An Irishman's Diary

 

The new film about Oscar Wilde, starring Stephen Fry; Thomas Kilroy's new play at the Abbey, The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde; the 100th anniversary of Wilde's release from Reading Jail - all of these have helped to encourage new interest in the writer. But it is often forgotten that while Oscar's father, Sir William Wilde, was a brilliant eye and ear surgeon, his mother was a writer in her own right.

Sir William Wilde's wife, Jane Elgee, was the poet Speranza who, during the years of the Great Famine, electrified Ireland with her passionate tirades of verse and prose.

Lady Wilde's interesting family background is captured in a new history of St Iberius Parish in Wexford written by the Rector of Wexford, Canon Norman Ruddock, and Naomi Kloss, a native of Wexford and teacher at Alexandra College, Dublin.

Lady Wilde had exaggerated notions about her family's origins, and Canon Ruddock points out that her background was relatively humble. 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, Rev John Elgee, later moved to Wexford, where he first served as curate of St Iberius from 1790 to 1794 and later as rector from 1795 to 1823.

United Irishmen

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, Beau champ 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.

Poetic interests

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 St Iberius Church on December 23rd, 1809, and the wedding service was conducted by another family member, the Rev 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 Rev 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.

Canon Ruddock's new book, Unending Worship: A History of Saint Iberius Church, Wexford, provides an outline of Oscar Wilde's family tree, and is lavishly illustrated with photographs and pictures of Sper anza, her uncle Richard, other Wexford clergy and parishioners, and illustrations of the church by various photographers and artists. The finest of these is the painting on the cover by the artist Patrick Darigan, whose paintings hang daily on the railings outside St Iberius on the Main Street.

The association with the arts and artists are appropriate for a church that has traditionally hosted regular recitals and the fine festival service during the Wexford Festival Opera each October. Other writers associated with the parish include two past rectors: the Rev William Hickey, co-editor of the Irish Farmer's and Gentleman's Mag- azine, wrote under the name of Martin Doyle and was rector of Wexford from 1832 to 1834; and his successor, Canon John Keefe Robinson, rector from 1834 to 1842, wrote two books on the life and experiences of a clergyman.

Pre-Viking history

But the opera festival, writers and poets, Oscar Wilde, and even the events of 1798 come late in the history of the parish. Norman Ruddock and Naomi Kloss trace the history of the church back to the 5th century, when St Iberius founded a monastery on the island of Beg Erin in the mouth of the Slaney, long before the Vikings settled at Weissfiord.

By the beginning of the 17th century, there were 20 churches in the town, including St John's, the only one with a steeple, and St Patrick's, which had been described once in the previous century as a cathedral.

The present building at St Iberius Chruch probably dates from 1660 or shortly after the restoration of Charles II. Later, in 1690, the Rector of St Iberius, the Rev 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.

A major restoration begun in 1990 has transformed St Iberius, restoring the fine 18thcentury stucco work and renewing the roof, ceiling, spire and exterior rendering. The project cost £352,000 and, according to Canon Ruddock, "it was an undertaking of great vision and courage by the parishioners."

Canon Ruddock's book is also an undertaking of great vision and courage. According to Bishop Noel Willoughby in his foreword, "it is obviously a labour of love."