23 February 2016

An afternoon exploring the history
of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick

Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Limerick stands on the site of the O’Brien palace and the Viking meeting Thingmote (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Last weekend’s visit to Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Limerick for a lecture on the 1916 Rising and to take part in the installation of new canons, also offered the opportunity to soak in the history and heritage of the oldest building in Limerick that remains in continuous daily use.

Saint Mary’s Cathedral was founded almost 850 years ago in 1168, but the Diocese of Limerick predates the cathedral by more than half a century. Saint Mary’s Cathedral, which is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, is one of the three cathedrals in the United Dioceses of Limerick and Killaloe, alongside Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, Co Clare, and Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Clonfert, Co Galway.

The cathedral stands on a hill on an island that is the oldest part of Limerick. This is the much older site of the former palace of the O’Brien Kings of Thomond. The palace, in turn, had been built on the site of the Viking meeting place, or Thingmote – the Vikings’ most westerly stronghold in Europe. The Thingmote had been the centre of government in the early mediaeval Viking city when it was captured by Brian Boru. The O’Briens moved their centre of power from Killaloe to Limerick.

A century later, Bishop Gilbert of Limerick (1107-1140), as the Papal Legate, presided at the Synod of Ráth Breasail in 1111. The Diocese of Limerick was formally recognised at that synod, and it was agreed that Saint Mary’s Church would become the cathedral.

However, building work on a new cathedral did not begin until 1168, and Donal Mór O’Brien, who was fifth in descent from Brian Boru and the last King of Munster, founded the cathedral on the site of his palace on King’s Island. King Donal also built the cathedral on top of the Rock of Cashel in Co Tipperary, Saint Flannan’s Cathedral in Killaloe, and Holy Cross Abbey, Co Tipperary.

Parts of the O’Brien palace may have been incorporated into the new cathedral in Limerick, and tradition says the Romanesque great west door was the original main entrance to the O’Brien royal palace.

Most of the building work was carried out between 1180 and 1195. The cathedral was enlarged by Donat O’Brien about 1200, was completed about 1207, and was further adorned by Bishop Eustace de l’Eau (1312-1336) in the early 14th century.

Saint Mary’s Cathedral is 51.8 metres long from east to west and 27.4 metres wide from north to south (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Saint Mary’s is 51.8 metres long from east to west, and 27.4 metres wide from north to south, measuring through the transepts. The original plan of the church was in the form of a Latin cross. Additions were made two centuries later when Stephen Wall was Bishop of Limerick (1360-1369).

The tower and stepped battlements give the cathedral a castellated appearance (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The tower, which was added in the 14th century, rises to 36.58 meters. The tower and stepped battlements give the cathedral the appearance of a castle from some angles. The design has strong indications of both Romanesque and Gothic styles of architecture with Romanesque arches and doorways and Gothic windows. But the cathedral is not pure in any one style, and the plan and elevation give the impression that the design was altered during the course of building.

The interior of the cathedral, with its thick walls and piers supporting the wooden roof, retains many mediaeval features. The walls are relatively plain, with a rubble stone surface. Yet, despite the thickness of the walls, the cathedral is remarkably bright inside, mainly because of the larger windows inserted during various Victorian restorations.

The carved misericords are a unique feature in the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Perhaps the most famous features in Saint Mary’s are the carved misericords that were once in the choir. These misericords are unique in Ireland and are the only surviving pre-Elizabethan carvings. They probably date from 1480-1500, perhaps from the restoration work carried out by the last pre-Reformation Bishop of Limerick, John Folan (1489-1522).

In the early church, priests stood for most service, and sitting was prohibited. The lip on the edge of each of these seats allowed the clergy to rest while the seats were tipped up, so that they appeared to be standing but were allowed to sit in act of mercy – hence misericords.

Of the 21 carvings, 16 are different, with mediaeval emblems such as a two-legged one-horned goat, a griffin, a sphinx, a wild boar, an angel, a head resembling Henry IV, a dragon biting its tail, antelopes with inter-twined necks, a swan, an eagle, the Lion of Judah with a dragon, as well as a human head wearing a ‘chaperon’ under the stall reserved for the Dean, a cockatrice or two-headed lizard holding its tail the Archdeacon of Limerick, a wyvern or two-legged dragon biting its tail for the Canon-Precentor, another wyvern for the Canon-Chancellor – the seat for the Canon-Treasurer is broken.

The chapter once consisted of the Dean, Precentor, Chancellor, Treasurer, Archdeacon, and the 11 prebendaries of Sain Munchin, Donoghmore, Ballycahane, Kilpeacon, Tullabracky, Killeedy, Dysert, Ardcanny, Croagh, Athnett or Anhid, and Effin.

The Pery arms on the stall once reserved for the Earl of Limerick as Prior of Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

At the west end of the cathedral, beside the West Door, is another unusual stall, once reserved for the Earls of Limerick who also hold the anomalous and unusual title of Prior of Limerick.

