29 October 2016

Visiting Wexford’s new library for
the first time since it opened

Wexford County Library in Mallin Street in the afternoon autumn sunshine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

It is almost four years since Brendan Howlin opened the new County Library in Wexford. I once lived just a few steps from this magnificent building when it was a humble car park. But my friend Celestine Murphy, editor of the Journal of the Wexford Historical Society, offered me my first guided tour of the Library while I was in Wexford yesterday [28 October 2016], and showed me the stunning views across the town and out into the Wexford countryside.

It is a striking steel and glass structure on a landmark site. But before it opened, the new library was the subject of some controversy, with critics pointing out that it stands immediately inside Wexford’s old town wall and one of its mediaeval square towers.

But looking down on the walls and its towers, the site of the former Saint John’s Gate and across the town to Selskar Abbey, I was convinced that this bright, light-filled complements the historic features of the townscape. To have left the vacant lot in Mallin Street (Back Street) behind Rowe Street Church would have been poor taste when it comes to urban planning and design.

Planners and local authority figures in Wexford hope the new library will stand at the epicentre of a linear ‘cultural spine’ parallel to Main Street, with the Opera House in High Street, where I lived in the mid-1970s, at one end and Selskar Abbey at the other end, and the new library and the neighbouring Art Centre in Cornmarket forming the core.

Looking across the roofs of Wexford Town from the Library to Selskar Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The library replaces temporary premises in McCauley’s car park off Redmond Square. Before that, the library spent some time in what is now the foyer and the Library Bar area in Clayton White’s Hotel, while the Archives and Local Studies section was based across Wexford Bridge in Ardcavan, on the other side of the River Slaney.

Indeed, since it was first established in 1926, the library has moved six times. Wexford Library was originally established as the Book Repository on North Main Street in 1923. In 1928, it moved to Custom House Quay; then in 1934 to the second floor of the then renovated County Hall.

In the 1960s, the facilities relocated to a prefab on the grounds of the County Hall at Hill Street, before moving again to Abbey Street in what is Clayton Whites Hotel and then to premises off Redmond Square.

The library is organised into three zones. The ground floor offers a meeting area, daily newspapers, a print point, express PCs and popular adult non-fiction materials. Family and leisure use is centred on the middle floor which carries the children’s library, teens stock, DVDs, CDs, graphic novels and adult fiction.

The more serious top floor has the e-learning suite, another print point, research services and borrowing stock in economics, enterprise, education, languages, literature, history, Wexford studies and geography. Throughout the building, there is Wi-Fi access.

Mythen Construction was appointed by the National Housing Agency to build this landmark 1,680 sq m public building project. The project was extremely challenging from a technical and logistical perspective as the building took up the entire curtilage of the town centre site. A patio area by the old town wall can be used for book launches and similar events.

This beautiful new library fits in with the narrow street and sits comfortably with the church spire of Rowe Street Church, while the site retains a portion of the old town wall. In 2013, it was shortlisted for the Irish Building and Design Awards.

The library is closed today for this bank holiday weekend [29 to 31 October 2016], but reopens on Tuesday [1 November 2016] as usual at 10.30 am.

Wexford Arts Centre in Cornmarket … first built as the town’s Market House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Close to the new library, a little further along Wexford’s ‘cultural spine,’ the Arts Centre has its home in the Market House in Cornmarket, built by Wexford Corporation in 1772-1776.

The lower windows that can be seen originally today arched recesses for the traders, a reminder of its original use as the town’s market house days. Inside, there was a magnificent ballroom and supper room upstairs.

The founder of the Methodists, John Wesley, preached here when he visited and he recorded in his journal that it was one of the best public rooms he had ever spoken in. Later, the Brunswick Club was formed here in 1882.

Following renovation, the Assembly Rooms as they were also known were a popular venue for lectures and musical evenings well into the 20th century and people such as Percy French, composer of The Mountains of Mourne and other popular songs appeared on a number of occasions.

