Monday, 22 May 2017

A stroll along Nicholas Street in
the heart of mediaeval Limerick

Nicholas Street was once the High Street of mediaeval Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Last week I walked along Nicholas Street, once the main street or High Street in mediaeval Limerick, linking King John’s Castle and Saint Mary’s Cathedral, and today linking the main artery through the mediaeval city, leading King John’s Castle with the modern city centre.

Thousands of tourists visit the castle each month, and Nicholas Street, despite its apparent neglect, has obvious tourist potential, for this was once the historic and cultural centre of Limerick.

Nicholas Street was the principal street in the heart of the walled city and it dates back to the foundations of Limerick. The street, with its proximity to the quays, King John’s Castle and Saint Mary’s Cathedral made it the centre of civic life in mediaeval Limerick.

Nicholas Street runs from the northern end of Nicholas Street, near the Parade at the north end, just south of King John’s Castle, to Mary Street at the southern end, near Baal’s Bridge.

The former Thomond Cinema, now Stix, stands on the site of Saint Nicholas’s Church in the heart of mediaeval Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The street was named after Saint Nicholas of Myra, better known to children today as Santa Claus. In the mediaeval era, Saint Nicholas was revered as the proctor and patron saint of sailors and seafarers. Here, as in many mediaeval ports, his name was given to a church close to the quays and berthing facilities.

Nicholas Street and the streets off it fell into a progressive decline in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Much of Nicholas Street was rebuilt in the mid-20th century, but it still follows the lines of the mediaeval terrace plots, so that the houses with their modest scale fit perfectly with the mediaeval urban grain of Englishtown.

Limerick City and County Council has plans to invest more than €700,000 in the street this year, with the hope of bring back to life several derelict units on the street. Other mediaeval cities, such as Kilkenny and Waterford, have realised the positive tourist potential of such sites.

Waterford has its Viking Triangle, while Kilkenny has its Mediaeval Mile. But similar plans for Limerick have been delayed in the past because of the discovery of several mediaeval remains along Nicholas Street.

During demolition work in the 1990s, a significant mediaeval fireplace feature and stone corbels were found on the site of Nos 36-39 Nicholas Street. This site stands at the corner of Nicholas Street and Peter Street, and is now known locally as ‘The Fireplace Site.’ A protective canopy was placed around the entire structure to shield it from the weather as expert stonemasons engaged in the intricate and delicate work of restoring the fireplace and the surrounding structure.

The wall is situated between what were probably two stone mediaeval houses dating back to the late 15th century. In addition, the site retains remnants of the long narrow properties of mediaeval burgage plots, with an average width of five metres. Test trenching on the site has revealed further underlying archaeological deposits and a cellar feature.

Human bones, two sherds of mediaeval pottery and one piece of post-mediaeval pottery were also found on Nicholas Street at the entrance to the Widows’ Almshouses. Archaeologists believe the bones may have come from the graveyard attached to Saint Nicholas’s Church, the mediaeval parish church that stood on the south side of the castle.

Mediaeval Limerick had two distinct parishes, Saint Nicholas’s and Saint Mary’s, until they were amalgamated.

Records from the 1400 say the vicarage of the parish church of Saint Nicholas belonged to the vicars choral of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, giving them the right to nominate the vicar.

According to the local historian and antiquarian, Thomas Johnson Westropp (1860-1922), Saint Nicholas’s Church ‘was in good repair in 1615.’ The church was apparently ‘destroyed’ during the sieges of Limerick, in either 1642 or 1651.

No traces of this church exist, although local lore says it stood on the site of the former Thomond Cinema, now housing a business known as Stix – I wondered whether this was an abbreviation of Saint Nick’s or Saint Nicholas.

The churchyard extended as far as the site of the Widows’ Almshouses, which add significantly to the architectural and historical importance of King’s Island. The almshouses were built after the Siege of Limerick in 1691, probably in the early 1700s. By then, the graveyard was no longer in use, and its presence may have been forgotten.

The Widows’ Almshouses were originally built to house the widows and families of soldiers once garrisoned in the castle. The exterior of the almshouses is 19th century in character. This terrace of five, three-bay, two-storey limestone almshouses, was restored in 1970 and renovated by Limerick Corporation in 1993. They remain an intact terrace of houses and are part of the history of King John’s Castle.

From Nicholas Street, I walked on further past King John’s Castle to see the Bishop’s Palace, Saint Munchin’s Church and Villiers Almshouses. But these are stories for other days.

