04 February 2021

A Wexford family history
features on RTÉ and makes
a ‘Nationwide’ publisher

Helen Skrine’s book on the Boxwell family and the publisher Michael Freeman featured on RTÉ’s ‘Nationwide’ this week

Patrick Comerford

When I was living in High Street, Wexford, Michael Freeman regularly called round, and I remember late night discussions about John Robinson’s Honest to God and Teilhard de Chardin’s theology.

At the time, he was involved in Macra na Feirme and I was working as a journalist with the Wexford People group of newspapers. He too became a journalist, and now he is a leading Wexford publisher, based in Rosslare, Co Wexford.

It was a delight to see Michael taking part in the RTÉ news magazine, Nationwide, earlier this week (1 February 2021), when it featured The Boxwells of Butlerstown Castle, the 200-page memoir about the Boxwell by Helen Skrine, a descendant of the Boxwell family. This is one of two books that arrived in the post unexpectedly a few weeks ago from Michael Freeman.

Michael is the publisher this book, edited by Helen’s daughter, Anna Skrine Brunton, and the programme was filmed in Butlerstown House, near Tacumshane, Co Wexford.

Helen Skrine (94) was secretary and later president of the Wexford Historical Society for some years in the 1980s. She wrote this book over a 30-year period, and in descriptive, colourful, and entertaining prose she tells of her experiences, and the history of her family in the 1798 Rising, the War of Independence, and the bleak 1950s.

The Boxwells are one among the families that for hundreds of years have owned castles in Co Wexford and have influenced social, political, economic and cultural change across the world.

The Bowxwells have lived for centuries at Butlerstown House and Butlerstown Castle, just a mile or two away from two other castles linked with the Boxwell family, Bargy Castle and Lingstown Castle. This is a fascinating memoir of the Boxwell family, which came England in the 1600s and settled in Co Wexford. She tells the story that is sometimes tragic and often-times funny.

She charts the contribution of members of the Boxwell family to government, medicine, sport, community and even rebellion, through war and peace to the present day.

Butlerstown Castle, like Ballybur Castle in Co Kilkenny, had its origins as a tower house, ‘a modest affair aimed not at warmongering or at display of power and wealth, but merely at survival, for defence in a hostile and embittered environment.’

The so-called ‘English’ baronies of Forth and Bargy in Co Wexford became more thickly populated with castles than any other part of Ireland. They included Bargy Castle built by the Rossiters, Lingstown Castle built by the Lamberts, Ballycogley Castle, built by the Waddings, and Butlerstown Castle, near Tomhaggard, built for the Butlers of Mountgarret, and with views north to Forth Mountain, west to the Comeragh Mountains in Co Waterford, and south to the Saltee Islands.

Helen traces the Boxwell family back to John Boxall or Boxwell of New College, Oxford, a favourite of Queen Mary, and John Boxwell (1614-1677) of Wootton Bassett, and a third John Boxwell who moved from Wootton Bassett to Co Wexford in the late 17th century.

For many people in Co Wexford, the Boxwell family is best-known for the close family relationship that links John Boxwell, John’s brother-in-law John Colclough and John’s cousin, Beauchamp Bagenal Harvey, the three key figures in the 1798 Rising in Wexford.

But she also tells the stories of colourful family members, including Susan Boxwell the artist; John Boxwell, Governor of Dhaka, now the capital of Bangladesh; William Boxwell, President of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland; and Colonel Ambrose Boxwell of the Indian army.

There are honeymoons in Rome and Athens, tennis in Assam, Bengal and Chittagong, hunting with the Killinick Harriers, polo in Malaysia and a connection with Chris de Burgh. There are stories that take the reader to South Africa and Brazil, and of coffee in White’s Hotel, the Opera Festival in Wexford, and starting an arts centre in the Old Town Hall in Cornmarket.

There are intriguing connections with the Elgee family from Wexford and Oscar Wilde; with Whitley Stokes and William Stokes, pioneers in medicine; with Percy French; and through her mother with the St Leger family of Doneraile. And there is the story a ‘visit’ to Bargy Castle by the IRA during a Christmas party at the height of the Irish Civil War.

In addition, 16 family trees help guide the reader labyrinthine details of the different branches Boxwell family tree, with the many intermarriages within the Boxwell family, the details of kinship with other kindred families, including the Harveys, the MacMurroughs Kavanaghs and the St Legers, and extensions of the family to Abbeyleix, Liverpool and Brazil.

