04 May 2017
Some Irish towns can confidently boast of a central market square, even if it has no town hall, court house, Gothic parish church or monumental statue to add to its dignity.
Some towns have no square at all, and wish they had one as a focus for visitors, tourists and local parades.
Wexford has three squares, with Redmond Square in front of the North Station, the Bull Ring in the centre of the town and Cornmarket close-by.
Askeaton, despite its size, has two squares, East Square and West Square, and although they have no elegant public buildings they are surrounded by tall shops and houses once decorated in bright and declaratory yellows, reds, creams, greens and pinks. Where there is grey, brown or light blue, it serves to highlight its neighbours in the rays of the sun.
In Trastevere or in the backstreets of a town in Tuscany, these confident colours would attract the attention of tourists’ cameras and feature in photographic blogs.
The buildings look dull, if not neglected, in winter, but as the promise of summer arrives, they had a confident look to this small town in west Co Limerick.
In the East Square, for the first time since I arrived here, the bright red door of the three-storey yellow Tourist Office was opened, albeit briefly, yesterday [3 May 2017] so two or three visitors could step out onto the terrace behind and take in the majesty of the Desmond Castle that towers over the cascading River Deel below.
The tall pink townhouse by the tourist office may be vacant, but it adds to the character of the East Square. This end-of-terrace four-bay three-bay house and former shop, was built around 1810, and has a two-storey addition to the rear or west elevation., overlooking the river.
The roughcast rendered walls have render strip quoins and a plinth course. The square-headed openings have one-over-one pane timber sliding sash windows and concrete sills. The square-headed display openings have fixed windows and concrete sills. There is a square-headed opening with replacement double-leaf half-glazed timber panelled doors.
This substantial town house was once two separate houses. But, despite the insertion of large display windows on the ground floor, retains much of its character and form. The retention of the slate roof, chimneystacks and sash windows all help to conserve the original appearance of the building.
On another side of East Square, Hallinan’s public house, with its bright yellow walls and green doors and windows, is a terraced, four-bay two-storey house and public house, built around 1800, with render shopfronts to the front dating from the mid-19th century. The shopfronts have scrolled consoles with lion-head motifs, fascias and cornices.
I stood outside Hallinan’s this morning as I waited for the bus into Limerick for the opening of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland.
It seems this pub was first built as a terrace of three houses, but is now in single ownership. Its substantial scale and broad frontage make it an imposing and attractive feature in the East Square in Askeaton.
The simple matching shopfronts, which probably date to the mid-19th century, provide the façade with a coherent decorative scheme, which is further enhanced by the retention of features such as the slate roof and sash windows.
Beside Hallinan’s, another pink house is a substantial town centre property with large garden and rear access. This house has five bedrooms, with two further bedrooms in the annex, and there are two separate entrances and rear access.
On the west gable end of this house, the wall is covered in painted slates, in a fashion that I have also noticed in Wexford. This building has placed on the market with an asking price of €135,000.
Facing Hallinan’s pub, the Bank of Ireland on East Square stands on a prominent site that was once the site of the courthouse. This bank was built around 1930, and has become is an important component of the Square.
This is a detached, four-bay two-storey bank, built around 1930, This bank has been very well maintained to present an almost intact original aspect. The applied ornamentation reveals high quality craftsmanship, particularly on the façade. The building retains important original features and materials, including the slate roof, sash windows and brick chimney-stacks.
Having enjoyed the Tuscan colours of the houses in East Square in the mid-week sun, I must introduce the charms of Askeaton’s West Square on another day.
The General Synod of the Church of Ireland is meeting in Limerick for three days this week, beginning with an opening Eucharist in Saint Mary’s Cathedral at 10 a.m. this morning (Thursday 4 May) and continuing until Saturday (6 May).
This week, from Tuesday to Saturday, I thought it would be interesting to introduce readers to some of these buildings in Limerick. I have written about Saint Mary’s Cathedral and other Limerick churches and buildings in the past. So this week, I am looking at five buildings that are no more than five minutes’ walking distance from the cathedral.
