Although County Limerick has a rich stock of historic buildings dating back as far as the early Christian era, much of its architectural heritage is insufficiently known or celebrated. A newly published little gem of a book should help to rectify this situation. An Architectural Tour of County Limerick does exactly what its title proposes, offering visitors to the area an opportunity to discover a wealth of sites ranging from that piece of 19th century gothic whimsy, Dromore (shown on the cover above) to the 13th century Trinitarian Abbey dovecote in Adare (below), and taking in many other properties along the way. With a text written by historian Declan Downey and delightfully illustrated by Nesta FitzGerald, the book deserves to encourage a rash of informed readers to descend on County Limerick and see for themselves what delights this part of the country has to offer.
The Romanesque west doorway of St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, founded by Donal Mór O’Brian, King of munster in 1168 but said to incorporate elements of an older palace on the same site. This is one of a number of such buildings considered in Niamh NicGhabhann’s recently published Medieval Ecclesiastical Buildings in Ireland, 1178-1915. The fascinating text explores changing attitudes to gothic architecture during the period, and increased academic interest in the subject as antiquarians like George Wilkinson and George Petrie carried out detailed surveys of old monuments. Equally interesting is how over the course of the 19th century Ireland’s built heritage became politicised, with debate focussed on what elements might be judged ‘authentically’ Irish and what foreign imports. As NicGhabhann writes, ‘In Ireland, debates on the meaning of architectural style were complicated by issues of religious identity, as well as by ideas of political symbolism and national representation.’ If not necessarily in the field of gothic architecture, these debates continue to resonate in some quarters to the present day. They became immediately applicable in Limerick when work on a new Roman Catholic cathedral, designed by Philip Charles Hardwicke, began in 1856: this stands in the area known since the Middle Ages as ‘Irishtown’ whereas St Mary’s is on King’s Island, otherwise known as ‘Englishtown.’ ‘The public and religious celebrations surrounding the consecration of St John’s Cathedral,’ writes NicGhabhann of this event in 1894, ‘can be read as a performance of both Catholic identity within the city, and the negotiation between the religious and political significance of the two cathedrals.’ That negotiation could be fractious, not least in Dublin where the Church of Ireland had possession of the capital’s two ancient gothic cathedrals, and the Catholic church had to settle for a neo-Catholic Pro-Cathedral. The choir of one of the former, St Patrick’s Cathedral , can be seen below. The building underwent a controversial ‘restoration’ in the 1860s, since Sir Benjamin Guinness, who funded the entire enterprise, chose to dispense with the services of an architect.
Two views of the late 14th century cloisters at the former Franciscan friary in Askeaton, County Limerick. Founded by Gerald FitzGerald, third Earl of Desmond the friary is notable for the excellently preserved condition of this feature; each of its four still-vaulted sides features twelve pointed arches supported by cylindrical columns with moulded capitals.
Not necessarily the best photograph to have been shown here, but it gives some idea of an exhibition currently running at 5 Rutland Street, Limerick. The house dates from the 1770s and is one of a terrace that marks both chronologically and literally the onset of the city’s Newtown Pery district. After serving as a butcher’s shop, in recent years the premises – like its neighbours – has stood empty and neglected. However, overseen by conservation architect Cáit ni Cheallachain and historian Dr Ursula Callaghan, and as part of the local Irish Georgian Society chapter’s contribution to Limerick City of Culture leaks have been fixed, an outbreak of dry rot arrested, wallpaper stripped, paintwork cleaned (including all the staircase banisters), and the entire site given a fresh purpose: as a Pop Up Museum exploring aspects of Limerick’s rich cultural heritage from the Georgian era. This is an imaginative and exciting initiative showing what can be done in a building that otherwise risked becoming further prey to vandalism and decay. The Pop Up Museum is open at weekends from 10am to 5pm and on Wednesday evenings from 4pm to 9pm and runs until the end of this month: pop in while you can.
Some buildings announce their sense of worth on first sight, while others are more self-effacing and require discovery. Kilpeacon, County Limerick belongs to the second category, initially making little impression on the visitor who will only note a modestly-proportioned, wide-eaved villa and assume there is nothing more to find here.
Certainly the house’s exterior gives little indication of the riches within. Kilpeacon presents itself as a two-storey, three-bay property, the main walls faced in roughly dressed limestone, with the two ground floor Wyatt windows given red brick surrounds: this would originally have been concealed by rendering. Cut limestone is used sparingly except for the facade’s most notable feature, a single storey breakfronted and balustraded bow porch with carved Ionic columns, and for the surrounds of the aforementioned pair of Wyatt windows which have acanthus brackets and a patera decoration within their arches. Nevertheless, these elements are unlikely to alter the notion that this is a house of only passing architectural interest.