It became the headquarters of Wexford Corporation in the early 20th century and was known as the Town Hall. It opened its doors as the Wexford Arts Centre in 1974 and has been providing art and has been a cultural centre in the town ever since.

As we looked down on the Market House from the top floor of the library in the sunshine yesterday afternoon, Celestine pointed out that High Street, Mallin Street and Abbey Street provided the Main Street and artery of the old walled town, and offered the opinion that Cornmarket, and nor the neighbouring Bull Ring was the scene for Cromwell’s massacre in Wexford in the mid-17th century.

Ominously, the sign over Con Macken’s Bar, also known as the Cape Bar, includes the words ’Bar,’ ‘Undertaker’ and ‘Spirits’ – harkening back to the day when this pub, linking the Bull Ring and Cornmarket, was a place where many could truly sing, ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die.’

The sign over Con Macken’s Bar in the Bull Ring in Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

A hidden church on Powerscourt Estate
has a story that goes back for centuries

The ruins of the old church of Stagonil, hidden behind a high wall in Powerscourt Estate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Behind a large wall on the Powercourt Estate, covered in ivy and hidden behind large trees, the ruins of Stagonil Church go unnoticed by the daily throng of visitors and tourists.

As I peered behind these walls last Saturday [22 October 2016], I could see the ruined church of Stagonil, a reminder of a church with a story that goes back long before the arrival of the Anglo-Normans for almost 1,000 years, and of a lost village that survived until the Wingfield family built Enniskerry as an estate village for their tenants and workers in the mid-19th century.

From the eighth century on, on the southerly edges of an area ruled by the family of Macgiolla Mocolmog, a Danish or Viking settlement developed where three rivers meet, the Dargle, Glencree and Annacrevy. Some say this settlement was named Stagonil or Tigh Chonaill, the House of Conall; others say its name is derived from Gunhild, a prominent Viking woman in the area.

The competing claims of a Viking and a Gaelic settlement are legacies that harken back to a time when the early priests in Stagonil were appointed by the Danish Bishops of Dublin, but the Irish Bishops of Glendalough continued to claim the church lands.

The Abbey of Saint Thomas à Becket was founded in Dublin after the arrival of the Anglo-Normans. In 1216, about 10 years after their marriage, Basilia and Richard de Cogan granted all their lands in the Bray area to the Abbey of Saint Thomas. Their lands adjoining the king’s manor of Obrun included the village of Stagonil. All traces of the village have disappeared, although the ruins of the early church dedicated to Saint Beccan are at Churchtown, above the north bank of the Dargle, near the Annacrevy gate.

As early as 1192, the first Anglo-Norman Archbishop of Dublin linked this church with Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and from 1303 until 1874 one of the prebendaries or canons of Saint Patrick’s also served as the Rector of Stagonil, and later of Powerscourt.

There was a weekly fair in Stagonil on Saturdays, and Henry III granted the profits of the fair to the Archbishop of Dublin, as well as the village, which was surrounded by the archbishop’s farmlands. The Archbishop leased a farm to the Le Poer family of Balytenyth Castle, which became their demesne lands, which eventually became known as Powerscourt, although Stagonil retained in its name.

From 1303, the parish was served by the Prebendaries of Stagonil in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, when Archbishop Richard de Feringes made Stagonil a distinct prebend, although few of the name of the prebendaries (nine in all) survive for the period leading up to the suppression of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in 1547.

The connection with Saint Patrick’s Cathedral resumed in 1555 when the cathedral received a new charter. When Sir Richard Wingfield acquired the Powerscourt estate, he rebuilt the castle as his manor house at Powerscourt, and in 1603 he built a new church for the parish of Stagonil alongside the castle.

When Lancelot Bulkeley, Archbishop of Dublin (1619-1650), held a visitation of his diocese, his returns showed that the parish of Stagonil was flourishing.

