01 May 2017

A May Day walk by an old
railway line with swallows,
Aristotle and a light sabre

The old railway line and railway station south of Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

There is an aphorism that ‘one swallow does not a summer make.’ The saying is based on an observation by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics (Ἠθικὰ Νικομάχεια):

‘The good of man is the active exercise of his soul's faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue, or if there be several human excellences or virtues, in conformity with the best and most perfect among them. One swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day; similarly, neither can one day or brief time of happiness does not make one blessed and happy’ (Nicomachean Ethics, I.7.1098a).

But May Day is supposed to be the first day of summer, and there was a large cluster of swallows – a dozen or more – swirling and swooping across the fields and roads as I walked out of Askeaton this afternoon, passing the old quarry and the Kingspan factory, walking on south through fields of green, with grazing cattle and horses, as far as the old railway station and the old railway line.

The former railway station building south of Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The detached former railway station building, now in use as a house, was built around 1857. It is a three-bay, single-storey block with a gable-fronted projecting single-bay one-and-half-storey west bay, and a lean-to to the west of the elevation. There is a gabled outbuilding to the west of the building.

There is still an old station platform to the south of the building, and the old railway track is still in position to the south of the platform, a square-profile water tower and a double-height machinery shed to the west of the station building.

This station house was in use on the Limerick to Foynes railway line until 2003, with a resident station master. The building retains its original form and is characteristic of railway stations of the early Victorian period.

Like the old Harcourt Street line in Dublin, this railway line could be renovated with some imagination, and as a suburban railway line from Limerick, like the DART or the Luas in Dublin, it could breathe new life into this part of west Limerick, and to Limerick city too.

Meeting a horse and rider on the way back into Askeaton this afternoon (Photograph: Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Walking back into Askeaton, I basked in the early summer sunshine, enjoying the company of horses and swallows, I recalled past May Days spent in Beaumaris, Portmeirion and Llfair PG in Wales last year, in Madrid in 2009, and in Bucharest in 1991. And I recalled too that today, as well as being May Day and the first day of summer, is also the Feast of Saint Philip and James in the Anglican calendar, although they are celebrated on 3 May in the Calendar of the Roman Catholic Church.

Saint Philip and Saint James appear in the list of the twelve apostles in the first three Gospels but are frequently confused with other early saints who share their names. In Saint John’s Gospel, Saint Philip has a more prominent rôle, being the third of the apostles to be called by Christ and then himself bringing his friend Nathanael to the Lord.

Saint Philip is the spokesman for the other apostles who are questioning the capacity for feeding the 5,000 and, at the Last Supper, enters into a sort of dialogue with Christ that leads to the Farewell Discourses in the Fourth Gospel. Saint James is said to be the son of Alphaeus, and is often known as ‘James the Less’ to distinguish him. He may also be the ‘James the Younger’ who, in Saint Mark’s Gospel, is a witness to the Crucifixion.

They are celebrated on the same day because the church in Rome, where their relics rest, was dedicated on this day in the year 560.

An ancient inscription shows the Basilica of the Twelve Apostles in Rome had an earlier dedication to Philip and James. In Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure (III, ii, 204), a child’s age is given as ‘a year and a quarter old, come Philip and Jacob,’ meaning, ‘a year and a quarter old on the first of next May, the feast of Philip and James.’

There is Pip ’n Jay Church in Bristol, whose official dedication is to these two saints as Saint Philip and Saint Jacob. But this day has also given us the word ‘popinjay’ for a vain or conceited person or ‘fop.’

Yet, despite the cultural legacy they have left us, the Philip and James we remember today are, to a great degree, small-bit players – almost anonymous or forgotten – in the New Testament, and in the Church calendar.

The Western Church commemorates James the Greater on 25 July, James the Brother of the Lord on 23 or 25 October, but James the Less has no day for himself, he shares it with Philip, on 1 May. Philip the Apostle, who has to share this commemoration, is frequently confused with Philip the Deacon (Acts 6: 7; 8: 5-40; 21: 8 ff) – but Philip the Deacon has his own day on 6 June or 11 October. Indeed, apart from sharing a day, Philip and James have also been transferred this year because yesterday was Ascension Day.

The James we remember today is James, the Son of Alphaeus. We know nothing about this James, apart from the fact that Jesus called him to be one of the 12. He is not James, the Brother of the Lord, later Bishop of Jerusalem and the traditional author of the Letter of James. Nor is he James the son of Zebedee, also an apostle and known as James the Greater. He appears on lists of the 12 – usually in the ninth place – but is never mentioned otherwise.

