I might have had chance to visit the famed Wexford Opera Festival when I was walking out with Bernard Levin — who was mad about the annual October event — but he never took me along, on account of calling me a ‘vile fidget’ during opera performances. Still, Wexford is a grand place to visit at any time, often having been, for me, a handy overnight stay after reaching Ireland at nearby Rosslare.
Yet a more beautiful way, I think, to get to Wexford is by train from Dublin, which takes just over two hours. You travel down the lovely east coast of Ireland, with the sea on one side and the mountains and lush greenery on the other for much of the journey. And then the track turns a little inland, and soon after Enniscorthy, the calm, almost canal-like waters of the River Slaney appear, gradually broadening under translucent light into the estuary of Wexford harbour.
There’s a stunning serenity about the whole vista, and you alight into a sweet little town square adorned with a statue honouring the Redmond family, who brought the railway to Wexford, and one of whose members, John Redmond, was the Irish Home Rule leader in 1914. Further up the main street is a statue to the rebellion of 1798, when the first Irish republic was proclaim-ed, led by Father Murphy of Boolavogue, Co. Wexford, who was duly hanged with his rebel cohorts.
Wexford is, in origin, a Viking town, its name said to be cognate with Viksfjord in Norway (the Irish-language name is Loch Garman), since Norsemen and Danes raped and pillaged their way through the south-east of Ireland, leaving behind not only some jolly good archeology, but a fine sprink-ling of their genes. You glimpse that Viking blond face in the streets of Wexford, which are charming, and delightful for shopping, notably for shoes and, wonderfully, books.
Wexford has four independent bookshops, surviving through the challenges of recession, Amazon and ebooks. Do visit the Wexford Book Centre at 5 South Main Street, where upstairs you can have a delicious coffee, and downstairs talk to Bernie, who has worked in local bookshops for 30 years and is a fount of knowledge. There’s also Byrne’s Bookshop, the Selskar Bookshop and the Reader’s Paradise, a secondhand shop. And there’s a splendid new library in the centre of the town, where everyone is hugely helpful.
Like everywhere in Ireland, Wexford is a writer’s town, having produced John Banville and the playwright Billy Roche, and Enniscorthy being Colm Tóibín country. John F. Kennedy’s family hailed from New Ross, nearby, and there’s a JFK Memorial Park and the Kennedy Homestead to see. (Barack Obama’s 3 per cent Irish ancestry spot is not too far away in Co. Offaly.)
I’m not a great foodie, but they speak well of the eating places (as did Bernard L) and Wexford boasts an annual food and wine festival. To me, it’s just an enchanting maritime town, where you can walk around the quays, and sit and talk and dream in friendliness and tranquillity both.