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.