19 January 2019

Saint John’s, a lost mediaeval
church, and the once forgotten
grave of John Redmond

The site of the mediaeval Saint John’s Church is behind the white-washed wall on the corner of Lower John Street and John’s Gate Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019; click on image for full-screen resolution)

Patrick Comerford

Saint John’s graveyard or cemetery is located on the corner of Lower John Street and John’s Gate Street, behind a lime-washed perimeter wall with rendered coping. The entrance is from Lower John Street, and Wexford Council maintains the cemetery. However, I found when I visited on yesterday afternoon [18 January 2019] that because of the fragile condition of the cemetery, it is still kept locked, as it has been for many decades.

This graveyard is an important element in the church history and heritage of the Diocese of Ferns and of Co Wexford. This Church stood outside the walls of Wexxford town, on the corner of John Street and John’s Gate Street in the present cemetery, but its ruins have long since disappeared.

Although no church ruins survive, this extensive graveyard occupies the site of the mediaeval Church and Hospital of Saint John, founded in the early 13th century by William Marshall, the builder of Tintern Abbey, Co Wexford. It was given to the Knights of Saint John by his son, the younger William Marshall.

Mediaeval Wexford once boasted 20 churches, but Saint John’s was the only church in the town with a steeple.

A presentment of a Jury of Wexford town and Corporation made in October 1537 found that, ‘On ye 20th day of March 1532, ye Suffreign and Comyns of ye Town of Wexford kept fyre to the doore of ye steeple of St. John’s for to let out a thyef that made escape of ye towne gaole.’

At the dissolution of the monastic houses at the Reformation, Saint John’s was suppressed and the site was granted in perpetuity to laymen. The church was demolished and its stones were used as building material.

Saint John’s Church graveyard has a large collection of gravestones from 1723 and 1932 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The graveyard has a collection of gravestones recording deaths between 1723 and 1932, and at least one marker is signed by James Byrne of Clone, an example of the Irish churchyard sculpture tradition in Co Wexford.

The most important graves and tombs in Saint John’s Cemetery are those of the Talbot and Redmond families.

The most prominent mausoleum was erected in 1828 on a rectangular plan. It is made of cut-granite, with a stepped roof, and has cast-iron fleche or ‘spirelet’ pinnacles at the corners, granite ashlar walls, a cut-granite plinth, cut-granite monolithic piers at the corners, and a beaded cornice on a blind frieze.

The Tudor-headed door opening is between paired clustered colonettes with a cut-granite step threshold, and a cut-granite flush block-and-start surround with chamfered reveals framing the cast-iron panelled double doors that have a quatrefoil-perforated overpanel.

The Talbot and Redmond mausoleum is an important part of the early 19th-century heritage of Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

This mausoleum is an important part of the early 19th-century heritage of Wexford. It was erected by John Hyacinth Talbot (1794-1868) after the death of his wife, Anne Eliza (née Redmond) (1799-1826). They were married in 1822 and she died in childbirth.

The mausoleum Talbot built for his wife is the one in which members of the Redmond political dynasty are buried too, including John Edward Redmond MP (1806-1865) of The Deeps; John Edward Redmond MP (1856-1918), chairman of the Parnellite Minority and Chairman of the Irish Parliamentary Party; and his son, Captain William Archer Redmond MP (1886-1932), who fought in World War I.

Towards the end of the 1700s, the Redmond family became involved in trade, commerce and shipping. John Edward Redmond was a liberal MP for Wexford Town from 1859 until he died in 1865. Through his influence, the railway was brought to Wexford, he developed Wexford harbour and the docks and he was responsible for the reclamation of 5,000 acres of Wexford harbour now called the slob lands.

The monument in Redmond Square to his memory is inscribed with his last words: ‘My heart is in the town of Wexford, nothing can extinguish that love but the cold sod of the grave.’

