08 September 2020

Westgate houses raise
fears about the future
of Georgian Wexford

The former De Rinzy townhouse at Westgate, Wexford, is crumbing and deteriorating (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

The second stage of this year’s late summer ‘Road Trip’ brought two of us from Cork, Clonmel and Kilkenny through Bunclody to Wexford Town, which always charms me and continues to feel like home.

Even though I moved from Wexford to Dublin in the mid-1970s and from the Wexford People to The Irish Times, I continue to delight in exploring the town’s history and heritage, and strolling through its narrow streets and lanes.

Dunluce is an important part of the early 19th century architecture of the town. It was first known as Slaney View, and was built as the Wexford townhouse of the Perceval family of Slaney Manor.

The architectural features of the house include the classically-detailed doorcase with its simplified ‘peacock tail’ fanlight; the diminishing in scale of the windows on each floor producing a graduated visual impression; and the elegant bow defining the principal rooms.

Other details include crown or cylinder glazing panels in hornless sash frames, the joinery, the restrained chimney-pieces and the sleek plasterwork refinements.

Slaney Manor, also known as Barntown House, was developed by Thomas Perceval in the 17th century. The Cork branch of the family included Spencer Perceval (1762-1812), the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated. A succession of former owners and tenants of Slaney Manor including Sir Frederick Hughes (1814-1895), Lady Theodosia Hughes (1851-1931) and Admiral David Beatty, 1st Earl Beatty.

There is a memorial in the gallery in Saint Iberius’s Church, Wexford, commemorating Edward Perceval who died at the age of 21 while he was in the navy.

The Perceval family remained at Slaney Manor until 1923, although Slaney View in Westgate may have been sold at an earlier date. Slaney View was renamed Dunluce by Edward McQuillan, who claimed to be The McQuillan or head of the Clan McQuillan, once based at Dunluce Castle in Co Antrim.

Edward McQuillan was one of the prominent Quakers in Wexford in his day, and died in 1941. The former Quaker Meeting House in High Street, Wexford, dating from 1657, had closed in 1927 following the departure of the three remaining Thompson families.

Dunluce, renamed after the McQuillan castle in Co Antrim, was once the Perceval family townhouse at Westgate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Next door, the former technical school is a more recent building in Westgate, dating from 1918. But this early 20th century, three-bay, three-storey building stands on the site of and may incorporate parts of Spa Well House, built in the 18th century by the Harvey family.

This earlier house may be reflected in details such as the classically-detailed doorcase, the diminishing in scale of the windows on each floor producing a graduated visual impression with these windows showing a late instance of the so-called ‘Wexford Window’ sash-and-overlight glazing pattern.

The former technical college stands on the site of the townhouse of the Harvey family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Across the street from these two buildings, the former Westgate Bed and Breakfast and the former Westgate Tavern are in sad states of neglect and decaying rapidly.

The former Westgate Bed and Breakfast was built in the early 19th century as the townhouse of the De Rinzy family of Clobemon Hall, near Ferns. The De Rinzy family claimed descent from Sir Matthew de Renzy or Rentsi (1577-1634), a native of either Cologne or the Low Countries and ‘a great traveller and general linguist.’ He in turn was claimed as a descendant of Scanderbeg (1405-1468), the great Albanian hero. He died on 29 August 1634, either in Dublin or at Clobemon Hall, Ferns, was held by his descendants until recent times.

The house was built around 1825. It has been described as a ‘well-composed house of the middle size.’ It was built as the townhouse of the De Rinzy family of Clobemon Hall, but at a later point it became two separate houses on a prominent position on a corner site where Westgate and Slaney Street meet.

The building was extensively renovated in the late 20th century for use as a guesthouse.

Three years later Wexford County Council refused planning permission to a Wexford couple, Tony and Breda Wright, who wanted to knock down the early 19th century townhouse.

An Taisce objected on the grounds of the building’s architectural heritage and its proximity to Wexford’s old town wall at the rear of the building and said it is possible that masonry walls and cobbled surfaces found in the basement of the neighbouring West Gate Tavern are part of the town wall.

