Wexford People

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Ships, sailors and life at sea documented in Wexford book


A busy day in Wexford Harbour in this picture from the late 1800s, with at least 13 sailing vessels and a steam-ship alongside. National Library of Ireland

A busy day in Wexford Harbour in this picture from the late 1800s, with at least 13 sailing vessels and a steam-ship alongside. National Library of Ireland

The schooner 'Gleaner' at New Ross in the 1890s

The schooner 'Gleaner' at New Ross in the 1890s


A busy day in Wexford Harbour in this picture from the late 1800s, with at least 13 sailing vessels and a steam-ship alongside. National Library of Ireland

For decade after decade throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the seas of Wexford played host to thousands of ships from across the globe.

Coming in all shapes and sizes and carrying everything from coal to beet, these ships docked all over the county providing jobs and strengthening the local economy. Yet, the memories of these ships, and the men who sailed upon them, have largely been forgotten, the advent of steamboats in the 1950s consigning the old sailing ships to the annals of history.

But now two local historians have come together to provide a detailed and thorough account of a century of life on the Wexford seas.

Entitled 'Sailing Ships of Wexford 1840's - 1940's: A Century of Sail in County Wexford' the book was written by Jack O'Leary and Brian Cleare and offers an unrivalled, unique look at one of the most interesting periods in local history.

Having first met while working on the ships 25 years ago the two men reconnected in recent years and, having now retired, decided to put their love of all things maritime to good use. Thus began years of painstaking research and fact-finding with both men determined to ensure their book would be the definitive edition of this snapshot in time.

And while they managed to source images of many of the more well-known ships to dock in the county there were many which had never been pictured. However, the duo had an ace up their sleeve.

'Brian would be the foremost maritime artist in Ireland,' says Jack as he leafs through the countless drawings done by his co-author each adding to the already considerable number of black and white and colour photos in the book.

'They took four or five days to do each,' Brian explains. 'Rather than just use my imagination I would have researched where and when the ship was built, its background, where it was docking, what that area was like at the time, whether it was the Bosphorous or wherever.'

The result is a mammoth hardback book containing 460 odd pages and hundreds of images and drawings. But this is not just a picture-book. Accompanying each image, each drawing, are details of each ship; its history, the kind of cargo it took, its sailing patterns, crew, and so on.

Indeed in some cases Jack and Brian were able to uncover more than just the bare details of a ship. Real-life accounts of life at sea are documented throughout the tome, the exploits of sailors and the hardships they faced during arduous journeys across Europe, from Gibraltar to Malta, through the Mediterranean, Constantinople and then up the Danube towards the Romanian port of Galati, a stop which involved hauling the ship ashore, which sometimes took weeks of hard, unyielding graft.

Yet some of the ships which docked in the county weren't always that welcome. 'There was a ship called The Forth which brought cholera to Wexford,' Jack reveals. 'It practically decimated the town.'

Born and bred in Maudlintown, Jack says ships and sailors were simply part of life when he was growing up.

'In the Faythe, Maudlintown, Williamstown, when I was growing up, those places were full of seamen, you'd see them every day. And all of those men all sailed on these ships.'

And Brian says those ties to the oceans are still present in virtually every corner of the county.

'There isn't a house in Wexford which doesn't have some sort of connection with the sea, whether its an uncle, aunt, grandparent, if you go back far enough there's someone in every family,' he says.

Featuring ships which docked in Wexford, New Ross, Enniscorthy, Courtown, Kilmore, Rosslare and virtually ever inlet or jetty across the coast the book will officially be launched in Wexford County Library on Thursday, December 12 by Captain Sean Boyce of Stena Europort.

It will retail at €30 and will be available for purchase in the Book Centre in Wexford and Waterford, the Dunbrody in New Ross, as well as in the Rosslare Harbour Maritime Heritage Centre.

The two authors will host book signings in the Book Centre, Wexford on December 13 at 3.30 p.m and in the Dunbrody on December 18 from 2 to 4 p.m.

Thanking C&R Print for publishing the book, Celestine Murphy for reformatting it and their sponsors Wexford County Council, Madeleine Quirke, the Rosslare Maritime Enthusiasts, Lar Joy, Frank Ronan, Ben Radford, Dr David Dempsey and the Southend Resource Centre.

Wexford People