In June 2020 the Irish Archaeology Field School (IAFS) will launch a major next archaeological research project at the site of St Aidan’s Monastery, Ferns, Co. Wexford (WX015-003004-, WX015-003031-, WX015-003032-, WX015-003033-). The project, established as a partnership between the IAFS, Wexford County Council and the local community, aims to assess one of the most historically significant, but hitherto relatively unassessed, Early Medieval sites in southeast Ireland. The St Aidan’s Monastery project is centered on a major research excavation of both the 7th century monastery and a latter 12th century Augustinian Abbey, which hopes to draw the site into the town of Ferns as a ‘key heritage attraction’, in the process providing added economic and amenity value to the local community.
The site is a multi-period complex, originally founded by St Aidan at the turn of the 7th century, which also contains Early Medieval crosses and cross slabs, a twelfth century Augustinian Abbey (founded by the King of Leinster Diarmuid McMurrough), and thirteenth century medieval cathedral (Edan’s Cathedral) within its wider confines. However, despite the historical importance of the ringwork, or the occurrence of limited archaeological work there in the recent past, the site does not feature heavily as a heritage attraction; our work is an important step in establishing the monasteries rightful importance to the medieval histories of Co. Wexford in both the Early Medieval and High Medieval periods.
The official launch of the project is in summer 2020. However, considerable progress has been made in 2019 in terms of non-invasive surveys (3D Lidar scanning at the site and Ferns Castle), geophysical assessments (at the possible site of Clone Church) and a community excavation. Phase 1 of the project is anticipated to run for three seasons, from 2020-2022. The first project phase is partly funded by the Rediscovering Ancient Connections – The Saints initiative, a new cross-border arts and heritage project linking North Pembrokeshire and North Wexford – but the project itself will hopefully run for many years thereafter.
St Aidan’s Monastery has an extensive history reflected in historical sources, built heritage, and sub-surface archaeology. This history potentially extends from prehistory and continues right up unto the present day, with the 13th century site of St Edan’s Cathedral still standing and used a place of worship.
Recent commercially driven archaeology has contributed to our understanding of prehistoric Ferns, particularly the environs of St Aidan’s Monastery. In recent years an Iron Age ring-ditch and Bronze Age pit were uncovered in the neighbouring townland of Ferns Lower, c. 500m from Edan’s Cathedral. This excavation produced the skeletal remains of a minimum of seven individuals, as well as glass beads, with radiometric dates indicating a site lifespan of c. the fourth century BC to the first century AD.
A Bronze Age burial site, consisting of six cremation pits, was also identified directly north St. Aidan’s, just 70m from Edan’s Cathedral. Two parallel ditches, tentatively interpreted as an Early Medieval ringfort, were revealed in the field directly north of these burials. Crucially this excavation also revealed a V shaped ditch, which could represent the inner monastic vallum of St Aidan’s Monastery, meaning a circumference for the inner monastic enclosure of c. 200m.
The density of prehistoric archaeology in the vicinity of St Aidan’s Monastery, indicates a high likelihood for encountering prehistoric archaeology during our excavations. Furthermore, it suggests the early monastery may have been deliberately placed at this location due to an established pre-existing prehistoric significance – as has been observed at several other monastic sites throughout Ireland.
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). While the site was recorded historically, such as when it was raided by the Vikings in 835 and 839 AD, archaeological evidence was slim until recently. The Viking raids, together with several c. ninth century high-crosses and cross slabs around St Edan’s Cathedral and its environs (SMR WX015-003009-, WX015-003010-, WX015-003011- and WX015-003012-, WX015-003013-, WX015-003017- and WX015-003030-), indicate a monastery of some importance.
In 2015 a geophysical survey by Ger Dowling revealed the first significant sub-surface evidence for the monastery, including anomalies thought to represent two substantive ditches (WX015-003031- and WX015-003032) marking the eastern limits of the monastic enclosure. The inner of these ditches is positioned directly beneath the twelfth century Mary’s Abbey (WX015-003004-). Anomalies consistent with a structure (WX015-003033-) were also identified directly adjacent, and partly over, the outer enclosure. Within the enclosure anomalies including a possible field system (WX015-003034-) and roadway (WX015-003035-) were also encountered.
Part of the monastic enclosure may have been encountered during a previous excavation on Station Road (to the southwest of the site) when a ditch contained iron-working debris and charcoal, was dated to c. 331-557 cal AD. Based on this, and other results, Ian Doyle interpreted the route of the monastic enclosure in his 2016 paper Telling the Dancer from the Dance: The Archaeology of Early Medieval Wexford, as having an inner enclosure c. 200m in diameter and an outer enclosure c. 300-350m in diameter. Since the production of that paper a commercial dig toward the centre of the town, by Catherine McLoughlin of Stafford and McLoughlin Archaeology, has revealed a V-shaped ditch. If this ditch is confirmed as the western limit of the monastic enclosure, it means monastic site is much larger than originally anticipated, with a diameter of 500m+!
