Saturday, 19 January 2019
Saint Iberius: the church
at the heart of Wexford
is a Georgian gem
I could not leave Wexford this week without visiting Saint Iberius Church on North Main Street, praying for a time, and remembering the hospitality and friendship of previous rectors, including Canon Eddie Grant and Canon Norman Ruddock.
The exterior is in the 19th-century Venetian Renaissance style that was influenced by the architectural school inspired by John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice. Inside, the church has a sumptuous late Georgian interior, built in 1760-1766, by John Roberts (1712-1796), who also designed the two cathedrals in Waterford, Christ Church (Church of Ireland) and Holy Trinity (Roman Catholic), as well as the Bishop’s Palace and City Hall.
The Church of Saint Iberius stands on the ancient site of Saint Ibar’s Churrch. Iberius is the Latin form of the name of Saint Ibar, who first brought Christianity to this part of Ireland, and built an oratory on the site.
Saint Iberius founded a monastery on the island of Beg Erin in the mouth of the Slaney in the fifth century (ca 420), long before the Vikings settled at Weissfiord. He died in 500 and his feastday was celebrated on 23 April.
By the beginning of the 17th century, there were 20 churches in Wexford Town, including Saint John’s, the only one with a steeple, and Saint Patrick’s, which had been described once in the previous century as a cathedral.
The present building at Saint Iberius Church probably dates from 1660 or shortly after the restoration of Charles II. Later, in 1690, the Rector of Saint Iberius, the Revd Alexander Allen, accused the Mayor of Wexford, Edward Wiseman, of inciting vandals to demolish the altar and pews in the church, and of stealing the vestments and church books.
The church was rebuilt and redesigned in Georgian fashion in the 1760s by the Waterford-born architect John Roberts. Archdeacon Charles Huson, who was the Rector Wexford at the time, is buried in the graveyard at the back of the church in one of only three graves there.
Saint Iberius is perhaps the most important contribution to 18th century church architecture in Co Wexford by John Roberts.
The church stands on the site of an earlier church, which can be seen in the rectangular shape of the site that is wide but shallow. The shape of the church inside is a spreading rectangle, long at the sides, with a gallery above.
This is a five-bay, double-height church, built in 1760-1776, on a cruciform plan centred on a three-bay double-height pedimented breakfront, with a single-bay, three-stage tower on a square plan supporting an octagonal spire. The five-bay full-height elevation at the east side is centred on a three-bay, full-height bow on a segmental plan.
Today, that original cruciform shape is difficult to discern, but it probably can be observed from above. The hipped slate roof is shaped on a cruciform plan centred on the pitched and gabled slate roof.
The chancel in the bowed east end has carpeted steps and balustraded serpentine communion rails, moved from Saint George’s Church, Hardwicke Place, Dublin, in 1990. The apse features a round-headed tripartite arcade on composite pillars framing the timber altar below. The three large windows above the altar allow light stream into the church.
The features in the delicate, decorative rococo and stucco plasterwork include classical designs, urns, leaves, lyres and cherubim.
The Gothic-style pulpit on the south side of the chancel is a memorial to parishioners who died in World War I and World War II.
On the north side of the chancel, the Gothic-style prayer desk was erected by parishioners in 1930 in memory of Dr Thomas Dowse.
The cut-veined white marble classical-style font is placed in the central aisle.
The cast-iron bell dated 1816 was placed at the north end of the church in 2014 and is rung at the Christmas Eve Carol Service.
A Kawai grand piano stands to the side of the altar, close to the pulpit. It was won by a Russian pianist who was taking part in a competition in Ireland. He could not afford to bring it back to Russia, so he sold it to the church. Wexford Festival Opera and Music for Wexford held a concert in the Theatre Royal to raise the funds to buy it, and John O’Conor played at its inauguration in 1996.
The wooden stairs lead up to the gallery, where the organ, built by Bishop & Son of London, was installed in 1893. The wooden pews and the monuments in the gallery bear the names of prominent local families: Boxwell, Doran, Colclough, Hatton, Hughes, Jacob, Meadows, Perceval …
A reclaimed painted window in the gallery recalls the original appearance of the street frontage as ‘a building of strong and comparatively plain appearance in the Doric style of architecture … consisting of a slightly projecting centre and two wings [each entered] by a door approached by a couple of steps from a platform that extends before the entire front of the building.’
