Fishermen of Wexford


There is an old tradition held in Wexford town
That says ‘Upon St. Martin’s Eve no net shall be let down
No fisherman of Wexford shall, upon that holy day
Set sail or cast a line within the scope of Wexford Bay’
The tongue that framed the order, or the time, no one could tell
And no one ever questioned, but the people kept it well
And never in man’s memory was fisher known to leave
The little town of Wexford on the good St. Martin’s Eve

Alas, alas, for Wexford! once upon that holy day
Came a wondrous shoal of herring to the waters of the Bay
The fishers and their families stood out upon the beach
And all day watched with wistful eyes, the wealth they might not reach
Such shoal was never seen before, and keen regrets went round
Alas, alas, for Wexford; Hark, what is that grating sound ?
The boat’s keel on the shingle; Mothers, Wives, ye well may grieve
The fishermen of Wexford mean to sail on Martin’s Eve

‘Oh, stay ye’ cried the women wild; ‘Stay’ cried the men white-haired
‘And dare ye not to do this thing your fathers never dared
No man can thrive who tempts the Lord; ‘Away’ they cried, ‘the Lord
Ne’er sent a shoal of fish but as a fisherman’s reward’
And scoffingly they said: ‘To-night our net shall sweep the Bay
And take the Saint who guards it, should he come across our way’
The keels have touched the water and the crews are in each boat
And on St. Martin’s Eve, the Wexford fishers are afloat

‘Oh, Holy Virgin, be their guard’ the weeping women cried
The old men, sad and silent, watched the boats cleave through the tide
As past the farthest headland, past the lighthouse, in a line
The fishing-fleet went seaward through the phosphor-lighted brine
Oh, pray, ye wives and mothers; all your prayers they sorely need
To save them from the wrath they’ve roused by their rebellious greed
Oh, white-haired men and little babes, and weeping sweethearts
To God to spare the fishermen to-night in Wexford Bay pray

The boats have reached good offing, and, as out the nets are thrown
The hearts ashore are chilled to hear the sighing sea-wind’s moan
Like to a human heart that loved and hoped for some return
To find at last but hatred, so the sea-weed seemed to moan
But ah, the Wexford fishermen; their nets did scarcely sink
One inch below the foam when lo; the daring boatmen shrink
With sudden awe and whitened lips and glaring eyes agape
For breast-high, threatening, from the sea uprose a human shape

Beyond them in the moonlight, hand upraised and awful mien
Waving back and pointing landward, breast-high in the sea ’twas seen
Thrice it waved and thrice it pointed; then with clenched hand upraised
The awful shape went down before the fishers as they gazed
Gleaming whitely through the water, fathoms deep they saw its frown
They saw its white hand clenched above it, sinking slowly down
And then there was a rushing ‘neath the boats and every soul
Was thrilled with greed, they knew it was the sea-ward going shoal

Defying the dread warning, every face was sternly set
And wildly did they ply the oar and wildly haul the net
But two boats’ crews obeyed the sign; God-fearing men were they
They cut their lines and left their nets and homeward sped away
But darkly rising sternward did God’s wrath in tempest sweep
And they, of all the fishermen, that night escaped the deep
Oh, wives and mothers, sweethearts, sires, well might ye mourn next day
For seventy fishers’ corpses strewed the shores of Wexford Bay


Written by John Boyle O’Reilly

Song Clip



Song Themes

Songs of the sea