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Building of the Month - April 2008

Wexford Town's "Twin Churches", Wexford, County Wexford

Wexford Town's "Twin Churches" 01 - Bride Street Representative View 

Figure 1: Richard Pierce's (1801-54) education in the Gothic Revival during his employment on the churches of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-52) had dramatic repercussions on his designs for Wexford's "Twin Churches".  In contrast to the simplified "barn" chapels previously defining his rural output, large urban congregations necessitated a comparatively complex arrangement featuring an oblong nave extending through arcaded screens into side aisles.  Although none of the Irish Pugin churches features a comparable entrance tower, the "West Window" is a near-direct quotation of the "West Window" at Saint Aidan's Catholic Cathedral (begun 1843), Enniscorthy

April 2008 marks an important occasion in the architectural heritage of Wexford with the celebration of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the so-called "Twin Churches": the Catholic Church of the Assumption (Bride Street Church), on the corner of Joseph Street and Bride Street; and the Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception (Rowe Street Church), on the corner of John Street Lower and Rowe Street Upper, the identical spires of which have become an internationally recognised landmark defining the Wexford skyline (figs. 1-2).

Wexford Town's "Twin Churches" 02 - Rowe Street Representative View 

Figure 2: Although regarded as "Twin Churches", the challenges posed by the steep gradient of the site for Rowe Street Church demanded a number of significant differences.  The porches in the side aisles are approached by perrons of cut-granite steps and the sacristy is elevated above a raised basement.  Echoing Pugin's stance on the use of local materials, both churches are built in a tuck pointed pink conglomerate stone from the quarry at Park, near Ferrycarrig, with dressings in a granite from neighbouring County Wicklow

The long-standing ecclesiastical legacy of Wexford can be traced back to medieval times, the town having been converted to Christianity by Saint Ibar in the fifth century.  Remnants of chapels or associated graveyards survive to the present day as a testament to the nine parishes comprising Saint Bridget's, Saint Doologe's, Saint Iberius's, Saint John's, Saint Mary's, Saint Michael of Feagh's, Saint Patrick's, Saint Peter's, and Saint Selskar's.  With the imposition of the Penal Laws (passed 1695+), however, the celebration of the Catholic Eucharist was driven underground, congregations meeting in mass houses such as that subsequently converted to residential use in Saint Mary's Lane.

The relaxation of the Penal Laws in the later eighteenth century allowed for the building of modest churches, or "chapels", the earliest of which in Wexford formed the nucleus of the present Catholic Church of Saint Francis of Assisi (1784; extended 1812).  It was at a meeting in that chapel in January 1850 that Reverend Myles Murphy PP (d. 1857), in a final gesture prior to his consecration as Bishop of Ferns (fl. 1850-6), made a proposal to address the needs of the Catholic congregation in the town, thriving in the aftermath of Emancipation in 1829 and who could no longer be accommodated by the Franciscan church alone.  An announcement in the Dublin Builder in 1851 confirmed that 'two new Catholic churches are to be erected in Wexford'.  Furthermore, a stipulation by Murphy dictated that the churches were to be built to an identical design 'to prevent jealousy and unpleasant comparisons amongst the town people'.  Upon his appointment to Wexford in 1852, the Very Reverend James Roche PP (1801-83) concentrated efforts to secure the financial resources necessary for the construction of the churches through a Grand Annual Demonstration system whereby each household made an annual contribution over two five year periods based on income available, a remarkable undertaking in the immediate aftermath of the Great Famine (1845-9).  An initial £16,000 was required for the basic structure of each church together with essential interior furnishing; the projected expenditure for the completion of both churches, however, was estimated at £54,000 with donations also sought from Wexford expatriates dispersed throughout the world.

