In touch with the past, while looking to promising future
Waterford and Wexford boast a diverse array of experiences echoing life in the south-east, writes Celine Naughton
It's Ireland's oldest city, with 1,100 years of heritage carefully preserved in its historic Viking Triangle, an area that beat stiff competition to win last year's 'Best Place in the UK and Ireland' award by London's Academy of Urbanism. Containing three museums collectively known as Waterford Museum of Treasures - the Viking Museum in Reginald's Tower, Bishop's Palace, and the Medieval Museum - the triangle is also home to the House of Waterford Crystal.
Elsewhere in the county, Waterford boasts a host of other attractions, including the beaches of Tramore and Dunmore East; the grand houses and gardens of Mount Congreve, Curraghmore and Cappoquin; and the stunning Greenway, a 47km-long walking and cycling trail that runs from Dungarvan to Waterford along the old railway line.
While there's no shortage of inspiration from their surroundings, Waterford Creative Ireland co-ordinator Jane Cantwell is determined that the people of the Déise will also find inspiration within as the county rolls out its five-year cultural strategy.
"Creative Ireland is not just about art and literature, it celebrates creativity in everyday life - a mother baking bread, a father out fishing, or a child learning to ride a bike," she says. "Right now the priority is to raise awareness that Creative Ireland is about people, and adding quality to their lives through the creativity they find both within themselves and around them."
They'll get a chance to do that at the upcoming Waterford Walls festival (August 17-20) when more than 30 street artists turn the city into an open-air gallery with massive murals and public art installations that are not only works of art in themselves, they also give rise to talks about boundaries, cultural diversity and other topical issues.
It follows last week's Spraoi street arts festival that featured circus acts, comedy, street entertainment and music, topped off by a Sunday night parade with colourful floats, marching bands and a spectacular fireworks display over the River Suir.
But there's more to the Glass City than its festivals. Locals once employed by Waterford Glass may not have seen their day-to-day working lives as culturally significant, but says Ms Cantwell, "these people's stories are a very important part of our local heritage".
Their reminiscences are being compiled in an oral history project, The Story of Waterford Glass, that will also feature talks, exhibitions and performance art. Artist Róisín de Buitléar and musician/singer Liam Ó Maonlaí are collaborating on a special performance to be held on October 6 at Christchurch Cathedral, which will use pieces of crystal to make the sound of music in a most original way. Another project funded by Creative Ireland is a genealogist-in-residence programme at the Medieval Museum.
"We have a lot of American tourists looking to find their Waterford roots, and this facilitates that search," says Ms Cantwell. "Locals love it too, because it enhances their own knowledge about who they are and where they've come from. It brings a sense of belonging."
The county's next door neighbour Wexford knows exactly where it's come from. Its recently launched Norman Way, already receiving rave reviews as a heritage trail, will come into its own in 2019, when the county marks 850 years since the Norman landings.
"We're building links with France in advance of the anniversary, and using the time to raise awareness locally about our Norman heritage," says Eileen Morrissey, Wexford Creative Ireland co-ordinator.
Preparations are also well under way for the world-renowned Wexford Opera Festival, which hit a high note this year when it was named 'Best Festival' at the International Opera Awards. Due to unprecedented demand, the organisers have extended this year's programme from 12 days to 18 (October 19-November 5).
Also coming up in October, for the first time the public will be able to access a collection of items documenting a 20-year period of emigration in the 19th century. The ports of New Ross and Wexford were once the point of no return for a swathe of emigrants from counties Wexford, Waterford, Carlow, Kilkenny and Cork. Some sailed to Quebec, and many others to Savannah, Georgia. Their journey is now the subject of the Graves & Co project overseen by county archivist Grainne Doran.
"The Graves shipping company was run by a merchant family from New Ross, and we have a cache of documentation spanning the period 1855 to 1875," she says. "It's important not just from a genealogical point of view, but for our commercial and maritime history."
The collection comprises more than 2,500 letters, some from families of emigrants and others from landlords assisting tenants to emigrate, as well as wages and minute books, and shipping and staff photographs. It's part of the Wexford/Savannah Axis research project, which reveals that Savannah, Georgia, is the most Irish city in the American South.
The county's Creative Ireland plan also looks to the future, with a number of initiatives catering specifically for children. In the Living Arts project, a collaboration between Wexford Arts Centre and the local authority, artists are placed in schools to help students develop an understanding of contemporary art. To date, the residencies have been held in primary schools only, but this year a pilot programme will be introduced in two secondary schools.
"It's devised to target students who may be at risk of leaving school early," says visual arts manager Catherine Bowe. "Not all young people are academically high achievers, but this provides a new approach to learning. Not only does it give students the skills of drawing and painting, it develops their inner resources and problem-solving abilities. We also take them out of the classroom to galleries and studios, to see how art is made, and it really ignites their interest."