HISTORY OF WEXFORD
In a country steeped in myth and legend Wexford’s history is no exception. This medieval town was founded in the early 900’s by the Vikings. Their legacy includes our narrow winding streets and our town’s name, Wexford, derived from the Norse, Weissfiord – inlet of the mudflats.
We believe in our history and its importance, not only to ourselves but to visitors. This town of Wexford has a lot to offer you as a visitor and we hope to present to you the remnants of the past in such a fashion as to please and stimulate your mind to read further about our rich heritage.
WEST GATE HERITAGE CENTRE
This tower once guarded the western entrance to the walled town. It was built c.1300 by Sir Stephen Devereux on instructions of King Henry. Like the other town gates, it consisted of a toll-taking area, cells for offenders and accommodation for guards.
This is said to be one of the oldest sites of worship in Wexford. An abbey was built on the site by Alexander Roche who upon returning from the Crusades was informed of the decision of his true love to enter a convent believing him dead. The abbey, the tower of which still stands, was the scene of synods and parliaments over the centuries. The roofless church is of much later construction.
This prehistoric market place dates far back to 1775. As the name suggests this was once the central market place of the town with its lower floor an open selling area. It has been a market area, dance venue, concert hall and Municipal offices. The Cornmarket is now home to Wexford Arts Centre and the new Wexford County Library close by in Mallin Street.
The Bullring 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. During the 1798 rebellion, the Bullring became an open-air factory, making and repairing pikes and other weapons for the insurgents. The Bullring has been the venue of many political rallies and protests: Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell and Eamonn de Valera are among the many political figures who have addressed audiences in this historic square at the heart of Wexford.
The Pikeman statue, sculpted in bronze by Oliver Sheppard, commemorates Wexford’s failed rebellion of 1798 and the declaration of Ireland’s first Republic. It was unveiled in an elaborate ceremony attended by 30,000 people in 1905. In 2009, conservation works to the Pikeman statue took place.
A re-construction of the Bullring was carried out as a 1798 bicentenary project and was officially opened by President Mary McAleese on 31st May, 1998. A ‘Tree of Liberty”, an oak, was planted in the centre of the Bullring, and embedded in the ground behind the Pikeman statue is a ‘time capsule’ taking the form of a metal cylinder containing items reflective of Wexford life today. The limestone setts which sit on either side of the monument feature inscriptions relating to 1798, while bollards in the shape of cannonballs line the area.
Extensive conservation and repair work to the Market House in the Bull Ring was carried out in 2008.
THE REDMOND MONUMENT
This monument commemorating the Redmond Family dominates Redmond Square at the Northern end of Wexford Town. The Redmond family was prominent in the business, social and political life of Wexford in the 19th century. They represented the town and county in Parliament, and also instigated the reclamation of great tracts of land including the very ground upon which the Redmond Square stands. In 2007, following conservation and cleaning works to the monument, floodlighting was put in place to highlight the monument at night.
Redmond Square, near the railway station, commemorates the elder John Edward Redmond (1806-1865) who was Liberal MP for the city of Wexford. The inscription reads: “My heart is with the city of Wexford. Nothing can extinguish that love but the cold soil of the grave.”
The imposing facade of the former headquarters of Wexford County Council was originally a gaol, built in 1812, with walls twenty feet high enclosing 58 cells and 16 exercising yards. Public executions took place on a green in front of the gaol until 1860.
As with all port towns, the quays are the focal point of Wexford. Over the past thousand years they have extended from their original shoreline close to the present Main Street. In September 2000, this progression continued with an extension width of 25 metres.
A central decked area reminiscent of the old woodenworks of the 1870’s provides a pleasant area to stroll. An inner cobbled area with seating, is the perfect place to relax and enjoy the view of the River Slaney.
Today Wexford Quay is home to a fleet of commercial mussel harvesters.
The Crescent Quay of today is the former ‘Deep Pool’ of Wexford. It was here that ships were moored for repairs. The present stone front which dates back to the early 1800’s extended the length of the quays until the railway arrived in 1880, and threw its viaduct across the mouth of the Crescent to carry the main line to the Rosslare-Fishguard steamers.
The bronze statue facing out to sea at Crescent Quay is that of Commodore John Barry, “Father of the American Navy”. Barry was born some miles outside Wexford town. The statue was a gift of the American people in 1956. U.S. Presidents, Eisinhower and Kennedy are among the dignitaries who have laid wreaths here to commemorate Irish and American mariners.
Behind John Barry is the Old Ballast Office. It was from this building for many decades, that the Wexford Harbour Commissioners oversaw the smooth running of the busy port which traded with many parts of the world. A reminder of our nautical past is to be found in the window sills to the side of the building where sailors sharpening their knives, made unintentional sculptures in the soft stone.
THE BALLAST BANK
The unusual artificial island which can be seen out from the quays is a ballast bank. It was built in 1937 as a place where ships entering or leaving the port could take on or off-load their ballast of sand or stones which they needed to remain stable at sea while travelling without cargo.
THE MAIN STREET
Wexford’s Main Street, the principal shopping area, is a unique reminder of Wexford’s heritage. Its narrow, irregular path developed from a market trail between the Celtic settlement to the north and the Vikings to the south. It gives local people and visitors a taste of the friendly intimacy of this ancient town.
ST IBERIUS CHURCH, MAIN STREET
This is Wexford’s Church of Ireland place of worship. It is believed that St Iberius stands on an ecclesiastical site dating back to the time of St. Patrick. The church is dedicated to the local St. Iberius whose name is used in various forms as St. Ibar or St. Iver. The present building is of a 1760 vintage and contains interesting memorials to various notable Wexford people.
NATIONAL OPERA HOUSE
This venue located on High Street is the headquarters of the world renowned international Wexford Festival Opera. It is located on the site of the original Theatre Royal which opened in January 1832. In 2006, it was demolished to pave the way to build the Wexford Opera House, now the National Opera House, Ireland’s first custom-built, multi-purpose opera house, featuring two auditoriums capable of staging ever more ambitious and spectacular productions – the O’Reilly Theatre and the Jerome Hynes Theatre, as well as numerous meeting rooms. This impressive, landmark building was designed and project-managed by Keith Williams, Architect and the Office of Public Works. The project took just over 2 years to complete and on Friday 5th, September 2008, the Wexford Opera House was officially opened by An Taoiseach, Brian Cowen. This was a historic moment for Wexford and for Ireland. This skyline-changing building hosts a multitude of events all year round of theatre, dance, concerts and other events in addition to Wexford Festival Opera. In 2014 this spectacular, award-winning venue was designated Ireland’s National Opera House by the Department of Arts and Heritage.
Dominating the skyline of Wexford, are the Twin Churches (the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Rowe Street and The Church of the Assumption, Bride Street). These two churches built between 1851 and 1858, just years after the Great Famine are a monument to the devotion of Wexford people and the determination of Father James Roche who saw them to completion. An interesting feature at the main door of both churches is the cobbled mosaic showing relevant names and dates. Although referred to as twin churches one difference is the clock on Rowe Street Church.
The Franciscans are the oldest established religious order in Wexford, having first come c.1240. Since then they have attended to the spiritual needs of the town through good times and bad. For many years, theirs was the only Catholic Church in Wexford town. Friars are reputed to have been among the victims of Cromwellian soldiers in 1649. The grounds of the Church were the venue of huge Temperance rallies in the 1840’s. One of the features of the Friary Church is the effigy of the young boy St. Adjutor, Roman martyr “The Little Saint”. This lifelike figure shows the wounds inflicted by the youth’s father. It is a much visited shrine.