Wexford Harbour, Town & Environs
Wexford Harbour is a large inlet near the southern end of Wexford Bay, forming a natural haven at the mouth of the River Slaney, long guarded by two sandy peninsulas to the north and south of the entrance, called the Raven and Rosslare Point respectively.
Loch Garman, the Irish name for this body of estuarine water (and Wexford town and all of Co. Wexford) derives from Garman Garbh, an obscure hero of conflicting legends about robbers and princess brides, who was supposedly drowned in a flood invoked by a wicked Enchantress. (Photo by Alan Rossiter)
The area is believed to have been occupied over 6,000 years ago, but little is known of its prehistory beyond a few intriguing artefacts left by the shadowy predecessors of the Gaels. The earliest Classical map reference is to Menapia, after a Belgic tribe who were believed by the cartographer Ptolomey to occupy the area.
The region was introduced to Christianity in the C5th by the missionary Saint Iberius / Ibar / Ivor, who almost certainly predated Saint Patrick.
The Vikings arrived in the C9th and called it Veisafjoror / Waesfjord / Ueigsfjord (“Inlet / Harbour of the Mudflats / Waterloged Island”), from which the English name Wexford is derived.
The Wexford Slobs were formed in the mid-C 19th when the north and south bays of Wexford Harbour were cut off from the tide by the construction of long dykes, rather like the Dutch polders. From early October through to the middle of April, they are home to thousands of ducks, geese, swans and waders, making this a site of major international importance for wildfowl, and now a Nature Reserve.
Wexford port developed problems of accessibility over the centuries due to shifting sands, currents and tides, until the 1906 construction of nearby Rosslare Harbour left its use to fishing boats and leisure craft. A discreetly located new Marina was added in 2000.
Wexford Town viewed from the Harbour.
Harbour Thrills runs scenic cruises from Wexford Town’s quayside.
Wexford Town (pop. 20,000), the county capital, is a friendly place with lots of historical atmosphere, photogenic architecture and a vibrant music and nighlife scene. Exceptionally neat and tidy (for an Irish town) and surprisingly cosmopolitan, it makes a great base for touring the scenic surroundings.
The Quays, built on reclaimed land, run north-west / south-east along the waterfront.
The Crescent is the most central quay, notable for the statue of Commodore John Barry, presented to the town by the USA, where the Wexfordman is widely regarded as the founder of the American Navy (a claim disputed by supporters of John Paul Jones).
Keyser Lane is one of a number of tiny narrow alleyways linking the waterfront with the main part of the town; these lane, nowadays lined with quality boutiques, bars and eateries, are a remnant of the Viking era.
Wexford Town History
The Vikings founded the port settlement c.850 AD, and over several generations changed from marauders to traders and citizens, increasingly at ease with their Gaelic neighbours.
The town was still mainly Norse at the time of the late C12th Norman invasion, and resisted the newcomers determinedly. Strongbow gifted Wexford town and two adjoining cantreds to fellow barons Maurice FitzGerald and Robert FitzStephen; the latter was captured by the Ostmen and held hostage until the arrival of King Henry II, who exacted homage and effectively annexed the town for his loyal henchmen.
Over the next four centuries Wexford benefited from trade with England, surviving warring factions, plagues and the religious upheaval of the Reformation.
In the 1640s Wars of the Three Kingdoms, Wexford became a chief maritime base for the Kilkenny Confederacy, supporters of the Royalist cause. In 1649 Oliver Cromwell‘s army besieged Wexford, and when the town eventually fell, slaughtered over 2000 soldiers and civilians.
The C18th was a time of quiet prosperity, violently disturbed by the 1798 Rebellion. The town’s old wooden bridge was the scene of a notorious massacre of local Loyalists, mainly Protestants, by hate-filled sectarian peasants. This was a betrayal of the ideals of the United Irishmen, whose summarily executed leaders’ heads were impaled on the same spot as part of the savage reprisals taken by the British authorities as soon as they regained control.
The port reached its zenith in the C19th, with ships plying as far afield as the Black Sea, Africa, North & South America and the Antipodes. Trade increased dramatically, and the town became prosperous.
The Great Famine devastates the surrounding countryside, but did not prevent the growth of local industries ranging from whiskey distilling to engineering. The town’s population grew steadily and many new streets were constructed. In 1851, work began on the elegant twin churches that dominate the skyline. The railway reached Wexford in 1870.
The Redmond dynasty is of particular political interest. Redmond Square near the railway station was originally named after banker and magistrate John Edward Redmond, (1806-1865), Liberal MP for Wexford from 1859 until his death, whose statue remains prominent. Unlike later members of the family he did not advocate Home Rule for Ireland, finally achieved in principle by his grandnephew, another John Edward Redmond (1856-1918), leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, in 1914, only to be overtaken by tragic events.
In the early years of the C20th, Wexford agricultural machinery companies operated branch offices in cities such as Paris and Buenos Aires. However, prior to the industrial strife of the notorious 1913 Dublin Lock-Out, many of Wexford’s workers endured a lock-out for over six months in 1911/1912, to secure the right of trade union representation.
WWI also left its mark on Wexford. Being still part of the United Kingdom at that time, thousands of locals fought in the British army and navy, with many giving their lives. In 1917 a US Airbase was established where the present day Ely Hospital stands at the Ferrybank end of the bridge, and American aircraft patrolled St. Georges Channel to spot German U-boats.
