25 February 2017

Waiting at the great West Door of
Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick

The great West Door of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, is only used on ceremonial occasions (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I am told that the ancient West Door of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, is now only used on ceremonial occasions.

It was not opened last Sunday evening as I was being installed as Precentor in the joint chapter of the cathedrals of Limerick, Killaloe and Clonfert. Perhaps this great West Door is only opened on occasions such as the enthronement of a new bishop.

According to tradition, the last King of Munster, Domnall Mór Ua Briain, founded Saint Mary’s Cathedral on the site of his palace almost 850 years ago on King’s Island in 1168. His palace had been built on the site of the Viking meeting place, or Thingmote – the Vikings’ most westerly European stronghold – and this had been the centre of government in the early mediaeval Viking city.

Parts of the palace may have been incorporated into the present cathedral building, including the great west door. Indeed, local tradition claims this door was once the original main entrance to the royal palace.

The west door is made of sandstone with foliate capitals, and was possibly taken from the earlier church. Until the 17th century, this was door was the main entrance to the cathedral. It was heavily restored in the 19th century.

Today, the Romanesque West Door faces the Courthouse and parts of the transepts were the oldest parts of the building. Brian Hodkinson, who carried out excavations in the Cathedral, surmised that the Romanesque West Door came from the earlier building on the site and was incorporated later into the new structure.

For centuries, the Bishops of Limerick have knocked on this door before entering the cathedral for their enthronement ceremony.

The Romanesque doorway has an impressive collection of carvings of chevrons and patterns. These may have inspired the traditions say that during the many sieges of Limerick the defenders of the city used the stones around the west door to sharpen their swords and arrows, and that the marks they made in the stonework can be seen there today.

Although the West Door was closed throughout my installation last weekend, I managed earlier to climb the cobbled walkway and steps leading up to the West Door. Looking back, I could see how if this was once the Royal Palace of Munster, it commanded a strategic position above the banks of the River Shannon.

Above me was the cathedral tower standing at 120 ft high and dating from the 15th century. The belfry also dates from the 15th century and contains eight bells, six of which were presented to the cathedral in 1673 by William Yorke, three times Mayor of Limerick.

Before the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, the Precentors of Limerick were also Rectors and Vicars of Kilfenny and Loughill, Rectors of Nantinan, Shanagolden, Knocknagaul and Dromdeely, and Vicars of Morgans, and also presented the Vicars of Dromdeely.

Many of these, including Loughill, Nantinan and Shanagolden are now in the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes, where I am the priest-in-charge. I imagine there are more chances of doors being opened to me there than the west door of Limerick Cathedral being opened for me.

The West Door of Saint Mary’s Cathedral was once the main entrance to the royal palace in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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