Kilpeacon dates from c.1810-20 and was built for a local land owner Edward Cripps Villiers. It appears that in the mid-17th century the estate had come into the possession of Sir William King, a Cromwellian soldier who in 1665 served as Mayor of Limerick (and in 1690 was Governor of the city, during which time he was held captive by the supporters of King James). Having been granted lands to the extent of 21,600 acres in the county, he settled at Kilpeacon on which stood a castle previously belonging to the royalist Sir David Bourke: in 1653 the latter, then aged 64, and his family were dispossessed of all their property. Although married to Barbara Boyle, daughter of the Bishop of Cork, Sir William King had no direct heirs. Therefore on his death in 1706 Kilpeacon passed to a pair of grand nephews, Richard and Edward Villiers: a marble monument to their great-uncle was duly erected in the local church and remains there to the present. The Villiers brothers also died childless and so the estate was in turn inherited by one of their nephews Joseph Cripps of Edwardstown, who added the Villiers name to his own. Edward Villiers who was responsible for building the present house appears to have been his grandson.
In Limerick: Its History and Antiquities (published 1866) Maurice Lenihan writes that ‘Kilpeacon Court’, which he describes as ‘exceedingly tasteful and beautiful’ was built by Edward Cripps Villiers at a cost of £12,000. Its design is customarily ascribed to Sir Richard Morrison, not least on the basis of strong similarities with several other houses for which he was responsible, in particular Bearforest, County Cork (1807-8) which likewise had a bowed entrance porch flanked by Wyatt windows, and Hyde Park, County Wexford (1807), although the latter instead has a tetrastyle Doric porch. Nevertheless, the links are strong enough to make the attribution to Morrison hard to refute.
The three houses have certain characteristics in common, especially a top-lit staircase hall from which radiate the main reception rooms. Kilpeacon is larger than one might suppose, since in addition to the staircase hall the ground floor holds an oval entrance hall, library, morning room, dining and drawing rooms, all of substantial proportions, while the first floor contained six bedrooms. This may look like a humble villa but it is actually a very decent-sized country house.
The surprise and delight of Kilpeacon lies in its decoration, far more elaborate than would be expected given its exterior reserve. This begins in the oval entrance hall where the heavily ornamented entablature breaks forward on both sides and is supported by three columns with composite capitals. The doors here, as elsewhere, are panelled and inlaid with the style varying from one room to the next. The stair hall rises to a glass dome and has a gallery running around three sides, barrel-vaulted corridors providing access to the bedrooms. As for the reception rooms, they also benefit from sumptuous decoration both in the plasterwork and the white marble chimneypieces which feature a variety of classical gods and goddesses. The drawing room ceiling, for example, is decorated with oval wreaths of flowers and foliage, the outermost entwined with shamrock.
The expense of building Kilpeacon must have been more than the estate could sustain, because by 1850 the place was being offered for sale. Lenihan reports that Major George O’Halloran Gavin, ‘late of the 16th Lancers, in which he served with distinction in India’ first bought the house and demesne of 429 acres that year and then in the following acquired an additional 250 adjoining acres, all from the Encumbered Estates Court. He paid £12,000, the same price as the house had cost barely a generation earlier.
Following his retirement from the army Major Gavin served as an M.P. for Limerick City. He died in 1880 and the estate passed to his son Montiford Westropp Gavin who played cricket for Ireland in 1890. In the 1911 census he is recorded as resident in the house with his wife, four daughters and four servants: he died in 1922 and five years later Kilpeacon was sold. It has since passed through a number of hands and of late has been offered for sale again. One must hope it finds a sympathetic new owner, ideally somebody who appreciates the house’s exceptional qualities cleverly concealed behind a plain exterior.
This weekend sees the Irish Georgian Society’s annual Traditional Building Skills exhibition take place at the Hunt Museum in Limerick. Visitors might care to look across the road to the current poor state of Patrick Street, including this house No.4, birthplace of the 19th century soprano Catherine Hayes. One of the most celebrated singers of her generation, she performed in opera houses throughout Europe (as well as giving a recital for Queen Victoria in Buckingham Palace in June 1849) before touring to the United States – where P.T. Barnum sponsored her concerts in California – Australia and India. She deserves to be better remembered today in her native city than the condition of this building and its neighbours would indicate.
For further information on the IGS’s activities in Limerick this weekend, see: http://www.igs.ie/uploads/IGS_2014_Traditional_Building_Skills_Brochure_May.pdf
Built on a small island in the river Deel, Askeaton Castle, County Limerick dates from 1199 when built by the Norman settler William de Burgo. It subsequently became a stronghold for the FitzGerald Earls of Desmond but while surviving assault during that family’s rebellions against the English crown in the 16th century the castle was eventually dismantled around 1650 by the regicide Colonel Daniel Axtel when he was crushing opposition to Cromwell’s forces in this part of the country. Even as a ruin, its remains continue to dominate the surrounding landscape.