Heritage Sites of Co. Wexford

St Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy

This was one of the later commissions in Ireland of the renowned architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812–1852) and executed in his favoured Gothic Revival style.  Modelled on Tintern Abbey in Wales, building commenced in 1843 and unusually initially enclosed an older church on the site but this was removed in 1849 when the nave was almost completed.  The building was largely finished by 1850 except for the granite-clad spire, added in 1871, which proved too heavy for the tower supporting it and so was dismantled and replaced with a smaller steeple.  The cathedral was finally consecrated on 29 June 1946.

The cathedral was built on an elevated location, in the northwest part of the town, on a site owned by the fifth Earl of Portsmouth; his son, the sixth Earl, donated it to the diocese in 1897. The exterior walling is largely constructed in a snecked pattern of somewhat crudely finished green and purple greywackes and sandstones with smaller insertions of granite.  The stone was salvaged from an adjacent Franciscan Abbey that had collapsed only a short time earlier.  This recycled stone would have been quarried locally, although the precise locations of these openings are unknown. These rocks date from the Ordovician period when southeast Ireland was a region of considerable tectonic activity; closure of the Iapetus, a large ocean, resulted in adjacent landmasses being uplifted and sediments being eroded and deposited into that water body.

The main entrance is framed in delightful ashlar and dressed granite and the split doorway is a standard Pugin motif that is seen elsewhere in Irish churches and which was promulgated by his son Edward, who designed many of these.  In two granite-framed niches stand Carrara marble statues of St Aidan on the left and the Virgin and Child on the right.  Granite is also used around the windows and as facings on the antae.

Inside the cathedral the nave columns are great examples of how stone was worked and dressed by stone masons and stone cutters. Of fine-grained grey Leinster granite, probably from Co. Carlow, this igneous rock was emplaced when two landmasses came together and the Iapetus Ocean finally disappeared 400 million years ago.  The columns consist of a square base from which springs a cylindrical shaft, continued by three narrowed circumference drums and topped with moulded perpendicular octagonal capitals.

Internally the cathedral was decorated with flamboyant Pugin designs whose scheme was completed after his untimely death by the Dublin architect J.J. McCarthy.  Unfortunately these decorations were over-painted in the 1970s but were restored in 1994 to their polychromatic splendour.  The stencilling in reds, greens, blues and gold on the tall Gothic arches draws the eye upwards and heavenwards.  This restoration was overseen by Sheridan and Tierney, architects of Dublin.

The reredos was designed by McCarthy and carved in Bath Stone.  The Carrara Marble and Bath Stone altar, which dates from 1857, was the work of the architectural sculptors James Pearse and Edmund Sharpe of Great Brunswick Street, Dublin, and is decorated with colonnettes of Cork red limestone and Connemara marble.  It now sits on a praedella of Wicklow granite.

A beautiful oval-shaped font sits on a square pedestal near the entrance door; it probably dates from the mid-1700s and is carved from Kilkenny black limestone.  This stone was deposited in a shallow warm sea as a limy mud during Mississippian times 350 million years ago and subsequently became lithified.  This limestone contains large numbers of small brachiopod shells and was extracted just south of Kilkenny city. It was often used for chimneypieces, many of which were produced by William Colles at the Kilkenny Marble Works.  A similar font is in Carlow Cathedral, which was carved by Dinis Byrne who may have been responsible for its Enniscorthy counterpart.

Further reading:

Geology of Co. Wexford

The oldest rocks are exposed on the coast in the south-east of the county at Kilmore Quay and near Rosslare. These rocks were once sediments but already by 620 million years ago [Ma], in the Precambrian, they had been severely metamorphosed into banded rocks called gneiss by extreme heat and pressure.

By Cambrian times, beginning around 540 Ma, the southeast of Ireland was on the southern side of a vast ocean that would slowly close over the next 140 million years or so. The rocks from the Cambrian and early part of the succeeding Ordovician, until around 460 Ma, comprise black mudstones with many thin beds of grey sandstone and were deposited on the floor of a deep ocean basin. In later Ordovician times there was a great deal of volcanic activity. Volcanic islands, formed as the ocean was slowly closing, spewed forth enormous volumes of lava and ash.

Somewhat later, in the Silurian around 435 Ma, bodies of molten magma ascended towards the surface but never reached it. They cooled slowly beneath the earth’s crust to produce the coarsely crystalline granite that now, exposed by later erosion, forms Carnsore Point and the Saltee Islands. More granite magma was intruded a little later, in the early Devonian around 405 Ma, and forms the Blackstairs Mountains in the west of the county. The Carnsore Granite is particularly beautiful with large pale feldspars set in a pinkish background matrix of smaller crystals of quartz, feldspar and mica.

In the Devonian (416 Ma) the ocean closed completely and a large continent had formed, which was only sparsely vegetated because land plants were still at an early stage in their evolution. Coarse sandstones and conglomerates were deposited by rivers that flowed down the mountains and across the flood plains, which in time itself were slowly drowned by a warm ocean that migrated northwards during the Carboniferous period (350 Ma). Mudstones, and later limestones, often packed with many types of fossils were deposited. A continuous section of Devonian to Carboniferous rocks can be seen on the Hook Peninsula where old unfinished millstones cut in conglomerate can be found at its northern end. Now preserved in the Carboniferous limestones are corals, crinoids (sea lilies), brachiopods, bryozoans and echinoids (sea urchins) best viewed at Hook Lighthouse (350 Ma). Please do not collect these fossils, they are protected by law. Some red sandstones were deposited in a desert environment during the Permian and Triassic periods but evidence of these rocks cannot be seen at the surface. Geologists know about these through drilling deep into the rock succession.

Map legend: Geological Map of Limerick (based on GSI 1:1,000,000 map 2003). Light pink: Precambrian metamorphic rocks; Purple: Cambrian rocks; Dark pink: Ordovician; Dark blue: Ordovician volcanic rocks; Yellow: Quartzites; Red: Granites; Beige: Devonian sandstones and conglomerates; Pale blue: Lower Carboniferous limestone; Orange: Permian and Triassic sediments.