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

A Great House that had Lost its Pride


Half a century ago, in 1968, the big house at Kilballyowen, County Limerick was demolished. As its then-owner Lt.-Col. Gerald Vigors de Courcy O’Grady – whose family have been based there for hundreds of years – recalled some time later, ‘The huge rooms were too big to live in; it was impossible to live in a house of that nature. If you could live there in warm conditions – yes. It was just a necessity. No I didn’t just want to leave it empty, so there are no remains. I do not like living near ruins; there are too many around here.’ His wife commented that by the late 1960s the house ‘was in a terrifying state of repair and we did not have the money to fix it. We had thought of selling just the house, but then we were afraid we might lose the land as well. It was a great house that had lost its pride.’ There was no support for the owners and no state interest in the preservation of such properties. And so, like very many others, Kilballyowen came down.




The surname O’Grady derives from the Irish Ó Grádaigh or Ó Gráda, meaning ‘noble’. The O’Grady family originally lived in East County Clare where they were based in the area around Tuamgraney (where they built a tower house adjacent to what is now the oldest centre of continuous religious worship in Ireland, St Cronan’s which dates from the 10th century). During the Middle Ages various O’Gradys frequently held high positions in the Roman Catholic Church. It helped that clerical celibacy was then not much enforced. Thus in 1332 Eoin (or John) O’Grady became Archbishop of Cashel and, in 1366 his son, also called John, became Archbishop of Tuam. In turn, the latter’s son, another John O’Grady, was made Bishop of Elphin in 1405. At the same time they were frequently at war with other families in the area, not least their distant cousins and former allies, the O’Briens who eventually drove the O’Gradys out of Clare. One of the family, a younger son called Hugh O’Grady had in the early 14th century married a daughter of the head of the O Ciarmhaic family in Knockainy in east Limerick and this would lead their descendants to settle at Kilballyowen. There successive male heirs became the head of the family and were known as The O’Grady.





The core of the now-demolished Kilballyowen was a tower house dating from c.1500, around which a house had been built in the first half of the 18th century, and then further extended by a new wing in 1810: in 1837 Samuel Lewis described the property as ‘a handsome modern building in a richly planted demesne.’ The building had a five-bay façade with a two-bay projecting extension to one side: the garden front featured a three-bay breakfront. Nothing of the house remains but the stableyard to the immediate north-west remains. Set around an open court, the four blocks are of almost equal dimensions and contain carriage houses, stalls and accommodation for the employees who would formerly have worked here. Although in poor repair, the buildings still bear testimony to the character of the old house. Had times been different, had it survived even a decade or two longer, might Kilballyowen be standing yet? What happened here also happened right across the country during the 1950s and ‘60s. While better support mechanisms are now in place to provide some assistance, they are relatively modest, thereby leaving much of our stock of historic houses at risk. The story of Kilballyowen, a great house that had lost its pride, is a too-frequent story in Ireland.

The Balbec of Ireland


‘Some sixteen miles from Limerick, in the direction of Cork, the Irish Balbec claims the attention of the passer by. It is a place to arouse sympathies with departed greatness; to remind the sojourner that earthly fabrics bow to Time. Here is a combination of ancient glory and present debasement – faded grandeur and upstart pretension, not to be rivalled, perhaps, in any other land…
The place was anciently called Killochia, Kilmocheallog, and Kilmaloge, whence Kilmallock, or the church of Moloch, from an abbey for Canons Regular, founded here by St Mocheallog, or Moloch, at the beginning of the seventh century. The absence of early records in this country prevents our tracing its history for several centuries; but the magnificence of the ruins, which obtained for it the proud, but mournful, appellation of the Balbec of Ireland, evince its progress to distinction. Who were the great men that directed its measures – who presided over its religious houses, taught in its schools, or governed its forces, we know not; all its earlier history is lost in the obscurity of its remote origin, and the interest given to every spot trodden by the good or the brave, of days when the land was the Land of Saints, is unfelt.’





James FitzGerald ‘was created Earl of Desmond by patent A.D.1600 and took up his residence at Kilmallock under the protection of the Lord President of Munster [George Carew]. The joy of the followers of the race of Fitz-Gerald knew no bounds, at the prospect of again beholding one of the hereditary chieftains, under whom they and their fathers so long lived. Crowds thronged all the streets, doors and windows, “yea, the very gutters and tops of the houses were filled, as if they came to see him whom God had sent to be the comfort and delight their soules and heartes most desired; and they welcomed him with all the expressions and signs of joy; every one throwing upon him wheat and salt, as a prediction of future peace and plenty.”…
Yet this was to be all shortly changed. The next day was Sunday, and the Earl attended service in the parish church. When the followers of Desmond learned that their lord had forsaken the faith of his fathers, their hearts were utterly alienated from him. At first they tried expostulation, imploring him, on their knees, to return to the ancient creed; he refused to abandon the religion he was reared in [the Anglican church] and urged the spirit of toleration to be inculcated by the gospel. This by no means satisfied their views; they reviled him as an apostate, looking on him as a spy from England – an instrument employed to sap the foundations of their Church; and the voices which the day before uttered blessings, now inverted their prayers, and heaped curses on his head. They denied his right to the title of Desmond; every ignominy was cast on him as he passed through Kilmallock; and not being able to stir without insult and reproach, he left the town and returned to England. His death seems to have made little sensation, as the following account of it in the Pacata Hibernia shows. “The 11th (January 1601), the Lord President had intelligence from England, that James (the late restored Earl of Desmond) was dead, and that eighteen hundred quarters of oates were sent into Munster for the reliefe of oure horses”.





‘An abbey near the town is partly in ruins and partly preserved – the latter portion [where the Earl of Desmond attempted to worship in 1600] used as the parish church. It was dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, and was used in the days of monastic institution as a collegiate church, consisting of nave, aisles and transepts, and beautiful and noble it must have been in its former splendour, and still with its lines of pillars, massy and grey – lofty pointed arches springing from the square shafts – the lancet-shaped windows of five lights yet preserved, and the sculptured memorials of the Knights and their dames, who when living frequented it, all to pray for victory, or to pray for the repose of those who had fallen in the fight, preserves many a point of picturesque beauty.’


Extracts from Kilmallock – The Balbec of Ireland, in The Irish National Magazine, And Weekly Journal of Literature, Science and Art, Saturday, July 11, 1846.

A Tantalising Hint


A former gate lodge to Elm Park, otherwise known as Clarina Park, County Limerick. Designed by brothers James and George Pain, the house here was built 1833-36 for Eyre Massey, third Baron Clarina following the latter’s marriage to 18-year old heiress Susan Barton (her father was the Hiberno-French wine baron Hugh Barton). Built at the cost of £50,000 with an abundance of towers and castellations, Elm Park was demolished in the early 1960s. Today this lodge, the carriageway since enclosed to increase accommodation, is one of the few extant buildings to give a tantalising hint of the lost house’s appearance.

When Captain Rock Called

All that remains of the former Church of Ireland church in the village of Athlacca, County Limerick. Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) notes of this building, ‘The church, built by aid of a loan of £560 from the late Board of First Fruits, in 1813, was burnt by the Rockites in 1822; and the present church, a small but neat edifice, with a tower and lofty spire, was erected in the following year by a cess levied on the parish.’ The ‘Rockites’ were supporters of a widespread agrarian revolt across south-west Ireland during 1821-24, the name derived from a mythical ‘Captain Rock’ who was supposedly their leader. Athlacca church remained in use until 1942 after which the greater part of the building was demolished, leaving just the tower and spire as a reminder of what once stood here.

 

For Fine Dining



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.


The Old New

img_7698
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.

img_7694