Colm Tóibíns Wexford: ‘This is not the Ireland of tourist posters’

Wexford, a corner borough in Ireland, has absorbed the energy of its many invaders. The name Wexford is Norse. Many of the surnames, including my own, are Norman while others are Gaelic. Then came the English, including Sir Henry Wallop, who rebuilt Enniscorthy Castle. He wrote to Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s spymaster, in 1581: “There is no other way of intimidating these people than with the edge of the sword.” I remember the dark laughter in the early 1960s when my father and a local priest were undaunted bought the castle and turned it into a museum – still open to the public – with many exhibits glorifying the struggle for Irish independence in the early years.

The town of Wexford has a streetscape that follows a medieval or early modern pattern. When I was young in Enniscorthy, about 15 miles away, I took every opportunity to drive to Wexford, with its long narrow high street, its quays, the soft light over the Slaney Estuary. It had a good bookstore – it still exists – and a Woolworths with a plexiglass box with ice cold orange juice and a plastic orange floating on top. I suppose what I enjoyed about Wexford Town was a sense of activity, prosperity and cosmopolitanism.

The author outside Stamps in Enniscorthy

The author outside Stamps in Enniscorthy © Ellius Grace

The pinnacle of Wexford’s openness was the establishment of the Wexford Opera Festival in 1951, an unpromising year for Ireland, with mass emigration and a sluggish economy in full swing. In 2008 the old Theater Royal on a back street in Wexford was replaced by a magnificent new one on the same site opera house. Nearby are the new library and Wexford Arts Centre in an old Cornmarket building, which also houses D’lush, the best coffee shop in town.

If the opera of my novel The masterwhich I wrote the libretto for was performed at the festival last month, I ate Wexford out and at home.

Wexford’s high street has two of its best restaurants and also its best pub. The pub is a long, shady room called The sky and the ground. green acresalso deli, wine shop, gallery and restaurant, is an old law office converted into a great place to dine, including a private room once used for legal consultations and now great for intimate parties.

Between the main street and the quay, Meyers is for me the best fish shop in the world, whose products arrive on the boats just a few meters away. Recently, worried about my reputation as someone bereft of all civilized skills, I asked at the counter if they could tell me how to cook lemon sole. Calm and conspiratorial and efficient, I was given a cooking lesson. I can cook lemon sole now.

Colm Tóibín on the roof of Enniscorthy Castle

Colm Tóibín on the roof of Enniscorthy Castle © Ellius Grace

All the fish caught here and on Kilmore Quay to the south were once intended for export. But that has really changed, with seafood restaurants such as La Cote in the town of Wexford, the Wild and local fish restaurant at Rosslare Strand and the lobster pot in carne.

Curracloe Beach

Curracloe Beach © Getty Images

I’m writing a novel, much of which is set in a fictional pub in Enniscorthy. I am therefore tempted to commend the quality of service at Farrell’s on Rafter Street and suggest that you beware of very private dramas being performed there. The two bartenders if you can find the pub are named Shane and Andy. (Andy’s the one who knows about sports.) But in the non-fictional world, Enniscorthy has plenty of great real pubs, including Stamps in the Market Square, the Antique Tavern on Slaney Street, and Hayes in Court Street – and the bar des Riverside Park Hotelwhere you can see the River Slaney flowing by.

One of the signs of real change in Ireland is that Gorey, north of Wexford, has become a bedroom community for Dublin. Marlfield houseoutside of Gorey, was a pioneering country house hotel which has maintained its high standard Kelly’s hotel overlooking the beach at Rosslare.

Tóibín on the road to Wexford Town

Tóibín on the road to Wexford Town © Ellius Grace

Is there a place of the soul in Wexford? Yes there is the single lane Edermine Bridge over a beautiful and lonely stretch of the River Slaney just south of Enniscorthy. In Enniscorthy there is Pugin’s beautiful Cathedral. There is also a stretch of beach (or beach as the locals call it) between Curracloe and Morriscastle. This is not the Ireland of tourist posters. There are no rocks or breaking waves. Just sand dunes and then cliffs of soft, marbled clay and very few people around. Winter is sometimes better than summer; in summer it’s out of this world.

A Guest at the Feast: Essays by Colm Tóibín will be published by Viking on November 3rd Colm Tóibíns Wexford: ‘This is not the Ireland of tourist posters’

Adam Bradshaw

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