This morning, for my third choice, I am looking at the Hunt Museum in the Custom House on Rutland Street on the banks of the River Shannon, at its confluence with the Abbey River.
The museum’s collection includes works by notable artists and designers such as Pablo Picasso, Jack B. Yeats, and Sybil Connolly as well as distinctive historical items such as the O’Dea Mitre and Crozier and a 17th century chalice from the Rathkeale and Askeaton parishes.
The Custom House is, perhaps, the most distinguished 18th century building in Limerick and it is also rather unusual in comparison to other Georgian buildings in the city in that the exterior of the building is limestone rather than red brick.
This is an elegant Palladian-style building designed in 1765 by the enigmatic engineer and architect Davis Ducart. His other Palladian-style buildings in Ireland include Castletown Cox, Co. Kilkenny, Florence Court, Co. Fermanagh, and possibly Cappoquin House, Co Waterford.
Davis Ducart’s origins are uncertain. Writing to the Earl of Abercorn in 1768, William Brownlow says he ‘dropped into this Kingdom from the clouds, no one knows how, or what brought him to it.’ Brownlow calls him a Piedmontese, but he is also described as ‘an English Engineer who had been long in the Sardinian Service,’ ‘an Italian engineer and very ingenious architect,’ and ‘our French architect.’
In his will, he declares his real name was Daviso de Arcort. He claimed he was born and bred an engineer in the ‘hilly … parts adjacent to the Alps … so often visited by the English Nobility and Gentry.’ ‘D[avi]s D[ucar]t, Esq’ is one of the engineers lampooned in the Freeman’s Journal in 1770, when he is described as ‘a Gentleman Adventurer on board a French Privateer in the last War,’ who was taken prisoner and confined in the west of Ireland.
Whatever his origins, Ducart was active in Ireland as an engineer and as an architect in the 1760s and 1770s, first in Cork and then in Limerick, where he designed the Custom House.
He also worked for the Boyne Navigation Commissioners in Drogheda, and became involved in Co Tyrone in ‘Ducart’s Canal,’ the first and only canal in Ireland to use a system of inclined planes rather than locks to raise or lower boats from one level to another. This innovation was not a success, and the canal fell into disuse after only a few years.
He died in 1781, and his will mentions his friends James Fortescue of Ravensdale Park, John Townsend of Castle Townsend and Frederick Hervey, Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry.
Some writers suggest he was with the he Lafranchini family of stuccadores and with Thomas Penrose of Cork. His critics said he had uncouth taste and was actually ignorant of the common rules and proportions of architecture, ‘eternally committing mistakes and blunders.’
Whatever his origins, skills and abilities, both the ‘Captain’s Room’ and the ‘Red Staircase’ in the former Custom House are elegant examples of Georgian architecture and are testament to the optimism that Limerick experienced in the period of development and expansion in the late 18th century.
The Custom House was the administrative centre in Limerick for the Revenue Commissioners (including Customs and Excise) and the home of the Customs Collector in the 18th century. In the 1840s, with the introduction of a new postal system, a Penny Post Office was opened in the Custom House.
The Office of Public Works undertook the major restoration and refurbishment of the building, completing it in 1996, and the Custom House opened as the Hunt Museum 20 years ago, on 14 February 1997.
Today, the Hunt Museum holds a personal collection donated by the Hunt family, originally held in the University of Limerick.
The museum holds about 2,500 different artefacts from Ireland and abroad. The collection includes drawings by Picasso and a bronze horse once thought to be a design by Leonardo da Vinci for a large monument. The collection includes mediaeval Christian pieces such as the Antrim Cross, an early ninth-century cast bronze and enamel cross, the Cashel Bell, and the Hohenzollern Crucifix.
Yesterday: the Gerald Griffin Memorial Schools.
Tomorrow: Baal’s Bridge.