Situated in the southeastern corner of Ireland, Wexford is a county of gentle agricultural land and coastal settlements with an incredibly rich maritime heritage. It is located in the province of Leinster in the south-east of Ireland. Commonly know as ‘The Sunny South East’ as it’s Ireland’s warmest and driest region. County Wexford’s navigable rivers and fertile farmland have long lured invaders and privateers.

Provenance

River Slanery. (Source: Sarah777/Wikimedia Commons)

The main town of the county is Wexford, established by Viking settlers in AD 850. They founded Ireland’s first major town on the wide, easy-flowing River Slaney. The river cuts through the middle of the county. It was an important port for Norse raiding parties into the surrounding counties of Wicklow, Carlow, Kilkenny and Waterford and soon became a key maritime port.

 

Today, the Viking city of Wexford is a centre for opera and art, complementing a beach-fringed coastline and a rural hinterland dotted with cute villages and thatched cottages.

The Irish name for County Wexford is the totally unrelated Contae Loch Garman. Literally translated as “Lake of Garma,” Garma being the ancient name of the river Slaney, and the description covering the whole estuary.

More on County Wexford

As anyone might notice, the sun shines a long period of time in Wexford, and it has a higher average temperature than the rest of Ireland. In reality, that’s not considered to be a bad thing as this climate indicates that Wexford is one of the most popular places in Ireland to live.

Furthermore, it has the 4th largest population of Leinster’s 12 counties. In 2016, the county had a total population of 149,722 people. Of these, 61.4% (91,969 people) lived in rural areas and 38.6% (57,753 people) lived in urban areas.

Due to its numerous coastal towns, rivers, and beaches that Wexford has, over the years, it’s become a haven for people with an interest in watersports. You name it: Windsurfing, sailing and kayaking are all very popular throughout the year and attract many people. The summer months see an influx of visitors to the coastal regions taking to the sea for a swim or a spot of fishing.

The Hook Lighthouse, located at the tip of The Hook Penninsula is the oldest operating lighthouses in Ireland. As well as being one of the oldest lighthouses in the world. It has been in existence for nearly 900 years which is quite incredible.

History

Back in the old times, at the beginning of the second millennium, Wexford had been a very peaceful and isolated county. It had a very small population, and most of the people there worked in basic handwork like farming and knitting.

However, it wasn’t long until it was discovered by conquerors and people with interest in taking what’s not theirs. The people never knew what was going to happen to the county and its structures.

Oliver Cromwell, the ruthless English military leader, notoriously stormed Wexford in 1649. Many of the town’s civilian population were rounded up and slaughtered in the bloody Bull Ring at the centre of town.

Which was in fact used for the medieval sport of bull-baiting from (from 1621 to 1770). The site of the Selskar Abbey, which has been redeveloped several times since it was founded during the 13th century, was decimated under his command (and later redeveloped, in 1818).

Continuation of the History of Wexford

Fresh from massacring the population of Drogheda, they overcame the town and put some 1,500 of the town’s inhabitant in misery and utter disdain by killing off their loved ones. Sadly, it didn’t stop there.

County Wexford again was the scene of an Irish massacre during the rebellion of 1798, at Vinegar Hill close to Enniscorthy. Under further instruction from Cromwell, seven friars were murdered at the Franciscan Friary. A crucifix at the church is in memory of them.

Later on, during the century, Wexford was dominated by the Loftus interest and that of their heirs, the Tottenham-Loftuses. They were the descendants of an Elizabethan Archbishop of Armagh and Dublin, who was also Lord Chancellor, and his second son Adam, also an archbishop, who was one of the founders and the first Provost of Dublin University. Their eighteenth-century descendants were successively in two creations, Lords Loftus and Earls of Ely and finally Marquesses of Ely.

Their power was concentrated in Wexford, which returned 18 MPs, and they returned at least nine: six for the boroughs of Bannow, Clonmines and Fethard, one for Wexford town, one for New Ross and one for the county. The excess of representation was almost certainly due to the area’s early settlement.

