The Norman Story

A hundred embroiderers and millions of stitches have drawn in the threads of history. The story of the Norman arrival in the South East of Ireland and the consequent development of the dynamic port of Ros is depicted in a series of fifteen large striking embroidered panels. From the initiation of a Celtic King to Hiberno-Norman commerce the cultural legacy of Leinster is immortalised in stitches and hanging is on temporary exhibition in Kilkenny Castle.

Beginning as an inspired and ambitious project, it is an excellent example of what can be produced when a work of imagination and charm by its artist is combined with the dedication and skill of like-minded embroidery enthusiasts. The quality of work is of a very high order; this is achieved through a mix of skill, patience, dedication and an “esprit de corps”.

Pons Novus Villa Willielmi Marescalli

New Bridge, the Town of William Marshal founded in 1207. The ambition of the new Lord of Leinster, Guillaume Le Marechal, now known as William Marshal – and his wife Isabella de Clare – heiress of Diarmait Mac Murchada, King of Leinster – was the force which drove the founding of the town of Ros.

St. Mary’s, the Ancient Parish Church of Ros – built in 1210

It is said that Isabel, grand-daughter and heiress of Dermot MacMurrough and Countess of Pembroke, was responsible for the building of St. Mary’s – as depicted in the tapestry panel “Gothic Glory: The building of the parish church of St. Mary’s 1210”. These church remains are the only surviving built evidence in New Ross linked to the Marshall family. Grandiose and elegant, St. Mary’s was one of the first Gothic churches built in Ireland and certainly the largest. The soaring, almost cathedral-like proportions and beautiful carvings are still extant today and the site remains as a place of worship. The small heart tomb within the ancient walls bears the legend ‘Isabel Laegn’ (Leinster). Also, among other medieval effigies is a carving of a baby in swaddling bands, its head resting on a stone pillow. Nobody knows who the child is: he is called “The Bambino of Ros”. The surrounding graveyard has been used as a burial place from 1210 to present. The many tombstones bear the names of the families resident in New Ross for hundreds of years. Cruciform in shape, the walls of the original chancel and transepts are intact.

A Norman Town

From the scrubby wilderness on the banks of the deep river Barrow, the town by 1250 was to become one of the most successful and wealthy in Ireland. With a bridge linking the routes to Waterford, and the great arterial waterways of the Nore and the Barrow facilitating shipping from the sea to as far north as Athy, Ros became the heart of capitalist Leinster; its international banking and trading centre and one of the country’s most bustling sea ports. As many as 400 ships were known to have berthed in the harbour at any one time.

Exports from the port included wool and hides bound for Flanders, corn and light horses for the armies of the Angevin Kings, birds of prey and hunting dogs. Irish shaggy mantles were also exported in great quantity.From overseas as far away as Lubeck, Gascony and Toledo came quantities of salt, and steel and vast amounts of wine. There was also a considerable trade in Levantine luxury goods: jewellery, silks, tapestries and spices. For the first 50 years of its existence this most prosperous town – laid out in the classic Norman grid system – was almost uniquely without the protection of a town wall; such was the peaceful state of the province at the time.

In 1265 a wall about a mile and a half long was constructed amidst much ceremony and festivity. Of its five gates there are two which still maintain some fragile presence, the Earl’s Gate and the Three Bullet Gate – both to the east of the town. The only built remains of this once vibrant Norman town is the beautiful 13th Century Church of St. Mary’s overlooking the river. The strongest evidence in the area of Norman existence are the Norman names of the inhabitants of the town: Barry, Power, Burke, Fitzhenry, Butler, Keating, Pettit, Fitzgerald and Sutton, to name but a few. All these names bear witness to the stirring events of 1207 and are the strongest link with our Norman past.

Meet the People Behind the Stitches

The appeal of embroidery has always been its beguiling attention to detail. This is at the heart of the Ros Tapestry. Over 180 volunteer stitchers, have gathered over the past 25 years in numerous venues, throughout County Wexford and further afield, to interpret the 15 works by acclaimed artist Ann Bernstoff.

These skilful embroiderers sit at a long frame and patiently stitch the landscape details of distant hills, rippling water and rough foregrounds using French and bullion knots, satin and chain stitch. Folds of dress fabric are done in couching, carefully adapted to effect the complicated pleats, while smooth long and short stitches bringing faces to life.

Read More