Fr Billy Swan
There is a good chance that next Wednesday, 11th October 2023, will be just an ordinary day in the life and history of Wexford town – people going about their daily business, coming and going to work, shopping, students attending school, traffic on the move, etc. However, the same date 374 years previously, was anything but an ordinary day in Wexford town. For on 11th October 1649, about 2,000 people of the town and surrounding districts were massacred by the soldiers of Oliver Cromwell. There is never a date that is too far back to remember those who died and so it is fitting that we remember and pray for our ancestors who were killed on that fateful day 374 years ago.
Fresh from their bloody conquest of Drogheda in early September 1649, Cromwell and his henchmen made their way to Wexford with 4000 infantry and 12 horsemen. They anchored on 29th September and on 2nd October they landed in the town. For Cromwell, the capture of Wexford was of strategic importance for it was a link in the line of communications with the Continent and key to the supply of arms and ammunition. Cromwell issued his conditions for surrender that were refused. In response, on 11th October 1649, his band unleashed a terrible massacre of the people of the town. The carnage of Drogheda was repeated here with soldiers and civilians, men, women and children indiscriminately slaughtered. Many drowned in the Slaney trying to escape death on the streets. Many sought refuge in the local churches but they were killed too. To express their hatred for the Catholic faith, Church leaders murdered too. Many Franciscans were put to death publicly in the Bull Ring. One of them was a Fr Raymond Stafford OFM who died there while urging people to be faithful to their religion and calling on the soldiers to stop the slaughter.
Following an outbreak of plague in the town in 1650, crown forces retreated, leaving a space open for a clandestine return of some priests and religious who returned to the town disguised as tradesmen who became secretly involved in the lives of the people via other professions. Many of these included survivors of the massacre on 11th October. Unfortunately, Cromwell’s attack on Wexford was only the beginning of the campaign to destroy Catholicism in Ireland. On 6th January 1653, a decree was issued banishing all priests from the country. Thousands of priests went into exile while others went into hiding as they secretly ministered to their people. Up to £5 was offered as a reward for priest hunters who were encouraged to betray priests who were in hiding. In 1658, concentration camps for priests were set up on the Aran Islands. During Easter 1654, four Franciscans were captured and hanged in the area of Wexford friary.
So what do we make of all this from the vantage point of 374 years? The first value of remembering this terrible day is the value of the lives that were lost through violence. As we can tell from many of the names – Meyler, Stafford, Redmond, Butler, etc., these victims were our ancestors and it is right and just that we do not forget them. Second, the incident shows the horrors of war. Although the residents of the town were predominantly Catholic, other episodes at the time reveals brutality on both sides. For example in 1646, at Benburb, Co. Tyrone, between 2,000 and 3,000 Scots and Ulster Presbyterians died in a sectarian attack. There are no winners in war, only losers. Third, when political power and control become the ultimate objective of monarchies and governments, then human rights inevitably suffer. Reading the history of the time, the landscape was controlled by the military with power struggles going on in the political world. In order for one power to win over another, force needed to be applied which meant blood had to be spilt once political objectives were the ultimate goal; Fourth, bad religion. It is striking how often Cromwell mentions God in his speeches. He clearly saw himself as ‘God’s executioner’ who was carrying out God’s orders as he understood them - orders that came through a divine institution that was the monarchy. Murdering innocent people didn’t seem to sway this conviction. This highlights the danger of seeing oneself being above the Word of God that advocates for peace and non-violence. Lastly, we salute the courage and resilience of the local people, laity, religious and priests who died together on 11th October 1649. We are inspired by those who refused to surrender their dignity and faith convictions in the face of intimidation and violence.
So, as we walk along the streets of Wexford these days, spare a thought and say a prayer for the people whose blood flowed along the ground where we walk. The history of Wexford is enshrined in memory and monument, in song and story. In that long history, the 11th October 1649 will never be forgotten. Nor should the people who died on that awful day.