A Significant Anniversary


Limerick City’s oldest building still in continuous daily use, St Mary’s Cathedral this year celebrates its 850th anniversary. Standing on raised ground on King’s Island, the location had even earlier been used as a ‘Thingmote’ or meeting place by the Vikings who first established a settlement in Limerick. The cathedral was founded in 1168, reputedly on the site of a palace belonging to Donal Mór O’Brien, descendant of Brian Boru and last claimant to the title of King of Munster. Legend has it that the Romanesque west door was originally the entrance to O’Brien’s residence. His tomb – of which more anon – is in the Lady Chapel. Unusually the cathedral tower is located not in the centre of the building but above the west door: added in the 14th century, it rises 120 feet. The belfry holds a peal of eight bells, six presented in 1673 by William Yorke and cast by William Perdue who died before the job was complete and is buried in the graveyard. Especially during the 17th century when Limerick was besieged four times, the building experienced considerable upheaval. In 1651 Henry Ireton, General in the Parliamentary army then in Ireland, surrounded Limerick which held out for almost six months before surrendering (Ireton would die just weeks later). The victorious troops reputedly used the cathedral as stables for their horses (legend would have it the same behaviour occurred in almost every place through which they passed) and also removed the Pre-Reformation high altar. Some thirteen feet long and carved from a single block of limestone, the altar – the largest of its kind in Ireland and Britain – was only reinstated in the cathedral in the 1960s. Meanwhile during the Williamite Wars of 1689-91 Limerick was again besieged – twice. On the second occasion in 1691 as had happened exactly forty years earlier, the city resisted for several months before surrendering to William III’s general Godert de Ginkell, later first Earl of Athlone: he then concluded the Treaty of Limerick with Jacobite leader Patrick Sarsfield. However, during the course of the siege St Mary’s Cathedral had suffered so severely from bombardment that King William provided £1,000 towards the building’s repair. A number of cannonballs from the 1691 siege can be seen in the cathedral.





St Mary’s is so full of items of interest that much more space than available here would be required to detail them all. On this occasion just a couple will be discussed, the first of which is a 17th century funerary monument on the north side of the chancel. This commemorates Donogh O’Brien, fourth Earl of Thomond. The latter title had been created in 1543 when an earlier member of the family, Murrough O’Brien submitted to English authority and surrendered his position as the last King of Thomond. Raised in England at the court of Elizabeth I, Donogh O’Brien only settled in Ireland in 1582 following the death of his father. A member of the Established church and keen supporter of the government, he spent much of the next twenty years fighting his rebellious fellow countrymen on behalf of the crown. Ultimately Lord President of Munster, on his death in 1624 he was buried in St Mary’s Cathedral where construction of his tomb had already begun. A fascinating article by Dr Clodagh Tait published in the North Munster Antiquarian Journal in 2002 discusses this monument’s origins and history. In his will, drawn up some seven years prior to death, O’Brien mentions the tomb and requests that his heir Henry O’Brien finish the monument to his specifications. Dr Tait notes the similarities in design with the tomb of the earl’s friend Richard Boyle (the Great Earl of Cork) in St Mary’s Collegiate Church, Youghal, County Cork: both employed the sculptor Alexander Hills of Holborn. But that of O’Brien is less elaborate and uses cheaper materials than he first intended and, it seems, this is why he removed from the immediate area an earlier, and more sumptuous monument celebrating Cornelius O’Dea, Bishop of Limerick who had died in 1426. What survived of O’Dea’s tomb later disappeared as the poor of the city, believing it to have miraculous healing powers against the ‘bloody flux’ (what would now be called gastro-intestinal dysentery) gradually chipped away fragments until nothing was left. The O’Brien monument is often said to have been damaged by Ireton’s troops in 1651 but Dr Tait proposes that in fact it was subject to attack when the cathedral temporarily reverted to Catholic use in the 1640s: O’Brien’s vigorous espousal of Protestantism would have been well remembered, hence the particular damage to his recumbent figure (on the lower shelf) and that of his second wife Elizabeth FitzGerald. What we see today is the tomb as reconstructed by the seventh Earl of Thomond in 1678. It features three tiers of different coloured marble, surrounded and supported by columns of the Ionic, Corinthian and Composite orders, and decorated with O’Brien arms and trophies. Beneath and in front of all of this has been inserted the coffin lid of Donal Mór O’Brien’s tomb.





