One of Ireland’s lesser known mediaeval monuments: the 15th century Desmond Banqueting Hall in Newcastle West, County Limerick. Built on the remains of an earlier structure (the remains of lancet windows on the south wall suggest it may once have served as a chapel), the hall sits above a vaulted lower chamber. The building was part of a castle complex developed here by the FitzGerald family, Earls of Desmond who remained in occupation until the end of the 16th century. The castle then passed into the possession of the Courtenays, later Earls of Devon, but was badly damaged during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s and likely not occupied thereafter (an adjacent house, occupied by the Courtenays’ agent, was burnt in 1922 during the Civil War). The Banqueting Hall was restored some years ago when an oak screen and musicians’ gallery were installed, along with a hooded limestone chimneypiece.
Evening light falls on the remains of the ‘New Church’ by Lough Gur, County Limerick. Originally dating from the 15th century when built by the Earls of Desmond, in 1642 it was described as a ruin. However, the church was restored in 1679 when Rachel, Dowager Countess of Bath (whose late husband had inherited a large amount of land in the area) presented a chalice and patten to what she described as her ‘chapel-of-ease’ as well as an endowment of £20 to provide for a chaplain. By the 19th century it once again became a ruin but conservation work was undertaken in 1900 on the instruction of the seventh Count de Salis, whose forebears had inherited the Bath estates here. Today the church is once more a ruin. Tradition has it that the composer and harpist Thomas Connellan who died nearby in 1698 is buried here in an unmarked grave.
The County Limerick town of Kilmallock derives its name from a Saint Mocheallóg who in the late sixth/early seventh centuries established a religious house in the vicinity: the name thus derives from the Irish Cill Mocheallóg meaning ‘the church of Mocheallóg.’ Following the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, Kilmallock grew in importance to become second only to the city of Limerick in this part of the country. It subsequently became a stronghold of the FitzGerald Earls of Desmond and owing to a location between Cork and Limerick became a centre for both trade and government.
Evidence of Kilmallock’s former significance can be found in various old buildings, not least the Dominican priory of St Saviour. Located outside the town walls close to the river Loobagh, this house was established in 1291 when with the consent of King Edward I the friars bought land from one of Kilmallock’s burgesses John Bluet. However, Gerald le Marshall, then-bishop of Limerick who held authority over the area disapproved of this transaction taking place without his approval and had the Dominicans expelled from the site. An inquiry held in Cashel by William de Vesci, one of the country’s Lords Justices, ruled that le Marshall should not acted as he did since the friars owed no rent or service to the bishop for their priory. Soon afterwards they returned and remained in residence for several centuries.
St Saviour’s Priory retains a number of fine features, many of them added thanks to patronage by the local FitzGerald family: a niche-tomb believed to commemorate one of them can be seen on the northern wall of the chancel. The core of the extant buildings date from the late 13th/early 14th centuries when the main body of the church was constructed. The tall crossing tower was added in the 15th century, as was the southern transept with its elaborate window. To the north lies the cloister, one side of which has been reconstructed to give an impression of how it would once have appeared. Throughout the site are various carvings in different states of preservation featuring human heads and foliage.
Kilmallock’s strategic importance made it vulnerable to attack from which religious houses were not protected. In 1570 during the first Desmond Rebellion James FitzMaurice FitzGerald, cousin of the fifteenth Earl of Desmond (then in custody in London) burnt the town, leaving it, as the Annals of the Four Masters reported, ‘the receptacle and abode of wolves.’ Already by that date the priory had officially been closed but it appears the friars were still in the area, if not in occupation of the buildings. In 1648 during the Confederate War, Murrough O’Brien, first Earl of Inchiquin sacked the priory and executed two of the remaining friars. Yet even in the 18th century the Dominicans continued to be a presence, three of them recorded in Kilmallock in 1756. The site was finally abandoned thereafter and fell into ruin but has been the scene of extensive restoration work in more recent times.
What remains of The Grange, County Limerick. Dating from the second half of the 18th century, it was described by William Wilson in 1786 as ‘the beautiful and well improved seat of Standish O’Grady.’ The property remained with the O’Gradys until that branch of the family died out in 1861 after which it passed to the Crokers, to whom they were related by marriage. But Captain Edward Croker likewise had no heirs and The Grange was inherited by his two sisters. The house was still intact in the 1940s but thereafter began to deteriorate and is now just a shell. The 19th century entrance gates give an idea how this beautiful and well improved seat must once have looked.
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.