Wexford, known as the model county, has it all. Located on the south-east corner of Ireland, this most beautiful of counties has long sandy beaches, historical sites, castles and gardens, pretty towns, dramatic bridges, welcoming fishing villages, churches of note, top class hotels and leisure centres, yet is practically unknown to tourists from outside Ireland. Here we highlight some of the reasons you should add Wexford to any tour of Ireland.
Wexford began as a Viking town and was fortified following Norman conquest in the 12th century. Cromwell's armies entered and plundered the town in 1649 and killed over half of its people. Today Wexford is a vibrant and friendly town, and one of the most cosmopolitan towns in the country. It is also one of Ireland's most beautiful towns, and the town's skyline, as viewed from the bridge entering the town is particularly picturesque.
Each October, the town plays host to the world famous Wexford Opera Festival, which also incorporates a spectacular firework display and a range of fringe events. The town's narrow main street still has a number of independent stores, many of them selling local produce and Wexford make crafts. The town's churches are among it's attractions, including the twin Gothic churches at Bride Street and Rowe Street, which were designed by a student of Pugin. Selskar Abbey ruins and the adjacent Westgate tower are of historical interest. Regular horse racing meets are held at Bettyville racecourse, 2 kilometres from the centre of town.
There are a number of great restaurants in the town, and the standard of accommodation is also very high.
Enniscorthy is a sleepy town situated on the River Slaney. Originally a Norman settlement, the centre of an important rebellion in the 1800s, and later a thriving market town, Enniscorthy is steeped in history.
The 1798 Centre commemorates the 1798 rising against British rule, the role of Enniscorthy and its people in that rebellion, and the last stand of the rebels at Vinergar Hill, which overlooks the town. The centre is full of colourful and informative displays.
Enniscorthy Castle, dating from 1176, and sitting in the heart of the town, has a long an interesting history. It currently houses the County Wexford Folk Museum.
St. Aidan's Cathedral, one of the dominant features of the Enniscorthy skyline was designed by one of the Pugin family.
Johnstown Castle and Agricultural Museum
This beautiful 19th century stately home sits on a spectacular site just south of Wexford Town. Though the castle itself is not open to the public, the gardens, and the adjacent agricultural museum are open year round.
The ornamental gardens surrounding the castle were designed by Daniel Robertson, designer of the spectacular Powerscourt Gardens in Co. Wicklow. The grounds contain a broad range of shrubs and trees, and combines the best bits of a wild and formal garden. Two lakes, populated with a range of waterfoul, form the heart of the gardens. The folly towers that are dotted around the lakes give it a very unique feeling.
The agricultural museum traces the history of rural Irish life from the early 17oos until the mid 1900s. Among the displays extending over 2 floors and occupying 1,600 square metres are The Garden Room, Harry Ferguson Tractor Display, Power Driven Barn Machines, Transport, Sugar Beet Room, The Great Famine. Bicycle Display, Village Crafts Exhibition, Equestrian Room, The Diary, Country Kitchens and Poultry Keeping.
There is a large and well equipped picnic area within the beautiful surroundings.
J.F. Kennedy Aboretum
Located 12 kilometres south of the town of New Ross, and dedicated to former US president John Fitzgerald Kennedy, this Arboretum contains an impressive plant collection of international standing. The 252 hectare site contains more than four thousand shrubs and trees from all temperate regions of the world, which are planted in botanical sequence. The Ericaceous Garden contains 500 different rhododendrons alongside many varieties of heathers and azaleas and the 200-plus forest plots are grouped by continent. The lake, a popular attraction, is a haven for waterfowl.
Some of John F Kennedy's ancestors hailed from Wexford. The birth place of Patrick Kennedy, a famine emigrant and great grandfather to John F Kennedy, Jean Kennedy Smith (US Ambassador), Eunice Shriver (founder of the Special Olympics), Ted Kennedy (US Senator) and Bobby Kennedy (Attorney General), can be visited near Dunganstown, just a few kilometres away.
