A new public gallery space named after renowned historian Dr. Billy Colfer has just opened to the public as part of a €3.2M redevelopment project of the Wexford Arts Centre.
Billy Colfer's son, Author Eoin Colfer, writes for Culture about the significance of the centre to the region.
As a child I thought my father owned the Wexford Arts Centre because we were down there so much. Every Saturday, Dad gave art classes in the upstairs gallery where we learned to make dozens of what I can only describe as yokes using folded cardboard and staples. I still have a toilet roll Santy that went on top of our tree for decades.
It was a very special time for the Colfer boys and all the children who were dropped off in the Centre while their parents did the weekend shop. I had no desire to play hurling like the other Wexford children, so the Arts Centre became a sanctuary for youngsters like myself who were more interested in art than GAA, and also it was a marvellous thing to have it slowly dawn on us just how talented our father was.
Years later even though we realised that we didn’t actually own the Arts Centre the association continued. Of course we were brought to every new exhibition that visited the main room with its giant pillars that made it seem like the great hall in a Norman castle and my brother Paul and I attended drama classes where among other things we learned how to fake grief, which came in very handy when we were trying to persuade our mother to let us go to discos. Unfortunately Mam was in the Wexford Drama Group herself and was not easily hoodwinked.
The family link to the Wexford Arts Centre only grew stronger down through the years. My father often showed his paintings there in group or solo exhibitions. My mother was in dozens of plays in the Wexford Drama Group or with her women’s group Pilgrim Soul. I was lucky enough to see Billy Roche plays there, and even be in one of them. I saw classic Eleanor McEvoy concerts, Tommy Tiernan shenanigans and Paul O’Brien’s mind blowing debut show among many other highlights. And every Opera Festival; visiting the exhibitions was an established and beloved tradition in our household.
This is why it felt so absolutely right to me when Elizabeth Whyte, Director extrordinaire, suggested to me that the new gallery in the renovated and extended centre be named for my father and feature an exhibition of his work as its first show. Having this come to pass means more to our family than Elizabeth could know though I think she suspects. And like everything the Arts Centre does, Catherine Bowe, Karla Sanchez O’Connell and Rosemary Hartigan curated it beautifully and it was all my brothers and I could do not to blubber our way around the exhibition as the life of our father and mother too was brought back to us with every new exhibit.
This is the kind of bridge building an arts centre should do and indeed Wexford actually does it all the time. An arts centre should be a hub of community arts and the old version of the centre routinely featured local artists, players, singers and dancers inside its walls which attracted a local audience and while they were there exposed them to the best of national and international artists, opening our eyes to a wonderful world of visual and dramatic arts. The new centre will attract the best talent Ireland has to offer and provide even more spaces for local artists to nurture their considerable talent. Every young artist who comes through the door could be the next big thing to come out of Wexford town like many big things before her, him or them.
I am beyond thrilled that the Colfer name will be forever associated with the Centre and I can only hope that one day my musician son Seán will tread the boards there just like his grandmother, grandfather, four uncles, mother and father before him. The pressure is on Seán though because the rest of his family were, as we say in Wexford: Deadly, boy.
The new Wexford Arts Centre is now open to the public - find out more here.