Wexford Town's "Twin Churches" 03 - Kilmyshall Church Wexford Town's "Twin Churches" 04 - Castledockrell Church

Figures 3-4: Pierce's earliest surviving churches at Kilmyshall (left) and Castledockrell (right) conform to the "barn chapel" tradition and are entered through Georgian Gothic frontispieces surmounted by simple cut-granite bellcotes.  The churches are similar to the lost Saint Mary Magdalene's Catholic Church (1825-6), Bunclody, during the demolition of which in 1970 the inscription 'Rd. Pierce' was discovered behind the altar

The architect given responsibility for the design of the churches was Richard Pierce (1801-54) of Kilmore who had established a successful ecclesiastical practice in the region in the early nineteenth century; his early churches include Saint Mary Magdalene's Catholic Church (1826; demolished 1970), Bunclody (originally Newtownbarry); Saint Mary Magdalene's Catholic Church (1831), Kilmyshall (fig. 3); and All Saints' Catholic Church (1840), Castledockrell (fig. 4).  However, with no evidence of an architectural competition it must be assumed that Pierce was commissioned due to the familiarity of Dr. Murphy with his work on the collegiate wing (1832-7) at Saint Peter's College, Summerhill Road, the seminary of the Diocese of Ferns, and for his role as clerk-of-works overseeing progress on the adjoining chapel (1838-41) and on Saint Aidan's Catholic Cathedral (1843-50), Enniscorthy, both to designs by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-52).  The significance of Pierce's employment on the Pugin-designed churches in Wexford cannot be underestimated, particularly when examining his solo output in the years pre- and post-dating that period.  At Kilmyshall the church typifies the single-cell "barn chapel" with architectural "effect" supplied by the pointed profile of the openings producing a Georgian Gothic theme, and the distinctive parapeted frontispiece recalling later, twentieth-century vernacular cinemas.  Similarly, at Saint Peter's College, the collegiate range adheres to Classical principles of symmetrical planning centred on a lofty tower – at the time of completion the tallest structure in the town – with mullioned windows, a Perpendicular tracery window, and slender turrets, all exemplifying the late Georgian Gothic trend (fig. 5).

Wexford Town's "Twin Churches" 05 - Saint Peter's College 

Figure 5: One of the most impressive architectural ensembles in County Wexford, Saint Peter's College features the earliest urban chapel built in Ireland by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin.  The adjoining collegiate wing (1832-7) was undergoing completion to a design by Pierce when Pugin visited the town to attend the blessing of the foundation stone of the chapel: Pierce, as clerk-of-works, oversaw the construction of all of the Pugin projects in Ireland from that point until 1850

By contrast, the churches in Wexford, Pierce's largest works, display a keen awareness of the Gothic Revival principles advocated by Pugin with plan forms comprising substantial naves rising as clere-storeys above arcaded side aisles, all dominated by spire-topped towers entered through deeply recessed doorways.  Meanwhile, each component of the church is clearly defined by individual glazing patterns including the "East Window" allegedly modelled after Holycross Abbey (founded 1169), County Tipperary.  Constructed in a tuck pointed conglomerate stone extracted from quarries at nearby Park, recognised by its distinctive ruby tones, Wicklow granite dressings produce a mild polychromatic palette reminiscent of the earlier Wexford Town Presbyterian Church (1843) and Saint Ibar's Catholic Church (dedicated 1855), in neighbouring Castlebridge, both attributed to Thomas Willis (c.1782-1864), interestingly the contractor employed on the "twin churches".

The foundation stone of both churches was laid by Bishop Murphy on the same day, the 27th of June 1851, Bride Street Church occupying the site of the medieval Saint Bridget's Church, thereafter a house identified as Saint Bridget's Cottage on the first edition of the Ordnance Survey (surveyed 1840; published 1841); Rowe Street Church occupying a site previously bordered by thatched cabins.  Upon completion in 1858, mass at the Catholic Church of the Assumption was celebrated for the first time by Canon Roche on the 18th of April, with mass at the Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception celebrated a week later.  Pierce, however, did not live to see the finished churches and it is possible that some of the detailing is attributable to James Joseph McCarthy (1817-82) who oversaw the completion of both works.

Decoration of the interiors continued for some time thereafter and Thomas Lacy, the Wexford-born author writing in 1862, noted that £20,000 had been spent to date.  In his meticulous description of each church Lacy comments on the stained glass donated by John Hyacinth Talbot (1794-1868) of Ballytrent House; the Lady Chapel windows presented as a gift by Canon Roche; and the organs supplied by Telford and Telford (founded 1830) of Dublin – the cases of which have traditionally been attributed to Pugin, albeit without substantiation.

