The Wexford Carol

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Click on the photo to view the video

The Wexford (Enniscorthy) Carol, a traditional Irish folk carol, became known internationally, after the organist at the Cathedral in Enniscorthy had it published in the Oxford Book of Carols in the early twentieth century. He had it transcribed from a local singer. The carol is one of twelve recorded in a collection produced by Caitríona O’Leary in , The Wexford Carols, with vocal contributions from Tom Jones, Rosanne Cash, and  Rhiannon Giddens.

 The carols are from Ireland’s Penal Laws era, between early seventeenth and late eighteenth centuries, when Catholicism was suppressed. The period witnessed persistent conflict, including the Confederacy wars, the Cromwellian invasion and the Williamite war. Even as the Laws receded, divisions remained embedded. Following emancipation, the Catholic presence in Irish society was re-instituted, until it became dominant, too dominant. Whereas during the Penal era, Catholic rituals were celebrated in outbuildings or in venues hidden in hollows and other secret places, those built following emancipation were high up on hills or other dominant positions.

  The Wexford Carols are of the penal era and they clearly draw a connection between the dark period of the Roman occupation of Palestine, and the British coercion of Irish Catholic nationalists. The album is haunting and as a collection it truly honours the folk tradition, and its role in Irish music and song more broadly.

   The Wexford (Enniscorthy) Carol is the best known of the collection. I have listened to many recordings and as well as O’Leary’s version I particularly enjoy Alison Krauss with backing from Yo Yo Ma. I find the tune evocative and the lyrics, an authentic account of the story of Bethlehem, although obviously, Wexford itself has nothing to do with a pregnant Mary and her partner Joseph’s search for refuge, a story nonetheless that could be set anywhere: the streets of Dublin; the beaches of Greece and Italy, or the US border with Mexico.

   Personally, I find theories about the existence of God shaky, whatever their source, but I enjoy the stories, and the ritual that goes with it all, and I am particularly fascinated by the role of Christianity in helping to found and establish Western society, and its role in Irish history and heritage.

   I spend a lot of time around the Hook Peninsula in Wexford, fifty kilometres south of Enniscorthy. It is saturated with monuments of Christian settlement, and other historical events. The fifth century monk Dubhán set up a monastery on the Waterford side of the peninsula, at Churchtown, where the ancient tradition of Pattern a gathering of parishioners to pray at local gravesides, continued for centuries and still happens.  The monks erected the first light on Hook Head as a warning beacon to visiting ships and today the Hook Lighthouse is among the longest surviving working lighthouses, anywhere.

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   North of the lighthouse are Baginbun (photo) and Bannow Bay, sites for the twelfth century Norman invasion, which was sponsored by the Papacy, to establish a new structure of settled agriculture, land ownership and peasantry. As with most invasions, after the soldiers, then came the merchants, and then the religious: in this case the Cistercians, the Franciscans, the Augustinians, and the Knights Templar who replaced the frugal monastic communities with larger commercial farming estates, alongside monasteries, churches and castles. When I read the area’s history what I find most fascinating was how much commerce, industry and trade existed alongside religious communities, who were  equivalent perhaps to modern-day multi-national corporates.

    Key confrontations in the Confederacy wars took place in Duncannon, north of the Church of the Knights Templar, at Templetown. It was also later, at different times, the point of departure for both the defeated James, and the victorious William, following the Battle of the Boyne

   For this video I’ve included as a backdrop to religious sites, as a reminder of the entwining of Ireland’s landscape with religious settlements. I have not included Duncannon, nor the new Church sites, as these are for another piece, maybe a second video next year, with a different version of the carol. For now, enjoy this version from O’Leary, Jones, Cash and Giddens. Indeed, buy the album, if you haven’t done so. It’s a great collection.


Gentl© Barry Cullen 2018