Yet, despite the near-anonymity of James and the weaknesses in Philip, these two became foundation pillars in the Church. They display total human helplessness yet become apostles who bring the Good News into the world. Indeed, from the very beginning, Philip has an oft-forgotten role in bringing people to Christ. Perhaps because he had a Greek name, some Gentile proselytes came and asked him to introduce them to Christ.

We see in James and Philip, ordinary, weak, everyday human men who, nevertheless, became pillars of the Church at its very foundation.

Perhaps because they are often seen as such ordinary, even weak, men among the apostles, I was surprised the week before last to see that in his statue on the West Front of Lichfield Cathedral, Saint James the Less appears to be holding a light sabre.

But no, he has not declared ‘Jedi’ as his religion on the census returns. He is, in fact, holding a book and club, which are his traditional symbols, but the copper handle of the broom has changed in colour with the weather – another reminder that summer is on the way.

Saint James the Less with his ‘light sabre’ on the west façade of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)


Almighty Father,
whom truly to know is eternal life:
teach us to know your Son Jesus Christ
as the way, the truth, and the life;
that we may follow the steps of your holy apostles
Philip and James,
and walk steadfastly in the way that leads to your glory;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.

‘Our seducers were our accusers’: the lurid
tales of members of Askeaton Hellfire Club

The ruins of Askeaton Hellfire Club on an island in the River Deel, with the ruins of the Desmond Castle in the background (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

The ruins of Limerick Hellfire Club stand beside the ruins of the Desmond Castle on the island in the middle of the River Deel. As the fast-flowing waters of the river thunder past, making their way under the old narrow bridge, these ruins appear like a benign presence in the heart of the town, especially in the early evening as the sun sets behind them and the rooks and herons hover above the remains of this centuries-old crumbling structures.

The ruins of the Hellfire Club stand within the bailey of Askeaton Castle. They date from 1636-1637, when this building was first erected as a detached barracks or tower.

The barracks or tower was built by the builder and designer, Andrew Tucker, for Richard Boyle (1566-1643), the 1st Earl of Cork, who had recently acquired Askeaton Castle.

The tower was built with battered walls with cut stone quoins, and the remains of a three-bay was built on top of the battered base later, some time in the mid-18th century.

There is a bow to the south elevation of the house and a shallow projecting end-bay to the north elevation. The house is roofless, with a limestone eaves course. The course rubble limestone walls have tolled quoins, a brick stringcourse and brick quoins to the upper floors.

There are square-headed door openings to the north elevation, a square-headed window opening to the bow with a brick architrave, and camber-headed window openings to the west, with brick voussoirs. The round-headed window opening to the east elevation has a brick surround, flanked by round-headed niches with brick surrounds and a continuous brick sill course.

By 1740, the building belonged to the St Leger family, who may have engaged John Aheron to design the bow-sided house which was built on top of the base of the barracks. By then, this was the meeting place of the Askeaton Hell Fire Club, and the building was probably used by the club until the end of the 18th century.

The club in Askeaton traced its origins to the first Hellfire Club, formed in 1719 by Philip Wharton (1698-1731), 1st Duke of Wharton. Wharton was a rake who gamble away Rathfarnham Castle in Dublin and most of his inheritance. In 1726, he married Maria Theresa O’Beirne (sometimes known as Maria Theresa Comerford). When he was in the advanced stages of alcoholism, the couple moved to a Cistercian abbey in Catalonia, where he died in 1731. His widow returned to London, and after his will was proved in court she lived comfortably in London society.

The club continued long after Wharton’s death, and the club in Askeaton was founded around 1736-1740. Known as a satirical gentlemen’s club, the revelries of its members shocked their neighbours and the outside world. The two other clubs in Ireland were based on Montpelier Hill, south of Tallaght, and near Clonlara, Co Clare.

In his recent book Blasphemers & Blackguards, The Irish Hellfire Clubs (2012), David Ryan examines the stories of these clubs. But, while local folklore recalls lurid tales of outrageous rituals, there is little actual information or evidence of the activities of the Askeaton Hellfire Club, and the name and supposedly lurid activities may have been opportunities to slight the church and to snub clerical authority, or mere excuses to hide their debauchery during evenings of wine, women and song.