The former Westgate Tavern was run by Michael and Catherine Power for 18 years until it was sold in May 2005.

The former Westgate Tavern has been closed since it was sold in 2005 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Maria Pepper reported in the Wexford People four years ago (27 August 2016) that Tony and Breda Wright had applied for permission to demolish the structure for safety reasons.

The Wrights proposed to demolish the building and to finish the area with gravel and a new boundary wall to match an existing wall. But they did not outline any plans for the future use of the site.

The council rejected their application because it would have ‘a detrimental impact on the streetscape and the architectural character of the area.’

In addition, the Wexford Town Walls Conservation Plan says there should be no further demolition of 19th century or earlier properties and that building against, overlooking or opening onto the town wall should not be allowed unless there is a compelling case to show that the outcome will be of ultimate benefit of the town walls.

No plans have been put forward for the future development of the site and there are fears that the proposed demolition would result in a vacant brownfield site that ‘would have a detrimental impact on the streetscape and the visual amenity of this town centre area.’

The couple have a current planning application on the adjoining property, the former Westgate Tavern, for change of use of the ground floor from a public house to office use. Meanwhile, Breda Wright was granted permission in 2013 for change of use of an adjoining ground floor retail unit to wholesale storage.

Wexford County Council referred the Westgate application to a number of agencies for comment or recommendation, including the Heritage Council, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and An Taisce.

An Taisce’s report recommended refusing permission for the demolition, saying the house stands on a strategic location and demolition would be ‘inappropriate.’ It said, ‘Wexford County Council should encourage the re-use of centrally-located vacant buildings rather than demolish these structures.’

Meanwhile, the former De Rinzy townhouse at Westgate continues to crumble and deteriorate, the building suffers from dry rot, a first-floor beam has collapsed, and the rear and side of the building are being used as a car park. It is a sad and visible commentary on the threats facing Wexford’s Georgian architectural heritage.

The side and rear of the former De Rinzy townhouse at Westgate are being used as a car park (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Bringing down the powerful,
lifting up the lowly and filling
the hungry with good things

The Virgin Mary with the Crown of Thorns in a window in a church in Bansha, Co Tipperary … without the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, there would have been no birth of Christ, and then no Good Friday and no Crucifixion, no Easter and no Resurrection (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Tuesday 8 September 2020,

The Birth of Blessed Virgin Mary

11 a.m.: The Eucharist, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick

Readings: Isaiah 61: 10-11; Psalm 45: 10-17; Luke 1: 46-55.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today is the Feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is one of her few festivals that is provided for in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland. The others are the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March) and the Feast of the Visitation (31 May), but not the Dormition or the Assumption, the commemoration of her death (15 August).

During my ‘road trip’ around the southern half of Ireland over the last two weeks, I was surprised how many parish churches or former in the Church of Ireland along that route are dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Along that route there are, or were, churches named Saint Mary’s in Killarney, Co Kerry; Mallow and Youghal, Co Cork; Julianstown, Co Meath; Bunclody, Enniscorthy, New Ross and Old Ross, Co Wexford; Clonmel, Nenagh, Thurles and Tipperary in Co Tipperary; Kilmeadan and Dungarvan, Co Waterford; Shinrone, Co Offaly; Carlow, Dublin and Kilkenny.

And then we were back in Co Limerick, back to Saint Mary’s Cathedral, and Saint Mary’s here is Askeaton.

Had we gone off our planned routes, there would have been countless more churches throughout the Church of Ireland dedicated to Saint Mary or the Blessed Virgin Mary.

If anyone thinks we give little attention to her in the Church of Ireland, they would have learned a different lesson from us on this ‘road trip.’

The full liturgical provisions in the Book of Common Prayer, which we are using this morning, presume this festival will be celebrated with the Eucharist today [8 September] in cathedrals and parish churches throughout the Church of Ireland.

This feast day is being marked as the Patronal Festival in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, with a meeting of the chapter this morning.

Of course, the Gospels do not record the Virgin Mary’s birth. The earliest known account of her birth is found in a text from the late second century, in which her parents are named as Saint Anne and Saint Joachim.

