Tuesday 22 October 2019

Wexford Festival fireworks - it's that time of the year again

Locals and visitors enjoy the fireworks on the Quay in 1967. Picture from the Denis O'Connor Archive. See supplement for 'Flashback' exhibition details.
Locals and visitors enjoy the fireworks on the Quay in 1967. Picture from the Denis O'Connor Archive. See supplement for 'Flashback' exhibition details.


All eyes will be on the sky tomorrow (Wednesday) evening as the 64th Wexford Festival Opera launches with bang.

Thousands are people are expected to line Wexford Quay for the ever-popular fireworks display that kicks off 12 days of festivities in the town.

This year, over three quarters of a tonne of Chinese fireworks will be used to create the spectacle of colour, which will see the Wexford sky light up in a breathtaking 12-minute display.

The sparkling annual opening ceremony that has been taking place since the early days of the festival never fails to attract the masses. Organisers expect to draw at least 12,000 people to the Quayfront this year for the explosive event though, if previous years are anything to go by, this figure is fairly conservative.

Since the 1980s local man Pat 'KC' Whelan from Nationwide Fireworks has been tasked with ensuring the opening ceremony is a roaring success. However, organising the display is far from a one-man job, explained Pat, who said that there is a huge amount of work involved.

'We are doing the same work that we would have to do if Garth Brooks was coming to Croke Park!' he laughed. 'As it is an event with over 5,000 people, we have to apply for an event licence and consult everyone, from the guards to local businesses.'

The ceremony is as expensive as it is labour intensive. Wexford County Council contributes €15,000 to the annual Wexford Festival Opera event, which goes towards the fireworks, stage, music and other necessities.

In addition, over 60 stewards will be dotted along the waterfront to lend a hand where needed, along with crew from the Order of Malta, the RNLI and Wexford Tidy Towns.

Of course, there will also be several special guests in attendance, including local Minister Brendan Howlin who will officially open the event. Minister Howlin is set to get the crowds geared up with a welcome speech at 7 p.m., as will Cllr Ger Carthy, Mayor of Wexford, and Chairman of Wexford Festival Opera Ger Lawlor. These speeches will run until 7.15 p.m., just before the first firework is launched into the air.

The opening ceremony is as much about nostalgia as it is about the fireworks. Mention the annual tradition to anyone in Wexford and you are likely to be bombarded with stories of years gone by.

For former Chairman of Wexford County Council Ted Howlin, the event has long been an extremely important part of the Opera Festival.

'It has been part of the festival since the very beginning,' he said. 'It has always been considered to be a big family night out and I think it gives a great start to the festivities. It tells the town that the fest has started, we're off!'

As former chairman, Ted has witnessed many of the opening ceremonies and recalls many of the special guests and performers.

Over the years, the ceremony has brought a wide array of people to the town including presidents, Taoisigh and singers. Though he fondly recalls Chris de Burgh's captivating accapella performance of 'Lonely Sky' one stormy night in the eighties, the millennium ceremony was a stand-out for him.

'That year was particularly spectacular as we had a lot of effort going into it. We got a large amount of funding that year so we could do two very big displays,' he explained. 'Mary McAleese was the special guest that year. The ceremony was done at the Crescent that year and there was a big display of a ghost train over the Quay.'

Although the millennium ceremony was a particularly flashy affair, attendance at the smaller displays have always been equally as large. Ted vividly recalls people arriving on the train from Dublin just moments before the first firework was launched into the darkness.

'My first job in the festival was meeting people off the train,' he explained. 'They would have dinner on the train, read their programme and get off for the fireworks. It was a great evening for them all.'

These passengers would also be greeted by the delightful Guinness Clock at Redmond Square, which many long-time festivalgoers may remember for its entertaining and unique hourly displays.

'We used to bring the kids down to see it,' explained Ted. 'That was pre-television of course. With kids having technology nowadays, something like that wouldn't stand out like they used to!'

While many people are happy to capture the firework display in their memories, there will be many others attempting to capture it on camera. Of course, considering the sharp speed of fireworks, taking a photo is a matter of click or you'll miss it.

With the added factors of darkness and crowds, it is no wonder that people often struggle to get the perfect shot. However, with much practice, it can be done. Having taken photos of the display since 2007, local photographer Lee Robinson has devised the perfect formula for grabbing that all-important picture.

'Go to the location during the day time so you can have a look and see what your focus is going to be like. It's important to use manual focus and to set the lens to infinity,' he explained. 'Leave the camera set until that evening because if you try to do it at night, you will have difficulty. One year, I put some tape on the camera to make sure it stayed in place.'

When it comes to getting a captivating shot, Lee is a firm believer in location, location, location.

'Get a place that isn't too close, unless you have a super wide angled lens. I got a great photo one year that went viral on Facebook and that was taken from Wexford Golf Club,' he explained. 'Find a spot that isn't too windy. Make sure that there are trees behind you.'

Exposure time is also important according to Lee, who recommends using anytime between three and six seconds. He also suggests using a tripod to keep the camera steady, along with a cable release.

For Lee, looking after the photographer is also an important factor.

'Make sure you keep yourself warm. Even bring a flask of warm tea with you!' he said.

Although good weather is preferable for photographers and bystanders alike, in Ireland it is certainly not something that be guaranteed. Thankfully, this year's forecast predicts that the night will be a clear one.

For those travelling to the event, all of the usual carparks will be in use. There will also be specific areas for disabled parking around Anne Street and disabled access along the quay.

As always, there will be several traffic restrictions in place to ensure that the event runs smoothly. From 5 p.m. until 9 p.m., Wexford Quays will be closed from the Wexford Bridge junction to the junction of King Street Lower with Paul Quay. Alternative routes will be signposted. Traffic is expected to be heavy so it is advisable to allow some time for delays.

'We want to remind people to come early to get a position,' said Pat Whelan. 'It is a family occasion so people should take their time, There's no rush.'

There's also no hurry to leave Wexford after the event as there are plenty of places to grab a late night bite around the town, including The Yard (open until 9.15 p.m.) and the Riverbank House Hotel (serving food until 9 p.m.). Greenacres and Cistin Eile will also be doing post-opera dinner specials on Wednesday and throughout the festival.

With dinner planned and parking sorted, now all that's left to do is enjoy the show! The opening ceremony will begin at 7 p.m. with the fireworks display estimated to start at 7.15 p.m.

Wexford People

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