Digging the Lost Town of Carrig
Compiled & Written by: Denis Shine, Stephen Mandal, Chris Hayes and Madeleine Harris
In January of 2018 the Irish Archaeology Field School (IAFS) and Irish National Heritage Park (INHP) launched a major new archaeological research project – Digging the Lost Town of Carrig – in the townland of Newtown, Ferrycarrig, Wexford. This project aims to assess one of the most historically significant sites in Ireland, the ‘Ferrycarrig Ringwork’ (SMR WX037-028002-), which was founded in the winter of 1169 by Robert FitzStephen. The site is of national importance as it represents the very first wave of Norman colonisation of the country, being constructed the year before the main Norman landing party at Baginbun. A stone castle and medieval borough developed close to (or on) the site of the ringwork in the 13th century.
Today the site is located at the western limit of the INHP – a stunning backdrop consisting of a 14 hectare outdoor museum that depicts 9000 years of re-created Irish history within natural forestry and wet woodlands. Covering prehistoric through to Norman periods, and featuring various buildings and structures typical of each period, the park is an established cornerstone of heritage and tourism experiences in the southeast of Ireland. However, despite the historical importance of the ringwork, its location within a heritage park, or the occurrence of excavations at the site in the 1980s, the site does not feature heavily in public consciousness, nor for that matter as an attraction with the INHP. An important aim of our project is to generate an awareness of Carrick regionally, nationally and internationally.
The project will comprise: a) a major research dig, which will aim to clarify the form, function and date of the ringwork, as well as that of the castle and settlement that subsequently developed at the site; b) drawing the archaeological site into the park in a creative and sustainable manner, in the process providing added economic and amenity value to the local community; c) providing heritage engagement and education opportunities both to the local community, as well as domestic and international visitors.
The aim of this paper is to introduce the Carrick site and project to a national audience and to surmise the site’s history as well as previous and on-going archaeological work.
The site/area is most commonly referred to as Ferrycarrig, but Carrick is in fact in the townland of Newtown, Co. Wexford. Ferrycarrig is the townland on the northern side of the River Slaney, directly across from Carrick. The site is c. 4km west of Wexford town and is situated at the head of a ‘promontory’ of land which extends into the Slaney River; this headland reaches a height of c. 29m and falls dramatically in a sheer escarpment toward the river. Immediately east of the site is the main N11 road. The road’s construction radically altered the original landscape surrounding the site, as a cutting c. 70m wide and 25m deep was excavated, which is likely to have had significant impacts on archaeological features associated with the town of Carrick.
There is no known archaeological evidence for occupation at the site before its 1169 foundation date – although a collared urn burial (WX037-029—-) is also located within Newtown Townland c. 200m south of the site. The foundation of Carrick is well documented and features in both Expugnatio Hibernica by Giraldus Cambrensis and The Song of Dermot and the Earl.
In May of 1169 a force of approximately 500 to 600 Anglo-Norman, French, English, Welsh and Flemish 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, the recently deposed Irish king of Leinster, with a force of 500 men, and marched on the Hiberno-Norse town of Wexford, which surrendered after a short siege. Following the capture of Wexford, Mac Murchada granted lands, including the town of Wexford, to FitzStephen and Maurice FitzGerald. To fortify his position within his new lands, FitzStephen ordered the construction of a ‘ringwork’ castle on top of a large rock at Ferrycarrig (or Carrick), directly overlooking a strategic point on the River Slaney.
Giraldus records that Carrick was attacked by Domnall, son of Diarmait Mac Murchada, with some 3000 men in 1171, when despite the ‘flimsy wall of branches and sods’ and a defensive Norman force of only five knights and a few archers the garrison held until the Irish tricked FitzStephen into surrendering by claiming Dublin had fallen (Scott and Martin, 1978). Giraldus does not mention the site of Carrick again after this event. The Song of Dermot and the Earl likewise records that FitzStephen’s men were ‘betrayed’ during a siege on the castle, again not referencing Carrick after the siege.
