Unless you are prepared for a lot of travel, and to conjure images from ruins, you will get no better comprehensive glimpse into Ireland's past than at the Irish National Heritage Park. From prehistoric times to the invasions of the Vikings and Anglo-Normans (though the latter bit is a bit, well, neglected).
Located north of Wexford Town at Ferrycarrig, and near an imposing (original) tower house, the park aims to present a few thousand years of Irish history. And actually succeeds - the reconstructed buildings, arranged in chronological order in fabulous wood- and wetlands, convey a unique sense of the past. You will, however, get the best out of your visit on a guided tour and especially at times when re-enactors are active, giving you a slice of living history.
The Pros and Cons of the Irish National Heritage Park
The park provides a fascinating glimpse into Ireland's past, in a spacious natural setting. The authentic reconstructions of buildings from the pre-Celtic to the Anglo-Norman period allow a real "hands-on-experience" of the past. If you want more, the frequent guided tours offer loads of inside knowledge, but the comprehensive introductions on noticeboards found near the buildings should be enough on their own. And all this is just a short drive from Wexford Town.
Having said that ... the park can feel a bit deserted outside the tourist season (but this will give the real enthusiast more leisure to explore individual buildings). So even in winter it is an experience not to be missed
The Irish National Heritage Park in a Nutshell
The tour through the park will take you on a historical timeline, past the reconstructed Irish, Viking and Norman buildings from prehistoric to Anglo-Norman times. These bring the past to live as no conventional museum can. Add to that that the Irish National Heritage Park includes tracks through woodlands and wetlands, and it all makes for a grand day out.
Construction methods and building materials were kept as authentic as possible (though we saw some earth-moving machinery during the reconstruction phase of the Celtic fort ... which made sense, and the site was off-limits to regular visitors anyway at the time) .
There is just one regualr reminder that you haven't travelled to the Irish past in a Tardis ... curious fact - the park is bisected by the Wexford-Dublin railway, leading to occasional anachronistic photo opportunities.
The Irish National Heritage Park - Worth a Visit?
Basically the park is worth a visit, whatever the season and/or weather. And the less visitors on the day, the better the feeling that you are actually immersed in history.
Visitors should, however, be aware that this is a theme park ... but no Disneyland - building materials and methods used are as original as possible. Starting with the pathways (irregular and "dirty" at times) and ending with the buildings themselves (low doorways and dark interiors abound). Instead of a sanitized version of Ireland's heritage, you actually get a presentable, yet authentic, open-air museum.
As the reconstructions cover a wide period and everything from megalithic tombs to a "Norman fortress," picking favourites is hard. Among the highlights are
- a crannog, a Bronze Age homestead on an artificial island - during 2013 we saw this in severe decay, so that archaeologists could study just how such a settlement would have fared after the inhabitants moved out,
- a rath or ring-fort,
- a horizontal watermill,
- a monastic settlement complete with painted high cross and
- a Viking boatyard and farm on the lakeshore, with view of a fake round tower (actually a monument from the 19th century, but fitting in very well).
The museum has a souvenir shop and a restaurant to round off your visit. Be warned - lunchtime on Sundays is fierce busy, as the restaurant does a decent Sunday lunch at a competitive price. People travel here for the lunch alone, be early, queue, or stay hungry!
Visit the Irish National Heritage Park's website to find out about current opening times and admission prices.