The cover photographs are by Jim Campbell and Ger Lawlor, while many of the photographs inside this generously illustrated book are by Ger Lawlor, Helen’s son-in-law Simon de Courcy Wheeler and Pat O’Connor.

The programme this week featured Michael Freeman and Helen Skrine’s friend Maeve Davison of Bargy Castle, mother of the singer-songwriter Chris de Burgh.

Michael Freeman is from Glynn, Co Wexford. He lived in Dublin for many years, working as a freelance journalist, a press officer for Macra na Feirme and in PR and publishing. He returned to Wexford with his wife Brigid in 2005 and now lives in Rosslare.

A suggestion by the Wexford historian and author Nicky Furlong led him to set up Three Sisters Press, and the first book he published was volume five of Nicky’s Wexford in the Rare Auld Times. Other books from Three Sisters Press include Sailor, Airman, Spy, Memoir of a Cold War Veteran by Ted Hayes (2018).

Perhaps, after this week’s programme on RTÉ, he can be regarded as truly ‘Nationwide’ publisher.

Helen Skrine’s book on the Boxwell family was a recent welcome gift in the post (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Patrick’s Church: at
the end of High Street, Wexford,
‘almost at the end of the world’

Saint Patrick’s Church, Wexford … the best preserved of the old church ruins and sites in Wexford Town (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

When I was living on High Street, Wexford, in the early 1970s, the street was ‘bookended’ by two churches at one end and church ruins at the other end: Rowe Street Church, or the Church of the Immaculate Conception, and the Methodist Church on Rowe Street at the north or west end, and the ruins of the mediaeval Saint Patrick’s Church fronting onto Saint Patrick’s Square at the south or east end of the street.

In between these three churches was the former Quaker meeting house, which by then had been closed for almost half a century and was being used as a band room.

Saint Patrick’s is one of the best preserved of the ruined mediaeval churches in Wexford, and its walls form one side of Saint Patrick’s, which remains a quiet and quaint corner in the narrow streets of the old town, near the top of Allen Street and Patrick’s Lane and sloe to the top of Keyser’s Lane.

Saint Patrick’s Church was one of the five parishes that existed inside the walls of Norse-Irish town of Wexford. It is said that as a building the church was a miniature reproduction of the abbey church in Selskar, without the tower.

Norse Wexford contained the parishes of Saint Doologue’s, Saint Mary’s, and Saint Patrick’s, and just outside the town were the churches of the Holy Trinity, Saint Michael’s, Saint Bridget’s and Saint Peter’s. Similar church dedications can be found in the other Norse towns: Dublin, for example, has dedications to Saint Brigit, Saint Michael, Saint Patrick, Saint Olave (Saint Doulagh), Saint Mary and the Church of the Holy Trinity (Christ Church Cathedral).

Following the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in the 12th century, more churches were built in Wexford: Saint Selskar’s, Saint Iberius’s, Saint John’s and the church of the Franciscan Friary.

By then, there were five churches within the walled town of Wexford, and a further six churches outside the town walls. This complex system of churches and parishes was the result of Anglo-Norman additions to the network of churches already built by the Norse. This large number of churches in Wexford town contrasts sharply with other Anglo-Norman towns, which were generally based on just one parish.

Of these 11 church sites, the ruins of mediaeval churches or graveyards can be seen at Saint Patrick’s, Saint Mary’s, Saint John’s, Saint Michael’s of Feigh, and Selskar Abbey. Saint Iberius’s Church on North Main Street and the present Franciscan Friary church are reputed to stand on the sites of earlier buildings.

However, the precise locations of Saint Doologue’s Church and of Holy Trinity Church are not known and there are no visible remains today of either Saint Peter’s or Saint Bridget’s.

Saint Patrick’s Church stood at the south end of the mediaeval town and part of the town wall also formed the boundary wall of the church and churchyard. This is the largest pre-Cromwellian Church in Wexford town and, alongside Selskar Abbey, it is the best preserved of the old church ruins and sites in Wexford Town.

The earliest parts of the church date from the 12th or 13th century, and the chancel or east end appears to be much older than the double nave or west end. The chancel may have been the original, smaller church, with the nave added at a later period. An arcade of four arches once separated the nave and the chancel.

The chancel arch is worth noting. The arches, the mullioned windows and the belfries are still almost perfect.

