04 May 2017

General Synod 2017 and
five buildings in Limerick:
3, the Hunt Museum

The Hunt Museum, the former Custom House on Rutland Street, is a few minutes stroll from Saint Mary’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

The General Synod of the Church of Ireland is meeting in Limerick for three days this week, beginning with an opening Eucharist in Saint Mary’s Cathedral at 10 a.m. this morning (Thursday 4 May) and continuing until Saturday (6 May).

This week, from Tuesday to Saturday, I thought it would be interesting to introduce readers to some of these buildings in Limerick. I have written about Saint Mary’s Cathedral and other Limerick churches and buildings in the past. So this week, I am looking at five buildings that are no more than five minutes’ walking distance from the cathedral.

This morning, for my third choice, I am looking at the Hunt Museum in the Custom House on Rutland Street on the banks of the River Shannon, at its confluence with the Abbey River.

The museum’s collection includes works by notable artists and designers such as Pablo Picasso, Jack B. Yeats, and Sybil Connolly as well as distinctive historical items such as the O’Dea Mitre and Crozier and a 17th century chalice from the Rathkeale and Askeaton parishes.

The Custom House is, perhaps, the most distinguished 18th century building in Limerick and it is also rather unusual in comparison to other Georgian buildings in the city in that the exterior of the building is limestone rather than red brick.

This is an elegant Palladian-style building designed in 1765 by the enigmatic engineer and architect Davis Ducart. His other Palladian-style buildings in Ireland include Castletown Cox, Co. Kilkenny, Florence Court, Co. Fermanagh, and possibly Cappoquin House, Co Waterford.

Davis Ducart’s origins are uncertain. Writing to the Earl of Abercorn in 1768, William Brownlow says he ‘dropped into this Kingdom from the clouds, no one knows how, or what brought him to it.’ Brownlow calls him a Piedmontese, but he is also described as ‘an English Engineer who had been long in the Sardinian Service,’ ‘an Italian engineer and very ingenious architect,’ and ‘our French architect.’

In his will, he declares his real name was Daviso de Arcort. He claimed he was born and bred an engineer in the ‘hilly … parts adjacent to the Alps … so often visited by the English Nobility and Gentry.’ ‘D[avi]s D[ucar]t, Esq’ is one of the engineers lampooned in the Freeman’s Journal in 1770, when he is described as ‘a Gentleman Adventurer on board a French Privateer in the last War,’ who was taken prisoner and confined in the west of Ireland.

Whatever his origins, Ducart was active in Ireland as an engineer and as an architect in the 1760s and 1770s, first in Cork and then in Limerick, where he designed the Custom House.

He also worked for the Boyne Navigation Commissioners in Drogheda, and became involved in Co Tyrone in ‘Ducart’s Canal,’ the first and only canal in Ireland to use a system of inclined planes rather than locks to raise or lower boats from one level to another. This innovation was not a success, and the canal fell into disuse after only a few years.

He died in 1781, and his will mentions his friends James Fortescue of Ravensdale Park, John Townsend of Castle Townsend and Frederick Hervey, Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry.

Some writers suggest he was with the he Lafranchini family of stuccadores and with Thomas Penrose of Cork. His critics said he had uncouth taste and was actually ignorant of the common rules and proportions of architecture, ‘eternally committing mistakes and blunders.’

Whatever his origins, skills and abilities, both the ‘Captain’s Room’ and the ‘Red Staircase’ in the former Custom House are elegant examples of Georgian architecture and are testament to the optimism that Limerick experienced in the period of development and expansion in the late 18th century.

The Custom House was the administrative centre in Limerick for the Revenue Commissioners (including Customs and Excise) and the home of the Customs Collector in the 18th century. In the 1840s, with the introduction of a new postal system, a Penny Post Office was opened in the Custom House.

The Office of Public Works undertook the major restoration and refurbishment of the building, completing it in 1996, and the Custom House opened as the Hunt Museum 20 years ago, on 14 February 1997.

Today, the Hunt Museum holds a personal collection donated by the Hunt family, originally held in the University of Limerick.

The museum holds about 2,500 different artefacts from Ireland and abroad. The collection includes drawings by Picasso and a bronze horse once thought to be a design by Leonardo da Vinci for a large monument. The collection includes mediaeval Christian pieces such as the Antrim Cross, an early ninth-century cast bronze and enamel cross, the Cashel Bell, and the Hohenzollern Crucifix.

Yesterday: the Gerald Griffin Memorial Schools.

Tomorrow: Baal’s Bridge.

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