In the second of our long reads, we take an in-depth look at the history and success of Wexford Festival Opera in Ireland.
In a country steeped in ancient stories, the Irish city of Wexford is no exception. This medieval town on the banks of the River Slaney in the country’s historic south east was founded in the early 900s by the Vikings, and their legacy includes the town’s many narrow winding streets and its name, derived from the Norse, Weissfiord - meaning ‘inlet of the mudflats’.
After nearly 300 hundred years of largely independent Viking rule, Wexford was besieged in 1169 by Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster and his Norman ally, Robert Fitz-Stephen. The Norse inhabitants resisted fiercely, until eventually accepting a settlement. In the Middle Ages Wexford experienced relative stability as an English settlement, and it was also home to the Knights Templar in the 12-century following the Crusades.
In the 1640s the town produced strong Confederate support along with nearby Waterford in the Eleven Years’ War, the most destructive conflict in Irish history. In 1798 Wexford was once again the centre of the Rebellion against British rule, and was the scene of a notorious massacre of local loyalists by the United Irishmen, who executed them with pikes on Wexford Bridge.
The town’s grisly and colourful history lives on in its many historical monuments, including: the gated entrance to the walled town dating from c.1300 complete with cells for those travellers not willing, or able, to pay their entrance tolls; Selskar Abbey, one of the oldest sights of worship in Wexford dating from the 12th-century, built by Alexander Roche upon returning from the Crusades; the Bullring, home to bull-baiting from 1621 until 1770, introduced to the town by the Butcher’s Guild; and many other churches, monuments and historic buildings.