Saturday, 4 October 2014

Inside Bride Street Church, one of Pierce’s
Pugin-style ‘Twin Churches’ in Wexford

Inside Bride Street Church … one of the Twin Churches in Wexford designed by Richard Pierce and an architectural gem influenced by Pugin’s Gothic Revival style (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

I was back in Wexford town last night for the removal of Tommy Carr, a stalwart of the trade union movement and the Labour Party in the town, and three times Mayor of Wexford.

Tommy’s coffin, draped with the “Starry Plough” of the Labour and trade union movement, was carried into Bride Street Church by George Lawlor, Mayor of Wexford, and other Wexford councillors.

Tommy, who was a daily communicant in Bride Street Chuch, was received by Father Jim Fegan, the Administrator or Parish Priest of Wexford, and I was honoured when he asked me the read the Gospel reading. Father Jim recalled Tommy’s many years of service to Wexford town, county and community and movingly described service as “love made visible.”

The attendance included the Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister), Joan Burton, the Labour Minister and Wexford TD Brendan Howlin, his brother Ted Howlin, who had been Mayor of Wexford three times before his recent retirement from politics, and former mayors including Joe Ryan.

Tommy worked closely for many years with their father, John Howlin, in the union offices in Corish Hall in Main Street, Wexford. When the 1973 general election was called, I was working as a journalist with the Wexford People, my social values were developing but I had no political affiliations. I walked across the street into the Corish Hall asking which party was going to do its best for the poor people of the town. I already knew Tommy Carr and John Howlin, and they promptly assured me I was in the right place.

Two of us travelled down to Wexford early yesterday afternoon in heavy, driving rain, and had lunch in the Ferrycarrig Hotel, looking out onto the estuary of the River Slaney.

Inside Bride Street Church in the late afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Our early arrival in Wexford and the heavy rain outside also provided the opportunity to see around Bride Street Church, one of Wexford’s great Gothic Revival churches and one of the town’s “Twin Churches.”

The “Twin Churches” are the Church of the Assumption or Bride Street Church, on the corner of Bride Street and Joseph Street, and the Church of the Immaculate Conception or Rowe Street Church, on the corner of and Upper Rowe Street and Lower John Street.

Their identical spires long defined the Wexford skyline until the building of the new Opera House in High Street.

The twin churches are architectural masterpieces by Wexford’s own Gothic Revival architect, Richard Pierce (1801-1854) from Kilmore.

In his earlier churches in Co Wexford, Pierce worked in a largely rural context, designing simplified “barn” chapels. His earliest churches include Saint Mary Magdalene’s Catholic Church, Bunclody (Newtownbarry), which was built in 1825-1826, Saint Mary’s Church, Kilmyshall (1831), outside Bunclody, and All Saints’ Church, Castledockrell (1840).

Pierce’s church in At Kilmyshall is typical of a single-cell “barn chapel” with architectural “effect” supplied by the pointed profile of the openings producing a Georgian Gothic theme, and a distinctive parapeted frontispiece.

His church in Bunclody was demolished in 1970, but the two other surviving churches are “barn chapel” buildings and are entered through Georgian Gothic frontispieces surmounted by simple cut-granite bellcotes. These two churches are similar to his church in Bunclody, and when that church was being demolished in 1970, the inscription “Rd. Pierce” was uncovered behind the altar.

By the 1830s and 1840s, Pierce was working closely with Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852) on his churches throughout Co Wexford, and during that time he developed his own interpretation of Gothic Revival.

In 1832-1837, Pierce designed the collegiate wing of Saint Peter’s College on Summerhill Road, Wexford. His design follows the Classical principles of symmetrical planning centred on a lofty tower – at the time of its completion, it was the tallest structure in Wexford town – with mullioned windows, a Perpendicular tracery window, and slender turrets, all exemplifying the late Georgian Gothic trend.

The Countess of Shrewsbury and her sister top the list of donors in the porch of Bride Street Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

While Pierce was completing this collegiate wing, Pugin was invited to Wexford to attend the blessing of the foundation stone of the chapel. Pugin had come to Wexford through the Talbot and Redmond family connections with the Talbots, Earls of Shrewsbury, who were his patrons in Staffordshire. Pugin appointed Pierce as his clerk-of-works to oversee the work on his chapel (1838-1841), which is Pugin’s earliest urban church in Ireland.

From then until 1850, Pierce was Pugin’s clerk-of-works in Ireland, overseeing the construction of all his projects in Ireland in that period, including Saint Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy (1843-1850).

For many decades, the Catholic parishioners of Wexford had been served by the Franciscan Friary Church, which was rebuilt in 1784 and extended in 1812. At a meeting in the Friary Church in January 1850, Father Myles Murphy was Parish Priest of Wexford and was about to be consecrated Bishop of Ferns, proposed building the Twin Churches.

Murphy wanted the churches built to an identical design “to prevent jealousy and unpleasant comparisons amongst the town people.”