Sir Richard Wingfield, to whom Viscount Powerscourt left his property in 1634, died only four years after his succession, and was followed by his son, another Richard, then aged 17. When Elizabeth Folliot, widow of Sir Richard Wingfield, was an elderly widow, she left a graceful flagon of Irish silver to the church in 1704 for use at the Holy Communion.

The minutes of the parish vestry for the period 1695-1807 almost coincide with the time between the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. They include churchwarden’s accounts, details of parish spending, the cost of recasting the bell in 1723, and of the arrangements for policing the two Constablewicks of Powerscourt and Kilmacanogue.

An early Prebendary and Rector of Stagonil at this time was Canon Theophilus Bolton, who was incumbent in 1707-1714. But he probably spent little time in Powerscourt, paying a curate in fill his responsibilities in the parish while he benefitted from the prebendal tithes. Like many of the rectors at the time, Stagonil was a stepping stone to higher ambitions, and he later became Bishop of Clonfert and then Bishop of Elphin before becoming Archbishop of Cashel (1730-1744). He gave his name to the Bolton Library in Cashel.

Edward Synge, who was Rector in 1715-1719, was later successively Bishop of Clonfert (1730-1732), Cloyne (1732-1734), Ferns (1734-1740), and Elphin (1740-1762). Francis Corbet (1723-1727) became Dean of of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral (1747-1775)

Richard Wingfield, 1st Viscount Powerscourt of the third creation, commissioned the German-born architect Richard Cassel to build Powerscourt House in 1729-1743. At the same time, Francis Corbet’s successor, Canon John Towers was the Prebendary of Stagonil (1727-1746), and he leased property at Cookstown until his death in 1751. Jonathan Swift, the Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, had a summer holiday with the Towers family at Cookstown.

The vestry minutes show that the old church was rebuilt considerably after Canon Michael Sandys was appointed Rector and Prebendary of Stagonil in 1775. He remained in the parish for almost 40 years until 1814.

Henry Grattan (1746-1820), the patriot constitutional politician who lived in Tinnehinch House, Enniskerry, was a churchwarden in the parish in 1793. The vestry records for 1796-1807 also show how the residents were obliged to raise money to fund the Wicklow Militia in the aftermath of the French Revolution in 1789 and the 1798 Rising in Ireland.

Sandys was succeeded by Robert Daly (1814-1842) a noted Irish scholar and later Bishop of Cashel (1843-1872). In Daly’s time, over £1,000 was spent on repairs to the old church, and the old glebe house, Annacrevy Schoolhouse and the parochial hall were also built.

The village of Enniskerry, built in the 1820s and 1830s, and the Town Clock erected in 1843 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

During Daly’s time too, Richard Wingfield, the fifth Viscount Powerscourt, welcomed King George IV to Powerscourt in 1821, and the present village of Enniskerry was built just before his death in 1823. His son erected the Town Clock in 1843 to commemorate the centenary of the third version of the Powerscourt titles given to the Wingfield family in 1743.

Until the mid-19th century, the church at Stagonil had congregations of up to 200. This probably included the Powerscourt tenants, but also tenants of the Earl of Meath, for Great and Little Kilruddery were part of the parish until Disestablishment. After the railway line between Dublin and Bray opened in 1851, new churches were needed in the neighbourhood, so Kilbride Church was consecrated in 1859 and Christ Church, Bray, was consecrated in 1863.

Meanwhile, with the building of the village of Enniskerry, many of the residents could only go to church in Stagonil in the grounds of the Powerscourt Demesne in the evening and with difficulty. In 1857 Elizabeth, Marchioness of Londonderry and widow of Richard Wingfield, the 6th Viscount Powerscourt, offered the parish the present of a new church as a parting gift as she handed the estate over to her son on his 21st birthday.

