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  • Writer's pictureShane Smith

All The Stories Are On The Walls

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

The Whale Mosaic

On a stone wall at the end of the quay in Wexford Town, hangs a glistening mosaic of a blue whale. While the artistry and craft on display is apparent to any casual observer, it is only on closer inspection that one realises the intricate, strange fragments that comprise the whale. Each piece is an artwork unto itself, bursting with shades of red, blue and green, and populated with little painted figures of people and plants, places and patterns. Like all great artworks, the mosaic whale hints at the storied past of this seaside town.

In 1951, a seven-year-old girl takes a stroll on Rosslare beach, just under ten miles south of Wexford Town. As she dips her feet in the sloshing blue surf, she notices a little shell, carried by the waves to a resting place in the sand. Except when she picks it up, she finds it is not a shell at all, but a small fragment of pottery, decorated with colourful pictures. As she walks further along the beach marvelling at her little treasure, she finds another. Then another. And so on, until she makes for home, each pocket stuffed and each hand carrying as much of these fragments as twenty digits and two palms can allow.

In 2021, Ann Borg, now seventy-seven-years-old, walks the same beach each day, and each day she collects one or two pieces to add to her precious booty. An investigation into the appearance of so many shards of decorated pottery led Ann to discover that the hundreds of tiny fragments in her possession originally comprised dozens and dozens of larger pots and plates. Staffordshire pottery that was travelling as cargo in ships from Liverpool to Savannah in Georgia, ships that were wrecked along the southeast coast of Ireland in the mid 19th century. It is no wonder then that Captain Phil Murphy, the current Wexford harbourmaster, describes his jurisdiction as “The Graveyard of a Thousand Ships.” The broken pottery had been washing up on shore ever since.


After seventy years of collecting these “chanies”, as she tenderly describes them, Ann realised that her shipwreck cargo was doing precious little except gathering dust in a shed in her back garden. And so, she decided to donate her collection to the renowned Wexford-based mosaic artist Helen McLean. Understanding the significance of this gesture, and wanting to honour the history of the fragments, Helen immersed herself in the rich tapestry of Wexford’s maritime history to find inspiration for a mosaic project. It was then she discovered the story of the Wexford Whale.

In March 1891, a lifeboat pilot named Ned Wickham, and his brother James, came upon a true giant, rarely seen near Irish shores. Stranded on a sandbank near Wexford Harbour, was a blue whale, 82 feet in length.

Ned and James Wickham (front and centre)

Though he must have been overcome with awe, Ned saw the whale was struggling. Without the buoyancy of the ocean, the great animal was slowly being crushed by its own colossal size. Without hesitation, Ned leapt from his boat, and with a harpoon and pinpoint accuracy, pierced the whale’s heart. In that moment, Ned simultaneously ended the whale’s suffering and carved his name into local folklore forever. Ned’s descendants still helm the lifeboats in Rosslare and Wexford to this day, and through them, the story of the Wexford Whale lives on. The whale’s remains were eventually sold to the British Natural History Museum in London, and the skeleton now hangs as the centrepiece in the famous Hintze Hall.

The Wexford Whale

Helen McLean had her inspiration. She would weave the story of the shipwrecks and the death of the blue whale together to create a singular piece of art that evoked the rich vein of maritime history and folklore that exists in Wexford. Anyone familiar with both stories often imagines the unfortunate blue whale, restricted by its own majesty, surrounded by tiny fragments of eroded, colourful pottery, on that same stretch of Irish coastline in the late 19th century. A beautiful and melancholic reminder that the sea is the ultimate provider of life, death and artistic inspiration.

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