Setting the scene: the formation of the Ferns landscape and life before St Aidan
by Dr Stephen Mandal
Ferns today is a small town in north Co. Wexford with a population of just over 1,400. Although the town boasts stunning upstanding heritage (including, for example, the ruins of Ferns Castle and St Mary’sAbbey), much of the former splendour and importance of the town is now preserved in historical records and sub-surface archaeological remains. However, truth be told, medieval Ferns was one of south-eastern Ireland’s most important settlements. It played a key role in local, regional and national history from its foundation by St Aidan in c. 598, especially when serving as Diarmait Mac Murchada’s royal seat and the capital of an influential medieval diocese.
The landscape into which St Aidan first set foot was formed through a long and complex sequence of geological and glacial processes and subsequently shaped by several millennia of human settlement. Unsurprisingly then the history of Ferns is inextricably linked to this natural landscape and the underlying bedrock and glacial sediments and soils, which not only influenced the selection of Aidan’s monastic site, but also provided much of the raw material with which the settlement (and later buildings at the site) were built.
The bedrock underlying Ferns broadly consists of sediments laid down during the Ordovician Period (c. 485 to 440 million years ago), into which volcanics were erupted. These represent a time when the Iapetus ocean, which once separated the north-west of Ireland from the south-east, was closing, with the subduction of plates and the generation of volcanoes and earthquakes. Mountains were formed to the north, and there was an increase in sediment being carried by rivers into the closing ocean. Today, these rocks form a north-east to south-west trending band of sediments and volcanics that extends through the south-east of Ireland. Bedrock is generally not exposed in Ferns and the surrounding area, although it is close to the surface in pockets in the wider area. The area is widely covered with glacial sediments laid down during the Quaternary Period, starting some 1.7 million years ago. During this time, a series of glacial events formed Ireland’s landscape. It is hard to envisage the depth and power of the ice sheets across the country, but their impact can be seen in the glacial landforms that remain throughout the island. Ice-sculpted mountains, glaciated valleys, corrie lakes, eskers, drumlins and moraines dominate the Irish topographical landscape. The soils of the area, which started to form as the ice sheets retreated and the landscape became more stable, consist of fine loamy drift containing siliceous stones (derived from the overlying tills).
It is likely that St Aidan’s early monastic site was deliberately placed at its location in Ferns due to its favourable landscape, but also as the area had an established prehistoric significance, itself influenced by the natural landscape. While the evidence of pre-historic occupation is limited, artefacts found during excavations in the town and as stray finds in the area, coupled with the known burial sites in Ferns, hint at a significant axis of prehistoric settlement from Ferns town centre to the Bann River and beyond. Further evidence of St Aidan’s monastery being part of a multi-period complex was revealed in recent geophysical surveys, notably those conducted in 2021, which indicate that complex multi-period archaeology surrounds St Marys Abbey and its surrounding field(s) in particular (these surveys will be discussed in a future blog!).
Whatever the reasons for choosing the site for his monastery, the founding of a monastic settlement by St Aidan irrevocably changed Ferns commencing a long, complex and intriguing story of religion and politics.
Acknowledgment of Support: This blog is number one of a ten-part series entitled Discovering Medieval Ferns which has been funded by the Rediscovering Ancient Connections – The Saints (Ancient Connections) Project. Ancient Connections is an ‘inter-reg’ cross-border arts and heritage project linking Pembrokeshire and north Wexford, which strives to revive the ancient links between these communities, allowing them to rediscover their shared heritage and trade knowledge, experience, and skills. Ancient Connections have also funded a major academic volume, also entitled Discovering Medieval Ferns, upon which this blog series is based. This volume, which includes fifteen papers from an interdisciplinary team of twenty+ scholars, aims to highlight the remarkable history and archaeology of medieval Ferns, focusing on intriguing discoveries from recent excavations and research programmes. The volume, which is the most complete picture to date of the origins and evolution of medieval Ferns, will be published by Four Courts Press later in 2023.