The historical accounts indicate that in 1171 the site consisted of a bank and fosse, with a wooden palisade (‘flimsy wall of branches’), as well as a presumably wooden castle and potentially a wooden gatehouse, if it served as FitzStephen’s residence. 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 may have been built on the site at this time but is more likely to have been constructed between 1189 and 1231 when the site was under the control of the Marshall family. Certainly, the castle of Carrick-on-Slaney (along with several others in Wexford) is recorded at the time of William Marshall II’s death in 1231 (being recorded again in 1234, 1245 and 1247). Carrick was established as a borough at some stage during the early 13th century, as an inquisition to the extent of Joanne de Valence’s lands upon her death in 1307 record a borough at the site. This borough may have been quite large as rents at the average of 1s a piece indicates c. 111 houses surrounding the castle (Bennett 1985); the borough is thought to be located directly east of the site, separated from the castle/ringwork, and presumably partly truncated by the modern N11 road.
By 1323-1324 Carrick is recorded as ruinous and valued at nothing in an inquisition into the lands of Joanne’s son, Aymer de Valence; this inquisition also records a ruined and unroofed hall and chapel located within the enclosure. The decline of the town in the 14th century mirrors the experience of the Norman colony in much of Wexford and that of Ireland in general. The manor of Carrick continues to be referenced in the 15th century, which although burned and ruined is still recorded as an asset in 1420. Sales of land in the manor of Carrick took place in 1554 and 1575, and in 1581 when Thomas, Earl of Ormond, was granted, among other lands, the site of the old castle. The castle was also recorded as ‘still remaining’ in 1587 (Bennett 1985) but was not included in the list of the principal castles of the county in the time of Queen Elizabeth, nor was is it listed in the Civil Survey of 1654. The final destruction of the castle is likely to have resulted from quarrying in the 18th or 19th centuries and has variously been argued to have occurred during the construction of Wexford Bridge in the 1790s or Belmont House (1km from the site) in c. 1800. Stone from the castle may also have been used during the construction of a faux Early Christian Round Tower (WX037-028001) as a Crimean War Memorial in the middle of the ringwork in 1857/58.
Previous Archaeological Excavations
Prior to commencing the current excavation, the site was overgrown with gorse and woodland, although the land around the site had been used for both tillage and pasture in living memory. Archaeological excavations had been undertaken at the site of the ringwork on three different occasions 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. A central cutting in the ringwork was placed through the fosse. Within the cutting the entirety of the fosse fill, measuring 1.9m deep by 5.2m wide, was removed. The fosse was found to contain several fills – including a notable basal fill of burnt material (ash and charcoal) and a mortar rich layer, which may relate to the construction of a stone castle at the site. Bennett remarked on the paucity of finds from the fosse, offering an explanation that this may indicate regular cleaning of the site, possibly by disposing of refuse into the adjacent Slaney River. With the exception of the modern pottery only four sherds of pottery (two medieval and two post-medieval), five pieces of glass and eleven pieces of unidentified corroded iron (from medieval contexts), which could not be identified, were recorded. A possibly struck flint and a clay pipe fragment was also collected from the topsoil. Vegetation, and some topsoil, was also removed off the ringwork bank revealing a wall, which Bennett speculated could run across much of the site. A small piece of corroded iron was found adhering to the wall surface and a few pieces of ‘melted glass’ were found adjacent the wall’s facing. Immediately outside the wall five possible postholes were recorded, which were tentatively interpreted as evidence of the original 12th century palisade (see Bennett 1985 for a full discussion on the excavation).
Further excavations were undertaken at the site by Claire Cotter in 1986 and 1987. The works were funded by Wexford County Council and the Social Employment Scheme, as part of works within the INHP. A total of six cuttings were excavated through the ditch in 1986, with a further four excavated on the interior of the site in 1987. The results of this excavation will be published by the excavator shortly. In summary the excavations revealed a burnt structure, possibly of sill beam construction, in the western part of the interior. The associated finds suggest a late 12th/early 13th century date. The stone footings of a building were revealed in the southeastern sector. The building, which is likely to relate to the stone castle or town, seems to have been butted at an angle against the wall previously exposed by Bennett (1985). The excavations indicated that the interior of the site had been heavily disturbed, probably during the construction of the mid-19th century faux tower. The series of cuttings excavated through ditch indicate a maximum depth of c. 2.0m and width of 5.4m. The ditch was crowned by a 1.8m high bank composed of up-cast boulder clays. A wall (0.5m in height), then interpreted as a revetment wall, was recorded on the inside of the enclosing bank. In comparison to the Bennett excavation a large number of artefacts were recorded (n= c. 1600), almost exclusively from a midden deposit abutting the western bank. Almost all the finds dated from the later 12th – 13th centuries, predominantly including a good mix of locally produced potteries and French and English imports. More unusual finds, such as arrow heads, silver long-cross, an iron battle-axe, short-cross halfpenny, barrel padlock etc. were also encountered.
