A village once stood at the mouth of Wexford Harbour, guarding the entrance, fishing, and rescuing people wrecked on the sand banks offshore. Today, the buildings of this settlement known as Rosslare Fort are marked by dispersed broken stone walls, brick and wooden posts only exposed at low spring tides if shifting sand permits.
Rosslare means ‘middle promontory’ and the fort in the village name, which distinguishes it from the better-known passenger and freight Europort 10km to the south, refers to a defence against raids first marked on 16th-century maps. The sand banks in the harbour and offshore were stable enough to allow dunes and this settlement to develop at the terminus of a 200m-wide 6km-long sand spit, which connected to the mainland at the south. In the 19th-century, the village had over forty houses, pilots, pump, school, church, customs and revenue station, lighthouse, and lifeboat station. Unfortunately, sand bars and dunes are not stable forever, and severe erosion made it uninhabitable by the 1920s.
The Journey to Rosslare Fort
It was during the equinox spring tides last month that the CHERISH team returned to Rosslare Fort. It had been almost four years since our last visit in November 2017. We were keen to see how the site had changed, if new features had appeared, and monitor erosional processes affecting the remains. Online satellite images show dynamic sand movements across the harbour with islets and channels appearing and disappearing.
Wexford Harbour Marine Services met us at Ferrybank Quay from where we headed out passing the Ballast Bank, now unused but important enough a feature for our RIB and a local bar to be named after it. Our Ballast Bank motored slowly between the channel marker buoys, sometimes only at three knots due to the recent sand deposition. Aidan, our captain, said shifting sands led to the buoys often having to be moved and larger boats would have to come in at high tide especially when fully loaded. The shallow constantly changing channel needs experience and local knowledge to navigate: something the pilots at Rosslare Fort would have had to do for visiting trading vessels.
We were dropped beside the number 11 red buoy, about 700m east of the fort, where the sand bank shelved steeply enough for the boat to get close and unload our equipment. As we approached the abandoned village, walking along the shelly sand bar, we thought things looked different, we remembered a relatively sand flat approach. However, today we were on a sand bar that had small patches of grass at its highest twisting peak. It looked down on to the fort where we set up our base of operations (GPS set up for positioning and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle helipad for our drone). We also noticed a new sand bank had formed seaward of the fort.
We walked down onto the sand flat for a visual inspection of the village remains, and to lay photogrammetric targets for the drone that could be surveyed using RTK GNSS for accurate ground control. Seals had taken over the village. Their knowledge of the channels and seafood carries on activities of pilots and fishing people that lived here. In another month or so their cubs will be where the village children swam and played. They snorted and grunted at our approach and slipped into the sea watching us keenly from the water waiting for us to go. Our suspicions of the changes were confirmed when we realised the greater extent of ruins. The posts and buildings that were only partially exposed last time were clearer and open to interpretation. Sand waves with stranded jellyfish covered the sand flat, and channels still flowed through the village as harbour water continued to empty forcing us to wade.
Walking SW from the sand bar the first group of ruins we came to, we notice the foundations and floors of possible buildings, though the uneven line of their walls indicate that severe subsidence has occurred. A nightmare for any house owner! Their colonisation by green and brown seaweeds reveals a damp health hazard along with submergence on every tide with strong currents. This suggests that the ruins have been exposed above the sand for a long period of time allowing the seaweed to grow. This is more surprising to us as photography from our previous visit confirm this area was covered by a sand bank four years ago. There is a double line of wooden posts to the east, which may have been the revenue jetty on the harbour side, when the sand spit existed. To the north there are the remains of a stone slipway and pier. These buildings could be the lifeboat house and store, and rocket post. The 1903 Ordnance Survey map shows a light house near here.
We had to cross a shallow channel to get to the next area of ruins to the SE. This area we did remember from our last visit but it was more extensively exposed today. It was possible to make out a collapsed brick chimney and find fragments of roofing slate, coal, and rounded pottery from the wave action. An almost complete stoneware jar that we recovered here in 2017 may have been for jam or pickles.
As this is the largest area exposed it is easier to interpret it from the drone images we took. The wind at 20 kmph, was on the cusp of being too windy for the drone but with limited time and opportunities for the fort to be exposed, we decided to fly soon after arrival rather than wait for a possible drop in wind speed. This showed the area to be roughly square in shape so was probably the village square – a cluster of about a dozen houses that included the home of the revenue officers and families as well as the church.
Perhaps 19th-century land reclamation in the harbour and pier engineering at Rosslare Harbour exacerbated the decline of the fort, as it affected currents and sediment deposition. A Lifeboat Institution survey in 1915 reported the lighthouse had been undermined and destroyed by the sea in a gale the previous winter. They further described the sea to have been 140 feet seaward of the square in 1840, but a seawall was now necessary to protect the buildings. This stone and concrete seawall although disjointed today still holds a rough linear shape with some bends along the eastern side of the square. A pier is perpendicular to the line of this seawall.
The storms of Christmas 1924
The newspapers (held in Wexford Library) reported from Christmas Eve in 1924 until the next morning a very strong SSW gale coincided with a high tide ‘three feet above the normal springs’. Along the spit, sand hills were washed away, banks were levelled, hills became beaches, the sea flowed over from the bay into the harbour at a place called Billy’s Gap, and a house already abandoned from erosion was almost entirely washed away. At 8.30am the walls of the pilot house had fallen, as powerful waves mounted the banks and flooded ground floors. An engineer’s assessment of the damage highlighted that telephone communication to the lifeboat station had been cut making it impractical to continue. It also reported that Wexford Harbour had four entrances now as there were three breaches in the sand spit. Comments mentioned the more gradual reduction in height of the Dogger Bank, it had previously been six feet above high tide acting like a breakwater, protecting the village.
Surveying against the tide
From where we were surveying we could see waves breaking over a feature 200m to the southwest, close to the modern channel. Unfortunately, we could not visit due to it being submerged. These could be the ruins of houses or the area of the Pilot Jetty and Station. This shows the need for the continued monitoring as more features are uncovered.
After only a couple of hours, the tide had turned and we had to pack up and return to the RIB who had patiently waited for us in the channel. We took some last minute photographs and retrieving the markers, some of which had already been covered by the rising tide.
The remains and memories of the fort today, tell a story of a busy maritime community which played an important role in saving lives and controlling access to Wexford Harbour, and who also carried out fishing and wildfowling to make a living. Some people also holidayed and used the resort as a base for deep sea fishing. Many of the houses, possibly the fort and even a reported Martello Tower, are still covered by the sand. When exposed by the tides and sand, the site is a visible reminder of the power of the sea and an example of landscape change from erosion affecting communities. This must have happened in many areas of Ireland over its thousands of years of habitation, and to coasts globally. However rising sea levels, increased precipitation, and the occurrence of severe storms predicted by climate change, many more coastal settlements are going to be affected.
Thanks to Darina Tully for information on the village, Gráinne Doran from Wexford County Archives for letting us look through their old photographs, and Wexford Harbour Marine Services Captain Phil Murphy and Aidan Bates for taking us there. The description of the layout of the settlement in the Rosslare Lifeboat Memorial website helped to interpret where we explored.