The built heritage of Ferns today is synonymous with the High Medieval period, not least due to the survival of the fabulous thirteenth century Marshal castle toward the western limits of the town. Part of the town’s renown undoubtedly derives from its association with the Uí Cheannsalaigh ruling dynasty, especially Diarmuid McMurrough (d. 1171), who made the site his royal caput and endowed Mary’s Abbey as an Augustinian house with lands in the mid twelfth century (c. 1160). It was this association that saw Ferns develop into one of the leading monasteries in the southeast, becoming the head of the newly constituted diocese of Ferns in the twelfth century.
Operating as a bishopric in the medieval period, Ferns had a manor with its own lands. The site was ratified at the synod of Ráith Bressail in 1111, as one of five episcopal sees in Leinster. Ferns was associated with several important bishops in the medieval period including Ailbhe O’ Mulloy (d. 1223) and John St John (d. 1253) – the latter of whom is most frequently associated with the construction of Edan’s Cathedral (WX015-003003-). This cathedral has enjoyed an illustrious history, including being burnt by Fiach Mac Hugh O’Byrne in 1575, who later restored the building in 1577! The building was extensively reconstructed in 1817 to its current ‘Church of Ireland’ form, but still retains much of its medieval fabric and features. For a full history of Edan’s Cathedral and Mary’s Abbey see O’ Keefe and Bates (2016).
The Augustinian Abbey also enjoyed an illustrious history. In 1317 the Abbey was plundered and burnt by Irish forces during the Bruce wars. In 1538 the Abbey was supressed, when it was described as a church and belfry, dormitory, chapterhouse, hall, and other buildings with c. 600 acres and other interests. An inquisition taken in 1552 recorded the monastery consisted of a church, dormitory, hall, 10 cottages, a watermill, and a list of rents/tithes from lands in Wexford. Remains of the church (WX015-003004-), an Early Medieval cross base (WX015-003018-), and a round tower/belfry (WX015-003028-), which adjoined the church nave, remain standing at the site. A plan of Mary’s Abbey, dating from 1912, by Cochrane suggests a rectangular ‘courtyard’ to the south of the church, which has been suggested as a possible cloister.
Previous archaeological work
Two phases of archaeological investigation were conducted at St Aidan’s Monastery in recent years.
In May 2015 a programme of geophysical survey was undertaken at the site as part of the Monastic Ireland Project by the Ferns Heritage Group. The survey revealed a density of archaeological features, which are likely to span several centuries, including:
- Two possible large concentric ditches were revealed, which were thought to mark the eastern extent of the monastic enclosure. The outer ditch appears to have a double-aisled structure built over it, which itself is contained within a c. 65m wide circular enclosure. The junction of this structure and the outer monastic ditch is a key target for excavation in 2020.
- The rectangular structure to the south of Mary’s Abbey church, as originally mapped by Cochrane, was also recorded during the survey. No defining characteristics were identified during the survey to further indicate this is a cloister. However, the southeastern portion of this structure appears to be built over the possible inner monastic boundary, which will also be targeted in 2020.
- The rest of the geophysical survey pointed to successive phases of agriculture, land-division, and possible industrial activities at the site, some of which could pre-date the monastic settlement itself or post-date the Dissolution of the site in the sixteenth century. Several of these features will form the focus of archaeological inquiry in future seasons.
In August 2019 TVAS (Ireland) Ltd. Conducted a commercial archaeological excavation at the northeastern corner of the site, necessitated a cut 3m in width and c.132m in length, which was anticipated to encounter enclosing elements of the monastic complex, as well as other linear anomalies. The results of this work remain pending, although archaeological features and finds have been uncovered during this excavation.
In season one in 2020 the IAFS propose to investigate two key areas, specifically:
- The junction of the possible cloister/structure (identified in geophysics immediately south of Mary’s Abbey church (WX015-003004)) and the probable inner enclosure of St Aidan’s Monastery (WX015-003031-).
- The junction of the possible double-aisled structure (WX015-003033-) and the outer enclosure of St Aidan’s Monastery (WX015-003032-).
These areas are associated with both the c. 7th century monastic community of St Aidan and the Augustinian monastery at the site in the 12th century. Collectively the works will contribute a much greater understanding of St Aidan’s Monastery through time, not only from the 7th to 12th centuries but possibly also in prehistoric times, considering the wealth of prehistoric archaeology to the immediate north and south of the site. As this project evolves and is interpreted relative to other excavations and surveys around Ferns (including new surveys conducted by the IAFS), the importance of St Aidan’s Monastery within its wider geographic and cultural context should be established.