01 December 2017

How the Round House in
Limerick became home to
the O’Malley political clan

Mother Mac’s on High Street, Limerick … still known affectionately as the Round House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Limerick this morning to buy Advent candles for the four churches in the group of parishes, and to buy some theological books.

In a short gap before catching the bus back to Limerick, I wandered through the streets of the city and found myself at the Round House, at the corner of Denmark Street and High Street, where High Street splits in direction – High Street and Back Lane.

The Round House, which was built just outside the walls of Irishtown, is a landmark building because of its location and because of its curved brick façade. This pub forms an island junction at High Street and Back Lane, and provides an interesting vista along High Street.

The date when it was built is uncertain, but it was probably built in the 1780s as it appears on a map in the 1787 edition of James Ferrar’s History of Limerick.

This is a terraced, nine-bay, three-storey building, with a curved bay wrapping around the two streets. The replacement curved hipped artificial slate roof is set behind a curved parapet.

The red brick faced façade is laid in Flemish garden wall bond, and there are red brick arches above the window openings.

There is a curved timber shopfront at the ground floor level with cast-iron cresting above a curved fascia board. Raised and fielded timber door open into the public house, with an overlight above.

The cast-iron cresting which has been retained adds an artistic detail to an otherwise altered façade.

This is an iconic Limerick building. Since it was acquired by Michael McMahon in 2015 it has been known as Mother Mac’s, but it is still known locally and affectionately as the Round House.

The distinctive signage of Mother Mac’s seen today is the work of the local and internationally renowned sign writer Tom Collins. This has given the pub a new look and helped Mother Macs win the Overall Tidy Towns Award last year [2016].

Kate Fleming O’Malley (1820-1901) the matriarch in the family associated with the Round House for generation, came from a small cottage in Madaboy, Murroe, in Famine-struck rural Co Limerick. Kate sent her son Thomas from Murroe to Limerick City to work in the Round House. After two years, the elderly proprietor left the business to Thomas O’Malley in his will in 1871. Thomas died young, but the Round House stayed in Kate’s family.

Kate O’Malley held on to the Round House, making it a successful pub, grocery and spirit business in Limerick. Through strategic decisions, she transformed her family’s fortunes, ensuring the education of her large family of 12 children and securing their place in the social and political life of Limerick.

Her four daughters became nuns, but the rest of her family and her descendants included three Irish government ministers Donough, Des and Tim O’Malley; two Mayors of Limerick, Dessie and Michael B O’Malley; and two other Limerick Corporation members, Patrick O’Malley and his son Charlie.

Kate’s granddaughter, Dr Pamela O’Malley, moved to Barcelona in 1952, and was imprisoned twice in Spain by Franco’s regime. Her husband, Gainor Crist, an American who had studied in Ireland, was the model for the protagonist of JP Donleavy’s novel The Ginger Man. They married in Gibraltar and made their final home in Madrid, where she was a teacher in the British School.

The general who sentenced Pamela also told the school to reinstate her once she got out: ‘She is the best teacher my daughters have ever had.’ After the restoration of democracy, the same general was murdered by the Basque terrorist group ETA. Pamela attended his funeral, and comforted his widow.

She returned to Ireland frequently, visiting many friends in Dublin and Limerick, and spending holidays every summer on Achill Island, where I met her, and taking part in the Merriman Summer School and the Kate O’Brien Weekend.

Gainor died in 1964, and Pamela died in 2006.

Kate’s family also included rubber planters in Malaya, an unlikely sheepshearer swagman in New Zealand, and a branch of the family in the US.

They became lawyers, doctors, writers, tramps, poets, priests and journalists – the late Peter O’Malley was a colleague in The Irish Times for many years.

Grace O’Malley Cantillon, who completed her master’s degree in the history of art when she was 70, and became a guide in the Hunt Museum, tells the family story in her book The Round House O’Malleys – the Power of One Woman (2014).

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