County Wexford's navigable rivers and fertile farmland have long lured invaders and privateers. The Vikings founded Ireland's first major town on the wide, easy-flowing River Slaney, which cuts through the middle of the county. Today the Viking city of Wexford is a centre for opera and art, complementing a beach-fringed coastline and a rural hinterland dotted with cute villages and thatched cottages.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout County Wexford.
Soft white sand, gentle surf and lack of development are the big draws of the 11km-long, Blue Flag–rated Curracloe Beach. Families flock here on sunny days, but with its vast size you can easily find a half-acre of the beach to call your own. The strand doubled for Omaha Beach in the famous D-Day opening scenes of the movie Saving Private Ryan (1998). It's 11km northeast of Wexford, signposted at various points along the R741, R742 and R743.
On its southern tip, Hook Head is capped by the world's oldest working lighthouse, with a modern light flashing atop a 13th-century tower. Access is by half-hour guided tour, which includes a climb up the 115 steps for great views. The visitors centre has a good cafe, while the grassy grounds and surrounding shore are ideal for picnics and walks.
Parading peacocks guard the splendid 19th-century Johnstown Castle, the former home of the once-mighty Fitzgerald and Esmonde families (the estate was gifted to the nation in 1945). Situated 7km southwest of Wexford town, the empty castle (not open to public) is surrounded by 20 hectares of beautiful wooded gardens complete with an ornamental lake, a sunken Italian garden, statues and waterfalls.
Tucked behind Courtown harbour, 35km northeast of Enniscorthy off the M11, this volunteer-run centre rescues orphaned, lost and injured seals and rehabilitates them before releasing them back into the environment. A tour takes you behind the scenes to meet the seals, which you can sponsor and follow online. The duration of the tour varies depending on how many seals are present (call ahead to check); there's also a gift shop, with proceeds helping the seals.
Called 'coffin ships' due to their fatality rate, the leaky, smelly boats that hauled a generation of Irish emigrants to America are reimagined on board this replica ship on the New Ross waterfront. The emigrants' sorrowful yet often inspiring stories are brought to life by costumed actors during 45-minute tours. A 10-minute introductory film provides historical background about the mid-19th-century Ireland they were leaving.
Tintern Abbey is named after its Welsh counterpart, from where its first monks hailed. The atmospheric remains of the abbey enjoy a lovely setting amid 40 hectares of woodland. Unusually for an abbey, it has a long history as a private residence. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in the early 16th century, Tintern was granted to Staffordshire nobleman Anthony Colclough, and his descendants continued to live here until 1959. The abbey is 11km north of Fethard-on-Sea, signposted off the R733.
Once the haunt of privateers, smugglers and ‘dyvers pyrates’, the Saltee Islands now have a peaceful existence as one of Europe’s most important bird sanctuaries. More than 220 species have been recorded here, most of them passing migrants; the main breeding populations include chough, gannet, guillemot, razorbill, kittiwake, puffin and Manx shearwater. Boats make the 4km trip from Kilmore Quay harbour, but landing is weather-dependent. Book through Declan Bates.
This exhibition does a fine job of explaining the background to one of Ireland's pivotal historical events. It covers the French and American revolutions, which helped spark Wexford's abortive uprising against British rule in Ireland, before chronicling the Battle of Vinegar Hill. One of the most bloodthirsty battles of the 1798 Rising and a turning point in the struggle, it took place just outside Enniscorthy. A visit here provides context for a walk up Vinegar Hill itself.
This stout, four-towered keep was originally built by the Normans; like much else in these parts, it was surrendered to Cromwell in 1649. During the 1798 Rising, rebels used this castle as a prison, and from 1901 to 1953 it was the family home of local businessman and landowner Henry J Roche. It now houses a museum about the history of both town and castle, and has a rooftop deck with spectacular views.