16 September 2017

The beauty and the terror of
the former Good Shepherd
Convent in Limerick

The former Good Shepherd Convent is now home to Limerick School of Art and Design (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

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 chimney of the former laundry behind the Good Shepherd Convent (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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.

The former convent chapel was inspired by Baldassare Longhena’s Church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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.

Santa Maria della Salute in Venice was designed by Baldassare Longhena as a rotunda in the shape of a crown and its dome has inspired many artists and architects (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


Anonymous said...

I worked as a security guard in the good shepherd after it closed down and it was the most weary scarey place u have ever been. Walking the floors thinking of what went on there was always on my mind.
The higher you went up the buildings the smaller the rooms got.
At the very top there were very small rooms for the nuns I would say

As for the laundry n graves well they told there own stories.

Anonymous said...

I delivered their for 35 years and why the men that were their have not come forward tells its own story shame on them i have contacted limerick 95 fm but no one wants to know a bunch of cowards but the people that still get their laundry dun should be d n a tested and lets see what happens and the garden across the street dug up nobody will go against the nuns what have they to hide contact me any time they had them all in fear and thats a fact i hope i find the people who supportd them before i pass on to

Anonymous said...

what garden across the street? You mean outside main walls of the convent grounds or is it somewhere else you mean? A nursing home for the nuns was build on grounds a housing estate for the women who lived in the convent all ther life. Only God above knows what secrets lay in the grounds. Every convent in Ireland should have all there land dug up and examined

Anonymous said...

My grandmother was in there from 1944 as a orphan her and her sister.
Her sister stayed there while in 1952 my grandmother come to the UK.
She never spoke of it, but in the early 1990s she took me back to see it as her step brother lived close by .
I never understood how she could raise 10 children in islington london and be such a strong women.
I was the closest to my grandmother as she had raised me .
And I remember her washing the sheets and hanging them in the yard with the pegs in the council estate where we grew up.
The sheets was so white and starched
And still to this day I'm funny about sheets and bedding.
And I have mentally? She believed you hot married once went mass aleast once aweek. And prayed every night. Even my son still prays has my grandmother old with bedding and cleaning.
And my granddaughter probley will point being. Even then generations later.
What was installed in these women in there . We passed on . It's 5..50 am I'm waiting ten min till I my self can turn on the washing machine as the smell of fresh washing and sheets are the only thing that I have left in this world that reminds me of home that and food .
Being bought up I was told of you had a spud and a orange for Christmas in a sock you was lucky but it's not now I truly understood what she meant.
Now I know where I get my backbone and drive from why I don't drink or party.
As what's drummed in you as a child stats with you for life .
My grandmother sister stayed there and moved in to the nuns home .
But every year when she went back she would walk past and stand there looking amd I never understood why..
As it was the only home she ever really new . She had mixed feeling for the nuns as she said they would beat her for using her left hand but told me it was not there fault as it was all they new.
They new no better was her words there but simple people.

Anonymous said...

my late mother grew up in the good shepard convent, in the sixties and seventies. and yes there are children buried in the gardens. the bedtime stories she told me as a child were all ghost stories from the orphanage. i see those arched windows and get chills. it was a sad life and she never really recovered from the abuses she endured there. thanks for sharing what you know about this wretched place, and may those who ended up there be at peace.

Anonymous said...

Omg. The stories I got told wough make you cry bitter .

Patrick C said...

Markets Field
I was a worker at a college in Palaskenry 1959/60 (NOT a student) . We were paid a pittance for long hours doing the meals for over 600 students very long hours. I stayed about 2 years. Part of the deal was to get our laundry done by the Good Shepard in Limerick. This arrangement was the same for Priests/Students/Christian Brothers within the Salesian College. When the history of all the bad stuff became public I had a sense of guilt over my tiny connection. I am soon to be 80yrs old and would like to make a contribution to a connected Charity if one exists .

Anonymous said...

My mother and her four sisters were at the Good Shepherd Convent. They were sent there after their mother became very ill and their father had to seek work in England. They went there during the late 40’s and early 50’s, although they all went onto to have children, most had somewhat difficult relationships with their husbands/partners (Domestic Violence) and they all seemed to struggle mentally with the memories of those times. Whilst two of them subsequently received compensation from the Catholic Church in the 2000’s, two did not want to go through the process of bringing up the past, and my mother by then had passed away. They all relayed stories of the girls who had been sent to the mother & baby unit, coming over to the laundry after having the babies, and these young girls being very distraught.
Anyway, your comment caught my eye, as most of the sisters came over to England in the late 50’s and started life here in County North London, one of my aunt’s actually spent the rest of her life in Islington. Maybe around the corner from your grandmother’s home. All very sad for many of those young girls, and very relevant at the moment, as I’m watching the BBC Drama ‘The Woman in the Wall’ (Sept 2023).