Barry Egan: Greatness comes easy for Model County stars
In his continuing nationwide search for the little gems in hidden Ireland, Barry Egan visits Wexford
If it wasn't for bad luck, sang Cream on Born Under a Bad Sign, I'd have no luck at all.' James Rossiter - a local character born under a good sign in Wexford in 1934 - remembers a woman who thought it was too dangerous to live in London during WWII. "So she came to Rathnure and a bomb landed on her house one night," he recounts.
"A Nazi plane was lost and had to get rid of its deadly payload that night. So they dropped it on her house.And she was killed - having moved to Wexford from London to avoid the bombs.That was a bit of bad luck, wasn't it?" says Aran jumper-clad James in perhaps the understatement of the 20th century. "I heard the planes flying over at night-time as a boy."
"I have lived in Wexford my whole life," he continues. "In the 1940s, Wexford was poor and the wages were very small. People were very poor. I didn't know any different. And the war was on. Wexford is a lot more wealthy now," adds James, who worked in the Post Office like his father Michael (who retired in 1951) before him. "Everyone is well-off now, like..."
Delightful Deirdre Kehoe, of DK Marketing, would happily agree with this economic assessment of The Model County.
"Wexford is the most culturally vibrant county in Ireland," gushes the Enniscorthy PR guru. "Look at our culture, our heritage, our arts." Look indeed. "Wexford is home of the National Opera House; Wexford Festival Opera is one of the top three Opera Festivals in the world, and now in its 64th year," Dee continues. Other festivals include Spiegeltent Festival, Strawberry Fest and Blackstairs Blues.
"And on our doorstep here in Enniscorthy is Monart Destination Spa," she adds of the establishment recently voted Top 3 Spa Resorts in the world by Conde Nast Traveller, where we have all gathered today in the sunshine of our allegedly Indian summer. We sit in the sun on the bridge over untroubled waters and lapped it all up.
Mark Browne - the diplomat-esque general manager of Monart - is used to the heat. He grew up "in Egypt, mostly. My father worked for oil exploration. We moved to Malta and through the Middle East," he remembers. "I went to school with all these different nationalities. It didn't matter about your colour, creed or race. You accepted everybody for who they were."
Mark, who was born in Enniscorthy, came back to Wexford when he was 13 and was educated by the Christian Brothers in Enniscorthy - because his father had said to him: 'You've been to all these private schools abroad. And you know what? I went to the Christian Brothers and I got a great education and I think you should go in and meet the people.' It was good to get in with the lads and stuff like that. It was a great decision and especially for this business, because you meet all spectrum of people from across the world. It certainly gave me a nice rounded view," Mark says of his late father's fateful decision.
Fianna Fail County Councillor James Browne, the son of TD John, is putting himself forward for the nomination at the FF conference in a week's time.
"I think what has stood to us is that when things were going really bad, a lot of politicians went missing," John says, "but we didn't."
I ask him what he means by 'we'. "My father, myself and the local Fianna Fail Party in Wexford," he answers.
"Passion is the word I would use to describe Wexford people. We are very passionate. I remember knocking on doors, and the passion is always there. They tell you what you are doing right and what you are doing wrong," adds James.
What are Wexford women like? "They are formidable," says Keith Jordan, co-owner of Westgate Design.
"My mother Catherine is a very formidable woman. She and I run the business together. She started the business in Enniscorthy. She grew up on a farm. She married when she was 17, 18. Her marriage broke down. She started a knitwear business. The knitwear business grew into a showcase for Wexford craft, which is where we are today. She is a strong Wexford woman. You don't cross her. She is incredibly loyal, a very rounded individual, incredibly warm. But we kill each other."
"County Wexford is a destination for shopping with a stunning collection of boutiques," adds Deirdre Kehoe, "and is one of the more cosmopolitan counties in Ireland. We are spoilt for choice with wonderful restaurants," Deirdre says, going on to name Kelly's Hotel, Dunbrody House Hotel, Spice Indian Restaurant, La Cote Restaurant, Cistín Eile and Marlfield House Hotel, among dozens of other hotspots.
"I will be very straight about this," says Fine Gael County Councillor Larry O'Brien, "I am sick to the teeth about this Wild Atlantic Way. We have much more to offer."
"We have the finest beaches in the country," says Leonie Grant, the lovely owner of Grants Pharmacy Group. "Wexford's coastline from Rosslare Strand, Curracloe, Morriscastle to Courtown is hard to describe in its beauty. I swam today in Curracloe. It's gorgeous. You could get in now," she said.
"I swam once this summer in Wexford," says Tara Callery, the beautiful co-owner of Si Jolie boutique in Wexford town. "It was a dip in the nip."
You swim in the nude?
"She wouldn't tell us which beach," laughs Larry. "It was for charity," interjects Tara. "It was called A Dip In The Nip. And it was at seven in the morning, There were 120 of us. The gasps of 120 of us going into the cold water at 7am was a bit like the sound of the people on the Titanic sinking!"
"I was 16 when I first went out to a dance in Adamstown, 15 miles that way," says FG's Larry (who was born in 1954). The eyes of Bernie Doyle, mother of Ireland football international Kevin Doyle, light up. "The Adamstown Ballroom," she smiles.
"The women were lined up on one side and you'd say: 'Would you like a dance please, Miss?'" recalls Larry. Bernie interjects: "If she said no - you know, she didn't like the look of you - the men might say, 'Bring your knitting the next night!'"
Would there be any kissing at these Wexford dances in the late 1960s, early 1970s?
"Outside - if you were lucky," laughs Larry.
"In the car," laughs Bernie.
"Someone always had mammy or daddy's car," recalls Larry.
"Don't go near the car if there was steam on the windows," hoots Bernie.
"Stay away," adds Larry whose hoots of laughter are even more riotous, if such a thing can be imagined.
"He is my neighbour," says Bernie gesturing towards Larry. "And he is married to a woman and there is 17, 18 in the family," adds Bernie who comes from a large family herself of "eight boys and eight girls."
Was there nothing to do in Wexford back in the day but have sex? "You see," laughs Larry, "back then, there was no electricity."
"There was no family planning either," Tara Callery, daughter of Bernie, claims.
"I don't know whether it was my father or my mother was the wild one," laughs Bernie. "Mum used to walk to school with potatoes in her hands to keep her hands warm," says Tara.
"I never actually did that," corrects Bernie. "My siblings did."
"I once went to London with you in a truck," says Bernie to Larry.
I ask for the finer details.
"Two of my sons were with me. My husband sent me out in the truck, actually."
"I was in the haulage business at the time," clarifies Larry. "I was saving the price of a flight to London," explains Bernie. "I was going to visit relations. This was the 1980s. He drove - I slept."
"I'm 25 years a councillor now, at the coalface," adds Larry. "My family was Fine Gael growing up."
I ask Bernie who she'll be voting for in the next election.
"This is terrible but I'll go with whoever my husband says," she laughs.
"Tell Barry what age you were when you got married," implores Dara.
"I was a month off 17," Bernie fesses up. "We got married in 1971. We met in a local parish hall in Poulpeasty in county Wexford."
What was his chat-up line?
"He told me he had tried with my good friend Sadie before," hoots Bernie of her then husband-to-be. "She turned him down that night, so he came after me. And I'm with him 43 years now."