10 June 2017

Chasing my tail in search
of the Precentor’s stall
in Saint Mary’s Cathedral

The carved wyvern biting his tail under the seat in the precentor’s stall in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Earlier this week I was in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, not so much in search of the discreet grave of Prince Milo of Montenegro, as seeking out the original Precentor’s stall among the mediaeval misericords.

They were called misericords or mercy seats because each of the 23 seats had a ledge or lip that allowed the priest using it to tip up the seat and still rest on it, appearing to stand throughout lengthy choral services while still remaining seated.

These misericords are the only surviving examples in Ireland of this type of late mediaeval ecclesiastical furnishing. They were carved from oak from Cratloe in Co Clare, the same woods that had previously provided the oak beams for the roofs of both Westminster Hall and Saint Mary’s Cathedral.

Each seat or stall was assigned to an individual member of the cathedral chapter and the underside of almost every one of the seats is decorated with a beautiful, carved figure. Some represent fabulous creatures, others are symbols of the conflict between good and evil, others portray benign human beings.

As I went searching for what I wanted to claim affectionately as ‘my stall,’ I was reminded of similar misericords I saw in Saint Mary and Saint Nicholas Church in Beaumaris last year, dating from around the same time.

The Glentworth Chapel in Saint Mary’s Cathedral … was the screen designed by James Pain? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

But as I searched for the Precentor’s misericord, I was distracted yet again. For the past few months, I have been writing about the contributions to church architecture in Limerick by James Pain, and I was led to believe that this London-born, Limerick-based regency architect and his brother, George Richard Pain were the authors of some interesting features in Saint Mary’s Cathedral.

A recent booklet claimed: ‘In the early 19th century, the Pain brothers designed the Bishop’s Throne or Cathedra, the screen to the Glentworth Chapel, and the monument to Bishop John Jebb …’

Peter Galloway, in The Cathedrals of Ireland ((1992) says the Bishop’s Throne, which occupies the traditional place on the south side of the chancel, was designed by James Pain in 1831. The problem, however, is that none of these three works is attributed to either of the Pain brothers by other authorities, including the on-line Dictionary of Irish Architects and David Lee in his MA dissertation, ‘James and George Pain – Gothic Architects,’ supervised by Liam Irwin of the University of Limerick.

The statue of Bishop John Jebb is the work of the English sculptor Edward Hodges Baily (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Indeed, the statue of Bishop John Jebb was created in 1836 by the English sculptor Edward Hodges Baily (1788-1867), whose best-known work in the statue of Admiral Nelson on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London.

The cathedra or bishop’s throne in Saint Mary’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Not to be defeated, I found that the Pain brothers had been involved in other works in the cathedral.

In 1813-1816, James Pain probably designed the west porch of the cathedral, and he may also have designed the west porch and the Bow Lane gateway and lodge, which opened on Christmas Day 1813. Two years later, he may have been responsible too for reroofing the cathedral in 1815.

In 1823-1826, the Pain brothers designed the monument to the Revd William Deane Hoare, Vicar-General of the Diocese of Limerick, who died in an accident in 1823. This is their only known church memorial and was executed by Fitzgerald of Cork. In 1826, the Pain brothers also designed a Gothic wooden screen behind the altar. This cannot have been the screen in the Glentworth Chapel.

In 1841, James Pain designed the new entrance on Bridge Street. Two years later he designed a number of alterations in the cathedral, including the installation of a Perpendicular-style East Window.

Pain’s window was removed by William Slater when he was restoring the East End of the cathedral, and was installed in Saint Michael’s Church on Pery Square, Limerick. It was replaced in 1857 by a new East Window designed by William Slater in memory of Augustus O’Brien Stafford.

James Pain died on 13 December 1877, at the age of 97, and was buried on 17 December in the Vereker family vault in the churchyard of Saint Mary’s Cathedral. In his will, he makes bequests to many nephews and nieces including Sally, daughter of his brother George Richard Pain and wife of Henry Vereker of Limerick, which explains the place of his burial.

The West Door of Saint Mary’s Cathedral … James Pain’s west porch was removed in 1892 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

James Pain’s west porch was removed in 1892 and his Gothic wooden screen has been removed too. But even if I found none of Pain’s work in the cathedral this week, yes, eventually, I found the misericord that decorated the underside of the seat in the precentor’s stall.

Until the 19th century, the cathedral chapter consisted of the Dean, Precentor, Chancellor, Treasurer, Archdeacon, and the 11 prebendaries of Saint Munchin, Donoghmore, Ballycahane, Kilpeacon, Tullybracky, Killeedy, Disert, Ardcanny, Croagh, Athnett and Effin. The corps of the precentorship consisted of the rectories and vicarages of Kilfenny and Loughill, the rectories of Nantinan, Shanagolden, Knocknagaul and Dromdeely, and the vicarage of Morgans. In addition, the Precentor had the right of presentation to the vicarage of Dromdeely.

During William Slater's Gothicising restoration of the cathedral in 1859-1868, the chapter and the choir stalls with their misericords were moved from their traditional place in the chancel of the cathedral to the north and south transepts. Later they were stored below in the crypt. Thankfully they have been moved back up into the main body of the cathedral. Although not in their traditional place, they are now in the Jebb Chapel in the north aisle, where once again they can be seen in the light of day.

But far from the light of day this week, the precentor’s stall was hidden in a corner, behind a large chair that had been moved to create extra space for a mid-week recital in the cathedral.

The misericord under the precentor’s seat, displayed only when he tipped it up to allow himself to sit comfortably while standing at choral services that were part and parcel of his chapter responsibilities, shows a wyvern biting his tail, depicting not the battle between good evil but our own internal struggles.

Among the other stalls, the dean is represented by a human head wearing a chaperon, the treasurer’s seat is broken and has no carved figure, the chancellor has a wyvern or two-legged dragon, and the archdeacon has a cockatrice or two-headed lizard, portraying the role of the mediaeval archdeacon as both the eyes and ears of the bishop.

The Lion of Judah fighting a dragon … the symbol of the Prebendary of Donoghmore (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Other emblems include a two-legged one-horned goat, a griffin, a sphinx, a wild boar, an angel, a head said to resemble King Henry IV, antelopes with intertwined necks, a swan, an eagle, the Lion of Judah with a dragon, and a cockatrice holding its tail.

Perhaps I was chasing my tail as I searched for some of the works attributed to the Pain brothers. But, even if I never found out who carved the bishop’s cathedra or throne, at least I found the precentor’s stall among the misericords.

Meanwhile, the stalls of the Minor Canons of the cathedral, who no longer exist as a body, are stored away in the Glentworth Chapel.

The former stalls of the Minor Canons … hidden behind the monument in the Glentworth Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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