I have just celebrated my 20th anniversary of coming to Dublin to live. When I arrived on 28th August 1987 the place was closed for business. Emigration, albeit not in famine ships, seemed to be the fate of Ireland’s populace once more. The ferries leaving Dun Laoghaire sat several feet lower in the water than the one that brought me to land. Did somebody actually shout “When you get in, turn the lights back on” or was that a trick of my imagination?
Now, or so ‘they’ tell us, it’s boom time and we are accounted one of the richest nations in the world (although I still have this queasy feeling that sometime soon a small year old child will jump up a la Hans Christian Anderson and holler “Daddy, daddy! The economy has no clothes on!”) Undaunted by such pessimism, the ‘wild geese’ are returning by the planeload to find discretionary income abundant and, unlike the old days, plenty to spend it on. These days Dubliners drive non-utilitarian cars, one per adult. Many have second homes or, at least, the wherewithal to spend weekends ‘down the country’.
My wife and I discovered county Wexford about ten years ago, on a sea kayaking weekend, roughing it in a hostel at Ramsgrange. Prior to that we’d always driven westwards in search of relaxation, to the Shannon or to Connemara. Now ‘The Model County’ is our favoured destination and we get there as often as work and other pressures permit.
That county’s inhabitants will always tell you, with an enigmatic smile, that Wexford is located in ‘The Sunny South East’, one of those time-worn clichés you used to find proclaimed on adverts in railway carriages long before we discovered Mallorca and Malaga where they have real sun. Still, there’s something in it. After ten years we are still always surprised how benign the weather can be when we get the far side of Gorey.
There are really two Wexfords, east and west. Gorey at the northernmost tip of the county has been dragged unwittingly into the Dublin commuter belt, a feat accomplished with the aid of greatly improved roads. I wonder how many politicos and planners have weekend places at nearby Courtown?
Gorey itself is somewhat bereft of gastronomic delights, although this is bound to change. There is an honourable exception a few miles away at Marlfield House where the Bowe family have always maintained exemplary standards of hospitality, aided and abetted by an excellent chef. The reputation of Marlfield was built on its food, much of it grown in the hotel’s kitchen garden where fresh herbs, vegetables and fruit are gathered daily. There is an emphasis on local produce. Mention should be made, too of Papa Rhodes at Ballycanew, a village on the Gorey to Wexford road, which has a reputation among locals and holidaymakers for simple, tasty Italian food and a ‘fun’ atmosphere.
South and East of Wexford town, where the strands are long and inviting, the Lobster Pot, the Hearn family’s pristine country pub at Carne established long ago the envied reputation of being one of the best places in Ireland at which to eat fish. Rosslare, from whose port the ferry departs for and arrives from France – watch out for wayward drivers on the wrong side of the road – boasts another icon. Kelly’s Resort Hotel and Spa, in the same ownership for three generations, is justly regarded as the best place in Ireland for a family holiday. Nowhere is bringing kids so lacking in stress for the parents. And nowhere is more care taken to ensure that those adults sans brats who just want to chill, eat drink and red the papers, remain undisturbed. Bill Kelly, the caring proprietor walks the dining room on a nightly basis, making himself known to guests. Another fillip is that Bill’s father-in-law is the illustrious Rhone producer Paul Avril and his wines embellish an already spectacular list.
Talk Irish history with anyone who is interested and they’ll probably lament the failure of the (non-sectarian) rebellion of 1798 in which Wexford’s inhabitants played an important part. The event has been immortalised in songs such as ‘the Boys of Wexford’ and ‘Boolavogue’ which most Wexford people learn in primary school and maybe this has fostered the pride and spirit that has seen Wexford town pick itself up after a period in the economic doldrums to emerge as a vibrant capital for the county. I’d counsel anyone who hasn’t been to go to the Opera Festival, even if they are tone deaf, just to soak up the atmosphere. I still covet the ‘Pub Pavarotti’ title, maybe one day I’ll shed my inhibitions and croak my way through an aria! The town has several fine restaurants; among the most notable are Forde’s and the astonishing La Dolce Vita, the embodiment of Italy in Ireland, presided over by genial chef and saucier extraordinaire Roberto Pons