Traditionally, the Church commemorates saints on the date of their death. The Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist are among the few whose birth dates are commemorated.

The reason for this is found in the singular mission each had in salvation history, but traditionally also because they were also seen as being holy in their birth – Saint John was believed to be sanctified in the womb of his mother, Saint Elizabeth, before his birth (see Luke 1: 15).

In the same way, we respect that Christ first came to dwell among us in the womb of the Virgin Mary.

This morning’s Gospel reading includes the words of the canticle Magnificat:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed

When people ask me about our differences, what we believe in, I sometimes hear people declare, without waiting to hear what I have to say, ‘But you don’t believe in the Virgin Mary.’

‘Well, yes we do,’ I reply. ‘How else do you think we believe Christ was born.’

I like to point out that the canticle Magnificat, which is part of our Gospel reading this morning, is traditionally associated with Evensong, sung every evening in cathedrals and many churches in the Anglican Communion across the world.

Differences of opinion about the Virgin Mary were not divisive arguments at the Reformation in the 16th century.

Martin Luther emphasised that the Virgin Mary was a recipient of God’s love and favour, accepted the Marian decrees of the ecumenical councils and the dogmas of the Church, and held to the belief that the Virgin Mary was a perpetual virgin and the Theotókos, the Mother of God.

Luther accepted the view of the Immaculate Conception that was popular then, over three centuries before Pope Pius IX, and he believed in the Virgin Mary’s life-long sinlessness. Although he pointed out that the Bible says nothing about her Assumption, he believed that the Virgin Mary and the saints live on after death.

Luther approved keeping Marian paintings and statues in churches, said ‘Mary prays for the Church,’ and advocated the use of a portion of the ‘Hail Mary.’

In ecumenical dialogue, the Church of Ireland has pointed out that in recognising the role of Mary in the incarnation, we are following the Council of Ephesus (431), which used the term Theotókos (‘God-bearer’) to affirm the oneness of Christ’s person by identifying Mary as the Mother of God the Word incarnate. The Church of Ireland also stated that ‘in receiving the Council of Ephesus and the definition of Chalcedon, Anglicans and Roman Catholics together confess Mary as Theotókos.’

It acknowledged that the full significance of her role as the Theotókos or God-bearer ‘has sometimes been lacking in the consciousness of some Anglicans.’

Sometimes in the Church of Ireland, however, we fall back on culturally defensive rather than theological ways of thinking and responding to what our neighbours say about the Virgin Mary and how they portray her.

But the Anglican tradition of singing Magnificat at Evensong, and the names of our cathedrals and many churches remind me of a message that she proclaims in our Gospel reading that challenges the rise of far-right racism and populism in the world today:

‘He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.’

Saint Andrew of Crete writes: ‘This day is for us the beginning of all holy days. It is the door to kindness and truth.’

Indeed, without the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, there would have been no birth of Christ, and then no Good Friday, no Crucifixion, no Easter, no Resurrection.

And there are only 108 days to Christmas.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Saint Anne with her young daughter, the Virgin Mary, holding the Christ Child, in a fresco by the icon writer Alexandra Kaouki of Rethymnon in Crete

Luke 1: 46-55 (NRSVA):

46 And Mary said,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

The words of the canticle Magnificat carved on the wooden screen at the west end of the monastic church in Mount Melleray Abbey, Cappoquin, Co Waterford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Liturgical Colour: White

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
who looked upon the lowliness of the Blessed Virgin Mary
and chose her to be the mother of your only Son:
Grant that we who are redeemed by his blood
may share with her in the glory of your eternal kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given:
and his name is called the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 7)


You chose the Blessed Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your Son
and so exalted the humble and meek;
your angel hailed her as most highly favoured,
and with all generations we call her blessed:

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Almighty and everlasting God,
who stooped to raise fallen humanity
through the child-bearing of blessed Mary:
Grant that we who have seen your glory
revealed in our human nature,
and your love made perfect in our weakness,
may daily be renewed in your image,
and conformed to the pattern of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Blessing:

Christ the Son of God, born of Mary,
fill you with his grace
to trust his promises and obey his will

A traditional Greek icon of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

Beth El in Bunclody
may be the smallest
synagogue in Europe

Inside the Beth El synagogue arranged and decorated by Joseph Baruch Silver in his home near Bunclody, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Ireland’s most unusual – and what may be Europe’s smallest – functioning synagogue must be the shul in Co Wexford that has been arranged and decorated by Joseph Baruch Silver in Rainsford Lodge, his home at Ballinastraw, about 3 or 4 km outside Bunclody, on the road to Clonegal.

