The John F. Kennedy Arboretum in County Wexford is a slightly puzzling attraction to me - basically I fail to see the connection between JFK and dendrology (which, for the uninitiated amongst us, is the science of trees). The Wexford connection is better defined, as the ancestors of the first Catholic Irish-American President of the USA came from here. But then maybe the quote on the fountain says it all: "Ask not ..." And without doubt, something was done for the country here. It is a fabulous park that provides long walks and a relaxing, tamed experience of nature. With a global twist.
The Origins of the JFK Arboretum
As mentioned above, the arboretum is dedicated to the memory of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States of America from 1960 to 1963. Finance came mainly from Irish-Americans and the site just a dozen kilometres south of New Ross (take the R733 and follow the signposts) was chosen as the Kennedy Homestead is quite near. Well, Wexford also has a very favourable climate for all things growing, so it would be the right place to locate a plant collection anyway. And what a plant collection it is - internationally renowned and yet accessible to the public.
The JFK Arboretum Today
The total area of the park covers some 252 hectares on the southern slopes and summit of Slievecoiltia (or Slieve Coillte, the "Hill of the Wood"), some areas are less obvious parts of the arboretum. Today around 4,500 types of trees and shrubs can be found in the arboretum. These have been collected from all temperate regions of the world and where planted in "botanical sequence". That means that by walking through the park you will walk through a living guide to dendrology. If you take the time to read the signs and immerse yourself.
Two hundred forest plots are grouped by continent. So on one end of the arboretum you are walking through an American tree-scape, on the other end through a Chinese wood. Again, you will have to do a bit of your own research on "where in the world" you are at the moment. This is no theme park where costumed staff and man-made structures provide "local colour".
One special feature to look out for is the Ericaceous Garden with no less than five hundred different rhododendrons plus a host of varieties of azaleas and heather. Especially in spring and early summer this is a riot of blooms and colours. Very popular with visitors is the sort-of-central lake with its population of waterfowl.
Just outside the main entrance gate, a fairly steep and winding road will give you easy access to the summit of Slievecoiltia. From a height of just under 270 metres you can enjoy panoramic views in good weather.
Experiencing the JFK Arboretum as a Casual Visitor
Having said all that ... if you are not a certified, tree-hugging enthusiast, is it worth going? Is this just for those in the know or is the JFK Arboretum worth a detour for the casual visitor?
It is. What you will find in any case is a massive, well-kept park with a botanic variety that certainly provides interest in every season. Interlacing paths, from tarmacked access roads to grassy woodland trails, make for a relaxing walk in a natural environment. There are no really dangerous areas (though kids should be watched near the lake and be discouraged from both flower-picking and climbing trees) and nearly all areas are accessible for those with mobility problems. And you may even bring your dog, provided it is on a leash.
Apart from the park itself, there is the visitor centre near the main car park, this houses both permanent and temporary exhibitions and has an introductory audio visual show. Access for people with disabilities. Guided tours for groups also start here from April to September.
Nearby is a small but well-stocked café with an adjoining souvenir shop (though it beats me why footballs are sold within easy kicking distance of a sign forbidding ball games in the park). Just a short distance away a huge play area will keep kids happy.
A Brush with 1798 History
If you are interested in Irish history, do take the road up to the summit of Slievecoiltia (this can be done without entering and paying for the main visitor area). Here a memorial stone is dedicated to those who fought in the 1798 rebellion. The rag-tag army of rebels made camp here for a while. Today, the stone is all that remains ...