04 March 2017

Listowel’s architectural legacy in
the stucco art of Pat McAuliffe

The ‘Maid of Erin’ … the best-known work of stucco art and architecture by Pat McAuliffe in Listowel, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on images for full-screen views)

Patrick Comerford

I am beginning to realise the vast extent of my parish boundaries. I was in Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, in Tarbert, earlier this week, and that is over 30 km west of Askeaton. From there, it was more than 18 km to Listowel, and after 50 km on the road, two of us were still within the bounds of the parish.

Listowel is one of Ireland’s 26 ‘Heritage Towns’ and the home to Ireland’s oldest and leading literary festival, Listowel Writers’ Week, which takes place this year from 31 May to 4 June. It is the home of writers such as Bryan MacMahon, John B Keane, Brendan Kennelly, George Fitzmaurice, and Maurice Walsh, and the town claims to be the ‘Literary Capital of Ireland.’

John B Keane wrote once:

Listowel where it is easier to write than not to write …

Naturally, during a short visit on a wet, rainy afternoon, I found time to browse in Woulfe’s bookshop on Church Street, and I also went in search of Saint John’s, the former Church of Ireland parish church which is now a local arts centre, John B Keane’s statue and his former pub on William Street.

But I had never been to Listowel before, and in I also wanted to see some of the town’s architectural heritage, and the work of the great stucco and architectural artist Pat McAuliffe (1846–1921), who used stucco to decorate the façades of townhouses, shops and pubs throughout Listowel.

McAuliffe’s work has left the streets of Listowel with a distinctive architectural and artistic legacy in the colour and variety of the shop fronts he designed, and his oeuvre reveals an awareness of classical narratives. He lived and worked in Listowel as a builder and plasterer.

His wonderfully detailed shop and house façades are an eclectic mixture of classical, art nouveau, Celtic and Byzantine influences. They are important examples of the late 19th century pan-European quest for a national style, and remind me of the style of stucco work by my great-grandfather, James Comerford (1817-1902), at the Irish House on Wood Quay and the Oarsman in Ringsend, Dublin. Traces of his work can also be found throughout Listowel and in the surrounding region.

Pat McAuliffe lived and worked in Listowel from 1846 to 1921. In a career as a builder he applied exterior plaster, or stucco, upon shopfronts and townhouses. From the 1870s onwards he began to develop an ambitious and often exuberant style within the compositional framing of façades of everyday buildings in this region.

The ‘Maid of Erin’ is part of Pat McAuliffe’s work on the former Central Hotel in Listowel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Traces of McAuliffe’s work can also be found throughout Listowel and in the surrounding region. His best-known stucco work, undoubtedly, is ‘The Maid of Erin’ at the former Central Hotel in 12 Main Street, facing The Square.

This terraced two-bay, three-storey house, was built ca 1870 as one of a pair. In 1912, McAuliffe renovated the wooden shopfront of Potter’s public house and inn, and rendered ‘JM Galvin’ on the fascia, for new owner, Jeremiah M Galvin. His stucco sculpture above an elaborate cornice has since become the most widely known example of McAuliffe’s work.

The location of this building at the primary entrance to Listowel’s main square was an appropriate place for what is a monumental work, reflecting then-prominent constitutional nationalist desires.

A sunburst motif rises from the horizon of a scroll featuring the title ‘Central Hotel.’ Below this, the figure of Erin leans upon her harp, with a wolfhound at her feet and a round tower beside her. McAuliffe’s arabesque symmetry, Scandinavian strapwork, urns, and acanthus-leaf motifs are used to frame the symbolic sculptural rendering between the first-floor windows.

The political climate at the time demanded that public representations of Erin often presented her a person of aesthetic beauty. But McAuliffe challenged these norms with his large-scale figurative work, presenting sculptural, architectural, political and social challenges to the norms of the day.

The Maid of Erin is portrayed as topless, a heavy-set woman, barefoot, clearly of and for the land, resting upon a mound that is the island of her destiny. This massed shape has shamrock embellishments, loose Celtic interlacing and the text ‘Erin go Bragh’ (‘Ireland forever’) upon its surface.

