16 September 2017
The beauty and the terror of
the former Good Shepherd
Convent in Limerick
Some weeks ago, while I was researching the different and sad stories of the Comerford families that lived in Limerick, I came across the stories of Sister Mary Comerford and Sister Catherine (‘Kate’) Comerford, both born in Queen’s County (Co Laois), who were nuns living in the Good Shepherd Convent, Clare Street, Limerick in 1901 and 1911.
The Good Shepherd Convent became known as one of the ‘Mother and Baby’ homes or ‘Magdalene Laundries.’ When Sister Catherine died at the age of 40 on 13 November 1921, it was noted that she was originally from Clonegal, Co Carlow.
While Sister Catherine and Sister Mary are buried in the nuns’ plot in Mount Saint Lawrence Cemetery in Limerick, another woman buried there is Bridget Comerford who died at the age of 56 in 1958. The difference is that Bridget was one of the 243 inmates of the Good Shepherd Laundry who was buried in an unmarked grave.
A former inmate petitioned the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Cork to list the names of the women who had been buried in Limerick in unmarked graves. The nuns agreed and 11 plaques were erected in Mount Saint Lawrence Cemetery in remembrance of the 243 known women who died without recognition. Bridget Comerford’s name is located on Memorial No 6.
The convent on Clare Street is long closed and since 1994 it has been the site of the Limerick School of Art and Design, a constituent college of Limerick Institute of Technology. The convent was built on an elevated site set back from the road. I pass it regularly on my way on the bus to and from Dublin, but until earlier this week I was unaware that this building had once been the convent I had recently learned about.
Death does not rest lightly on this site. This is said to have been the late medieval execution site of Farrancroghy outside the walls of Limerick. Clare Street originally backed onto the walls of the Irishtown and takes its name from John Fitzgibbon, 1st Earl of Clare, who was Lord Chancellor of Ireland (1789-1802). James O'Sullivan, a tobacco merchant, built the street on swampy land once used for grazing pigs, and dedicated it to Fitzgibbon.
The convent site began as the Lancastrian Schools named after Joseph Lancaster (1778-1838), the Quaker philanthropist and English school reformer. In 1808, he was instrumental in the formation of the Society for Promoting the Lancastrian System for the Education of the Poor. In Ireland, schools guided by his principles of education were founded in many places, including Wexford, Cork and Limerick. The school in Wexford gave its name to School Street where I lived in 1972-1973.
Lancaster was eventually declared a bankrupt, the society he founded expelled him and renamed itself. By the 1820s, the school he had founded in Limerick was being run by the Christian Brothers, who bought school in 1821 for £200.
In time, the site and building were in part let to Madame de Beligond, the Mother Super of the Convent of the Good Shepherd, who eventually bought the site in 1888, and established the Good Shepherd Laundry and a girls’ reformatory.
The new convent and school were probably designed by Goldie and Child, the architectural practice of George Goldie and Charles Edwin Child that also redesigned Saint Saviour’s Dominican Church on Baker Place in Limerick, and designed the tower and spire of Saint Alphonsus Redemptorist Church in Limerick.
This 13-bay three-storey former convent was built on an extensive irregular plan, distinguished by entrance breakfront, differently scaled three-bay gabled flanking breakfronts to the west, forming the former chapel, and round-arched window openings to arcaded ground floor level and attic storey above modillion eaves on north-facing principal elevation.
The buildings form two enclosed courtyards with formal gardens to the front. The convent complex is designed in a light Gothic Revival style and retains most of its exterior details and window features.
Beside the former convent is the striking cruciform-plan double and triple height former convent chapel, begun in 1928. It stands on an elevated site in the grounds of the former convent and is a landmark feature with its copper drum and dome and the louvred lantern above.
The design new chapel was designed in 1928 by the Dublin architect Ralph Henry Byrne (1877-1946), whose father designed the Church of the Holy Name on Beechwood Avenue, Ranelagh, which I also visited earlier this week. RH Byrne worked mainly on convents and schools throughout Ireland and I think he may have been the architect of the copper dome on the Church of Our Lady of Refuge in Rathmines after it was destroyed in a fire in 1920.
Byrne’s designs for this new convent chapel in Limerick in 1928 were inspired, to a greater or lesser degree, by Baldassare Longhena’s plans for the octagonal Church of Santa Maria della Salute on the Grand Canal in Venice (1630), although Byrne’s designs lost their way in the treatment of the elevation.
This chapel is a distinctive and formidable structure against the skyline of the surrounding area. It was attached to the Magdalene laundry building, perhaps to suggest a link between hard labour and salvation.
Ralph Henry Byrne designed the chapel, the children’s shrine, high altar, side altars and refectory, which date from 1928-1939. Ludwig Oppenheimer Ltd., designed the mosaic decoration of the columns in the chapel (1929), and the semi-domes in the side chapel (1930). The marble floor may have been the work of Vannucci and Favilla, marble masons from Pietrasanta in Tuscany, who had offices in 14 Fownes Street, Dublin, around 1930.
The former chapel is now used by the Limerick School of Art and Design as an exhibition space.