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Building of the Month - September 2008

Saint Iberius's Church, Main Street North, TOWNPARKS (Saint Iberius’s) Td., Wexford, County Wexford

Saint Iberius's Church, Wexford 01 - Representative View 

Figure 1: A view of Saint Iberius's Church showing the belfry-topped Venetian Gothic frontispiece of the late nineteenth century.  Previously a temple-like Classical church, apart from the prevailing symmetry of form the remnants of the pedimented breakfront, now open bed, survive as the sole apparent vestige of the original front

Saint Iberius's Church, occupying a prominent position in Main Street, Wexford, is widely regarded as a jewel in the ecclesiastical architectural legacy of County Wexford and enjoys the status as the oldest church of any denomination in active use in the town (fig. 1).  Following the closure and subsequent deconsecration of Saint Selskar's Church in 1951, Saint Iberius's remains the centre of Church of Ireland worship in the Wexford Union of Parishes.

Reverend Thomas Gulliver is recorded as rector of Saint Iberius in 1661, thereby indicating the presence of an earlier church on site which underwent a programme of repair in 1693.  Yet, the present church was entirely rebuilt in the mid eighteenth century to a design traditionally credited to John Roberts (1712-96), architect of Waterford, an attribution supported primarily by internal features evoking comparisons with Roberts's later Church of Ireland (1773-9) and Catholic (1793-9) cathedrals in Waterford City.  Taking into consideration a constrained plot defined on one side by the narrow Viking street pattern characteristic of Wexford, on the reverse side by the waters of Wexford Harbour prior to land reclamation works in the early nineteenth century, the architect skilfully configured the church to produce a distinctive internal volume whereby the nave is wider than it is deep, a shallow central apse originally the sole interruption to the rectangular plan form.

The present external appearance of the church dates largely from a renovation programme undertaken in the late nineteenth century.  No documentation has come to light, as yet, to identify the architect responsible, nor is the precise period of reconstruction known today although the work may have been motivated by the second "Wexford Riots" (1883) during which The Irish Times noted that the church 'was again attacked, and any portions of the windows that were left whole from the previous night were smashed'.  The resulting Venetian Gothic frontispiece was in place by the time Main Street was photographed by William Lawrence (between 1880-1914), the resulting black-and-white imagery doing little justice to the subtle polychromatic brick work.  Accounts of the original Classical façade survive to the present day, however, with Samuel Lewis (1837) describing the church as 'a plain structure with stone quoins and surmounted with a cupola'.

Providing substantially more detail on the exterior and the interior, Thomas Lacy relates the following in Sights and Scenes in Our Fatherland (1863):

The site of the ancient Church of Saint Iberius is at present occupied by the Protestant church of the parish, a spacious building of some 80 or 90 years' standing, of a strong and comparatively plain appearance, in the Doric style of architecture.  It is about 80 feet in length and 40 in breadth in the clear, and displays its characteristic front of two stories to the main street, in the most central part of the town.  The front consists of a slightly projecting centre and two wings, the extremities of which are enriched with cut granite quoins.  In the first story of the centre are three semicircular windows, with bold architrave mouldings, and in the second three plain windows, with similar architraves and mouldings; while above them rises a pediment, in the tympanum of which is a handsome clock.  Above and in the rear of the strong pediment rises the steeple, with its louver windows, surmounted by a cupola supporting an ornamental ball…  The church is entered in each of the side wings by a door, which is approached by a couple of steps from a platform that extends before the entire front of the building...  The jambs of each floor are composed of alternate square and circular blocks, and support an entablature and massive pediment.  On each of the sides of these doors is a handsome and finely-arched window, with stone architraves and mouldings similar to those of the semicircular windows in the first story of the centre.  Above the crowning pediment of the door in each window, and on a line with the windows of the second story of the centre, appears a segmental window, which extends so as to furnish the entire of the second story, which terminates on a line with the base-course; above which rises the pediment which surmounts the summit of the slightly-projecting centre.  This widely-spreading window is divided by two stone mullions, and decorated with mouldings which harmonise with the bold and striking decorative appendages of the windows and the other portions of the front.

A painted glass panel removed from the Young Men's Christian Association hall, and presently in storage in the church, confirms the accuracy of Lacy's account (figs. 2-3).