Finally, 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. The excavation was confined to two very discreet cuttings at the base of the war memorial. No archaeological remains were uncovered.
In January 2018, the IAFS, under the direction of Denis Shine and Stephen Mandal, commenced archaeological excavations at the site as part of an international field school. The main agenda for the excavation and associated works in 2018 (which will continue in June-July) was to: a) clear the site of vegetative overgrowth, to define the monuments full form; b) re-expose the cuttings originally excavated by Claire Cotter before undertaking a selective programme of archaeological excavation and environmental sampling (leading to a programme of AMS dating) and c) incorporate the dig into a full programme of historical and archaeological research, so that Carrick and its relationship and importance to the surrounding region might be better understood.
While the excavation is in its infancy the first season in January saw considerable progress. Two of three internal cuttings, which were found to contain archaeology in the 1980s (Cuttings 1 and 2), have been re-exposed and re-recorded. In Cutting 1, a new wall was recorded at the Cuttings’ northern limit. This wall is directly parallel, and may relate to, the ‘revetting wall’ as recorded by Claire Cotter in the 1980s, possibly forming a structure. The wall in Cutting 1 also joins with a robber trench – presumably representing the quarrying of stone foundations – that was previously identified in Cutting 2, providing further evidence of structures within the ringwork (presumably from the 13th century). Features from the 1980s excavation thought to relate to burnt out 12th century structures at the site were also cleaned and extensively sampled, with charcoal extracted and submitted for radiometric dating. The 1980s section through the earthen bank was re-exposed and extended by 1.5m in width.
It was hoped excavation would re-identify the 12th century ground surface and provide an opportunity to obtain datable material. Charcoal from the buried sod layer (relict ground surface) has also been submitted for radiometric dating. A total of 83 artefacts were recovered from this phase of excavation; these have been identified by Claire McCutcheon as including Leinster Cooking ware, Ham Green, Wexford-type cooking ware, Wexford-type coarse ware, Saintonge, Saintonge sgraffito, Bristol Redcliffe etc. These finds are in-keeping with the historical narrative of the site, which indicate the stone castle/town was short lived and restricted to the high medieval period.
The excavation in January 2018, while a great success, was only the first step of a 15+ year research project. Remaining initial questions will be addressed through excavation, and non-invasive survey (such as geophysics and 3D scanning) in June/July 2018, allowing a detailed methodology to be designed for 2019 and future years. This methodology will be formed in consultation with an Academic Committee of leading medieval scholars and archaeologists that has already been established in cooperation with the park. Together the IAFS, Carrick Committee and the INHP will ensure the Digging the Town of Carrig project will afford not only third level students, but also the local community and visitors from further afield a chance to understand in a deeper and experiential way, what happened at Ferrycarrig and the southeast of Ireland 850 years ago when the very first wave Normans landed on our shores.
The authors would like to acknowledge the support of all the staff at the Irish National Heritage Park. Claire Cotter has been of great assistance since the excavation started, read through a draft of the paper and kindly gave permission to replicate her site drawing (Figure 2). Finally, thank you to senior supervisor Richard Reid for helping direct the dig and the brave 25 students and interns who completed the inaugural season in January. If you are interested in seeing the excavation it will be active again all June and July 2018. Any inquiries can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bennett, I. 1985. Preliminary Archaeological Excavations at Ferrycarrig Ringwork, Newtown Td., Co. Wexford. Journal of the Old Wexford Society, 10: 25-43.
Colfer, B. 2002. Arrogant Trespass: Anglo-Norman Wexford 1169-1400. Duffry Press, Wexford.
Scott, A.B. and Martin, F.X. (eds.) 1978. Expugnatio Hibernica by Giraldus Cambrensis.New History of Ireland Ancillary Publication No. III. Royal Irish Academy, Dublin.