwork interior, overlain by a charcoal layer dating to 1040-1210 cal. AD (with a 57.8% probability of dating from 1120-1210 AD). These post-holes are likely to represent some of the very first Anglo-Norman structures in the country! Two stone buildings were documented during the excavation, each consisting of three surviving walls, typically only one or two courses in height. While the excavation of these buildings is in its infancy it is tempting to associate these structures with the ruinous hall and chapel located within the ‘enclosure’ (or classum) of Carrick, as recorded in an inquisition in 1323-1324.
The excavation in January 2018, while a great success, was only the first step of a 15+ year research project. This excavation in time will lead to a greater understanding of the Carrick ringwork and subsequent stone castle, as well as comparable sites. The dig will also add to our understanding of the rest of the medieval settlement of Carrick (outside the confines of the INHP), where future non-invasive survey and, hopefully, targeted excavation is planned. As important as the excavations themselves is the integration of the archaeological work into the consciousness of both the local community and historical dialogues on the coming of the Anglo-Normans to both Co. Wexford, and Ireland at large. The Digging the Lost Town of Carrig project, while facilitated by a 3rd level research dig, is an opportunity for all to understand in a richer and experiential way, what happened in southeast of Ireland 850 years ago when the first wave of Anglo-Normans landed on Wexford’s coast. While this event may have at times been historically overlooked or misrepresented in the past, remembering shared histories and commonalities seems to take on even greater importance in 2019, when our future relations with our nearest neighbours are so uncertain!
Green, A. 2018 Newtown, Ferrycarrig, Co. Wexford. Unpublished Technical Report to the National Monuments Service (Licence Number 18R0099).
Shine, D. and Mandal, S. 2018. Digging the Lost Town of Carrig: Archaeological Excavation Report. Unpublished Technical Report to the National Monuments Service (Licence Number 17E0318).
Shine, D., Mandal, S., Hayes, C. and Harris, M. 2018. Finding Carrig. Archaeology Ireland, 32 (2), 35-40.