Thursday, 24 August 2017
Quaker meeting house
behind Cecil Street is
a hidden Georgian gem
After my visit last weekend to the house in the Plaka in Athens that was once home to Sir Richard Church, the Irish-born Greek general who was born into a Cork Quaker family, I decided to look for the former Quaker Meeting House off Cecil Street when I was in Limerick earlier this week for a diocesan meeting.
The former meeting house, which was built off Cecil Street at the beginning over 200 years ago, is normally accessible by a laneway under an interesting Art Deco rendered screen wall. But this laneway was closed on Tuesday afternoon [22 August 2017], and so I found the Meeting House by walking under an arch in Cecil Street at the other end a terrace of four single-bay houses and that leads in a locked car park that was once the site of ‘Hartigans Horse Repository.’
The Society of Friends was formed in 1646 through the peaching of George Fox and the first Quaker meeting in Ireland was held in Lurgan in 1654. The Quakers or Religious Society of Friends came to Limerick City in the 17th century, with the preaching and mission work of Francis Howgill, Edward Burroughs, Edward Tickleman and Edward Cook. They converted John Love, Richard Pearce and John Phelps, and Quaker meetings were first held in private homes, including the home of Thomas Holmes and the home of Richard Pearce. Richard Pearce in Bow Lane (now Augustine Place), near Saint Mary’s Cathedral, in 1655.
By 1656, it was estimated there were about 70 Quakers in Limerick. That year, Henry Ingoldsby the Puritan Cromwellian governor of Limerick, forbade people from interacting with Quakers on penalty of being turned out of the city. Many Quakers were driven from their homes and imprisoned for their beliefs.
Life became marginally more tolerable for Quakers after the restoration in 1660. When George Fox visited Limerick in 1667, he was a guest of Richard Pearce in Bow Lane. The first Quaker meeting house in Limerick was built in Creagh Lane two years latger in 1671. By 1687, three Quakers, James Craven, William Craven and Samuel Tavenor, were members of Limerick Corporation. Thomas Storey, the Quaker preacher, was a brother of George Storey, the Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral.
The meeting house on Creagh Lane was replaced in 1735 by a second, larger meeting house. The later, third meeting house off Cecil Street was built in 1806-1807 on a plot of land owned by John Meade Thomas.
It was built of rubble stone as a detached six-bay, two-storey rubble building. Inside, there was a simple double-height meeting room with a gallery, although I do not know to what degree these have survived. It was 54 feet in breadth by 92 feet in length. In 1832, a Friends’ burial ground was set aside near Peter’s Cell.
Meanwhile, in the late 18th century, a leading Quaker merchant, Joseph Massy Harvey, gave his name to Harvey’s Quay. In 1820, Isaac Unthank was the co-founder with Henry Maunsell of the Limerick Savings Bank, which started from a small room in Cecil Street.
The three Quaker Alexander brothers who ran a thriving corn business were prominent in famine relief as well as the Limerick Savings Bank, Barrington’s Hospital, the campaign for the abolition of slavery and other reforms.
Among the members of the Bennis family who were Quakers was George Geary Bennis, whose gifts made Limerick one of the first cities to have a free library. He gave up his tea and coffee shop business opposite the former Cruise’s Hotel in 1822 to carve out a new career in Paris as the editor of Galignani, one of the leading newspapers of the day. In 1848, he saved the life of King Louis Philippe in a street fracas in Paris, for which he was made a chevalier.
The arch on Cecil Street that provided me with limited access to a view of the former meeting house still bears the name of Hartigans Horse Repository.
This single-bay arched cement rendered portal was built ca 1920, leading into a complex of buildings at the rear of Cecil Street. This is a segmental-arched opening with lettering in relief that proclaims: ‘Hartigans Horse Repository, Wm B Fitt & Co MIAA Auctioneers.’
In the yard that is now a gated car park, horses were stabled during the day while their owners went about their business. It also served as regular stabling for the horses of city dwellers who did not have their own groom. It is an aesthetic curiosity on the city streetscape and a reminder of days before the car took over the streets.
The former meeting house is hidden from Cecil Street by a terrace of four slender, single-bay, three-storey over basement houses, including the pharmacy at No 37 next to the former laneway that once led to the meeting house.
These houses were built ca 1820, and No 37 has an attractive three-sided canted oriel shop window on the ground floor. All four buildings have Wyatt windows. Behind these terraced houses there is a rubble stone wall to the lane at the former Quaker Meeting House.
By 1953, there were only nine members of the meeting living in Limerick, and the meeting house off Cecil Street was sold to the Irish Red Cross the following year. But the Society of Friends once again has its own meeting house in Limerick city, beside the Quaker burial ground at Southville Gardens in Ballinacurra.
Meanwhile, the former Quaker Meeting House in Cecil Street has been transformed into the Gaff, a resource for emerging and community artists, working with communities in Moyross, Saint Mary’s, Garryowen and Weston, and fostering the development of new performance work.
The building remains one of Limerick’s forgotten Georgian gems.