On the second leg of this year’s late summer ‘Road Trip’ through Ireland, two of us stopped last week on the way from Kilkenny to Wexford to visit some former Comerford family homes in Bunclody.

I had heard before about the private synagogue in Rainsford Lodge, but had never known how to arrange a visit. Last week, Joey Silver generously arranged for two of us to visit this synagogue in his house, close to the Newtownbarry estate of the Hall-Dare family.

The synagogue was first suggested after the blessing of a new Sunday School room in Bunclody (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Rainsford Lodge was built as a ‘hunting lodge’ on land acquired by Michael Rainsford from the Baltimore estate in Co Wexford in 1749. The first house on this site may have been built later in the 18th century, but the present house – a five-bay two-storey over part-raised basement – was built in 1834-1837 for Lieutenant William Ryland Rainsford (1776-1864).

Samuel Lewis described the house in 1837 as a ‘recently erected mansion,’ but it probably retains portions of the earlier house. The deliberate alignment of the house takes full advantage of the scenic vistas of the rolling grounds, with Mount Leinster and the Blackstairs Mountains providing a picturesque backdrop.

William Rainsford’s son, the Revd Marcus Ryland Rainsford (1821-1897), who was born at Rainsford Lodge, was Chaplain of the Molyneaux Chapel in Dublin, Rector of Armagh (1854-1866) and minister of the fashionable Belgrave Chapel, London (1866-1897). Three of his sons were Anglican priests, including Canon William Stephen (1850-1933), a friend of Roosevelt and Churchill, a canon of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York (1882-1906), and Rector of Saint George’s, Stuyvesant Square, New York.

A mezuzah at the door into Beth El (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Rainsford Lodge was later owned by the Levingstone family and then the Booth family. Brigadier John Roberts Booth (1901-1971) was a son of James Erskine Wise Booth (1862-1931) and Hilda Mary Hall-Dare (1871-1953) of Newtownbarry House, Bunclody. Through his father, Booth was related to both Robert Barton, a signatory of the Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921), and President Erskine Childers.

Booth was an officer in the Indian Army and fought in the North-West Frontier (1931) and in World War II (1939-1945). He was wounded three times, was mentioned in despatches twice and was DSO (1945) and bar (1945). He retired in 1948 and returned to Bunclody to live at Rainsford Lodge. His sister, Evelyn Mary Booth (1897-1988), has been described as ‘one of Ireland’s most loved and respected botanists.’ She designed the gardens at Lucy’s Wood in Bunclody, and was the author of The Flora of County Carlow.

Rainsford Lodge was also associated with the Guinness and O’Mahony families before it was bought in 1989 by Joey Silver, the Toronto-born collector.

He recalls how shortly after moving to Bunclody, the Revd Nigel Waugh, then the Rector of Bunclody, invited him to give a blessing on behalf of ‘the local Jewish Community’ at the rededication of the Sunday School Hall at Saint Mary’s Church.

An Orthodox siddur or prayer book is used in the synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

A local journalist interviewed him and later wrote that he was planning to build a synagogue at Rainsford Lodge. ‘All of a sudden, I received literally over 140 envelopes from non-Jews who wanted to donate to my synagogue construction!’

He was surprised by the donations from £5 to £50, amounting to over £1,300. In their generosity, local people ‘wanted to welcome a Jew to Ireland and to help me have a place to worship in my faith.’

But, at the time, he had no such plans. The then Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis advised him to call all the donors, thank them, and suggest giving the funds to an ecumenical charity. ‘Everyone agreed, except an elderly Quaker gentleman from Wexford town, who wanted his funds used in the synagogue.’

