Ferns: Discovering St Aidan’s Monastery an initiative supported by the Ancient Connections Project

In October 2019 the Irish Archaeology Field School (IAFS) were delighted to receive Ministerial Consent to conduct archaeological excavations at the site of St Aidan’s monastery in Ferns, Co Wexford from summer 2020. Now that our consent is in place, we will be detailing the background to this new exciting project (a culmination of several months’ work) in a short blog series.

The Ancient Connections Project is focused on the figure heads of St David and St Aidan. St. David, the patron saint of Wales, was the instructor of St Aidan who is synonymous with several early medieval sites in Wexford and Ferns. The monastic site of Ferns was founded sometime around the turn of the seventh century by St Aidan, also known as St Máedóc or St Mogue (d. 632), who was active in the sixth and seventh centuries, having originally derived from modern Cavan. While the Ancient Connections Project is focused on these early medieval icons, it explores shared connections through time, from Neolithic tombs, through our shared Cambro-Norman heritage to connections which still resonate in our folk beliefs to this day.

The archaeological excavations form an integral part of a wider heritage project, provisionally entitled ‘Discovering St Aidan’s Monastery’, which aims to draw the archaeological site into the ‘Ferns Story’ in a creative and sustainable manner. The initial phase of our work is supported as part of a larger project entitled Rediscovering Ancient Connections (or Ancient Connections Project), a new cross-border arts and heritage project linking Pembrokeshire and Wexford. This project is intended to revive the ancient links between communities in both these regions, helping them to rediscover their shared heritage. The project is supported by the European Rural Development Fund and is led by Pembrokeshire County Council, with project partners and joint beneficiaries Wexford County Council, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority and Visit Wexford. The project runs from 2019 – 2022, with our excavations possibly continuing beyond this timeframe.

Ferns ruins of St Marys Augustinian Abbey at site of excavations 2020 to 2023
Ancient Connections Logo for Discovering Medieval Ferns blog series

The Ancient Connections Project is in fact divided into eight ‘work packages’ that cover a range of cultural heritage, arts, community, tourism, business and other initiatives. Our excavation is contained with a package entitled ‘Exploring a Shared Past’, which includes excavations and geophysical surveys in both Wales and Ireland. In Wales, the excavations are focused on St Patrick’s Chapel, which overlooks the beach at Whitesands near St Davids City. These excavations are being undertaken by Dyfed Archaeological Trust, who have been investigating this multi-period site from 2014.

In Ireland the decision was taken to advertise for a ‘Preferred Partner’ to coordinate an excavation through an archaeological field-school, which would run the excavations in a self-financing and long-term manner – albeit with seed funding being provided through the Ancient Connections Project. The IAFS successfully applied for this role in June 2019. Since that point there has been a lot of progress behind the scenes – including choosing a site, obtaining landowner consent, securing facilities, building connections with the local community and heritage groups, initiating non-invasive surveys etcetera. The final step in this ‘planning stage’ was securing Ministerial Consent for the excavation, which was forthcoming in October 2019. With this secured the project now moves into a new phase – focused on publicity, marketing and student enrolment.

We are delighted to be working with the Ancient Connections Project on this and are excitedly looking forward to our start date in the field next summer.