The former Widows’ Almshouses date from the late 1600s or early 1700s, and stand on part of the churchyards attached to Saint Nicholas’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Discovering Limerick’s links
with the poet Robert Graves

The Locke Bar … a river-side setting with many associations with the war poet Robert Graves (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Last week, on my way between Askeaton and Dublin, I stopped for lunch in Limerick at the Locke Bar on George’s Quay. This is one of Limerick’s oldest pubs, dating back to 1724, and it is close to Saint Mary’s Cathedral and other historical and architectural landmarks in the city, including King John’s Castle, the Hunt Museum, the courthouse and Barrington’s Hospital.

This award-winning pub sits in an attractive setting on a tree-lined quay overlooking the Abbey River. The old wood panelling and open fires make it is welcoming in winter; the sunny riverside setting is a delight in summer.

The Locke Bar has won many awards, including Black and White pub of the year, Irish Music pub of the year and Dining pub of the year, and it is also listed in Georgina Cambell’s best places to eat. In the sunshine last week, as I sat outside at lunchtime, I could have been in London, Paris or Rome.

I was first tempted to stop here not to drink or to eat, but because of the Locke Bar’s association with the poet and writer Robert Graves (1895-1985), who had many family connections with Limerick.

The Locke Bar … has many associations with the war poet Robert Graves (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Towards the end of World War I, while he was recovering from life-threatening war wounds, Graves and other officers and soldiers from the Royal Welch Fusiliers were sent to Limerick in 1918, as the War of Independence intensified. Graves frequented the Locke Bar while he was stationed in Limerick in 1919-1921, and his friend the war poet Siegfried Sassoon was stationed in Limerick at the same time.

It was an interesting posting, for Graves’s grandfather had been the Bishop of Limerick two decades earlier and is buried in the churchyard at Saint Mary’s Cathedral.

Charles Graves (1812-1899) was Bishop of Limerick, Ardfert and Aghadoe, President of the Royal Irish Academy, and Dean of the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle, and a grandson of Thomas Graves, Dean of Ardfert (1785) and Dean of Connor (1803).

As an undergraduate, he played cricket for Trinity and later he was a fellow of TCD (1836-1843) and Professor of Mathematics until 1862.

In 1860, he was appointed Dean of the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle, and in 1864 he became Dean of Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Clonfert (1864-1866), succeeding Robert Mitchell Kennedy, grandfather of another war poet ‘Woodbine Willie,’ the Revd Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy (1883-1929).

Charles Graves became Bishop of Limerick, Ardfert and Aghadoe, in 1866, and held this position until his death in 1899. As bishop, his official residence was the Palace in Limerick, but from the 1850s he lived mainly at Parknasilla House, Co Kerry, which he sold in in 1894. Bishop Graves died in 1899 and is buried in the grounds of Saint Mary’s Cathedral.

The grave of Bishop Charles Graves at Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

His sons included the poet Alfred Perceval Graves (1846-1931), and Arnold Felix Graves (1847-1930), the founder of Kevin Street Technical College, now part of the Dublin Institute of Technology.

Alfred Graves was a poet and Gaelic scholar who played an important part in the Irish literary revival. His first wife, Jane Cooper (1874-1886), was from Cooper’s Hill, Co Limerick. He is best remembered as the author of Father O’Flynn, a comic ballad eulogising a fictional Donegal priest. Perhaps it is no coincidence then that his son Robert Graves in his war memoir also wrote admiringly of Roman Catholic chaplains, at the expense of their Anglican counterparts.

The poet, novelist, critic and classicist Robert von Ranke Graves (1895-1985) was the author of more than 140 works, including poems, translations and interpretations of the Greek myths.

Graves was born in Wimbledon, the third of five children of Alfred Perceval Graves (1846-1931) and his second wife Amalie von Ranke (1857-1951), and was educated at Charterhouse and Saint John’s College, Oxford.

At the outbreak of World War I, he enlisted immediately, and took a commission in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He developed an early reputation as a war poet and was one of the first to write realistic poems about experience of frontline conflict. Through Siegfried Sassoon, Graves also became a friend of another war poet Wilfred Owen.

At the Battle of the Somme, Graves was so badly wounded by a shell-fragment through the lung that he was expected to die and he was officially reported in 1916 as having died of his wounds.