And so, work began on creating Beth El at Rainsford Lodge, the only synagogue in Co Wexford.

A tallit or prayer shawl available for visitors to Beth El (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

It was an ecumenical start for a project that reminded him of a story from his father’s village of Stopnica in Poland. There was a bad Spring flood in 1798, and the main synagogue got damaged. The local parish priest gave the Jewish community funds to restore it as a loan from the parish poor fund. A month later, the priest and the parish voted to turn the loan into a grant.

The Aron haKodesh or Ark for the Torah scroll and the Sefer Torah have been in place in Beth El since 2009. The Aron haKodesh is from Damascus, Syria, was bought in Jerusalem, shipped to Ireland, repaired and modified from a display case in Bunclody to become an ark.

The panels were painted by the artist Ilan Baruch from Israel, when he and his family stayed for 10 weeks on a painting visit and holiday.

The pews are from the Adelaide Road synagogue of the old Dublin Hebrew Congregation, which closed in 1999. They were made in the early 1890s as a gift to the synagogue when it opened in 1892 by Quaker carpenters, who also made the Bima and Aron haKodesh in Adelaide Road.

He reminds me of how Quakers also helped to build and furnish the Sephardi Bevis Marks Synagogue in London. Joseph Avis, a Quaker, built Bevis Marks in 1699-1701 at a cost of £2,650 but, according to legend, declined to collect his full fee, on the ground that it was wrong to profit from building a house of God.

The Bima or table for reading the Torah scroll was made by the late Joe Moran (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The carved decoration over the entrance door of two birds, with the gold Star of David on a dark green background, come from an Aron haKodesh that was once stolen from a synagogue in the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem in 1948.

On each of the pair of doors under the ‘Ark Crown’ is a carved Star of David that came from the ark doors in the former synagogue of the Cork Hebrew Congregation on Union Terrace, Cork, after it closed in 2016.

Two carpets with Hebrew inscriptions on the wall of the shul were bought in Jerusalem. Between the two carpets, one of the doors from the ark in the former synagogue in Cork provides a frame for an earlier parochet or ark curtain.

The late Joe Moran made the Bima or table for reading the Torah scroll from a Victorian table.

Psalm 121 quoted on a paper-cut by the artist Daniel Howarth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

A framed papercut work includes the Hebrew phrase:

.אֶשָּׂא עֵינַי, אֶל-הֶהָרִים, מֵאַיִן יָבֹא עֶזְרִי
(Esa einai el heharim, mei-ayin yavo ezri)
‘I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come?’

.עֶזְרִי מֵעִם יְהוָה עֹשֵׂה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ
(Ezri mei-im Adonai, oseh shamayim va’aretz)
‘My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.’ (Psalm 121: 1-2).

This piece is the work of the artist Daniel Howarth from Colorado, who has an Irish Catholic background. He was introduced to Judaism through paper-cut art, converted to Orthodox Judaism, married Debbie and had eight children. Howarth lived in the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem in the 1980s, but the background depicted in this work is the Colorado Rockies, not the Jerusalem Mountains – not even the Blackstairs Mountains.

The floor carpet was bought in Istanbul and was said to have come from an Armenian Church.

Kippot are available at the door – including one in the Wexford colours of purple and gold (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Beth El is an unaffiliated synagogue, and is usually open from late April to early September, although there may be some weeks when it is not available. It is a popular place to visit for Jews from the US and Israel.

Erev Shabbat and Shabbat Morning Services and Shabbat Mincha are conducted each week that the shul is open. Seating in general is mixed and davening or liturgical prayer uses an Orthodox Siddur or prayer book. Beth El has also been a venue for b'nai mitzvah. A strictly Orthodox service can be arranged with prior notification.

Visitors are advised to bring photographic ID, dress is smart casual but modest, men must always wear a kippa inside the shulkippot are available at the door – and mobile phones should be switched off.

It is essential that intending visitors to Beth El make contact before planning a visit.

The Aron haKodesh is from Damascus and the panels were painted by the artist Ilan Baruch (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)