In October 1962 Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council, summoned in order to initiate aggiornamento (or modernisation) within the Roman Catholic Church. One of the council’s decisions concerned the manner in which religious services were held. During mass, for example, the clergy were to use the local vernacular instead of Latin and the celebrant was to face members of the congregation, rather than have his back to them, the overall intention being to encourage greater engagement by laity with what was taking place. In Ireland, many bishops and priests saw these changes as an opportunity to ‘re-order’ their own churches, mainly by stripping out the old features to leave bare interiors. These acts of philistine desecration were supposedly undertaken in order to comply with new liturgical procedures instigated in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, although strangely enough the same brutal approach was not undertaken in other countries, where churches were allowed to retain their historical interiors. One of the worst examples of this iconoclastic treatment occurred in 1973 in St Mary’s Cathedral, Killarney Cathedral, where the then-bishop, Eamonn Casey, tore out almost all the building’s decorative features, leaving just bare stone walls. (see An Act of Desecration « The Irish Aesthete) Killarney Cathedral had originally been designed by Augustua Welby Pugin, as was St Aidan’s Cathedral in Enniscorthy, County Wexford.
Augustus Welby Pugin was born in London in 1812, the son of a French father and an English mother. In 1834 he converted to Roman Catholicism, a reflection not just of his religious faith but also of his passionate interest in the mediaeval Gothic style. While Gothic architecture had come back into fashion in certain quarters during the previous century, it was very much in a bastardised form: Pugin’s lifelong crusade was to encourage a revival of Gothic in its original form, uninfluenced by later architectural movements. While most famous for his work on the Houses of Parliament in London, inevitably much of his work involved building churches, some of them in this country. Pugin’s most important patron was John Talbot, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, for whom he worked at Alton Towers in Staffordshire. Lord Shrewsbury, an ardent Roman Catholic, numbered among his other titles that of Earl of Waterford, and his father-in-law, William Talbot, lived at Castle Talbot, County Wexford, meaning he had many connections in Ireland; these proved advantageous to Pugin, many of whose commissions in this country were for churches in the Wexford area, not least St Aidan’s, Enniscorthy. Unlike a number of architects who received commissions here during the 18th century, Pugin did not design from afar but visited Ireland on several occasions, although he never stayed very long: among other things, he found the link between Roman Catholicism and national identity difficult to appreciate, since such an association did not exist in England. But he was impressed by the fervour of Irish believers, and the preparedness of even those who had least to contribute to the construction of new churches in the post-Penal Law era. St Aidan’s was one of those churches. It replaced an older and smaller thatched building and, located on a site high above the river Slaney and overlooking the town (including the Church of Ireland place of worship) was intended to celebrate the Catholicism triumphant. Construction began in 1843 and three years later the first mass was said in the completed chancel and transepts; in 1849 the nave was finished, allowing the older cathedral to be demolished. Aged only 40, Pugin died in 1852 and never saw the work completed, having come into conflict with the local bishop who, he wrote ‘has blocked up the choir, stuck the altars under the tower!! and the whole building is in the most painful state of filth; the sacrarium is full of rubbish, and it could hardly have been worse if it had fallen into the hands of the Hottentots.’
St Aidan’s was left incomplete for some years after Pugin’s death but eventually another architect, J.J. McCarthy finished the work, presumably in 1860 when the cathedral was officially dedicated. Built of granite blocks (including some which came from an old Franciscan friary), the building was modelled on the ruins of Tintern Abbey in Wales: St Aidan’s is a three-quarter size version of the church there, and is similarly long and narrow, not least owing to the nature of the site in Enniscorthy, with the land dropping steeply to the river on one side. The cramped site also dictated that St Aidan’s runs north-south, rather than the customary east-west, its chancel is one bay shorter than that at Tintern, and there are no chapels on the transept. The other significant difference is that the mediaeval abbey’s tower had long since collapsed, so Pugin had to imagine what it might have looked like when he designed St Aidan’s.The tower was built in 1850 and then a spire added in 1871-72, but the weight of the latter was too great and, lest it bring the whole thing down, both tower and spire were dismantled and rebuilt. Problems with damp meant there was a programme of restoration over the years 1936-45 and it was only in 1946, 100 years after the first service had been held on the site and with the final clearance of all debt, that St Aidan’s was solemnly consecrated as a cathedral in . Then came the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council which in 1970 led to a ‘re-ordering’ of St Aidan’s, with many of the interior furnishings removed and the walls covered in white paint. Fortunately, in 1994 a programme of necessary repairs led to the building’s interior being brought back as close as possible to how it was originally imagined by Pugin. The old reredos, nine Caen-stone panels showing scenes of sacrifice from the Old Testament, was reinstated, as was the tabernacle and its spired canopy, along with the elaborately carved oak pulpit and bishop’s throne. As much of the original patterned tile floor as possible was put back and on the walls, the former stencilled decoration was recreated, using paint scrapings and earlier photographs. In his book The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841), Pugin stated that ‘all ornament should consist of enrichment of the essential construction of the building.’ Today that is thankfully true of St Aidan’s, Enniscorthy.