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Nicholas Furlong, the writer and historian, is a past pupil of St. Peter's College (1941-46). In 1990 he produced this excellent article on Augustus Welby Pugin's work at St. Peter's College for the College Magazine, a portion of which can be read by clicking read more
Collections were made beforehand to defray the cost of a college chapel. One of the most energetic and enthusiastic promoters and collectors for the college chapel was John Hyacinth Talbot, M.P. for New Ross, uncle of the Countess of Shrewsbury who, with her husband, was a patron of the century's most exciting young architect. Though everyone concerned with the project might have been well satisfied with the simple and adequate, John Hyacinth Talbot knew that the superb could possibly be attained. With the support of his close friend, the College President, Dr. James Sinnott, he invited Pugin to design the college chapel.
To Talbot's delight, Pugin accepted the invitation and so began some of the most fascinating exercises in church architecture in nineteenth century Ireland. On June 18, 1838, Bishop Keating laid the foundation stone. The chapel took two years to build, and when completed in all its multicoloured, stained glass, stone and proportional glory, it had an overwhelming effect on the beholder. Nothing like it in church architecture and interior decoration had been seen in these parts in recent centuries. Indeed it must have been a problem for the officiating prelates and the congregation alike to sharply concentrate on the celebration of the sacred mysteries that June day one hundred and fifty years ago. The consecrating prelate, Bishop Keating, was assisted by a distinguished native of Ferns diocese, brilliant academic and surprise appointee to a turbulent Ulster diocese: Most Rev James Browne, Bishop of Kilmore, who had travelled from his (then) remote residence by stage coach. The solemn high mass was celebrated by the Very Rev. Dr. Murphy, with Rev. James Lacy as deacon and Rev. Denis Kenny as sub-deacon. The sermon was preached by the president of the College, Very Rev. James Sinnott, whose text was Matthew 28:18-20, involving Christ's order to teach all nations.
We can only speculate today on the reaction of that first congregation to Pugin's meticulously executed plans and decorations. That day of colour and glory must, to some degree, have suggested the church triumphant. Many writers, from Joseph Ranson to Stephen Rynne and the Pugin enthusiast Kevin Spenser, have promoted its many features in prolonged applause. It is a matter of enormous pride that the college chapel was among the earliest of the master's work in Ireland, planned and built when his many gifts were still young. Down to my student days in St. Peters (1941-1946) there was still nothing similar to it, at least within my limited horizon. I still recall with awe the sense of Byzantine mystery, the great multi-chromed tryptych of the altar, that wonderful rose window, the gigantic rood screen and open doors suggesting the approach to the Holy of Holies. I recall the leper windows, the relics encased in the side altars down in the region of lower elevation where the lesser breeds of day-boys and very junior scholars prayed and scoffed. In my years the two senior Deans celebrated the official mass daily in alternate weeks, while staff priests attended by Church students offered masses on the side altars, mini-images of the high altar. We accepted the strange beauty, not realising that it was in any way unique.
Today, the fact that we were intimate with, even if unaware of, a master's work in our schooldays lends a precious dimension to experience. It enables the observant past pupil to detect the master's work (or copies of his work) anywhere. It is yet another of Pugin's legacies, for whether in Ballyhogue, Gorey, Enniscorthy, Killarney, the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, Southwark Cathedral, Downside Benedictine Abbey, Adare Castle, or viewing the gateway to Magdalen College, Oxford, the observant graduate can comment sagely in certainty and in truth, "I am familiar with the artist's work. Pugin of course! His remarkable and earliest work in Ireland is St. Peter's College Chapel, Wexford. June 15, 1840 to be exact".