Sunday, 3 April 2022
Searching for lost
religious heritage in
the lanes of Wexford
I lived in Wexford half a century ago, and ever since I have been fascinated by the town’s history and heritage, and by its church history.
However, the recent destruction Westgate House has raised about the loss in the near future of further key components of Wexford’s architectural heritage.
Ruins are a reminder
of a mediaeval parish
Walking along South Main Street during a recent visit to Wexford, I turned up steep, narrow Mann’s Lane, opposite Oyster Lane, and found myself halfway along Mary’s Lane. Here the lane curves in a semi-circle around the walls and ruins of mediaeval Saint Mary’s Church, one of the mediaeval churches within the walls of Wexford Town.
Mary’s Lane runs parallel to South Main Street, stretching from Peter Street to Bride Street, with the entrance to the ruins of Saint Mary’s Church at the southern end of the lane, close to the entrance at Bride Street.
The mediaeval Saint Mary’s parish was tine, covering a mere 4.5 ha (11 acres). The parish was bounded by Saint Patrick’s to the north, Saint Peter’s and Saint Bridget’s to the west, Saint Doologe’s to the south, and Wexford Harbour to the east. Its southern boundary was at Stonebridge. South Main Street, from Peter Street to Stonebridge runs through the centre of the former parish.
The first reference to Saint Mary’s Church is in 1365. It was said to have been one of the finest mediaeval churches in Wexford. It resembled neighbouring Saint Patrick’s Church in design, and though smaller was more beautiful in detail. Like Saint Patrick’s and Selskar Church, Saint Mary’s had a double nave. The capitals of the pillars, the mouldings of the arches, and the tracery of the widows were more ornamental than either Selskar or Saint Patrick’s.
Dr Nicholas French (1604-1678), Roman Catholic Bishop of Ferns (1645-1678), was the last Parish Priest of Saint Mary’s from 1638. Saint Mary’s was plundered and pillaged, profaned and destroyed by Cromwellian troops in 1649. French was not living in his house in Peter Street at the time, but was ill in New Ross. Finally, he was driven into exile in 1651.
In a letter, French described the attack on the priests, people and church of Saint Mary’s: ‘There before God’s Altar fell many sacred victims, holy priests of the Lord, others who were seized outside the precincts of the Church were scourged with whips; others hanged and others put to death by various cruel tortures.’
It is said the bell from Saint Mary’s was given to the Church of Ireland parish church in Castlebridge.
A century later, the artist Gabriel Beranger painted the interior of Saint Mary’s Church in 1779-1780. The ruined walls of Saint Mary’s continued to stand against wind and weather until 4 June 1822 when they were struck by a thunderbolt in a storm that raged over the town.
Today all that stands of Saint Mary’s is a single wall, a lonely sentinel guarding faithfully the tragic memories of the past. The locked gates of and churchyard stand at the top of a flight of stone steps.
A link with 1798 and
the Battle of Waterloo
Spawell Road was an early and elegant development of Georgian and Victorian homes to the west of Wexford’s town centre. But today the main house of the former Loreto Convent is a sorry sight on Spawell Road, surrounded by steel fencing and security notices.
This house, once known as Richmond House has historical associations with both the 1798 Rising and the Battle of Waterloo, and with the famous Lennox sisters.
The former Richmond House, which gives its name to later housing developments in the Spawell Road area, was first built in 1792 by Charles Lennox (1764-1819), who succeeded as the fourth Duke of Richmond in 1806.
He was a nephew of the Lennox sisters, four 18th century aristocrats who inspired Stella Tillyard’s book and the six-part BBC mini-series Aristocrats: Lady Caroline Fox (1723-1774), 1st Baroness Holland, Lady Emily FitzGerald (1731-1814), Duchess of Leinster, Lady Louisa Conolly (1743-1821) of Castletown House, Co Kildare, and Lady Sarah Napier (1745-1826) of Celbridge House, Co Kildare.
This means the future duke who built Richmond House six years before the 1798 Rising, was a first cousin of both Lord Edward FitzGerald, one of the leading figures in the United Irishmen, and General Sir Charles James Napier (1782-1853), famous as the captor of Sindh but also Governor of Kephalonia – ‘Captain Corelli’s’ island – and a leading Philhellene during the Greek War of Independence in the mid-19th century.
