23 August 2017

How Arthurs Quay moved
from Georgian houses to
slums before becoming
a shopping centre

Arthurs Quay Shopping Centre … on the site of once elegant Georgian houses that became slums (Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Arthurs Quay is a bright shopping centre in the heart of Limerick. I was there earlier this week [22 August 2017] to visit a book shop and to have a coffee. But I was interested too to read its history and to realise that this shopping centre stands on the site of a once elegant collection of terraced Georgian houses that became one of the worst slums in Limerick.

Arthurs Quay shopping centre takes its name from the Arthur family, who first came to Ireland in the 1170s. Thomas Arthur was granted an estate in Emly, Co Limerick, by Henry II in 1178.

By the 13th century, the Arthur family had settled in Limerick city, and they became a prominent mediaeval merchant family. Many family members became mayors and reeves (judges) in the city. Between 1365 and 1635, members of the Arthur family were Mayor of Limerick on 58 occasions.

Nicholas Arthur, who born in Limerick in 1405, was Mayor of Limerick no less than seven times. While sailing to England in 1428, Nicholas was captured by Breton pirates who plundered him of all his property and sold off his ship in St Malo. He was held captive for two years on Mont Saint-Michel, and was released only when a ransom demand was paid. He died in 1465 and was buried in the ancestral tomb in Saint Mary's Cathedral, Limerick.

Thomas Arthur was Bishop of Limerick in 1468-1486. He had five brothers, four of whom were Mayor of Limerick while the fifth was the City Bailiff.

Bishop Richard Arthur (1623-1646) gives his name to the Arthur Crucifix and the Arthur Chalice which are on display in the Hunt Museum, near Arthurs Quay.

An exiled member of the family, Robert Arthur, was born in Paris and was caught up in the events of French Revolution as a close friend of Robespierre. He was executed by the guillotine in 1794.

By the mid-18th century, the Arthur family were prosperous Catholic merchants in Limerick. Patrick Arthur, and his son Francis Arthur, ran their businesses from nearby Denmark Street.

When the old mediaeval city walls were pulled down in the 1760s, work began on expanding and building Georgian Limerick, and the Arthur family played an important role in the early development of the new town.

Patrick Arthur built Arthur’s Quay in 1773 to provide harbour facilities for his timber ships. His son and business partner, Francis Arthur, became involved in property development and financed the building of triangular block of Georgian terraced houses on the site now occupied by the Arthurs Quay Shopping Centre.

Whether intentional or not, this triangular block was in the shape of the letter A for Arthur, so that the Arthur family could be said to have left a permanent mark on the shape of Limerick’s streetscape.

The housing development was completed by 1791, and the houses were rented out or let, with the terraces becoming the homes of many comfortable merchant, professional and middle class families.

The Arthur family gave their name to a number of streets in the area, including Francis Street, Patrick Street, Ellen Street and Arthur’s Quay.

However, with the development of Georgian Limerick by the Pery family in the late 18th and the early 19th century, Arthurs Quay quickly became an unfashionable address.

Further damage was done to the area one evening 180 years ago, 3 January 1837, when a store of gunpowder exploded at Richardson’s gun shop at No 1 George’s Street, killing 15 people, injuring many others and damaging the houses in the area. The site of gun-shop is now a corner on O’Connell Street, opposite the main entrance to the present shopping centre.

By the middle of the 19th century it was unfashionable to live in the houses on Arthurs Quay. According to Limerick historian Maurice Lenihan, by 1866 the houses on the quay were occupied by petty dealers and turf vendors.

By the end of Queen Victoria's reign, the terrace houses had fallen so badly into disrepair that they had become tenement slums.

Michael Comerford (1870-1907), a Limerick carpenter, his wife Mary Ann (O’Dea), and their children lived at various addresses in Limerick that included 18 Arthur’s Quay (1903-1904). Michael Comerford died in 1907 at the age of 36, and his widow Mary was living at 11 Arthur’s Quay on the census night in 1911. They seem to have had 13 children, although the 1911 census said they were the parents of 12 children, six of whom were still alive.

The high level of infant mortality in a family like this shows the abject poverty and frightening living conditions in a place like Arthur’s Quay little more than a century ago.

In Angela’s Ashes, the Limerick writer Frank McCourt recalls the night he spent in a tenement in Arthur’s Quay in the 1930s. Before entering the squalid tenements, he was warned by a friend to:

Mind yourself because some of the steps are missing and there is shit on the ones that are still there. He says that’s because there’s only one privy and it’s in the backyard and children can’t go down the stairs in time to put their little arses on the bowl.

In the 1950s, many of the houses were crumbling away and eventually had to be demolished.

In the early 1970s the harbour area in front of Arthurs Quay was filled in by Limerick Corporation to form a car park. This area is now more suitably occupied by a public park, and a café and arts centre, as well as serving as a stop for the buses I get between Limerick and Dublin on an almost weekly basis.

The triangular site once occupied by the terraced houses built by Francis Arthur was developed as the Arthurs Quay Shopping Centre that stands today. The concept is mainly credited to Limerick’s civil engineer, Michael Tiernan, and the centre was built by John Sisk & Son, who began work in May 1988.

It was the single biggest building project for urban development outside Dublin that had Government support. The project was completed in October 1989, and changed the face of Limerick’s city centre, bringing prosperity to an area that had been struggling with dereliction.

The new development included a 30,000 sq ft supermarket, 26 shop units, 15,000 sq ft of office space, a block of ten apartments and 600 car-parking spaces in a multi-storey car park. At the same time, a sprawling car park was transformed into a civic park.

All that is left of the original Georgian development are a few terraced buildings on Patrick Street near the main entrance to the Shopping Centre.

In her book, The Building of Limerick, Judith Hill says ‘It was at Arthurs Quay that the city first came back to life. Further developments in the 1990s included Cruise’s Street, Cornmarket Square, the redevelopment of much of Denmark Street, Ellen Street, Michael Street and Bank Place, together with Charlotte Quay.

It seems the ‘grocer’s apostrophe’ appears and disappears from the name of Arthurs Quay, depending on the whim of authors. But the Arthur name continues to be synonymous with progress in the city 600 or 700 years since the Arthur family first made an impact on the civic, political and mercantile life of Limerick.

The River Shannon seen at Arthur’s Quay (Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

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