The tomb of Father James Roche in the west porch of Bridge Street Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

When Father James Roche (1801-1883) became Parish Priest of Wexford in 1852, he moved to secure the financial resources needed to build the two churches – a difficult task in the immediate aftermath of the Famine.

There is no evidence of an architectural competition, and perhaps Pierce was commissioned because Bishop Murphy was familiar with his work at Saint Peter’s College and at Saint Aidan’s Cathedral.

Bride Street Church has a substantial, oblong nave with clerestories above arcaded side aisles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Wexford’s Twin Churches are Pierce’s largest works and display his keen awareness of the Gothic Revival principles advocated by Pugin. Echoing Pugin’s preference for the use of local materials, Pierce built Wexford’s Twin Churches in a tuck-pointed pink conglomerate stone from a quarry at Park, near Ferrycarrig, with dressings in a granite from Co Wicklow.

The churches have substantial, oblong naves rising as clerestories above arcaded side aisles, all dominated by spire-topped towers entered through deeply recessed doorways.

Although none of the Pugin’s Irish churches features comparable entrance towers, Pierce’s “West Windows” are inspired by the West Window in Pugin’s Saint Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy. The East Window are said to have been modelled after Holycross Abbey in Co Tipperary.

Thomas Willis (ca1782-1864), the contractor employed on the “Twin Churches,” designed Wexford Presbyterian Church (1843) and Saint Ibar’s Catholic Church, Castlebridge (dedicated 1855).

Pugin’s influence on Pierce extended to the interior decoration of the churches by Birmingham artisans under the direction of Thomas Earley (1819-1893) of Hardman and Co.

The foundation stone of both churches was laid by Bishop Murphy on the same day, 27 June 1851.

Bride Street Church stands on the site of the mediaeval Saint Bridget’s Church. In the grounds is a mediaeval altar from a former priory of the Knights Templar outside Wexford, later used as an altar in the Penal Days.

When Bride Street Church was completed in 1858, Canon Roche celebrated Mass there for the first time on 18 April, with Mass in Rowe Street Church a week later.

However, Pierce did not live to see the completion of his churches. He died in 1854, and work on the two churches was completed by James Joseph McCarthy (1817-1882). My great-grandfather, James Comerford, who had worked with Pierce and Pugin on their churches in Co Wexford with his brothers Richard and Robert, left Wexford shortly after the foundation stones were laid, and was married in Dublin on 14 September 1851.

The sanctuary in Bride Street Church was radically reordered after Vatican II (1962-1965). However, the results were greeted with such shocked public disapproval that similar work proposed for Rowe Street church was scaled back dramatically.

The O’Keefe window by Harry Clarke in Bride Street Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

An outstanding feature of Bride Street Church is the O’Keefe Memorial Window (1918). This two-light window was commissioned by Mrs O’Keefe of Faythe House, Wexford, to commemorate her son, Lieutenant William Henry O’Keefe of the Royal Field Artillery, who was killed in action in France on 10 May 1917 during World War I.

The two-light window is in the art nouveau style. The trefoil tracery light portrays a bearded Franciscan friar in brown habit and a shimmering blue and multi-coloured halo. The letters “SA” may suggest Saint Anthony.

In the first of the two main lancets, the Virgin Mary is adorned in a shimmering cloak and gown of deep blue, and is holding the Christ Child, who sits on her lap.

The second lancet depicts Saint Aidan, the patron saint of the Diocese of Ferns, and Saint Adrian, often called the patron saint of soldiers. Their names are inscribed around their halos. Saint Aidan is holding a church in his right hand and a silver staff in his left. Saint Adrian is exotic and knightly, in a lemon, crimson and black cloak, with a blue balaclava and helmet.

The O’Keefe coat-of-arms in the window in Bride Street Church (PhotographL Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Several religious symbols are depicted to the left of the saints. Various symbols of the church and of Wexford are depicted in both lights, and the O’Keefe coat of arms is shown in the bottom left-hand panel. Harry Clarke’s signature is inscribed in the lower right section: “Harry Clarke 1919.”

This is an early masterpiece by Harry Clarke (1889-1931) and 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.”

Saint Michael’s Church in Gorey, Co Wexford, which was designed by Pugin, also has a Harry Clarke window in the mortuary chapel.

At the Boker in the rain in Wexford last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Between my self-guided tour of Bride Street Church and the beginning of the funeral, there was time for a short stroll around the ‘Boker,’ the Old Pound (Saint Peter’s Square), School Street where I lived in the early 1970s, Clifford Street, the “Deaderies” and the site of the old Pierce works.

But the rain was too heavy to head into the town centre later in evening, and we drove back to Dublin late at night. After a Reuiem Mass at 10 am, Tommy was buried this morning in Saint Ibar’s Cemetery, Crosstown.

Autumn apples from a windfall on the ground behind the railings in Bride Street Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)