An exhibition celebrating the life and work of the late Dr Billy Colfer is to be held at the Wexford Arts Center in a new gallery to be named in his honor this weekend when the Minister of State for the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage Peter Burke arrives to officially open a 2.6 million euro extension to the city’s historic Cornmarket building.
The exhibition was curated by Karla Sanchez O’Connell and Rosemary Hartigan and will run from December 15-23. The launch will take place this Saturday, November 12 with his sons, Dr. Niall Colfer, archaeologist, and bestselling author Eoin Colfer as guest speakers following a speech by Minister Burke to celebrate the recent completion of an expansion project and arts center renovation funded by Wexford County Council and the Department of Tourism, Culture and the Arts.
Arts Center Director Elizabeth Whyte said the Arts Center was delighted to launch a new gallery in the name of Dr Billy Colfer as part of recent capital works.
“Billy was instrumental in the creation of the Wexford Arts Center and has contributed greatly as a board director, artist, historian, teacher, stage designer and adviser over the years.
“This exhibition celebrating his life and works will inspire our visitors on how to make a positive creative impact within the local Wexford community.”
She said the Arts Center is grateful to the Colfer family for supporting the exhibit and for naming the new gallery after their late father to inspire future generations to visit the venue.
Dr Colfer (1939 – 2013), whose beloved wife Noreen recently died, was from Slade on the Hook Peninsula and was the author of many publications which are now classics of Wexford history, including “The Hook Peninsula” (2004), “Wexford: A Town and its Landscape” (2008) and “The Castles of Wexford: Landscape, Context and Settlement (2013).
A graduate of St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, he taught at CBS, Wexford until his retirement in 1997. He then continued the history studies he had begun earlier and completed a doctorate at Trinity College, Dublin. His research into medieval Wexford is essential for anyone interested in the history of the region.
Billy was also an avid photographer and took most of the images that illustrated his many books as well as being a prolific watercolourist.
He was an active member of the Wexford Historical Society, serving as president from 2007 to 2010 and editor of their journal from 1984 to 1991. He was both an actor and set designer for the Wexford Drama Club in which his wife Noreen was the lead actress for many years.
He was instrumental in establishing the Wexford Arts Center and National Heritage Park in Ferrycarrig and his involvement with other organizations such as Wexford Sub Aqua Club and Wexford Golf Club has left an indelible positive mark.
The exhibition offers insight into his working process, including research, editing, drawing, cartography and photography. It includes some of the valuable watercolors and drawings which are in the County Wexford collection and the private collections of his five sons Paul, Eoin, Donald, Niall and Eamonn.
Tributes were paid before the opening of the gallery and the exhibition. Professor Kevin Whelan, Director of the Dublin Global Gateway at the University of Notre Dame, described him as “a great man from Wexford, down to earth, rock solid, totally reliable, hardworking, committed to his family , its community and its county.
“He could do anything – raise a family, be a good pitcher, footballer and golfer, build a boat and a house with his brother George, catch a mackerel or a pollock, paint a picture, write a book.
“His Wexford Trilogy meets Italo Calvino’s exacting criterion for what constitutes a classic. ‘A classic is a book that never finishes saying what it has to say.'”
Pat Hackett, president of the Wexford Historical Society, said Billy was “a wonderful man and an incredibly versatile scholar”.
“On the many committees and various presidents under which he served, Billy Colfer brought his wisdom, logic and practicality, all of which he had in abundance.
“When he spoke, he had all the attention and well-deserved respect of the listeners. He always seemed calm, sure of his convictions and really practical and reliable in his perspective. You could only learn and admire this man of words and deeds.”
Dr Matthew Stout. Senior Lecturer in the School of History and Geography at Dublin City University, said: “He was a wonderful man and an incredibly versatile scholar. There was nothing Billy couldn’t do. Working with him on his four wonderful books, I learned that he had many other remarkable gifts. If one of his books required the reconstruction of a destroyed church, Billy could paint a beautiful watercolor informed by the archeology of the site. If he needed a shot, he would come back to the same place over and over again, at all times of the day, until the light was perfect and he could get the perfect shot. He would produce maps which revealed his genuine appreciation of the Irish landscape and a deep understanding of all periods of Irish history, not just the Middle Ages which was the main focus of his research. When I was with Billy anywhere in Wexford I felt like I was with a star, and of course I was.
Dr. Matthew Stout, Lecturer, School of History and Geography. Dublin City University
Rosemary Hartigan, president of the Wexford Arts Center and co-curator of the exhibition, said she had spoken to many people about Billy while researching items for the exhibition: “Past pupils remembered him as a favorite teacher, which is no small feat when you consider the hundreds of little boys who passed through his class. He is remembered as someone who sparked Wexford’s love of history and art; someone who gave young imaginations space to explore and grow.
I think an appropriate line for this exhibit might be “We didn’t mention…” because covering all aspects of Billy’s talents would be next to impossible.
President of the WAC and co-curator of the exhibition Rosemary Hartigan
Curator Karla Sanchez said it was a pleasure to work on the monographic exhibition of a man who has shown so much passion and love for Wexford.
“Dr. Billy Colfer was a true Renaissance spirit, a man of keen intelligence, he had a deep interest and belief in education.”
The curators thank the Colfer family, Wexford County Council Arts Department, Wexford County Archives and Wexford County Library for their contributions to the exhibition.
The exhibition is supported by Wexford County Council and the Arts Council of Ireland.