This church had an unusual feature with a belfry at both gable ends. There is a double bellcote over the west gable and another over the chancel arch at the east. The bell over the entrance served to call people to church; the other bell, over the high altar, held the ‘Sanctus Bell’ that was rung during the most solemn moments of the Mass.

Saint Patrick’s Church, like Saint Doologue’s, is said to have belonged to the Augustinian community of Selskar Abbey. but little is known of its early history. It may have served as a parish church, as priests from religious houses often took charge of liturgy and pastoral care in mediaeval parishes.

The ruins of Saint Patrick’s Church … why was it described as a cathedral in 1543? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There is an amusing entry in the Papal records in 1355 referring to Wexford ‘which is almost at the end of the world in Ireland.’

The first reference to a separate priest identifiable with Saint Patrick’s Church is in 1420, when Henry Meyler was the Vicar. At the beginning of the Tudor Reformation in Ireland, the Revd John Heztherne was the Vicar of Saint Patrick’s in 1543, when Francis Canton is named as the chaplain of the Chantry of ‘the Cathedral Church of Saint Patrick’s, Wexford,’ and Nicholas Hay as a Proctor of the Chantry.

Why was Saint Patrick’s named as a cathedral in the 1540s?

Saint Edan’s Cathedral in Ferns was regularly attacked and burned during the late Middle Ages, and the Bishops of Ferns lived not at Ferns but at Fethard Castle, where they owned the manor, and also owned Mountgarret Castle near New Ross.

Bishop John Devereux, who died in 1578, and Bishop Nicholas Stafford, who died in 1604, were buried in Saint Mary’s Church in Wexford; Bishop Robert Grave drowned in Dublin Bay in 1600 shortly after his consecration while he was on his way home to Wexford; and Bishop Thomas Ram was the Rector of Wexford while he was also the Bishop of Ferns (1605-1634).

It may be that in the decades immediately after the Reformation, Saint Patrick’s Church in Wexford served the Church of Ireland Bishops of Ferns as their de facto cathedral. This may explain why Bishop Ram proposed moving the see from Ferns to either Wexford or New Ross in the early 17th century.

Some accounts say the church was in ruins in 1603, but it was certainly standing in 1615, when there were 20 church in the town, and Saint Patrick’s, including the church and chancel were in good repair.

At the time, Bishop Ram was the rector, William Re… was the vicar, and there was a ‘Prelection in Theology’ attached to the church, qualibet septimana prelecta, giving lectures every week.

A clay rampart in the vicinity of the church was a defensive structure built to help defend the site against Oliver Cromwell’s cannons in 1649. During the Cromwellian era, the Revd Robert Hobbs, the Revd Thomas Dancer and the Revd Edward Dancer were the Commonwealth or Puritan ministers attached to Wexford. Following the Caroline restoration, the Church of Ireland parishes, including Saint Patrick’s were united in one union.

Allen Street, leading up from South Main Street to Saint Patrick’s Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It is not clear when Saint Patrick’s finally closed, but it may have been sometimes after the 1660s and certainly by the 1680s. Although Canon Alexander Allen was appointed Rector and Vicar of Saint Mary’s and Saint Peter’s in 1688, he seems to have used Saint Iberius’s Church as his main parish church, holding daily services there.

The sale of Saint Patrick’s Glebe in 1821 was used to fund building a parish school in Saint Patrick’s Square. The parish school moved to new premises on Davitt Road in 1963.

The graveyard contains the mass graves of people killed when Cromwell sacked the town in October 1649, and is also the burial place for many of the dead of both sides in the 1798 Rising.

Many of the dead of the North Cork Militia were buried close to the main gate of the churchyard. This was also the burial place for the head of John Henry Colclough, who was executed on 28 June 1798.

After the Rising collapsed, Colclough and his wife Elizabeth (Berry), fled with Beauchamp Bagenal Harvey. During this attempt to flee to France, they were betrayed by a local farmer while they were hiding on the Saltee Islands. After their arrest, they were returned to Wexford Town and were hanged on Wexford Bridge.

Afterwards, their heads were severed and displayed on pikes. During the night, a group of people recovered Colclough’s head and brought it to Saint Patrick’s churchyard. His body was never found.

Although the gates of the church remain closed, it is possible to catch a glimpse of the ruins of the church through the gates, as well as the scattered gravestones that surround it.

The walls of Saint Patrick’s churchyard and Saint Patrick’s Square … the parish school remained here until 1963 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)