Charles Lennox became the 4th Duke of Richmond in 1806 after the death of his uncle, Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond. Later, he was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1807 to 1813.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Richmond was in command of a force that was protecting Brussels in case Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. On the night before the Battle of Quatre Bras, his wife – the former Lady Charlotte Gordon – held a ball for his fellow officers. The glittering celebration became famous as the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball and is referred to by William Makepeace Thackeray in Vanity Fair and by Lord Byron in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
Richmond became Governor General of Canada in 1818. But his time there was cut short unexpectedly. He was on a tour of Canada in 1819 when he was bitten on the hand by a fox. He continued on the tour, but rabies and he died 28 August 1819. He was buried at Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral in Quebec.
In the Victorian era, Richmond House was the home of William White (1803-1865) and later of Alderman John Greene JP (1803-1890), seven times Mayor of Wexford and founder of the Wexford Independent. The Loreto nuns moved into Richmond House in 1886, and their school grew up around the house.
Until recently, the original house was well maintained. But the future of Richmond House on Spawell Road now looks uncertain.
Jew’s Bridge and
the oldest bridge
As I wondered about the architectural heritage of Wexford, I also wondered about whether the town had a Jewish heritage too. Stonebridge once marked the mediaeval boundary of Saint Mary’s and Saint Doologe’s. Although it no longer survives, it was once the oldest bridge in the town and was known as Jew’s Bridge in 1764.
I wondered whether it was known as Jew’s Bridge because a Jewish merchant of possible Sephardic descent, had moved to Wexford in the 1750 or 1760s, and had lived at this end of South Main Street, close to the Quays and Stonebridge Castle.
The original bridge at Stonebridge at Stonebridge was built over the Bishopswater River, and probably marked the northern gate of the earliest Norse or Viking settlement at Wexford. A fading plaque on the shopfront of a former picture framing business recalls that the Stonebridge dated back to the Norse period. Norse and mediaeval fishing fleets berthed in the estuary below the bridge. It is recorded that in 1172, King Henry II paid £45 for Wexford fish.
Later, the bridge was built in stone, and became known as Stonebridge and the Bridge of Wexford.
The first recorded murder or manslaughter in Wexford town took place at Stonebridge in mid-afternoon 25 February 1560. A quarrel broke out between Thomas Walsh a shoemaker, and Geoffrey Brian, a mariner. The insults led to blows being exchanged, before Brian stabbed Walsh below the chest.
Stonebridge Castle was also known as Stafford’s Castle, and was owned by James Stafford, the man blamed in tradition for betraying Wexford to Cromwell.
At one time, Stonebridge was known as Wexford Bridge. But, for some unknown, perhaps even inexplicable, reason, it was known as Jew’s Bridge in 1764.
Meanwhile, Stonebridge Castle, which became a gaol in 1665, was used to hold prisoners during the 1798 Rising. A new gaol was built at Spawell Road in 1812, and Stonebridge Castle became a ‘Lunatic Asylum’ and a ‘house of industry’ for vagrants and prostitutes, where the inmates were used to clean the streets of the town.
Stonebridge Castle was eventually demolished in 1866 to provide land for development along the quays.
Stonebridge Lane is also known as Sinnott’s Place and Larkin Lane. For generations, the large stone buildings in this area once housed malt stores, coal depots and timber yards. The lane leads from the corner of South Main Street to Paul’s Quay, between the Talbot Stonebridge Apartments and the Talbot Hotel.
The Stonebridge apartments on Paul’s Quay were built originally in 2008 as a lavish, 73-apartment complex. But the economic crash struck, the building never opened for use, and the apartments lay vacant for eight years until they were bought for redevelopment by the Talbot Hotel group, and are now known as the Talbot Suites at Stonebridge.
However, I can find no documentary evidence of even a small Jewish community in Wexford in the mid-18th century, and certainly no evidence of a synagogue in the town.
This two-page feature was first published in April 2022 in the Church Review, the Dublin and Glendalough diocesan magazine