The other item in St Mary’s worth examining, and indeed for which the building is best known, are the stall misericords now lining the walls of the north transept. The misericord is a clever mediaeval device to get around the proscription against sitting during religious services: when the seat is raised, a small protruding ledge allows the participant to lean back at rest while still standing, arms settled on the sides of the stall. These devices were commonplace in the Middle Ages but the set in Limerick are the only extant Irish examples. Dating from 1480-1500 they were carved in oak taken from the woods at Cratloe, County Clare less than six miles away: the same wood was also used for the barrel-vaulted roof of the cathedral. Each of the surviving 23 misericords has a different carving on the seat underside. Some of these are of human beings or actual animals, others are of mythical beasts, such as a Wyvern (a two-legged dragon with a barbed tail) or a Griffin (its front half being that of an eagle while the rear was that of a lion). At some date, believed to have been in the 19th century, the misericords were removed from the main body of the cathedral and stored in the crypt before being brought up and placed in their present position. Over six hundred years old, they are a remarkable survival but, as already mentioned, only one of the many gems to be found in St Mary’s, an historic building that merits repeated visits.


As part of its 850 anniversary, the cathedral has organized an extensive programme of celebratory events. Information about these can be found at: http://saintmarys.bookeventsireland.com/saintmarys

Escaping a Family Curse

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In 1824 the former courtesan Harriette Wilson advised a number of her ex-lovers that in return for a consideration of £200 she would omit their names from the memoirs she was then writing. The Duke of Wellington is famously said to have retorted ‘Publish and be damnned.’ He duly appeared in the book, as did another Irishman, James Lennox Naper. By the time the work appeared Naper was a respectably married man living on his estate in County Meath. However, the tale recounted by Wilson concerned his life more than a decade earlier, when he was a young Member of Parliament living in London and conducting a liaison with the author’s friend and sister-courtesan Julia Johnstone. The latter was at least fourteen years older than her lover (Harriette Wilson thought he looked more like her son) and she did not find him especially attractive. Nevertheless, she was urged by Wilson to respond to his ardours, not least for the sake of Johnstone’s many children: ‘”Napier [sic] is your man”,’ Wilson told her. ‘”Since you could be unchaste to gratify your own passions, I am sure it cannot be wrong to secure the comfort and protection of six beautiful children.” “But Napier’s vanity makes me sick,” retorted Julia, impatiently. “The possession of my person would not satisfy him. He wants me to declare and prove that I love him; and the thing is physically impossible”.’ Eventually she overcame her reluctance, but the match was never very happy. On one occasion Wilson discussed the matter with her sister Fanny, ‘”Oh, he is horridly stingy,” answered Fanny, “and Julia is obliged to affect coldness and refuse him the slightest favour till he brings her money; otherwise she would get nothing out of him. Yet he seems to be passionately fond of her, and writes sonnets to her beauty, styling her, at forty, although the mother of nine children, ‘his beautiful maid’.”‘ The affair only ended with Johnstone’s death in 1815.

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In 1593 the Dorset-born judge Robert Napier was knighted and sent to Ireland as Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer. He appears to have been singularly inept at his job, forever complaining about this country’s climate and seeking a better position on the other side of the Irish Sea. In 1600 he travelled to England and thereafter refused to return to Ireland. Accordingly he was suspended from office in 1601 and replaced the following year. Nonetheless, during the short period he held office, Sir Robert managed to found the family’s fortunes here, and in the third quarter of the 17th century his grandson James Naper further improved it by marrying Dorothy Petty, sister of Sir William Petty whose own descendants would eventually become Marquesses of Lansdowne. A series of strategic marriages meant that the Napers eventually came to own some 180,000 acres of land, with their main seat being at Loughcrew, County Meath. This was the estate inherited by Charles Lennox Naper who, despite being so stingy to poor Julia Johnstone, was believed to enjoy an annual income of more than £20,000. A considerable amount of it was ultimately spent on Loughcrew, where around the time Naper’s name featured in Harriette Wilson’s memoirs, he commissioned a substantial new residence designed by Charles Cockerel.

