Tag Archives: County Wexford Ireland

The rebellious blacksmiths of County Wexford

Third in a series on the Demspey Cousins Family Research Team.

Within the Dempsey Cousins Family Research Team, our Irish-born great, great grandfather William Patrick Dempsey is affectionately known as “William the blacksmith” — a trade-based nickname that cousin Barb suggested to distinguish him from his son and other same-name descendants.

Wexford Pikeman of 1798. Blacksmiths in County Wexford — birthplace of my gggrandfather, blacksmith William Patrick Dempsey — forged pikes of freedom equipped with hooks to catch the reins of British cavalry and unseat the riders during the 1798 Irish Rebellion/Éirí Amach. By: National Library of Ireland on The Commons

William’s obituary in the Baltimore Sun (shared by cousin John) said he was from County Wexford — where he may have learned the highly regarded blacksmith trade from his father.

So before we Dempsey cousins got down to the serious genealogical business of specifically tracing William’s roots in Ireland, I decided to do some background research on the history of County Wexford and its blacksmiths.

I first learned that County Wexford in southeast Ireland saw incursions by Vikings, invasion by Normans, and later occupation by British forces — each met with a fighting spirit by the Irish population.

Then I discovered that County Wexford’s blacksmiths played a crucial role in the heroic 1798 Irish Rebellion/ Éirí Amach against British rule — an uprising inspired by the earlier American and French revolutions and a landmark on the road to Ireland’s independence.

The Battle of Vinegar Hill/ Chnoc Fíodh na gCaor — the last, great battle of the rebellion, which is still re-enacted today —  took place in County Wexford’s town of Enniscorthy and pitted the fighting Irish against British occupation forces, with about 20,000 on each side.

Lacking firearms, the Irish combatants brandished pikes of freedom equipped with hooks to catch the reins of British cavalry and unseat the riders. Those metal pike tops were forged by Wexford’s blacksmiths.

Well, how about that!

Of course, my great, great grandfather William Patrick Dempsey wasn’t born until about 1828, so his father was probably just a child at the time of rebellion. But that doesn’t rule out involvement by more distant direct or side line Dempsey ancestors, nor the pride with which older generations likely shared this rich local history.

When “William the blacksmith” was taught by the forge, he may have also heard stories about the heroic blacksmiths of County Wexford and throughout Ireland — as immortalized in this verse from a song about blacksmith Páid O’’Donoghue of County Meath:

But Ninety-Eight’’s dark season came and Irish hearts were sore; The pitch-cap and triangle the patient folk outwore;
The blacksmith thought of Ireland and found he’’d work to do: “I’’ll forge some steel for freedom,” said Páid O’’Donoghue.[1]From the song Páid O’’Donoghue by Patrick Archer.

What more did I learn about County Wexford’s blacksmiths? Stay tuned for the next post.

To be continued.

© 2016 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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1 From the song Páid O’’Donoghue by Patrick Archer.

County Wexford and the Vikings

Second in a series on the Dempsey Cousins Family Research Team.

Not long after Dempsey descendants Barb, John and I agreed to form a cousins team — to research our mutual gggrandparents William Patrick and Katherine (Gormley) Dempsey — John generously shared a document that was totally new to me.

From the 3 May 1900 issue of the Baltimore Sun, it was a small, one-column obituary of our great, great grandfather William Dempsey.

County Wexford, Ireland. News that my gggrandfather William Patrick Dempsey hailed from County Wexford — from an obituary shared by a Dempsey cousin — raises the possibility of Viking heritage. Photo by: Skellig2008

Just eighteen brief newspaper lines (transcribed below) summed up our ancestor’s life — but what a masterpiece it was and what a lasting gift to his descendants.


Mr. William Dempsey, a well-known blacksmith died yesterday at his home, 1602 East Chase street, of paralysis. He was born in County Wexford, Ireland, 62 years ago and came to this country when about 12 years of age. For several years he resided in Troy, N.Y., and then moved to Harford county, Maryland and afterward to Cecil county. For many years he had resided in this city [Baltimore, Md.]. He is survived by 10 children — Mrs. Thomas Byrnes, Mrs. Charles Conway, Mrs. Clinton Webb, Mrs. Ernest Kratz, Mrs. Frank Owens [sic.] and John, James, William, Peter and Lieut. Thomas F. Dempsey, of the Northern police district; 32 grandchilden and 5 great-grandchildren. He was a member of St. Paul’s Catholic Church.

The anonymous writer (who seems to have interviewed a detail-oriented informant) names William’s surviving children, totals up his grand and great-grand children, and lists several places where our ancestor once lived — laying out a virtual road map for us Dempsey cousins to follow as we reconstruct William’s travels from his arrival in North America to his final home in Baltimore City.

But what really jumped out at me was the news that William Dempsey was “born in County Wexford, Ireland” — for this was the first time I learned my great, great grandfather’s county of origin. A breakthrough indeed! And all thanks to our Dempsey cousins collaboration.

Main Street in Wexford, County Wexford, Ireland — the largest town in the county where my great-great grandfather William Dempsey was born. By: National Library of Ireland on The Commons

Vikings in the vicinity

Looking up County Wexford to get some background information led me to the next revelation — we Dempsey descendants might have Viking heritage!

The Irish Times Irish Ancestors web page for County Wexford — listing Dempsey among the county’s common surnames — contains this brief history, which echoes similar versions I have found elsewhere:

The county takes its name from the principal town, which was founded by the Norsemen in the tenth century as “Waesfjord”.  A similar reference to Wexford Harbour, the large sheltered lagoon which is the reason for the town’s existence, is found in the Irish name. [Waesfjord translates as “inlet of the mud flats.”]

The Vikings made incursions into the Wexford area in the eighth and ninth centuries, but by the tenth century had abandoned their usual return trip to Scandinavia. Instead, they settled down in coastal Ireland and over the centuries mixed in with the general population.

So, possible Viking heritage! And all thanks to a clue in our great, great grandfather William Dempsey’s obituary.

Certifiably Viking

I found this prospect very exciting and perhaps went a bit overboard as I shared the news with family, friends and co-workers — and rushed out to buy a faux fur throw for my couch.

“Well, that would certainly explain your personality!” one of my friends quipped dryly.

But then I went to an Irish heritage workshop at a genealogy conference and discovered that the prospect of Viking heritage — though new to me — is old hat to long-time Irish family history researchers.

In fact, at the DNA table, one guy even boasted that so many people with his surname had tested positive for Viking DNA that, “My surname is certified Viking.”

Whereas I was merely behaving like a certifiable Viking — with no real proof. At least not yet.

So — after dressing as a Viking for Halloween and throwing a Viking-themed trim-a-tree party for the holidays — I finally calmed down, curled up under my new throw, and resumed research on the broad sweep of more recent history in County Wexford.

And that’s when I learned about the blacksmiths and the 1798 Irish Rebellion.

To be continued.

© 2016 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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