24 October 2020

A missed opportunity to
visit Selskar Abbey, ‘almost
at the end of the world’

The ruins of Selskar Abbey, described in the 1355 as ‘by Wexford, which is almost at the end of the world in Ireland’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

When I was back in Wexford last month during my late summer road trip, I missed once again finding an opportunity to visit Selskar Abbey in the heart of Wexford town. The church dates from the early 12th century, and it is claimed as the site of the first Anglo-Irish treaty, signed in 1169.

Selskar Abbey is said to have been built on the site of Viking place of worship dedicated to Odin. However, there are several indications that the area was home to an earlier Christian site, predating the arrival of the Vikings in 800. This site would have overlooked the River Slaney at the time, as the land around Redmond Square and the train station was not reclaimed until later years.

At one time, historians claimed the name Selskar is a corruption of the name Saint Sepulchre, referring to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. An alternative theory suggests the name derives from an old Norse phrase meaning ‘seal rock’ (seal skar), referring to a rocky outcrop nearby in the River Slaney.

At the time, this site would have overlooked the River Slaney, as the land around Redmond Square and the train station was not reclaimed until later years. It is a curiosity that parts of the abbey complex stood inside and other parts outside Wexford’s mediaeval town wall.

When Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster, was forced into exile, he returned to Wexford with a large Anglo-Norman force that immediately laid siege to Wexford. The siege was lifted when the Bishop of Ferns persuades the people of Wexford to surrender.

It is claimed in Wexford Henry II spent Lent at Selskar Abbey in 1172, doing penance for the murder of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury in 1170. However, it is unclear whether there is any truth in the story.

The leading Anglo-Norman commander, Raymond FitzGerald or Raymond Le Gros, and Basila de Clare, a sister of ‘Strongbow,’ Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, are said to have been married at Selskar Abbey in 1174.

The surviving ruins seen today are of the abbey founded ca 1190 by Alexander de la Roche. This was a house of Augustinian canons, and its proper name was the Priory of Saint Peter and Sain Paul.

There is an amusing entry about the Abbey of Saint Selskar in the Calendar of Papal Letters in January 1355, when a mandate was given to the Bishop of Ferns ‘to inform himself of the destruction by fire of the Muniments of the Prior and Convent of SS Peter and Paul, Selker (sic) by Wexford, which is almost at the end of the world in Ireland.’

John Topcliffe, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, complained to Henry VIII in 1512 that the monks who ‘time out of mind’ had chosen their own Prior, had elected a ‘good blessed religious man’ as Prior but that the Abbot had turned him out.

At the dissolution of the monastic houses during the Tudor Reformation, Selskar Abbey was closed in 1542 and handed to John Parker, Master of the Rolls in Ireland. It later passed to the Stafford family, but it continued in use as a Church of Ireland parish church, although other churches in Wexford were closed, including Saint Peter’s. In 1615, there were 20 churches in Wexford Town.

The abbey was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell in 1649, when the stones from several churches in the town were used to repair Wexford Castle.

The Church of Ireland parish church in Selskar was rebuilt in 1818-1826 at a cost of £1,384 12s 3¾d, pf which £830 15s 4¾d was a gift from the Board of First Fruits. The tower, first built in the 1300s, was restored and used as a sacristy and belfry. However, parts of the abbey were dismantled.

The church was consecrated on 9 November 1826, and the Revd William Strong, Rector of Wexford in 1824-1832, was the first minister of the new Saint Selskar’s Church. Later, he became Prebendary of Saint Audeon’s in Dublin (1833-1847) and Archdeacon of Glendalough (1847-1861).

It was reported in 1837 that there were three services on Sundays and Christmas Day and on four days in the week in Saint Iberius Church, while in Saint Selskar Church there was one service each Sunday and on Christmas Day in Saint Selskar’s. The Holy Communion was celebrated twice a month in Saint Iberius Church and six time a year in Saint Selskar’s.

However, in the aftermath of World War II, the Church of Ireland population of Wexford was declining and it was increasingly difficult to keep two parish churhes open in the town.

A decision was taken to close Selskar Church and focus on Saint Iberius Church on North Main Street. The church was closed, the slated roof was removed, and the east window was put in storage in Saint Iberius Church, with the hope that one day it would be restored to its original home.

The late Sam Coe, who was once a churchwarden in Wexford, told me he had held every office in the Church of Ireland that was open to a lay member of the church. He was a well-known tour guide into his old age, and when I was living in Wexford in the early and mid 1970s, he brought me to visit the ruins of Selskar Church.

Selskar Abbey reopened to the public in July 2012 and is now part of the Westgate Heritage Tower. The refurbished tower is closed to the public, as the stairway is too tight and narrow. The middle floor of this tower is still intact, and the top floor has a narrow platform that extends around the outside walls.

Although the grounds are closed to the public, walking tours of the site can be arranged. However, once again, I missed an opportunity to visit Selskar Church when I was back in Wexford last month … and it’s not even ‘at the end of the world.’

Selskar Abbey reopened to the public in July 2012 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hi Patrick

I believe the church was not built until 1825/26 as it was only mentioned/approved in the Vestry Minutes in 1824. Lewis (1837) dated it to 1818 but I've been through the minute books at the RCB and recorded the key points. I did my thesis on Selskar earlier this year, concentrating on the 'new' church and its ultimate demise.

I don't believe Henry II did penance there (I don't believe it was built); I love the story of Basilia and Le Gros marrying there but again, can't prove the date it was built. I know they did marry in Wexford thanks to Giraldus Cambrensis. As for Odin - it's a point of contention and has yet to be proven; I can't work out where the story came from. The first record of it is in Bassett's directory in the late 19th century - anything you have on it would be appreciated.

I'm a guide there and when you are next in Wexford please email me and I'll show you around; I would be delighted to meet you!

Kind regards,