Independence from the UK was economically disastrous for Wexford, as for most of the country, and it took 50 years for the town to regain any semblance of prosperity.
The medieval town wall along the length of High St is best viewed at Abbey Street and Mallin Street, near the Cornmarket and at the West Gate.
The West Gate is the only survivor of Wexford Town’s seven medieval entrances, and has been carefully restored. (Photo – www.doyle.com.au)
The Westgate Heritage Centre presents a half-hour audiovisual show on the history and development of Wexford, shown every hour, and also has a galklery exhibiting collections of arts and crafts, with many of the artesans on hand to demonstrate their work. Upstairs in the tower there are beautiful Norman rooms, and a fine battlement walk leads to Selskar Abbey.
Selskar (Saint Sepulchre) Abbey, founded in 1190, and dedicated by the Roche family to SS Peter & Paul some sixty years later, is said to have been built on the site of an earlier monastery. King Henry II reputedly paid penance here in 1171 for the previous year’s murder of Thomas a Beckett. The ruins visible today, dating mostly from the C14th – C16th, stand beside the shell of a church erected in 1826. Keys are available from the Heritage Centre.
Saint Iberius church (CoI) was built in 1730 on the site of several previous churches, including the one supposedly founded by the eponymous pre-Patrician saint who first brought Christianity to Wexford. It has a particularly fine Georgian interior, designed by John Roberts, and is used occasionally for concerts.
The Franciscan Friary (1803) retains two walls from the original C13th foundation that Oliver Cromwell notoriously used for a bonfire. The Friary houses a relic of Saint Adjutor, a Roman boy martyr slain by his own father.
The twin churches at Rowe Street and Bride Street, both Roman Catholic, are fine examples of neo-Gothic Victorian church architecture, as is the magnificent chapel in St. Peter’s College, designed by AW Pugin.
Wexford County Hall, the Spawell Rd headquarters of Wexford County Council, is an extraordinary C19th castellated edifice.
The Bullring divides North / South Main Streets, the main shopping drag running roughly parallel to the river. Originally a beach on which boats were drawn up laden with produce bound for the town’s markets, it got its present name from the medieval sport of bull-baiting, introduced to the town by the Butchers’ Guild. From 1621 until 1770, bulls were baited twice a year and their hides presented to the Mayor.
According to tradition, this is where Oliver Cromwell‘s soldiers massacred much of the town’s civilian population following Wexford’s fall to the Parliamentary army in October 1649. Human bones thought to date from then have been disinterred over the years.
During the 1798 Rebellion, the Bullring became an open-air armaments factory, making and repairing pikes and other weapons for the insurgents.
To commemorate the Bicentenary of that terrible year in Irish history, the Bullring had a total facelift. A ‘Tree of Liberty” was planted in the centre, and embedded in the ground behind Oliver Sheppard‘s impressive bronze Lone Pikeman statue (1905) is a ‘time capsule’ metal cylinder containing items reflective of Wexford life in 1998.
Famous political figures addressing crowds in the historic Bullring have included Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, James Larkin, Eamonn de Valera and US President John F. Kennedy.
Wexford has a long tradition of drama, with a version of the Mummers Play known to have been performed locally in 1817. Local theatre groups include Red Moon and the buí bolg streeet performers.
The Wexford Opera Festival
The Wexford Opera Festival: Claudia Boyle as La Comtesse in the 2011 production of La Cour de Célimène by Ambroise Thomas (1811-96), performed on stage for the first time since its initial run in 1855. (Photo by Clive Barda, www.irishtimes.com)
The Wexford Opera Festival (or Wexford Festival Opera as it insists on calling itself), held every autumn since 1951, has grown in stature over the years, and is now recognized as a premiere (if somewhat “alternative”) European event, attracting major performers to take part in spirited productions of less well-known works. For over half a century the main venue was the old Theatre Royal, built in 1832 and demolished in 2006.
The Wexford Opera House, designed by the OPW and inaugurated in September 2008, is a state-of-the-art facility with two auditoriums, intended not only as venues for the Festival but also for a year-round programme of concerts, recitals and plays. (Photo by Ros Ka)
Wexford Arts Centre is housed in an C18th building on the Cornmarket praised by John Wesley, the father of Methodism, as the best Irish venue he ever preached in; Percy French also entertained here. The Centre has a constantly changing programme of exhibitions and performances, and is home to the excellent D’Lush Café.
Major cultural figures from Wexford include Oscar Wilde‘s mother Esperanza (née Jane Elgee), writers John and Vincent Banville, Billy and Eoin Colfer and playwright Billy Roche.
(Another famous person born in the town is the as yet umcommemorated Arctic explorer Sir Robert M’Clure).
The Cape Bar
Wexford has roughly 50 pubs, several good eateries and nightspots, a few good modern hotels (the tradtional White’s and Talbot hotels have been drastically updated) and a wide range of Guesthouse / B&B accomodation facilities.
Wexford racecourse, at Bettyville just outside the town proper, is a popular venue where horses compete over hurdles, National Hunt fences and on the flat according to season, including several Mixed Cards.
Ferrybank on the northern side of the mouth of the River Slaney is linked to Wexford Town proper by the Wexford Bridge (1959), the longest in Ireland at almost 400m.
Ferrybank is within easy reach of both Castlebridge and Curracloe on ByRoute 1.