Wexford is a small town in southeast Ireland at the mouth of the River Slaney. Founded by the Vikings around 800 AD, it is steeped in ancient heritage and rich with history. Known mostly for its claustrophobic web of medieval streets, shopping on Main Street, and the world-famous, annual Wexford Opera Festival held each October. Wexford captivates visitors with its mix of old-time pubs, historic monuments, repurposed buildings and modern conveniences.
Getting to Wexford
From Dublin, the drive to Wexford takes about 1 hr 45 min along the M11 and onto the N11. If you are coming from Waterford, the drive is shorter. This drive will take about 1 hour. From Waterford, take the N25 north to New Ross, and then continue on the N25 east to Wexford. This is the route we took, not in a hurry, but enjoying the dramatic landscapes and breath-taking views along the way.
If time permits, stop for a while in New Ross, along the southwest shore of Wexford County. Only 20 KM north east of Waterford, New Ross sits on the River Barrow, near the border of County Kilkenny. This port town pre-dates the Middle Ages with a monastery established by St. Abban of Magheranoidhe in the 6th century.
New Ross is home to the Dunbrody Famine Ship which is moored on the Quay. The 19th century brought much hardship and strife to Ireland. In 1845, potato blight killed the staple crop of the Irish tenant farmers. Famine ensued and within 7 years, 1 million people died and another 1.5 million emigrated. The Dunbrody ship is an accurate recreation of the ships used during this period to bring emigrants to New York. Costumed performers, playing the roles of famine emigrants, reveal the hardships endured during the month-long trip.
The town also houses the Emigrant Flame: a constantly burning flame in memorandum of the emigrants of the famine.
History buffs or those who remember President John F. Kennedy will enjoy a visit to The Kennedy Homestead. This ancestral home of JFK is located 8 km south of New Ross and is the birthplace of President’s great-grandfather Patrick Kennedy. The Kennedy family emigrated to the US in 1849. President Kennedy visited the homestead in 1960 during a trip to Ireland. Interesting pieces of the Kennedy family history are displayed in the homestead museum, mostly related to the 35th president and his family members. The tour takes about an hour. If you have even a mild interest in the subject, you will find the tour entertaining and informative. The narrative is a little biased and focuses on the good bits of the family history, which is somewhat expected.
Main Street Shopping
Most visitors to the town of Wexford end up shopping along Main Street at some time during their visit. Starting at the end of Selskar Street in the north end of town, Main Street cuts through Wexford’s historic Bullring area before joining up with South Main Street at the top of Anne Street. During peak hours, the street is busy with shoppers and tourists. Once the stores close, the street is deserted.
We stopped at Rob’s Ranch House for lunch. The place is best described as having a gaudy, western cowboy vibe. Fast service and reasonably priced meals makes this a popular eatery. Though we just had burgers and fries, some of the crowd at the table next to us had lasagne with fries, which we thought was an odd combination. But, we later learned, it is a popular food mixing in Ireland. However, I still think it’s odd.
Continuing north along Main Street, you come to a market square known as the Bullring. There are several small shops where local artisans sell their products on the weekend. An impressive statue of a Lone Pikeman commemorating the 1798 rebellion stands at one end of the square. During medieval times, bull-baiting was carried on here. If you don’t know, bull-baiting is a blood sport in which a bull is pitted against another animal, usually a dog. Sponsored by the Guild of Butchers, this activity arrived in Wexford in 1621. Bulls were baited here twice a year and their hides were presented to the Mayor. The United Kingdom outlawed this blood-sport in 1835.
Selskar Abbey is a ruined twelfth-century abbey whose proper name was the Priory of St. Peter and St. Paul. In 1169, Diarmait Mac Murchada, the King of Leinster, signed the first Anglo-Irish peace treaty here. There is also a long-standing rumor that King Henry II spent Lent of 1172 here, where he did penance for the murder of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Many believe that Henry II’s men “misinterpreted” some of his words and murdered Becket in 1170. The exact story is rather unclear. Henry was in Ireland at that time, and Becket’s murder was subject to much controversy. Whether Henry II actually did penance at Selskar has not been proven, but it is plausible.
After years of suppression, Oliver Cromwell destroyed the abbey in 1649. The bricks and stones from several ruined Catholic churches in the town were later taken and used to repair the abbey. The tower, originally built in the 1300s, was restored in 1826 when the Church of Ireland built Selskar Church inside the grounds of the original abbey. Selskar church had a slate roof until the 1950s. But because of the dwindling population of Wexford, the community could not afford to support two churches in the area, the other being St. Iberius Church on North Main Street. So, to avoid paying taxes on the building, the community removed the slate roof so Selskar Church could be deemed a ruin.
The grounds of Selskar Abbey are closed to the public. Admission is by guided tour only, run by Wexford Walking Tours.
The Opera House
Wexford’s biggest cultural attraction is the world-famous Wexford Opera Festival held each October. This 12-day extravaganza presents ‘unjustly neglected’ works to packed audiences in the town’s shiny new National Opera House on High Street. Tom Walsh staged the first Festival of Music and the Arts in October 1951. Since then, the Wexford Festival Opera has grown into one of the world’s leading opera festivals, winning the Best Opera Festival in the World award in 2017
National Opera House
In 2005, Ireland’s first custom-built opera house replaced the old Theatre Royal, which served the festival for 50 years. On High Street, the new building features two state-of-the-art auditoriums. In 2014, the Wexford Opera House won Best Re-discovered Work at the International Opera Awards for its production of Foroni’s Cristina, regina di Svezia.
Book early if visiting in October, as the shows sell out quickly.