In the mid-1980s, the premises was renamed the ‘Maid of Erin’ in her honour, but in the process the original McAuliffe lettering on the fascia board was destroyed.

The Maid herself was at the centre of a controversy in 1999 when a new owner decided to ‘cover her dignity’ and have a dress painted over her ample, bare bosom. A debate ensued and he was persuaded to return her to her original semi-naked state.

The Horseshoe Bar … an early pub front by Pat McAuliffe in Listowel, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

One of Pat McAuliffe’s earliest works in Listowel may be the nearby Horseshoe Bar at William Street was built ca 1840 as a terraced, single-bay, three-storey house with a dormer attic. It was renovated, ca1895, with render pilaster pub-front that has been attributed to McAuliffe, whose work here includes panelled pilasters, paired consoles and a moulded cornice.
The premises was extensively renovated in late 20th century, with single-storey recessed canted oriel windows inserted to the upper floors and the addition of a dormer attic.

The Harp and Lion on Church Street, Listowel … Pat McAuliffe’s design for PM Keane’s public house (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

McAuliffe’s last major work in Listowel was completed on the public house of Patrick M Keane, a terraced, two-bay, three storey house at 44 Church Street. Today, the premises is known as ‘The Harp and Lion’ because of his sculptural details.

This terraced, two-bay three-storey house was built ca 1840 as part of a terrace of four, and was renovated by McAuliffe ca 1915. Here he favoured a more focussed installation with a sculptural shield on the first floor, placed between the windows.

His first-floor composition consists of a lion upon an entablature, surmounting the harp beneath. The lion gazes out towards the street, indeed seemingly protective of the emblem of Ireland.

This arrangement is enclosed by scrolled mouldings, with Latin, French and Irish slogans: ‘Spes Mea in Deo’ (‘In God we trust’), ‘Maison de Ville’ (‘House of the Town’) and ‘Erin go Brath’ (‘Ireland Forever’). The shield is completed with rendered heads at each end of the entablature and zoomorphic motifs clutching onto shamrocks around the harp.

The harp and lion represent the prevailing constitutional nationalism of the early 20th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Pilasters at each side of the front consist of symmetrical strap-work patterns, above capitals that each feature incised plaster impressions of a songbird.

Consoles jut forward, each embellished with arabesque decoration. The original cresting above the cornice has since disappeared, as over time metal armatures encased in the plaster have oxidized and expanded, splitting and cracking the plaster around it.

After these difficulties were identified in the late 1960s, renovation work began. A delicate skeletal-pattern infill was replaced by a more pronounced arrangement of harped motifs and round-headed dividing blocks, made in metal.

The original fascia board, with the lettering ‘PM Keane,’ has been missing since a change in ownership change in the 1980s. At the same time, arrow motifs at either side were lost. The loss of all these detail is unfortunate, considering the vibrant Celto-Byzantine and Art Nouveau-led styling of this façade. The Harp and Lion is now an attractive antique shop.

The New Kingdom Bar at No 85 Church Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Further along Church Street, on the opposite side, the New Kingdom Bar at No 85 is a terraced, three-bay two-storey house, built ca 1880, as a pair with the adjoining house.

No 85 was renovated ca by Pat McAuliffe, with his render pilaster pub front inserted to the ground floor having panelled pilasters and corbelled moulded cornice. He also added render façade enrichments, there are rendered walls with render quoins to the upper floor and a render sill course at the first floor.

Each window on the first floor of the New Kingdom Bar has a figure as a keystone to the tympanum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The pedimented render window cases with pilasters and cornices on corbels to the first floor, and each has a figure to a tympanum as a keystone.

The Star and Garter had lost much of Pat McAuliffe’s original work (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Much of Pat McAuliffe’s original work on the neighbouring Star and Garter at No 83 has since been lost. Here, he completed his pub front design across a two-storey, three-bay building.

Only the architrave and quoin detail remain today. The lost embellishments include two dragons that had been delicately placed above an upper storey cornice and flamingos picking at grapes.

Recent fieldwork in the North Kerry and West Limerick region indicates that 35 to 40 buildings in this area may been be the work of McAuliffe. There is more his work that I need to find in the streets of Listowel and throughout this group of parishes.

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