James Worsdale’s painting of the members of the Askeaton Hellfire Club

One tradition recalls how a member of the club was thrown from one of the windows into the River Deel below during the course of a ‘drunken frolic.’

Evidence of the club and its members survives in a painting by James Worsdale (1692-1767) from sometime between 1736 and 1740. This painting shows a group of club members in Askeaton drinking, smoking and in conversation. Bottles of wine sit on a rack in the foreground, and there is a large bowl of punch on the table.

Eleven men and one woman, as well as a boy, fill the painting. Some of the figures that have been identified include: Edward Croker of Ballingarde, his son John (died 1804); Wyndham Quin of Adare, father of the 1st Earl of Dunraven; Thomas Royce of Nantenan, near Askeaton; John Bayley of Debsborough, Nenagh, Co Tipperary; and Henry Prittie, father of Henry Prittie (1743-1801), father of Lord Dunalley.

Worsdale, who was a founding member of the Dublin Hellfire Club, is on the far left of the painting, trying to attract the attention of the only woman in the painting. Most critics identify this woman as Margaret Blennerhassett, who was known as Celinda and who was the wife of Arthur Blennerhassett, a magistrate, of Riddlestown Park, Rathkeale. She was born Margaret Hayes, the eldest daughter of Jeremiah Hayes of Cahir Guillamore, Bruff.

Celinda is said to have been the only woman who ever became a member of the Askeaton Hellfire Club. The story is told that in her curiosity she tried to find what the men did during their meetings at the club. She hid herself in the meeting room before the members arrived, and when they discovered her she was formally inducted as a member to ensure her silence.

Later, her husband drowned in a boating tragedy in the Lakes of Killarney in 1775.

Some critics, however, have identified the woman in this painting as Laetitia Pilkington, alongside her husband, the Revd Matthew Pilkington (1701-1774), one-time friends of Jonathan Swift, Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. This would date the painting from some time before 1738.

Matthew Pilkington moved to London, where he became friends with the painter James Worsley, led a dissolute life, divorced Laetitia, and was jailed in 1734. When he returned to Ireland, he enjoyed the patronage of Archbishop Michael Cobbe of Dublin and the Cobbe family of Newbridge House, Donabate.

Laetitia Pilkington (1709-1750), was the daughter of a Dublin obstetrician, Dr John van Lewen. After Matthew fabricated the circumstances that led to their divorce, she was arrested for a debt of £2 and ended up in a debtors’ prison in London.

If she was forced into discreet prostitute to earn a living later in life, she was also scathingly critical of the clergy of day. Speaking probably from the experience of her husband’s own lifestyle, she said ‘the holiness of their office gives them free admittance into every family’ and they abuse this so that ‘they are generally the first seducers of innocence.’

‘Our seducers were our accusers,’ she wrote.

The monument in Saint Ann’s Church, Dawson Street, Dublin, commemorating Laetitia Pilkington (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

When Laetitia Pilkington died in 1750, a monument was erected in Saint Ann’s Church, Dawson Street, Dublin, with clear references to the sufferings she had endured at the hands of her merciless husband. Less than a month after her death, Matthew Pilkington married his mistress Nancy Sandes.

In 1811, an evangelical magazine published an obituary of Captain Perry, a carousing individual and likely member of a Hellfire Club. After a short lifetime of excessive living and radical thinking, he died an early death as he struggled to repent. It was a warning to readers of the dangers of being involved in such circles.

The building was abandoned by the club sometime around 1840, and the club is inaccessible to the public, as the Office of Public Works continues work at stabilising the building.

The Limerick Leader in May 1958 that James Worsdale’s painting of the members of the Askeaton Hellfire Club was being offered for sale to Limerick City Council for £350. It is now in the National Gallery of Ireland.

Although the ruins of the Askeaton Hellfire Club have fallen into disrepair, the overall original form of this building is easily discerned, as are features such as the door and window openings. It retains many well-crafted features such as the brick window surrounds and limestone battered walls, and the high roof and the tall chimneys are of interest.

The building has a curved bow at one side of each of the building’s two principal fronts, and one of them has a Venetian window. If, as is possible, the house dates from the 17th century, then this could be one of the earliest known examples of a Venetian window on a curve, not just in Ireland but anywhere else in Europe – which could just make it a far more interesting building than the myths and legends surrounding its rakish revellers.

Sunset at Askeaton Castle and Hellfire Club, seen from Saint Mary’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)