His nephews, John and Willie Redmond, grew up in Ballytrent House, near Rosslare. John Redmond was born on 1 September 1856 in Kilrane, Co Wexford. He was an MP first for New Ross (1881-1885), and then for North Wexford (1885-1891). He became the main ally and supporter of Charles Stewart Parnell, and after Parnell died in 1891 Redmond became the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

Redmond remained in Parliament as the MP for Waterford City (1891-1918). In 1910, after two general elections, HH Asquith and the Liberals needed Irish support to secure the Parliament Act of 1911. Redmond’s support was won in return for the (third) Home Rule Bill introduced in 1912, and Redmond secured Home Rule in 1914.

However, his victory was side-lined with the outbreak of World War I later that year, and the Irish Volunteers soon split between those who enlisted in the army and those who supported the Irish rebellion.

During the Irish Convention on Home Rule, John Redmond died in London on 6 March 1918 from heart failure after an operation to remove an intestinal obstruction. His last words were, ‘Father, I am a broken-hearted man.’ He was 61.

Fearing street protests, Redmond’s friends and family took his body from Kingstown Harbour (Dun Laoghaire) and placed it on a special train to Wexford town. The people of Wexford turned out in their tens of thousands for his funeral in Wexford town. The bells of ever church in the town tolled simultaneously, every shop was closed, and house blinds were drawn.

His seat in Parliament was taken by his son Willian Archer Redmond, who had been MP for East Tyrone. But later that year, Redmond’s party was defeated by Sinn Fein in the general election in December 1918.

An inscription on the mausoleum reads:

Here lie the remains of
(MP for Boro’ of New Ross 1881-5.
North Wexford 1885-1891.
Waterford City 1891-1918.)
and Chairman of the
Irish Parliamentary Party
until his death,
which occurred on March 6th 1918,
aged 61 years.
Also his son
MP for East Tyrone 1910-1918,
for Waterford City and County, 1918
till his death.
Died at Waterford April 17th 1932
aged 45 years.

A commemoration event in the town marked his death for many years. The centenary of his birth in 1956 attracted seven government ministers and in an address Éamon de Valera paid tribute to a ‘great Wexford man’ – while decrying his decision to encourage Irishmen to fight in World War I.

Outside, a panel on the John Street wall points out that graveyard is the burial place of Richard Monaghan (‘Dick Monk’) Captain of the John Street Corps of United Irish rebels in 1798. He led his men in actions in Co Wexford, Co Wicklow, Co Kilkenny, Co Carlow and Co Laois and was killed by a party of Yeomen near Bunclody around 27 June 1798.

Saint John’s churchyard was kept locked for many decades (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Over the years, however, the cemetery was kept locked, the Redmond mausoleum was neglected fell into disrepair, its granite walls covered in grime its railings rusting and the pinnacles falling off.

The tomb was cleaned up for the centenary of the passing of the Home Rule Act in 2014 and the cemetery was cleaned up for the centenary of his death. The local author Billy Roche has written two pieces for a walking tour, one for the mausoleum and another for Redmond Park, named in honour of John Redmond’s brother, Major Willie Redmond, who was killed at the Battle of Messines Ridge.

Saint John’s is open by request but is still closed to the general public. Wexford County Council has plans to re-open the graveyard and provide access to the Redmond mausoleum. The graveyard conservation works plan to return the site to a grassed space.

The author Billy Roche has written a pieces for the Redmond mausoleum as part a walking tour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Saint Iberius: the church
at the heart of Wexford
is a Georgian gem

Saint Iberius Church on North Main Street in the heart of Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

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 Church is said to stand on the site of an earlier church linked with Saint Ibar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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 John Roberts (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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.

The Gothic-style prayer desk commemorates Dr Thomas Dowse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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 white marble classical-style font in the central aisle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The cut-veined white marble classical-style font is placed in the central aisle.

The cast-iron bell dated 1816 is now at the north end of the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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 organ in the gallery was built by Bishop & Son of London and was installed in 1893(Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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 painted window in the gallery recalls the original appearance of the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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.

Many parishioners were prominent leaders of the United Irishmen in 1798 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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.

The exterior is in 19th-century Venetian Renaissance style, influenced by the architectural school that was inspired by John Ruskin’s ‘Stones of Venice’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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.

The Perceval monument in the gallery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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.

The church has an intimate relationship with North Main Street and the heart of Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)