WEXFORD is a happy-go-lucky kind of town with plenty of scope for enjoying music in its pubs, but it has its serious side too, not least in the shape of its internationally renowned opera festival. There are few sights to see in the town itself – more is on offer in the surrounding area – but the appeal of the place lies in its atmosphere and setting: its long, narrow medieval lanes huddle for shelter inland of the exposed quays, which line the southern shore of the wide Slaney estuary, with the railway line to Rosslare dividing the main road from the promenade and a busy little marina.
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The town began life as a Viking base for incursions and trading, before becoming an early Anglo-Norman conquest in 1169. Wexford later housed an English garrison whose loyalty to the Crown resulted in vicious fighting against Cromwell’s army in 1649. The town also played a significant role in the 1798 Rebellion, which was finally quelled at Enniscorthy. Wexford’s lengthy quays pay testimony to its re-emergence as a prosperous trading centre in the nineteenth century, though gradual silting of the harbour’s entrance and the development of Rosslare Harbour led to its demise as a competitive port.
Around Wexford town
To Wexford’s north lies Ireland’s premier wildfowl sanctuary, Wexford Wildfowl Reserve, beyond which the coastline is punctuated by some lovely sandy beaches: 10km from town, past Curracloe, lies the sprawling, dune-backed Ballinesker Beach, which deputized for Omaha Beach as the site of the D-Day landings in Stephen Spielberg’s World War II epic Saving Private Ryan; and further up the coast near Kilmuckridge is another broad beach popular with families, Blue-Flag Morriscastle, known as “the golden mile”.
To the west of Wexford is the impressive Irish National Heritage Park, while to the south runs rather bland countryside, though the ornate gardens of Johnstown Castle and the Irish Agricultural Museum are well worth visiting. The small seaside resort of Rosslare has a splendid beach, much enjoyed by families in summer, while Rosslare Europort is a major point of entry into Ireland. A little further out of the county town’s orbit, energetic Enniscorthy is best known for its associations with the 1798 Rebellion, which is commemorated in an excellent museum.
Around 24km north of Wexford, the attractive old town of ENNISCORTHY straddles the River Slaney, its main streets rising steeply from the west bank towards the Market Square. From the square, Rafter Street leads south after a ten-minute walk to the National 1798 Centre, a high-tech sound-and-vision fest, capturing the excitement of events prior to the Rebellion, the rising itself and its aftermath, all cogently set within broader intellectual and political contexts that brought about American independence and the French Revolution. There’s a marvellous display on the conflict between revolution and counter-revolution set out on a giant chessboard. Another highlight is an audiovisual featuring an enthralling debate between actors playing the roles of the Dublin-born Whig politician and philosopher Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, the English radical and American revolutionary whose Rights of Man (1792) was a direct riposte to Burke’s more conservative Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). It was on the gorse-covered Vinegar Hill, opposite on the Slaney’s eastern bank, that the rebels of 1798 met their demise at the hands of British forces.
Just west of Market Square along Main Street, St Aidan’s Cathedral is an imposing Gothic Revival edifice, designed in the mid-nineteenth century by Augustus Pugin, whose other works include Killarney’s cathedral and the interior of the Palace of Westminster. As well as impressively high pointed arches, the cathedral features an oak carved pulpit, beautiful stained-glass windows depicting saints and bishops, and a small exhibition on Pugin’s career.