The Saltee Islands. (Source: ArcticEmmet/Wikimedia Commons)

Additionally, to add to the beauty of its origins, The Saltee Islands, among the oldest in Europe between 600 and 2000 million years old, lie a few miles off the southern coast. Included in their unusual history are tales of pirates, shipwrecks and lost treasures. In summer, magnificent colonies of Guillemots and Razorbills flock to the northeast of the Gannet headland.

Land

Hook Peninsula. (Source: Sergio/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons)

Wexford has always been known as a county of low lying fertile land and scenic sandy coasts stretching from Courtown in the north of the county to Kilmore Quay in the south and right around the timelessly scenic Hook Peninsula. With its fertile soil and relatively stable weather conditions, Wexford has been known to produce some of Ireland’s finest crops. Wexford’s strawberries and potatoes are held in particularly high regard.

Evidently, County Wexford’s nickname, “Model County,” was derived from the high number of “Model Farms” found here. These were experimental agricultural establishments that paved the way for many rural reforms.

Evergreen tree species are heavily cultivated, especially in more recent years. Norway spruce and Sitka spruce are the most common varieties planted. These are generally sown on poorer quality soils (mainly in bogs and on hills or mountainsides).

Culture

Wexford Opera Festival

Wexford Opera Festival is the godfather of Irish arts festivals. It was first held in 1951, making it six years older than the Dublin Theatre Festival, and 11 years older than the Belfast International Arts Festival. So much for the idea of the 1950s as a stagnant decade in Ireland.

Different is what Wexford does, year after year ─ sometimes in the face of daunting financial, artistic and political challenges. It has made the festival what it is: an improbable but unique place of annual autumnal pilgrimage in the opera world. As well as one of the prime cultural achievements of modern Ireland.

Wexford Opera Festival runs from 22 October – 3 November 2019.

Top Attractions in Wexford

Irish National Heritage Park

Irish National Heritage Park, Ferrycarrig, County Wexford. (Source: Ardfern/Wikimedia Commons)

Unless you are prepared for a lot of travel, and to conjure images from ruins, you will get no better comprehensive glimpse into Ireland’s past than at the Irish National Heritage Park. At this Heritage Park, history is represented from prehistoric times to the invasions of the Vikings and Anglo-Normans.

Though its name makes it sound like a nationally owned park, the Heritage Park is in fact privately owned. Telling the story of early Ireland through carefully reconstructed buildings and re-enactments of the life and work of Irish people in centuries and millennia past. While there are no original historic structures here, the reconstructions are as accurate as it can be.

The Irish National Heritage Park is located in Ferrycarrig in the beautiful South East of Ireland. The Park is considered to be one of Ireland’s premier attractions with a vast variety of exceptionally accurate exhibits. Bring the people of Ireland’s long and distinguished past to life.

Hook Head Lighthouse

Hook Head Lighthouse with view of the sea. (Source: Ianfhunter/Wikimedia Commons)

The iconic Hook Head lighthouse represents one of the oldest operational lighthouses in the world. It stands on the very tip of the windswept Hook peninsula in Wexford. Overlooking a number of important shipping routes. Circa 900 years old, it was erected in the early 12th century by the great Anglo-Norman magnate, William Marshall, with assistance from the monks of a nearby monastery.

Views can get even better when you climb to the top of the Hook Head Lighthouse. Because this is an extremely rare opportunity to see a working lighthouse in Ireland.

You see, most lighthouses are virtually inaccessible due to their remote location (or private golf courses sternly forbidding trespassers), and they won’t let you in either. Getting inside Hook Head is a luxury that anyone should seize.

Guided tours are available or you can stroll around and soak up the atmosphere and scenery at your own pace.

There is a visitor centre with a café and gift shop for you to enjoy. Also not forgetting there’s plenty of scope and space to picnic in a safe family-friendly environment. Festivals and other events are regularly staged at the site, so watch out for those.

The Kennedy Homestead Visitor Centre

JFK Homestead in Wexford. (Source: Kenneth Allen/Geograph Ireland)

The Kennedy Homestead Visitor Centre showcases the story of five generations of the Kennedy dynasty. The most famous Irish-American family to leave Ireland during the Irish famine.

