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Through Locals' Eyes

Irish Back Roads

Delighting in traditions and curiosities, best viewed from a native perspective, in misty corners of southeast Ireland

September 01, 1996|RICHARD HOMAN | Homan is an assistant foreign editor at the Washington Post

WEXFORD, Ireland — It was an afternoon too balmy to be expected for late October in Ireland. We had just finished lunch with an Irish friend in a restaurant in Kilmore Quay, a fishing village on the sleepy southeast coast. Now, as we topped a hill on the way out of town, we found ourselves being stared to a stop by two policemen standing in the middle of the road.

Were we going too fast, we wondered, as the younger one strode authoritatively toward us. Our friend, the driver, hadn't had anything to drink so we had that in our favor, but what was that grim look all about as the policeman bent to her window?

"I have only one question to ask you," he said, before breaking into a grin. "How did you enjoy your lunch at the Silver Fox?"

We had hardly noticed him there, though one of two men at a table near us, we recalled later, was a policeman. But he clearly had noticed our friend, a vivacious woman in her 30s. "Just grand, wasn't it," he said, answering his own question. "And now I'm out here working it off. Where do you live, by the way?"

The question wasn't directed at my wife or me, middle-age visitors from America. We let the conversation take its course as the senior officer ambled up to genially bring things to a close. Then we were on our way again, speculating on whether the handsome policeman would find an excuse for further inquiries some day.

Maybe the famed hospitality of the Irish doesn't wear thin even in summer, when it's taxed by an overflow of tourists. But, just to play it safe, we've gone in the spring and in the fall (last year it was late October and early November) and generally been rewarded by relaxed welcomes at inns and restaurants, lots of elbow room for sightseeing and cordial byplay with policemen and other strangers.

It helps, too, to choose an area off customary visitor routes, such as the often-overlooked southeast, about a three-hour drive from Dublin. Putting ourselves in the hands of willing friends we'd made on previous trips, we were assured of two weeks in which virtually every voice we heard but each other's had an Irish accent.

The excuse--and timing--for our trip was provided by the Wexford Festival Opera, held annually starting in late October (this year Oct. 17 through Nov. 3). The festival features lesser-known operas performed in an odd little theater that holds 550 people and sits anonymously on a narrow business street in the onetime Viking stronghold known in Norse as Waesfjord. Over the years, we'd been captivated by tales told by Andreja Malir, our friend who caught the policeman's eye, of the festival and town and especially the Theatre Royal.

Andreja is a harpist with Ireland's National Symphony Orchestra, which plays for the festival, and we never knew whether to believe her stories about the tiny orchestra pit: that once the orchestra is in it there is no room for the conductor to pass through, so he arrives at his podium by way of the center aisle, fighting his way through latecomers if necessary. Or that for one opera with only a small but essential harp moment, Andreja and her instrument were banished outside the pit's door, which was opened just long enough to let her play the music that signaled the plunge of the villain into hell.

The stories were no exaggeration, we found, and in the cramped lobby at intermission, we men, all in tuxedos (except for two in kilts), stood like 200 penguins packed onto a 100-penguin ice floe.

But a small theater also means proximity to the stage, and we felt almost a part of the two operas we attended: Rimsky-Korsakov's "May Night," based on a lively folk tale popularized by Nikolai Gogol and sung by a largely Russian cast, and "Iris," a poetic Japanese melodrama by Pietro Mascagni that takes place halfway around the world from his better-known "Cavalleria Rusticana" but ends no less tragically.

Besides the main operas, the festival offers a wealth of sideshows: condensed performances of major operas and programs of operatic excerpts in a cavernous underground room called The Barn in the 200-year-old White's Hotel. Also noon recitals in one downtown church and orchestral concerts in another.

By spacing these to prevent musical overdosing, we had time to enjoy the things Wexford offers year-round. The town of 12,000 abounds in structures and ruins from the 12th and 13th centuries, including a squat stone tower at its west gate that is now a heritage center, and Selskar Abbey, where England's Henry II is reputed to have spent a Lent doing penance for beheading St. Thomas a Becket.

The town fronts Wexford Harbour, which opens to the sea under the gaze of a statue of Commodore John Barry, a local lad who emigrated to become one of the fathers of the American Navy. There are friendly pubs such as Simon's--where a stranger spends one evening as a welcome visitor and the next as an old friend--and shops that cry out to be browsed in.

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