Mervyn Edward Wingfield, the 7th Viscount Powerscourt (1844-1904), laid the foundation stone of this new church with a mallet and trowel of Wicklow silver on the day he came of age in October 1857. The project for a new church coincided with an extensive renovation programme that also established the Italian gardens at Powerscourt.

The church cost £3,441 9s 2d to build, and was built to seat 350, although it was criticised for being too small. The consecration was delayed because the Ecclesiastical Commissioners were not satisfied with the slated spire. They refused to accept delivery from the architect, John Norton (1823-1904) of London, until a copper spire had been erected. This spire, in its turn, had to be renewed in 1929 at a cost of £1,300, because its wooden frame had perished.

The English architect John Norton (1823-1904) designed country houses, churches and commercial buildings. He was born in Bristol and became a pupil of Benjamin Ferrey (1810-1880), a close friend of Augustus Pugin (1812-1852), who was inspired by the Gothic mediaeval styles of the pre-Reformation era.

Ferrey’s friendship with Pugin had a profound effect on Norton, who adopted Pugin’s principles in his own church designs. Pugin died in 1852 when Norton was not yet 30. He embarked on a succession of Gothic revivalist designs for parish churches.

It was said that of Norton’s work that he ‘combined the Gothic beauty of holiness with a reverence for nature. He created domestic architecture based on the recent collegiate buildings in Oxford. Suddenly, too, the tenets of Ruskin and Pugin have become transfixed in stone.’

Despite the delay in consecration, the church was opened for evening worship in 1860 at a service at which the preacher was Francis Thomas McDougall (1817-1886), Bishop of Labuan and Sarawak, an SPG (USPG) missionary. When the day came for the consecration of the church three years later, Archbishop Whately was dying, and so the church was consecrated by his friend, William Fitzgerald (1814-1883), Bishop of Killaloe, on 15 September 1863.

The Pepperpot Tower was built in the Powerscourt Estate in 1911 with stones from the old church of Stagonil (Photogtpgraph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The old church of Stagonil fell out of use after 1863, but two large vaults, one in the church and one in churchyard, were provided for Lady Verner in 1867. When the Church of Ireland was disestablished two years later in 1869, Lord Powerscourt claimed the old church and the surrounding churchyard. Since then, only families with a traditional right to be buried next to the old church within the demesne could claim burial rights there. Some of the stones from the old church were purloined by the Powerscourt family and used in 1911 to build the Pepperpot Tower nearby to commemorate a visit by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, who abdicated and became the Duke of Windsor.

The Powerscourt family memorials were moved from the old church to Saint Patrick’s Church in 1918. Saint Patrick’s Church has since remained substantially unaltered, although the organ was moved to the north transept and the chancel was altered in 1919. Mervyn Richard Wingfield, the 8th Viscount Powerscourt, gave the lectern later donated the pulpit in 1932 in memory of his parents.

The copper spire, that had delayed the consecration of the church, was in turn replaced in 1929 at a cost of £1,300, after its wooden frame had perished. In 1946 Lord Powerscourt and Colonel Riall presented the choir stalls. The prayer desks were given in 1932 by Lord Monck in memory of his grandparents. In 1957, the parish of Kilbride, Bray, was united with Powercourt.

The rectors or curates-in-charge since 1874 have been Archdeacon Henry Galbraith (1874), the Revd John Newcombe (1905), who died in office, the Revd Henry Mecredy (1907), who also died in office, Canon James Alcock (1924), the Revd Mervyn Byrn (1934), Canon John Murray (1949), Canon Ivan Kirkpatrick (1953), Canon Albert Stokes (1956), Canon Raymond Smith (1987) and Archdeacon Ricky Rountree (1997), the present rector who is also Archdeacon of Glendalough.

As for the prebendal stall with the name of Stagonil in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, this is now assigned to the Diocese of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory, and since 2013 has been held by Canon Patrick Harvey, Rector of Abbeyleix.

Saint Patrick's Church, Powerscourt, was built in 1857-1863 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)