The countryside of Ireland’s southeastern corner is largely flat and insipid, but, thanks to its position, gets some of the best of the country’s weather. The geography helps to explain why this area is a hotbed of hurling, the more expansive of Ireland’s traditional field sports: Kilkenny (Cill Chainnigh), in particular, is mad about the game and currently seems to win the All-Ireland County Championship at will. For the visitor, the county’s attractions are focused on its namesake city, a splendid place to pass a couple of days, thanks to its magnificent castle and other historical sites, a flourishing arts, crafts and festivals scene and a plethora of fine pubs and restaurants. The northern reaches of the county offer little interest bar the magnificent Dunmore Cave, but to the south lie the verdant river valleys of the Nore and Barrow, with their trim waterside villages, evocative monastic remains and extensive waymarked trails. County Carlow (Ceatharlach) has almost negligible appeal, but, if you’re passing through, it does have one notable sight in the form of the gorgeous valley-set village of St Mullins. Conversely, County Wexford (Loch Garman) has much allure, especially in and around the genial county town of Wexford itself, with its thriving music and arts scene, and in Enniscorthy, a place redolent of the 1798 Rebellion. The county’s eastern coastline offers plenty of sandy beaches, while its southwestern corner along the Barrow estuary features some fine country-house hotels and a string of varied attractions, from ruined abbeys to a sweeping arboretum, running between the bleak wonders of the Hook Peninsula and the historic river port of New Ross.
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Thanks to its strategic position just across St George’s Channel from south Wales, Ireland’s southeast has borne the brunt of the country’s colonization. The Vikings founded an early settlement here, which grew into Wexford town, while the Anglo-Normans quickly exploited the area’s economic potential and greatly altered its physiognomy. They developed Kilkenny and Wexford towns and built castles across the two counties, while also transforming uncultivated areas into productive farmland. However, control was not always easily maintained. The MacMurrough-Kavanagh Irish dynasty, based in the north of County Wexford, continually frustrated English attempts to control the region and full conquest only occurred when Cromwell arrived in the mid-1600s. Even after this, County Wexford witnessed some of the bitterest fighting during the 1798 Rebellion, before the insurgents were decisively defeated at Enniscorthy.
Hook Head and the Barrow estuary
The sightseeing highlight of Wexford’s southwestern corner is the atmospheric ruin of Tintern Abbey, at the neck of the blustery Hook Peninsula, which is punctuated with sandy beaches and a fascinating medieval lighthouse. Circumnavigating Hook Head brings you to the pleasant little resort of Duncannon and nearby Ballyhack, whence car ferries cross the Barrow estuary to Passage East in County Waterford. This ferry service is 20km south of the first road crossing of the Barrow, at the busy town of New Ross, and is certainly worth taking if you’re short of time, but that way you’d miss out on a tight cluster of attractions on the east bank of the river, notably the glorious remains of Dunbrody Abbey, the John F. Kennedy Arboretum, and the charming Ros Tapestry and vivid Dunbrody Emigrant Ship at New Ross.
On the broad neck of the Hook Head peninsula, 30km southwest of Wexford town off the R374, lies the dramatic ruin of Tintern Abbey, now surrounded by 3km of woodland trails and endowed with a café. This thirteenth-century Cistercian foundation was constructed by William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, to give thanks for being saved from drowning at sea, and was populated by monks from its better-known namesake in Monmouthshire, Wales. After dissolution in 1536, the abbey was granted to one of Henry VIII’s officers, Anthony Colclough, who much modified the buildings, while subsequent additions, including the battlemented walls, were made by his descendants, who lived here until the 1960s. Only part of the original cruciform church is still standing but its tower is extant and includes a small exhibition on the abbey’s history.
Hook Head is entirely exposed to the elements, serene in good weather – though very dangerous for swimming – and excitingly wild in a storm. The rocky shoreline has a wealth of fossils and it’s a popular location for birdwatchers, who visit to spot migrations, as well as whale- and dolphin-watchers. The Hook Lighthouse was built by William Marshall in the early thirteenth century to guide ships safely into the Barrow estuary on their way to his thriving port of New Ross, replacing an earlier beacon. Apart from a short period during the 1600s, it has functioned ever since and became fully automated in 1996. Guided tours lead to the lighthouse’s top, some 36 metres high, and recount its history, paying note to the monks who were the first light-keepers here.
DUNCANNON is a small, friendly village with a lovely Blue Flag beach protected from the elements by a rocky coastline at its southern extremity. Looming above from its lofty promontory is Duncannon Fort, constructed in 1586, on the site of a Celtic fort and a Norman castle, as a bulwark against Spanish invasion. Much remodelled since then, the fort was burnt down by the IRA in 1922. Though Ireland was officially neutral during World War II, the fort was rebuilt on its outbreak, becoming a base for the Irish Army until 1986. As well as art and crafts galleries and studios, a café and an internet café, the complex includes a small maritime museum, a dry moat with ten-metre-high walls, ramparts with great views of the Barrow estuary and down to Hook Head and, in a surviving older building, a fetid dungeon where the Croppy Boy, the subject of a well-known song of the 1798 Rebellion, was allegedly incarcerated.
NEW ROSS squats besides the River Barrow, 12km north of the arboretum, its quayside marred by poor redevelopment and heavy traffic, but there’s still life in the old place, especially in the lanes behind the frontage. The river provided access to the upstream countryside of Wexford and Kilkenny, and the town’s importance beyond being a local embarkation point is emphasized by the quayside presence of the Dunbrody Emigrant Ship. Though this is a reconstruction of one of the nineteenth-century vessels that conveyed Irish emigrants to North America, particularly during the height of the Famine, it is actually a fully operable craft and occasionally takes part in tall ship races. Following a brief scene-setting video, the half-hour guided tour of the ship, complete with costumed actors role-playing passengers and crew, shows the conditions on board, stressing the variance between those who travelled steerage and first class. In the visitor centre, which houses a café, you can access a database of virtually everyone who emigrated to North America between 1846 and 1886.
The town’s tourist office is housed in the ship’s visitor centre. Ask here about the Ros Tapestry (www.rostapestry.com), an ambitious, ten-year project to embroider the history of New Ross in fifteen colourful panels – it’s nearing completion and will probably be hung in St Mary’s Church on Mary Street.