The church was refronted ca 1882, producing the present composition. The symmetrical frontage centres on the pedimented breakfront. The windows facing North Main Street have uniform proportions on each floor and polychromatic brick work. The arcade recalls the Roberts-designed cathedrals in Waterford.
The tower and the polygonal spire show how the development of the church continued in the later in the 19th century.
The East Window (1867) in 13th-century French Gothic-style commemorates the Revd Richard Waddy Elgee, who died in 1865, a reminder of Oscar Wilde’s family connections with the church.
Oscar Wilde’s father, the surgeon Sir William Wilde, married Jane Elgee, was the poet Speranza, in the church in 1809.
Her great-grandfather, Charles Elgee – the first member of the family to move to Ireland – was a bricklayer from Durham, in the north of England, where he was born in 1714. In his teens, he sailed to Ireland with his three brothers to take advantage of a building boom in the 1730s. The brothers settled in Dundalk, where they quickly prospered, and Charles Elgee’s son, John Elgee, later moved to Wexford, where he first served as curate of St Iberius in 1790-1794 and later as rector (1795-1823).
John Elgee, who was also archdeacon of the neighbouring diocese of Leighlin, lived out most of his life at Wexford Rectory, which then stood on the Bull Ring, close to the site of Sheppard’s later monument of the Pikeman, commemorating the 1798 Rising.
Many of Archdeacon Elgee’s parishioners were prominent leaders of the United Irishmen in 1798, including Matthew Keugh, who was appointed Governor of Wexford during the Rising, and Cornelius Grogan of Johnstown Castle. Other families associated with the parish also counted leaders of the United Irishmen among their members, including the Boxwell, Hatton and Hughes families.
Jane Wilde later recalled how her grandfather escaped during the Rising: ‘The rector was taking a service in his church when the rebels burst in, but one of them turned away their pikes and related a great kindness which the clergyman had rendered to his family. It was at once resolved that he and all his belongings should be untouched and a guard was placed on his home for his protection.’
When Keugh, Grogan, Beauchamp Bagenal Harvey, and other Protestant leaders of the Rising were taken to their execution, Archdeacon Elgee accompanied them to Wexford Bridge and prayed with them.
Archdeacon Elgee’s only daughter, Jane, was mother of the Arctic explorer, Robert McClure, who had a part in the discovery of the North-West Passage.
The archdeacon’s eldest son, Charles Elgee, a solicitor, married Sarah Kingsbury in Saint Iberius Church on 23 December 1809. The wedding was conducted by another family member, the Revd Richard Waddy Elgee, curate to his own father.
Jane Elgee’s date of birth is not recorded, but local lore says she was born in the Rectory. Her poetic interests may have been inspired at an early age by her uncle, the Revd Richard Waddy Elgee, founder of Wexford YMCA and also a poet. Like his father, he too was curate of Wexford (1811-1823) and later rector of the parish (1843-1865). His great-granddaughter, Edith Elgee, the last surviving member of the family in Wexford, died in 1993.
Other writers associated with the parish include two past rectors: the Revd William Hickey, co-editor of the Irish Farmer’s and Gentleman’s Magazine, who wrote under the name of Martin Doyle and was rector of Wexford 1832-1834; and his successor, Canon John Keefe Robinson (1834-1842), who wrote two books on the life and experiences of a clergyman.
The candlesticks on the Wexford oak altar were donated by the Franciscans and the people of the Friary after the friars celebrated Mass here in 1989-1990 while the Friary was being restored.
A major restoration began in 1990, thanks to grants from the Heritage Council and other bodies, and the support of local businesses. It transformed Saint Iberius, restoring the fine 18th century stucco work and renewing the roof, ceiling, spire and exterior rendering.
The project cost £352,000 and, according to the then Rector of Wexford, the late Canon Norman Ruddock, ‘it was an undertaking of great vision and courage by the parishioners.’
The church is renowned for its superb acoustics, and is an occasional venue for concerts. The church has traditionally hosted regular recitals and the festival service during the Wexford Festival Opera each year.
The church is open daily from 9.30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday to Saturday. Sunday services are at 11.15 a.m.