05 September 2017

The Precentor joins the bell ringers
at sunset in Saint Mary’s Cathedral

Sunset on the River Shannon seen from the tower of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

In Anglican cathedrals, the precentor is often the canon or chapter member who is in charge of preparing liturgy, worship and music.

Most Anglican cathedrals have a precentor in charge of the organisation of liturgy and worship. The precentor of a cathedral is usually a residentiary canon or prebendary, and may be assisted by a succentor, particularly in the daily task of leading choral singing.

In some cathedrals, including Canterbury and also in Westminster Abbey, the Precentor is a minor canon, and therefore part of the foundation but not a member of the chapter.

Traditionally, the Precentor’s stall in an Anglican cathedral is on the opposite side of the Quire than that of the Dean, leading to the traditional division of the singers into Decani (the Dean’s side) and Cantoris (the Precentor’s side).

As bell-ringers call people to worship in a cathedral and to join in the Liturgy, I felt privileged as Precentor of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, to be invited by Kieron Brislane and the bell-ringers to join them at their rehearsals last night [4 September 2017].

With bell-ringers in the tower of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

There was a warm welcome from Mike Pomeroy, the captain of the bell-ringers, and his colleagues in the 14th century tower of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, which rises to 36.58 meters (120 ft), immediately above the west door of the cathedral.

I climbed to the top before last night’s rehearsals to catch the sunset to the west of the tower and the panoramic views across the city and the River Shannon.

The cathedral tower is older than the few buildings in Limerick City that may be taller. But then it is not possible to climb the spire of Saint John’s Cathedral, and booking a room in some of the high-rise hotels along the banks of the River Shannon would not necessarily guarantee the view that I had from the top of the tower at Saint Mary’s Cathedral last night.

Bells in the tower of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The first reference to the cathedral bells is found in 1401, when John Budston or Buston was the Bailiff of Limerick and gave a gift of four brass bells to the cathedral to celebrate the marriage of his daughter Margaret to Peter Arthur.

The next reference to cathedral bells dates from the 17th century, when William Yorke presented six bells to Saint Mary’s. Yorke also financed the building of the Exchange on Nicholas Street, and was mayor of Limerick on many occasions in the 1670s.

Yorke’s peal of six bells was first rung in March 1674. In 1703, two more bells were added by Tobias and Edward Covey, eight bells rang out in 1712 to welcome James Butler, Duke of Ormond, to Limerick as the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

The fifth and sixth bells, cast by T Mears of London in 1829, are now the oldest bells in the tower. But by the late 19th century, the bells and frame had fallen into disrepair, and the full tone of the bells was not heard across the city for three decades.

However, a public appeal was launched to restore the bells and they rang out once more on 22 December 1906, with the help of ringers from the Redemptorist church at Mount Saint Alphonsus, once again that Christmas Eve.

When the fourth bell became defective, a new bell was cast by John Taylor and Co of Loughborough, thanks to the generosity of Everard Hewson of Castle Hewson, Askeaton.

The third bell was recast at Taylors in Loughborough in 1927, at the expense of Sir Alec Shaw. Meanwhile. Everard Hewson continued to contribute generously to the upkeep of the bells and paid for recasting the eighth (tenor) bell in 1930.

A view across the River Shannon from the tower of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, including Thomond Park and King John’s Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen image)

On the other hand, there is a local legend in Limerick that says the cathedral bells in Saint Mary’s were originally brought from Italy. They had been made by a young Italian, whose finished them after many years of toil in Florence, and he prided himself on his work. The bells were subsequently bought by the Prior of a monastery on the shores of Lake Como, and with the money the young man was able to buy a small villa, where he had the pleasure of listening to the chiming of his bells from the lakeside cliff and growing into old age in the joys of domestic happiness.

However, war and civil disturbances put an end to his idyllic retirement, and he lost family, home and friends. The monastery was razed to the ground, and the bells were carried away to a foreign land.

After years of wandering forlorn, he sailed to Ireland, and his ship anchored near Limerick, in sight of Saint Mary’s Cathedral and the tower.

Thomond Park and King John’s Castle seen from the tower of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

The evening was calm and beautiful, and reminded him of his own home in Italy. As he heard a bell ring from the cathedral tower. As the bless chimed from the tower the rowers ceased rowing to pray, and the boat went slowly forward from the impulse it had received.

The old Italian crossed his arms and looked fondly towards the city and the cathedral. When the rowers looked round his face was still turned towards the Cathedral. But his eyes were closed, and he had died.

They realised the weak old man had discovered his long-lost tolls, and had died in the joy of hearing them peal once again.

Sunset seen from the tower of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

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