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Naper’s splendid house is no more: over the course of less than 100 years Loughcrew suffered three fires and was not rebuilt after the last of these. Only part of the building’s portico was re-erected in recent years, while adjacent outbuildings were converted to provide accommodation. The greater part of the estate has likewise gone, and little remains to demonstrate the former wealth of this family. Yet here and there in the surrounding landscape are remnants indicating how extensive was the demesne and how ambitious once its owners’ notions. Today’s pictures show the Rustic Lodge, one of at least six formerly marking approaches to the house, each of them different in design from the others. As its name indicates, this lodge is resolutely pastoral in concept, and might almost have been conceived as a nest in which Naper could conduct subsequent romances. Believed to date from c.1840 the two-storey building’s ground floor features a blind arcade resting on rusticated stone piers, with openings for door and mullioned casement windows. The upper level is of yellow brick, with a patterned roof of slates and tiles, the two chimney stacks being again in rusticated stone. What remains of the interior suggests a similar character, the chimneypieces once more in rusticated stone and the entrance hall’s coved wooden ceiling almost alpine in spirit. The prettiest feature is a spiral staircase tucked into a corner of the former sitting room whence it sinuously climbs to the first floor before concluding in a final coquettish swirl of iron balusters. Now in poor condition, with the surrounding woodland encroaching ever nearer and the climate Sir Robert Napier so disliked having an impact on the fabric, one worries this lodge, like much else at Loughcrew, might be lost forever. It is said the main house on the estate suffered from a curse: ‘Three times will Loughcrew be consumed by fire. Crows will fly in and out of the windows. Grass will grow on its doorstep.’ All being well, the Rustic Lodge will escape this fate and enjoy a happier future.

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Splendid Ecclesiastical Remains

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Among the splendid ecclesiastical remains of Cong [County Mayo], the twelfth century advocates may revel, and defy us to prove an earlier date for their erection than that of the introduction of the Augustinian Order into Ireland, even if their ornamentation and design did not afford ample data for judging their age. These ruins would scarcely have held together to the present day, had not Sir B. L. Guinness restored several of the dilapidations, cleared out much of the rubbish which had accumulated within and around them, and rendered the burial ground sufficiently decent for the interment of Christian people. We enter the abbey from the village by a very beautiful doorway, which, although it has been often figured, we would here present to our readers, but that we know it is of the “composite order,” having been made up some years ago of stones taken from another arch in this northern wall. Within it, we find ourselves in the great abbey church, one 140 feet long, entirely paved with tombstones; facing the east window, with its three long, narrow lights, and having in each side wall of the chancel a slender window looking north and south. The chancel walls are perfect, but the northern wall of the nave no longer exists. Underneath the chancel window the guides and village folk maintain that Roderick O’Conor was buried, when, after fifteen years’ retirement within this abbey, he died here in 1198. But this we know from history to be incorrect, for the Donegal Annals distinctly state that “Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair, King of Connacht and of all Ireland, both the Irish and English, died among the canons at Cong, after exemplary penance, victorious over the world and the devil. His body was conveyed to Clonmacnois, and interred to the north of the altar.” But, although Roderick himself was not buried here others of his name and lineage were. Thus we read that in 1224, “Maurice the Canon, son of Roderick O Conor – the most illustrious of the Irish for learning, psalm-singing and poetical compositions – died and was interred at Cong.” It is probably his tomb which is pointed out as that of the king. “A.D.1226, Nuala, daughter of Roderick O’Conor, and Queen of Ulidia, died at Cunga Feichín, and was honourably interred in the church of the canons.” And in 1274, Finnuala, daughter of King Roderick, died at, and was probably buried at Cong. But although the dust of the last monarch is not beneath our feet, that of chieftains, warriors, and prelates remains and especially that of the abbots, down to the days of James Lynch, whose decorated tomb is dated 1703; and even later, for the Rev. Patrick Prendergast who was always styled “The Lord Abbot,” was interred here in 1829.’

