Wexford People

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Quiet little Bree wants to cash in on its heritage

BREE has no casino. Bree has no public swimming pool. Bree is notable for a complete absence of four-star hotels and nightclubs. Bree has yet to stage a major pop festival. No reports of moving statues emanate from Bree. No American President or head of state from any other leading nation has (so far) traced his/her roots back to Bree.

Bree may be renowned as the place where the Irish countrywomen's association was founded – but that auspicious initiative occurred more than a century ago. And a village called Bree is mentioned by Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings, where – if the movie is anything to go by – the local hostelry fell far short of the impeccable standards maintained by Byrne's in the real thing. Tolkien's Bree, east of the Shire and south of Fornost Erain, may be more famous but it never existed at all.

In short, the actual Bree, to be found east of Adamstown and south of Enniscorthy, is an out-of-the-way, sleepy rural back water. Its tennis courts do not rank alongside those of Wimbledon or Flushing Meadow. It has a splendid athletic tradition but has been overlooked to date as a venue for the Olympics.

At least, of course, Bree has the amazing Celtic Roots traditional entertainment group, who have brought their brand of Slaney riverdancing to audiences around the world, from Oslo to the Amazon. Now Bree is reaching out and trying to cash in on another resource – its past. Other sleepy rural back waters around Co Wexford would do well to sit up and take note of the example set by the Bree heritage project.

The project is led by professional archaeologist Colm Moriarty, who has returned to his Bree roots after working in Dublin. Much of his time in the capital was spent ensuring that all the items of interest unearthed during the road construction boom of the Celtic Tiger were properly examined and recorded. He was also excavation manager at Hammond Lane, where an 11th-century Viking house was brought to light on the north bank of the Liffey.

Now that the wounded tiger has slunk back to its lair, he is back amid the gentler landscape of his native parish, charged with looking after two small children. Happily, the demands of being a daddy leave him with time enough on his hands to lead a passionate exploration of Bree's historical legacy, with the help of a grant from a Department of the Environment fund (now deceased, unfortunately).

The fact is that Bree is replete with the past, heaving with heritage, awash with archaeology, all waiting to be explored by those who have a grá for such things. Only the other week, four previously unrecorded Bronze Age barbecue sites – burnt mounds more properly referred to as fulacht fiadha – were brought to light with the assistance of Nim Dunne at Knockduff. There is talk of a mediaeval farmstead at Ballybuckley and a granite quern (corn grinder) at Coolteigue.

Thanks to the likes of Nim and Colm, the full significance of Bree's lovely landscape is gradually being exposed and explained and advertised. The project has been attracting audiences of 20 to 30 people for events that are not really outings – perhaps they may be referred to as innings? Anyway, however they are called, crowds have gathered to see sites such as Wilton Castle (currently undergoing refurbishment), the dolmen at Ballybrittas (billed as Wexford's oldest standing structure) and the mysterious standing stones of Barmoney in Galbally.

Now it has dawned on Colm & Co that passing visitors may arrive in Bree at any time and not just on the days when the site visits happen to be taking place. There is a requirement to pass helpful information to tourists so that they leave better informed and eager to tell their friends that Bree is well worth a stop. So, displays are beginning to spring up at various locations providing printed narratives of local history.

Various locations? So far two have been earmarked by the project and by Wexford County Council, which owns the graveyards at Clonmore and Ballybrennan where signs will be displayed. The latter is a truly mystically marvellous spot, a reminder of the days when the defunct local parish of Kilcowanmore (translated into English as Saint Cuan's church) was associated with the work of the Knights Hospitallers. We learn too that the Cuan venerated at Ballybrennan appears to be Saint Cunnan Glinne of Moville in Co Down (feast day February 3. This obscure divine is given credit for founding the church at Ballybrennan before he became abbot of Moville during the 8th century AD.

Tolkien would surely have loved it.