Slade and Hook Lighthouse
The Hook Peninsula, noted for its spectacular scenery, wildlife and many and varied beaches, features the historic Loftus Hall, the medieval Hook Head lighthouse, and the sleepy fishing village of Slade. The lighthouse, which marks Wexford's most southerly point, is the oldest intact, operational lighthouse in the world. Guided tours of the lighthouse are available year round, and the balcony, 115 steps up, offers spectacular views out to see and right across the estuary to Waterford. Lonely Planet have placed Hook head top of its list of 'Top 10 Flashiest Lighthouses, and describe it as the 'The great granddaddy of lighthouses'.
The adjacent former lighthouse keeper's buildings house a cafe, picnic area, children's outdoor games area, art exhibits maritime displays and a gift shop. Fin whales, humpback whales and dolphins can be spotted offshore in the area. The rocks behind the quaint harbour in Slade are ideal for fishing. Those interested in the paranormal can book tours of the abandoned and reputedly haunted Loftus Hall. The magnificent house has a dark and troubled history, and is commonly referred to as Ireland's most haunted house. The flat terrain of the peninsula is ideal for leisurely bike rides, and bikes can be hired from the hall.
Irish National Heritage Park
The Irish National Heritage Park, located in Ferrycarrig, just 3 kilometres from Wexford Town, is one of the south east's most unique tourist attractions. The sprawling park depicts Ireland's ancient history from stone age to Norman conquest, utilising original features (Dolmen , round tower), and replica living quarters and places of worship. The site includes crannogs, ring forts, an early water mill, and a Viking boat and boat house, spanning all the major eras in ancient Irish history. There is a very good restaurant onsite, as well as in informative interpretive centre.
Curracloe and the beaches
There is no doubt but that the stretch of east coast beach between Raven Point and Blackwater is one of the most beautiful in Ireland. This long sandy stretch of coastline, along with the adjacent Raven Nature Reserve, is a popular training spot among the county's best sportspeople. Walkers and cyclists are plentiful throughout the year, and this is where many Dublin city dwellers escape to an warm summer weekends.
The nearby North Slob, a large area of mud-flats, is the location for the Wexford Wildfowl Nature Reserve. The area, reclaimed from the sea in the mid 18oos, is the winter home for ten thousand white-fronted geese. This is approximately one third of the world's population of the bird, which travels south from Greenland for the summer months.
The Guinness Book of Records was created as a result of a shooting trip to the North Slob. Following an argument over which was the fastest game bird in Europe, Sir Hugh Beaver, who was then the managing director of the Guinness Breweries, realised that no book which could settle such arguments existed.
Courtown, Carnsore Point, Rosslare Strand and Duncannon beaches are among the other popular options within Wexford. The 9 km coastal stretch at Ballyteigue Burrow, near Duncormick, is one of Ireland's finest protect sand dune systems. The area, rich in wildflowers, butterflies, and other wildlife, is a protected nature reserve.
Kilmore Quay and Saltee Islands
The annual seafood festival held in the fishing village of Kilmore Quay has a number of activities for all the family, including raft races, pony rides, and theatre performances. A number of houses in the village continue to be thatched in the traditional style. Boat trips are available from the village to the Saltee Islands, which lie just of the coast. The islands are together Ireland's largest bird sanctuary, and have large colonies of puffins, gulls, gannets razorbills, cormorants and guillemots.
Other things to see and do
Learn about life on board one of the 19th century famine ships at the Dunbrody famine ship and visitor centre in New Ross.
Explore the historic ruins of Ferns, which includes Ferns Castle and Abbey, the 12th century St Mary's Augustinian Prory, 13th century cathedral remains and St Peter's church.
Sample Victorian life at the magnificent Wells House and Gardens, near Ballyedmound in Gorey. Attractions include woodland walks, a craft courtyard, Ireland's only 3 dimensional archer course, a falconry, a children's adventure playground and living Victorian house tours.
Drive the beautiful route from the homely town of Bunclody towards the Blackstairs mountains, which sit along the border between Wexford and Carlow. You can climb via a surfaced road to the top of Mount Leinster, the highest peak in the Blackstairs range and in the whole of the Leinster province.
Visit Tacumshin Windmill, which, used until 1936, was the last commercially working windmill in the Irish republic. Nearby Tachumshin Lake, enclosed naturally by a barrier of sand dunes, is yet another place for spotting birds. The area attracts flocks of Grent geese, Bewick's swans, wigeon, golden plover, oystercatchers and lapwing.