Graves was moved to Limerick in December 1918, and was stationed at Castle Barrack. He was struck by the horrendous poverty he saw in the city that winter, and he said Limerick looked like a ‘war-ravaged town’ even in peace, with ‘holes like shell-craters’ in the main street and many of the buildings seemingly ‘on point of collapse.’

An old antique shop at Thomond Bridge in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

He added: ‘Old Reilly at the antique shop who remembered my grandfather well, told me nobody in Limerick built new houses: the birth rate was declining and when one fell down the survivors moved into another. Everyone died of drink in Limerick except the Plymouth Brethren, who died of religious melancholia. Life did not start in the town before nine in the morning.’

He recalled later: ‘Once, at about that time, I walked down O’Connell Street, formerly King George Street, and found it deserted. When the hour chimed, the door of a magnificent Georgian house flew open and out came, first a shower of slops, which just missed me, and then a dog, which lifted up its leg against a lamp-post, then a nearly-naked girl-child who sat down in the gutter and rummaged in a heap of refuse for filthy pieces of bread; finally, a donkey began to bray. I had pictured Ireland exactly so, and felt its charm as dangerous.’

That January, Graves played his last game of rugby in Limerick as fullback for his battalion against a local team that included many Sinn Féin supporters: ‘We were all crocks and our opponents seemed bent on showing what fine fighting material England had lost by withholding Home Rule. How jovially they jumped on me, and rubbed my face in the mud!’

During this time in Limerick, Graves frequented the Locke Bar on George’s Quay and also visited his father’s brother-in-law, Robert Cooper of Cooper’s Hill, Limerick, a retired naval officer.

Robert Graves frequented the Locke Bar while he was stationed in Limerick almost a century ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Shortly after Graves arrived in Limerick, demobilisation began, but it had been deferred for the troops in Ireland because of the War of Independence. This became a more acute problem when Graves caught Spanish ’flu. This compounded his injuries and lung problems and it became a bigger threat than Limerick’s republican rugby players.

Unwilling to trust his lungs to a local hospital, he caught the last train out of the city before the demobilisation period ended. Officially, he a deserter. However, a chance meeting in a London taxi with the Cork District Demobilisation Officer gave him the documentation he needed. Safely back in England, he recovered from the ’flu, unlike millions of others.

After the war, Graves took up the place he had been offered at Oxford, where his post-war friends included TE Lawrence, then a Fellow of All Souls’ College.

Perhaps it was his memories of Limerick and his Irish ancestry that inspired Graves to use an Irish pseudonym, John Doyle, when he published The Marmosites Miscellany (London: Hogarth Press) in 1925.

In 1926, Graves took up a post at Cairo University. A year later, he published Lawrence and the Arabs (1927), a commercially successful biography of TE Lawrence.

His autobiographical Good-bye to All That (1929) was a success but cost him many of his friends, including Siegfried Sassoon. The book’s critics included his Dublin-born father, Percival Graves. His own autobiography – To Return to All That – was a response to his son, castigating him for ‘his bitter and hasty criticism of people who never wished him harm.’

In 1934, he published his most successful work, I, Claudius. Later, from 1961 to 1966, Graves was Professor of Poetry at Oxford. During that period, Graves was on a shortlist of writers considered for the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature, along with Lawrence Durrell, Jean Anouilh and Karen Blixen, but the prize was awarded to John Steinbeck.

Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick … Robert Graves paid a return visit in May 1975 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

More most of his life, Graves lived in Majorca. In May 1975, he returned to Limerick to visit his grandfather’s grave at Saint Mary’s Cathedral. His visit was arranged by the poet John Montague and Garech Browne of Claddagh Records, and he was guest of the Knight of Glin at Glin Castle. In Saint Mary’s Cathedral, he was welcomed by Dean Walton Empey, later Archbishop of Dublin, who told him of his grandfather’s contribution to the restoration of the cathedral.

Graves was among 16 Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled by Ted Hughes in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey on 11 November 1985. The inscription on the stone was written by Wilfred Owen: ‘My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.’ Of the 16 poets, Graves was the only one still living at the time. The other war poets honoured included Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but not ‘Woodbine Willie.’

Graves died within a month, in Majorca on 7 December 1985, at the age of 90.

The Locke Bar has hosted celebrations of Robert Graves organised by the Limerick Writers’ Centre, and in 2014 the centre unveiled a commemorative plaque to Graves at the Locke Bar … he would have been amused that the name of his regiment, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, is misspelled.

The plaque unveiled by the Limerick Writers’ Centre in 2014 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)