Heritage comes thick and fast in Wexford. Look at Enniscorthy, which recently celebrated a rather significant birthday: 1,500 years. It’s home to St Aidan’s Cathedral designed by Pugin, a plump Norman Castle, and an interpretative centre telling the story of nearby Vinegar Hill. This is where the decisive battle of Ireland’s 1798 Rebellion was fought.
Or look at New Ross, site of the first Norman landings in Ireland in 1169. Driving along the River Barrow, you’ll see a remarkable replica famine ship moored against the quays. The ship is the star attraction of the Dunbrody Experience, where costumed actors and interactivity combine in an adventure that evokes famine times (you’ll even receive a ticket issued as if it were 1849).
Fans of US history may also recognise these quays as a site from which President John F Kennedy addressed the Irish people during his visit in 1963. Kennedy’s great-grandfather Patrick emigrated from New Ross to America in 1848, and the old Kennedy homestead – where JFK himself stopped for a cup of tea – can be visited in nearby Dunganstown.
Next up is Wexford town itself, where a heritage trail steers through medieval streets showing the influence of Viking, Norman and Cromwellian invasions. Highlights include Selskar Abbey, where Henry II spent six weeks of penance in 1172 for his part in the murder of St Thomas Beckett.
Wexford has an eye to the future, too. The town’s state-of-the-art Opera House, a new venue whose walnut-panelled theatre and panoramic Sky View café anchor the Annual Opera Festival in October, has propelled this 60-year-old festival into the 21st century.
Hook, line and sinker
Stephen Spielberg chose the Blue Flag beaches north of Wexford to film Saving Private Ryan (the Normandy landings were filmed around Curracloe), but the rugged south coast is worth exploring, too.
A short drive south of Wexford lies the fishing village of Kilmore Quay, where boats could have you deep-sea fishing or bird-watching on the Saltee Islands in no time.
A slightly longer drive takes you to the desolate Hook Peninsula. Old forts and hidden coves lurk around every corner, but the highlight of a driving loop is the Hook Lighthouse itself. This is an iconic beacon that’s been warding ships off the rocks for 800 years.
Climb the old tower in wintertime and you’ll not only spot passing ships, but possibly even passing whales.