Wexford Town's "Twin Churches" 06 - Bride Street Interior Wexford Town's "Twin Churches" 07 - Bride Street Interior

Figures 6-7: The interior of Bride Street Church showing the sanctuary radically reordered in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) with results that met with such disapproval from the parish that similar work proposed for the sister church was dramatically scaled back.  Lacy notes that 'a large and splendid organ, built by [William] Telford, at an expense of £500, occupies the gallery…and from its characteristic illuminations…confers a dignity and beauty on this part of the church; while the quality and compass of its tones are such as might be expected from the character and experience of its constructor'.  The organ was restored in 1987 with stencil work by the sisters of the adjoining Convent of the Perpetual Adoration

Lacy's detailed notes prove particularly important for an impression of the original appearance of Bride Street Church (figs. 6-8).  Radically reordered in accordance with the principles of the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), disapproval from the parishioners prevented a similar programme of work being carried out on the sister church (figs. 9-10).  An outstanding feature of Bride Street Church is the O'Keefe Memorial Window (1918) completed by Harry Clarke (1889-1931) depicting Our Lady and Child adored by Saint Aidan of Ferns and Saint Adrian.  Meanwhile, in commemoration of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the churches, a stained glass window was installed in March 2008 by Joe Sheridan of Kilkenny to replace a plate glass window introduced during the controversial renovation works, thereby bringing Bride Street Church back to a full compliment of stained glass.

Wexford Town's "Twin Churches" 08 - O'Keefe Memorial Window (1918) 

Figure 8: Among the surviving artistic highlights in the church, the Lieutenant William Henry O'Keefe Memorial Window (1918) is considered an early masterpiece by the renowned Harry Clarke (1889-1931).  Depicting Our Lady and Child adored by Saint Aidan of Ferns and Saint Adrian, the diptych has been described by Nicola Gordon Bowe as the epitome of Clarke's work in the Art Nouveau where 'the intricacy of detail is never sacrificed to the fluid integrity of the composition'.  It is dedicated: "In Loving Memory Of/Lieutenant William Henry/O'Keefe RFA/Aged 21 Years Killed/In Action In France/May 10th 1917/Give Him Eternal Rest/O Lord".  Courtesy of Lynda Harman

Wexford Town's "Twin Churches" 09 - Rowe Street Interior Wexford Town's "Twin Churches" 10 - Rowe Street Interior

Figures 9-10: The interior of Rowe Street church was subject to a less radical interpretation of the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council than its twin.  Pugin's influence on Pierce extended to the decoration of the interior space and included in his meticulous description of the church, Lacy notes 'the decoration and embellishments of the interior have been carried out by the celebrated Birmingham artisans, under the immediate direction of Mr. Early [Thomas Earley (1819-93)], of the firm of Hardman and Company'

Figures 1-2, 5, 8-9, 11-12 photographed by Stephen Farrell for the NIAH publication An Introduction to the Architectural Heritage of County Wexford

Wexford Town's "Twin Churches" 11 - Introduction 

FURTHER READING

Berney, Matthew H. Centenary Record of Wexford's Twin Churches 1858-1958 (Wexford: John English and Company, 1958)

Costecalde, Claude, Churches of the Diocese of Ferns: Symbols of a Living Faith (Holywood: Booklink, 2004)

Gordon Bowe, Nichola, The Life and Work of Harry Clarke (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1989)

Lacy, Thomas, Sights and Scenes in Our Fatherland (London: Simpkin, Marshall and Company; Dublin: McGlashan and Gill, 1863)

O'Leary, Barry, "Richard Pierce: Architect and Acolyte of the Gothic Revival" in Murphy, Hillary (ed.), Journal of the Wexford Historical Society Volume 20 (Wexford: Wexford Historical Society, 2004)

Spencer, Kevin, "Pugin and County Wexford" in Culleton, Brendan (ed.), Journal of the Old Wexford Society Volume 8 (Wexford: Old Wexford Society, 1981)

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