Saint Iberius's Church, Wexford 02 - Painted Glass Panel Saint Iberius's Church, Wexford 03 - Ground Floor Plan (1867)

Figures 2-3: A painted glass panel illustrates the original temple-like exterior of a church described by Thomas Lacy (1863) as 'a spacious building…of a strong and comparatively plain appearance, in the Doric style of architecture', and dismissed by Reverend William Hickey (1868) as '[presenting] no appearance whatsoever of an ecclesiastical character'.  A drawing (1867) signed by William Gillespie (1812?-96?) outlines a proposal for a new seating system that corresponds with the original "temple" layout of the church and confirms that the Venetian Gothic frontage was completed some time thereafter

Spared a fashionable makeover in the nineteenth century, and carefully restored in the late twentieth century, the interior survives largely as originally intended and is defined as a double-height space with galleries on three sides enclosing an arcaded chancel screen, the elegantly-tapered Corinthian columns supporting enriched plasterwork archivolts on dosserets (high blocks or super-abacus) in an approach almost identical to the arcaded side aisles of Roberts' cathedrals (fig. 4).  The turned timber altar railings were salvaged (1990) from the Francis Johnston (1760-1829)-designed Saint George's Church (1802-14), Hardwicke Place, Dublin.

Saint Iberius's Church, Wexford 04 - Interior 

Figure 4: Arguably the best preserved eighteenth-century interior in County Wexford, the focal point remains the elegant arcaded chancel screen, recalling John Roberts' work at the Church of Ireland and Catholic cathedrals in Waterford City

The interior, open daily to the public with guided tours available upon request, is notable for the vast collection of remarkably fine cut-stone wall monuments predominantly in a complimentary Classical style.  Of particular interest is the monument commemorating Edward Perceval (d. 1813), killed in action on the coast of Istria in the Adriatic: the monument has often been mistaken for a salvaged chimneypiece (figs. 5-6).

Saint Iberius's Church, Wexford 05 - Interior Saint Iberius's Church, Wexford 06 - Perceval Monument (1813)

Figures 5-6: The interior features an impressive array of elegant Classical wall monuments.  One in particular has often been mistaken for a chimneypiece, but on closer inspection displays artillery detailing symbolic of the military exploits of William Perceval (1792-1813).  It is dedicated: "Sacred to the Memory of/Mr. Edward Perceval/Late Master’s Mate in the Royal Navy/Who Fell Gallantly fighting his Country's Cause/In an attack upon an Enemy of far Superior Force in a/Boat belonging to his Majesties [sic] Frigate Havannah/Captain and Honourable George Cadogan/on the 6th January 1813/on the Coast of Istria in the Adriatic/Aged 21 Years/His amiable Heart and Noble Disposition secured Him/the Esteem and Friendship of all who knew him/Whilst his Public Conduct ever Intitled [sic] him to the/approbation of those Officers with whom he served/In testimony whereof/The Captain and Officers of the Havannah/have Caused this Monument to be Erected to his Memory/as a Sincere Tribute to Departed Worth/as well as of their admiration of the Heroic Manner/in which He fell"

Saint Iberius's Church, Wexford 07 - Hughes Monument (1868) Saint Iberius's Church, Wexford 08 - Ogle Monument (1815)

Figures 7-8: A view of the bust of Lady Emily Hughes (d. 1868) of Barntown House and the monument to Elizabeth Ogle (d. 1807) dedicated: "Sacred/To the Memory of Mrs. Elizabeth Ogle/Wife of the Right Honourable George Ogle/A more than loved Sister and a Faultless Friend/Her mind was as pure and Angelical/as her form was Beautiful/If a human being could be perfect/She was perfect/She was ad truly beloved & esteemed/as She is universally lamented/by all those who knew her/And unceasingly so by her ever Sorrowing Sister/Jane Moore/Who to Indulge her unabated Grief/Erects this humble Tribute/To her matchless worth/In the Month of June 1815/Obiit 11th August 1807"

Further items of interest include the bust depicting Emily Hughes (d. 1868) of Barntown House, attributed to John Henry Foley (1818-74) (fig. 7); and the funerary monument dedicated to Elizabeth Ogle (d. 1807), wife of George Ogle (1742-1814) of Bellevue (fig. 8): meanwhile, the thirteenth-century French Gothic-style Elgee Memorial Window (1867) represents the only stained glass in the church (fig. 9).

Saint Iberius's Church, Wexford 09 - Elgee Memorial Window (1867) 

Figure 9: View of the Elgee Memorial Window (1867; ob. 1865) dedicated: "In Memory Of Reverend RW [Richard Waddy] Elgee Late Rector Of Wexford/Erected By His Friends And Parishioners/Anno Domini MDCCCLXVII [1867]"

Figures 2, 4-9 photographed by Stephen Farrell for the NIAH publication An Introduction to the Architectural Heritage of County Wexford

Saint Iberius's Church, Wexford 10 - Introduction 

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