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‘The O’Duffys were distinguished ecclesiastics in this locality, and the Annals contain many entries concerning them. Thus we read that in “A.D. 1150 Muireadhach Ua Dubhthaigh, Archbishop of Connacht, chief senior of all Ireland in wisdom, in chastity, in the bestowal of jewels and food, died at Cunga on the 16th of the month of May, on the festival of St. Brénainn, in the 75th year of his age.” His name is inscribed on the great processional “Cross of Cong,” made in 1123. “A.D. 1168, Flannagán Ua Dubhthaigh, bishop and chief doctor of the Irish in literature, history, and poetry, and in every kind of science known to man in his time, died in the bed of Muireadhach Ua Dubhthaigh, at Cunga.” Cadhla or Catholicus O Duffy, and several of the name, attained to the see of Tuam; in 1136, we read of the death at Clonfert, of Donnell O Duffy, “Archbishop of Connacht and successor of Cíarán, head of the wisdom and piety of the province”; and Cellach O Duffy was Bishop of “Mayo of the Saxons” in 1209. But none of these died abbots of Cong, and the only Abbot of the name referred to in the Annals is the one described by the Four Masters in the following quotation, under the year 1223: Dubhthach ua dubhthaigh abb Conga decc. “Duffagh O Duffy, Abbot of Cong, died”.’

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‘The original plan of this abbey is not easily made out at present. Through an arched doorway in the southern wall we pass into a low vaulted apartment, and thence into a large open space containing the principal stairs, which lead up to the second story of the great tower, the upper portion of which, however, no longer exists. The space to the east and south of this, which was formerly occupied by the monastery, is now a graveyard, and the site of the Roman Catholic chapel, and is divided by a high screen wall, the western facade of which forms the present great architectural feature of this splendid pile…It measures 80 feet in length, and contains a doorway and two windows, with circular arches; and two large and most elaborate ornamented lancet-headed doors, with undercut chevrons along the deep moulding of the arches, which spring from clustered pillars, the floral capitals of which – all of different patterns – present us with one of the finest specimens of twelfth-century stone-work in Ireland. Several stones have been inserted in these doorways, which now present us with some of the finest and most enduring specimens of carved limestone in this or any other country. Above the string course appear some narrow lights probably those of the dormitories. To the west of this wall stood the open cloisters, which were probably so low as not to obscure the decorated front represented on the foregoing page. From this point the ground slopes gradually to the river, where, according to tradition, the friars of old had a fish house – the walls of which are still standing – so constructed that, when the salmon or trout got into the crib below, it touched a wire, that rang a bell, to inform the providore or cook of its arrival.’

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From Sir William Wilde’s Lough Corrib, Its Shores and Islands, first published in 1867.

 

For the Day That’s In It

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In the grounds of Down Cathedral on the Hill of Down is this slab of Mourne granite believed to mark the spot where St Patrick was brought for burial following his death on this day in either 461AD or perhaps in 493; there appears to be no universal agreement on the year. The Irish Aesthete wishes all friends and followers a happy St Patrick’s Day.

Abandoned Farmhouse

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He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

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A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

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Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

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Abandoned Farmhouse by Ted Kooser (1980)
Photographs are of an abandoned farmhouse in County Westmeath.

Towering Above

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The round tower at Meelick, County Mayo. Once part of a religious foundation attributed to St Broccaidh, the tower is believed to date from the 10th century. It stands 21.5 metres high and has lost its conical cap but retains a doorway some 3.5 metres above the present ground level. Attached to the base is a likely contemporaneous tombstone with interlaced cross and border, and the inscription OR DO GRIENI (‘A prayer for Griene’).

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Love and a Cottage

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On the edge of a country road in County Cork, this cottage testifies to centuries of living for the greater part of the Irish population. Its simple allure lies in the uneven slope of the thatched roof, the use of colour inside the window surrounds, the retention of the old double door, the whitewashed walls: all these factors combine to make the building as irresistibly photogenic as any grand country house.