The unique exhibition travels through time recounting the fascinating story of a family’s rise. From famine immigrants to being one of the most influential presidential families of the United States. The centre offers visitors a rare insight into the personal friendship between this memorable family and their ancestral home in Dunganstown.

The curators of the Kennedy Homestead Visitor Centre using the Kennedy Library archival collection in Boston, have created a state of the art interpretive exhibit. Which explores the circumstances of Patrick Kennedy’s departure from Ireland in 1847. And pieces together the story of the Irish-American family through the 20th century to the present day.

Facilities at the Homestead include a unique collection of Kennedy memorabilia, audio-visual display, souvenir shop, wheelchair access, extensive car and coach parking.

Dunbrody Famine Ship Experience

Dunbrody Famine Ship. (Source: Pam Brophy/Geograph Ireland)

It’s circa 1849, blighted potato crops in Ireland have failed yet again. And the Great Famine that will kill one million people in just seven years is well underway. On the quayside at New Ross poignant scenes of departure have unfolded. Before you board the replica three-masted barque of The Dunbrody that once offered escape.

It is estimated that almost 1.5 million people emigrated from Ireland. Many of whom heading for North America.

The ship is a beautiful authentic recreation of this experience and visitors will embrace the sights, smells and sounds of a tall ship crossing the ocean.

As well as meeting the captain and crew, and encountering emigrants telling their stories. You follow in the footsteps of lucky survivors to the Arrivals Hall, to discover further struggles ahead for these new immigrants in North America.

Curracloe Beach

Curracloe beach. (Source: Flickr)

The Emerald Isle may not be exactly world famous for her many beautiful beaches, but we don’t mind sharing this tidbit as our little secret. And what the world doesn’t know can become a favourite secret of yours when you visit one of Ireland’s sand-covered coastal destinations.

Curracloe (Ballinesker) Beach in County Wexford is one of the most popular beaches in Ireland. Located two kilometres away from Curracloe Village. This soft-sand beach is frequented by sunbathers and nature-lovers alike.

During the summer months, you’ll find that the area is bustling with life, as holidaymakers leave their home counties to take up residence in the holiday homes, campsites, hotels and B&Bs that surround the area.

Later on, during the autumn and winter months, Curracloe Beach and its nearby forest become a hot spot for dog-walkers, joggers and anyone else in pursuit of a peaceful stroll.

The opening of the Oscar-winning motion picture Saving Private Ryan, depicting the D-Day landings on Normandy Beach, was filmed on Ballinesker Beach. A few miles northeast of Wexford Town.

The film’s director Steven Spielberg chose this location due to its similarity to Omaha Beach in Normandy. The filming took place over the summer of 1997 and had 400 crew and 1000 Irish Reserve Army members. Many of whom were amputees to give a realness to the film.

National 1798 Rebellion Centre

Vividly re-told in an exciting interpretation of events the “Rebellion Experience” at The National 1798 Rebellion Centre is not to be missed. This exhibition does a fine job of explaining the background to one of Ireland’s pivotal historical events. It covers the French and American revolutions. Which helped spark Wexford’s abortive uprising against British rule in Ireland, before chronicling the Battle of Vinegar Hill.

There is a renowned singing tradition in County Wexford. Having an abundance of traditional songs, many of which relate to the rebellion of 1798. The county has for many years had a strong presence in the Irish traditional singing scene.

To sum it all up, County Wexford has retained plenty of “old world” charm along the years. So making time for a stopover there should be gratifying. There are many things to see and explore. All in all quite a pleasant Irish county town for a walk and some snapshots. And there are some decent (ancient and modern) entertainment venues there, too.

Other worthy reads:

Must See Belfast: An Insiders Guide to the Best of Belfast| County Mayo: The Perfect Blend of History, Culture and Fun| An insight into the fascinating Nature of County Derry| Getting around Antrim, The Biggest County in Northern Ireland| Glens of Antrim| Galway is Far Beyond a Former Fishing Village

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