2019’s Wexford Festival Opera proved why it’s a can’t-miss event for anyone visiting Ireland. 

Every fall, something quite magical happens in the town of Wexford, which sits at the mouth of the River Slaney in Ireland’s Ancient East. Fireworks light up the night sky over this former Viking stronghold, men and women in tuxedos and gowns walk the town’s winding streets, a sense of excitement in the air. It’s the Wexford Festival Opera, which brings tens of thousands of people from across Ireland and around the world to explore and celebrate their love of this classical art form. It was even named Best Festival at the 2017 International Opera Awards.

Wexford Festival Opera. Photo: Failte Ireland

Wexford Festival Opera. Photo: Failte Ireland

The festival was founded in 1951, very much a local, grass-roots effort. It built its reputation by staging forgotten or little-known works, which drew opera aficionados and world-class performers to what was then a quiet corner of Ireland. Sixty-eight years later, the festival has just wrapped up its critically-acclaimed 2019 season and there are exciting things in store for 2020. Whether you’re a die-hard opera fan or are just beginning to appreciate it, Wexford Festival Opera should be a stop on any autumn trip to Ireland. 

Wexford Festival Opera. Photo: Tourism Ireland

Wexford Festival Opera. Photo: Tourism Ireland

Highlights from the 2019 Wexford Festival Opera 

The 2019 Wexford Festival Opera ran from October 22 - November 3 and featured three main evening operas, two works by Irish composers, a full schedule of daytime shorter works, and non-operatic offerings including the annual Dr. Tom Walsh Lecture, tours of the opera house, historic walking tours of Wexford, and Wexford Fringe Festival events and performances. 

The set of La Cucina. Photo: Wexford Opera

The set of La Cucina. Photo: Wexford Opera

With Don Quichotte by Jules Massenet, the festival broke one of their own rules - never repeating an opera from festival to festival - but it was with good reason. Don Quichotte had last been performed in Wexford in 1965, a performance widely credited with renewing international interest in Massenet’s works. 

Vivaldi’s Dorilla in Tempe might not be among his most famous works, but it was, importantly, one of the composer’s own favorites. Audiences were delighted with this performance, a collaboration with Teatro La Fenice (Venice), which included a re-working of Vivaldi’s beloved Spring movement from The Four Seasons. 

Works by two Irish composers appeared on the O’Reilly Theatre stage of the National Opera House including the world-premiere of a newly-commissioned opera by Irish composer Andrew Synnott, La cucina, and a concert version of The Veiled Prophet by the Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford.

The daytime ShortWork programs, 90-minute concerts at Wexford’s Clayton White’s Hotel, included Le Docteur Miracle (Doctor Miracle) by Georges Bizet, Cendrillon (Cinderella) by Pauline Viardot and L’inganno felice by Gioachino Rossini.

Planning your trip for 2020

The 2020 Wexford Festival Opera will run from October 20 - November 1 and feature performances of Ein Wintermärchen by Karl Goldmark, Le Songe d’une nuit d’été by Ambroise Thomas, Edmea by Alfredo Catalani, and much more. Tickets will be released in March and April of 2020. 

Wexford Harbor. Photo: Getty Images

Wexford Harbor. Photo: Getty Images

Just a two-hour drive or scenic train ride from Dublin, Wexford boasts over 100 miles of coastline with gorgeous sandy beaches, stunning locations for nature walks, and places rich in historical ties to the Irish American immigration story. 

Sea Pinks at Hook Head, Wexford. Photo: Failte Ireland

Sea Pinks at Hook Head, Wexford. Photo: Failte Ireland

To take in Wexford’s natural beauty, warm hospitality, and world-class arts scene, the fall and winter months are a great time to go. The weather remains temperate enough for daytime adventures and nights spent enjoying Wexford’s fine dining and traditional Irish pubs. 

Irish National Heritage Park. Photo: Failte Ireland

Irish National Heritage Park. Photo: Failte Ireland

For a fun day’s excursion, head to the Irish National Heritage Park in Ferrycarrig, just outside of Wexford Town. There you’ll find over 9,000 years of Irish history brought to life across 40 acres of peaceful woodland. See what life was like for the earliest Irish settlers, test your mettle in a Viking combat bootcamp, learn how to forage like a prehistoric farmer, get a lesson in falconry just like the Normans did it, and even spend the night in an ancient ringfort.

Dunbrody Famine Ship. Photo: James Fennell

Dunbrody Famine Ship. Photo: James Fennell

Immerse yourself in the story of Irish immigration during the years of Ireland’s Great Hunger with a trip to the Dunbrody Famine Ship and Irish Emigrant Experience in New Ross, County Wexford. The Dunbrody is an authentic reproduction of an 1840s emigrant ship, which ferried the Irish to new lives in Canada and beyond. Historical enactors will take you on the immigrant journey, from departure to the voyage to arrival in the new world. 

The Kennedy Homestead. Photo: Brian Morrison

The Kennedy Homestead. Photo: Brian Morrison

One of the thousands of people who emigrated from New Ross was a man named Patrick Kennedy, who set sail for Boston in 1848. One hundred and twelve years later, his great-grandson, John F. Kennedy, became President of the United States. The Kennedy family’s homestead still exists in Dunganstown, County Wexford and offers a fascinating glimpse into the humble origins of one of the most influential families in American history. JFK himself visited the homestead in June of 1963, meeting with long-lost relatives - it was a major part of what made his Irish visit “one of the most moving experiences” of his life.

Hook Head Lighthouse. Photo: Failte Ireland

Hook Head Lighthouse. Photo: Failte Ireland

Take in Wexford’s breathtaking coastal scenery with an excursion to Hook Head, a headland on the Hook Peninsula, just 30 miles outside of Wexford town. There sits Hook Head Lighthouse, the second-oldest operating lighthouse in the whole world. It was built in the 12th century, by Strongbow’s son-in-law William Marshall and was initially maintained by a group of monks. Take in the view of rolling waves and the Ancient East coastline for miles around from the top of Hook Lighthouse.

The Yard, Wexford. Photo: TheYard.ie

The Yard, Wexford. Photo: TheYard.ie

Back in Wexford Town, enjoy some elevated local Irish cuisine at La Côte, an acclaimed seafood restaurant run by husband and wife team Paul and Edwina Hynes. The menu features fresh seafood from Kilmore Quay and local produce. For a more casual vibe, try The Yard for their extensive wine list and menu with fruits and vegetables grown in their very own garden. 

The Sky and the Ground. Photo: Colin Park

The Sky and the Ground. Photo: Colin Park

For the authentic Irish pub experience, end your night with a pint and a traditional Irish music session at one of Wexford’s beloved pubs like Maggie May’s or The Sky and the Ground. 

Get more travel ideas for Wexford and Ireland’s Ancient East on Ireland.com 

Fireworks over Wexford for the Wexford Festival OperaTourism Ireland