The first member of the Pery family to settle in Ireland was William Pery, who died ca 1635. His descendants intermarried with the family of Edmond Sexten, Mayor of Limerick in 1535, one of the principal figures in the dissolution of the monasteries at the Reformation.

In 1543, Edmund Sexten secured a royal grant of Saint Mary’s Abbey or Priory in the Englishtown of Limerick. His grandson, also Edmund Sexten (died 1637), also a Mayor of Limerick, spent much of his life fighting battles with the city corporation. He claimed immunity from the lands of two dissolved abbeys from the jurisdiction of the mayor and corporation and claimed to two votes in elections for the mayor and councillors because he was the successor to the priors of Saint Mary’s. These grants were confirmed in a royal patent in 1609.

His only daughter, Susannah Sexten (died 1671), married Edmond Pery of Croom, Co Limerick (d.1655). Their son, Colonel Edmond Pery, successfully claimed the right as Prior of Saint Mary’s to have two votes in the common council of Limerick City.

His descendant, Edmund Sexten Pery, was Speaker in the Irish House of Commons (1771-1785) began to lay out Newtown Pery, which forms the nucleus of the modern city of Limerick. His brother, William Cecil Pery (1721-1794) was Dean of Killaloe (1772-1780), Dean of Derry (1780-1781), Bishop of Killala (1781-1784), and Bishop of Limerick (1784-1794), as well as receiving the title of Baron Glentworth (1790). His son, Edmund Pery (1758-1844), was given the additional titles of Viscount Limerick (1800), Earl of Limerick (1803), and Baron Foxford (1815).

The striking, large statue of Bishop John Jebb in the Jebb Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The cathedral is entered through the south porch, with the Pery or Glentworth Chapel belonging to the family of the Earls of Limerick on the left side and on the right the Consistory Court, which was once laid out as a mediaeval hall.

In the nave and aisles are several recesses, formerly endowed as chapels by powerful local families. These include the O’Brien Chapel, the Jebb Chapel, the Holy Spirit Chapel, the Saint James and Saint Mary Magdalene Chapel, and the former Baptistery.

The Jebb Chapel has a striking, large statue of Bishop John Jebb (1823-1833), who is regarded as a forerunner of the Oxford Movement. The Chapel of the Holy Spirit in the North Transept, has a ‘Leper’s Squint’ in the north wall.

The reredos and original high altar in the Lady Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

At the East End of the Cathedral, beyond the Glentworth Choir Screen, the Lady Chapel has a redredos carved in 1907 by James Pearse, father of the 1916 rebel Patrick Pearse.

The altar in Lady Chapel is 4 metres long (13 ft), weighs three tons and is the cathedral’s original, pre-Reformation High Altar from the cathedral. In 1651, after Oliver Cromwell captured Limerick, his parliamentary army used the cathedral as a stable – a fate suffered by other cathedrals during the Cromwellian campaign in Ireland. His troops also removed the altar and dumped it in the River Shannon. But it was recovered from the riverbed in the 1960s and was reinstated.

The altar is carved from a single block of limestone and is said to be the largest such altar in Ireland and Britain. The beautiful pale blue frontal was woven by Anglican nuns in Dublin who were inspired by motifs in the Book of Kells.

I was seated on Saturday afternoon on the south side of the Lady Chapel. Facing me, on the north side of the Lady Chapel, is a large monument with effigies of Donough O’Brien, 4th Earl of Thomond, and his wife, Elizabeth FitzGerald. This monument was also badly vandalised by Cromwell’s troops.

This splendid tomb is composed of three compartments, of marble of different colours, and is surrounded and supported by pillars of the Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite orders, and decorated with his arms and various trophies. Below it is the coffin lid of the founder of Saint Mary’s, Donal Mór O’Brien, who died in 1194.

The Glentworth Screen invites the visitor into the Lady Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Like many mediaeval cathedrals and churches in Ireland, Saint Mary’s benefitted or suffered – depending on your point of view – from heavy restoration work in the Victorian era. In 1856-1863, the English architect William Slater restored the east end, adding a new east window as a memorial to Augustus O’Brien Stafford. One of the many subscribers to the window was Florence Nightingale.

The Romanesque doorway at the west side is an impressive carving of chevrons and patterns, but it was severely damaged in restoration work carried out in 1895, so that only the hood and the innermost of the four orders are original.

Local tradition says that during the many sieges of Limerick soldiers used the stones around the west door to sharpen their swords and arrows, and that they left the marks that can be seen in the stonework to this day. But looking down on the river from the West Door, I could understand the strategic position of this ancient building above the banks of the River Shannon.

The Romaneque doorway at the west end of the cathedral


Sharon said...

A lovely review of our beautiful St. Mary's Cathedral.

Ian Smith said...

Thank you so much for the information, it has proved very useful. Cheers from Down Under, Ian Smith

Peter Danaher said...

Love the Cathedral. my relative Patrick Danaher, was born in Balingarry, Limerick. Any information on his parents? we were there in March(Ireland), But fell sick in Contarf Castle
and didn't make it to Limerick.
Peter Danaher