27 May 2017
Saint John’s Church, a surviving
reminder of mediaeval Limerick
Saint John’s is one of the five original parishes in Limerick City, the others being, Saint Munchin’s, Saint Michael’s, Saint Mary’s and Saint Patrick’s. During my visit to Saint John’s Roman Catholic Church this week, I also visited neighbouring Saint John’s Church, the former Church of Ireland parish church.
This Saint John’s Church stands on the site of an earlier church in the Irishtown area of the city, which dated from the 1200s. The link between Saint John the Baptist and the area is long-standing. According to the local historian Begley, the Knights Templars had a house in this area in the 12th century that was dedicated to Saint John the Baptist.
The pre-Reformation mediaeval church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist dates back to before the 15th century, perhaps as early as the 11th or 12th century. This important site is adjacent to the former John’s Gate and the town walls where the existing Citadel is located and incorporated within Saint John’s Hospital.
During the Reformation, Saint John’s became the property of Edmund Sexton. The mediaeval church was demolished in the 1850s, when it was replaced by Saint John’s Church of Ireland parish church. The new Saint John’s was oriented to address an open side of John’s Square
Saint John’s was built by the architect Joseph Welland (1798-1860) in the Norman Romanesque style in 1851. It was intended to accommodate 1,000 people. The church stands at one end of John’s Square, the first development of Newtown Pery, and predates Saint John’s Roman Catholic Cathedral.
The foundation stone of the new Saint John’s was laid on 15 January 1851 and the church was dedicated on Saint John’s Day, 24 June 1852.
The architect Joseph Welland was born in Cork. He was the architect to the Board of the First Fruits for seven years. When the board was dissolved in 1838, he was appointed to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners as one of four architects, working alongside James Pain. He was finally nominated sole architect to the Church of Ireland, and his works include over 100 churches.
Saint John’s is a free-standing double-height Romanesque-style limestone church, built in 1851-1852 on the site of the earlier mediaeval church. The gabled west elevation has a centrally-placed Romanesque portal door opening and a blind arcade of three round arches at first floor level, with a rose window in the gable above. Welland indicated a debt to AWN Pugin by roofing the nave, apse and aisles separately, and by revealing the roof structure.
There is a square-plan three-stage tower at the south-west corner, with a splay-foot pyramidal limestone spire, rising from a nail-head enriched cornice, decorated with foliate fleurs-de-lis to the corners and capped by a foliate finial.
There is an apsidal east end and a sacristy at the north-east corner.
The north and south sides are made up of four-bay, single-storey, aisle elevations, with a clerestorey elevation articulated by shallow piers and an oculus window to each bay. There are squared and snecked tooled limestone ashlar walls throughout, with smooth limestone ashlar dressing, including a plinth course, sill courses, a dentil enriched eaves course and copings with supporting corbel blocks to the gable parapet walls.
The five-sided apse has limestone ashlar piers with squared and snecked walls and a dentil enriched eaves band. The single and paired round-arched aisle windows in the aisle and apse elevations have limestone ashlar reveals, flush canted sills and plain glazing. The windows are obscured by recently-installed metal security grilles.
The ancient church grounds form an island site in the middle of busy traffic. The walls around the graveyard were built in 1693 to replace walls damaged during the siege of Limerick and there are many significant tombs, table tombs and grave markers in the grounds.
A folk tale in the area says this is the burial place of the poet Brian Merriman (ca 1747-1805), author of the satirical Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (The Midnight Court). It was the burial place too for many Limerick merchant families, including the Russell family who ran the largest mills in Limerick in the mid-19th century.
The Russell mausoleum is a fine classical mausoleum and adds significantly to the architectural and social history of the site. It is well-composed and the classical temple elevation contrasts with the Romanesque elements of Saint John’s Church.
John Norris Russell was merchant who also became a ship-owner and industrialist. He built the Newtown Pery Mills on Russell’s Quay and the Newtown Pery store nearby on Henry Street, and he was one of the founders of the Limerick Savings Bank.
This limestone mausoleum, built in 1873, has a tetrastyle temple front in the Doric order. Limestone ashlar walls with Doric pilaster supporting plain entablature and pediment. The heraldic decorations include cast-iron relief goat figure above ribbon band with the Russell motto and date: Che Sara Sara 1873.
A plaque reads: ‘Here lieth the mortal remains of Francis Russell who died the 25th day of August 1800. He was an affectionate husband, a kind and indulgent parent, a true friend & an honest man.’ Another plaque reads: ‘John Norris Russell dedicated this monument to his father Francis Russell. A tender husband, an affectionate parent, a kind friend & an honest man.’
The Unthank mausoleum is also in the style of a classical temple. This limestone mausoleum on a raised limestone podium was built ca 1850 for the Unthank family, with an aedicular façade in the Doric order. The ashlar stonework facing has been recently removed from the street-facing east elevation. There is a square-headed door opening with a Greek Revival architrave.
A plaque reads: ‘IHS. The remains of Robert Unthank, Esq, are deposed in this monument. Who died May 1814, aged 26 years. Also the remains of his mother Mrs Mary Unthank who died Sep. 22, 1847 aged 75 years. And his sister, Mrs Percy Scanlan who died February 4th 1829, aged 37 years.’
Another plaque reads: ‘IHS. To the memory of John Unthank, Esq. of Thomas Street on this city who departed this life on the 19th February 1849, aged 57 years. This monument is erected as a small testimony of the respect and affection of his sorrowing wife and children.’
The Unthank family is also associated with the public fountain outside the church grounds in Cathedral Place. This Gothic Revival-style drinking fountain was erected by the Jubilee Committee in 1865. It once met the sanitary and health needs of local people in Saint John’s Parish.
A plaque reads: ‘The inhabitants of St John’s Square are earnestly requested to protect this fountain from injury.’ Another plaque reads: ‘This fountain was erected by the suggestion of the late Isaac Unthank Esq, former Hon Sec of the Society for the benefit of the inhabitants of St John’s Parish and for which the corporation have granted a free supply of water.’
The rectory for the parish was at No 3 John’s Square. It is easily identified with its elaborate doorway, composite pillars and fanlight. The last Rector of Saint John’s to live here was Canon Frederick Langbridge (1849-1922), a novelist, poet and dramatist. His daughter Rosamund was the author of three novels, The Flame and the Flood (1908), Land of the Ever Young (1920) and The Green Banks of the Shannon (1929).
As the Anglican population in Limerick city fell into decline, the church fell into disuse in the early 1970s and it was handed over to the Limerick Corporation in 1975.
The interior was completely redesigned and for a period the church was used as a base for the Dagdha Dance Company and is now the hub for Dance Limerick.
Saint Munchin’s, the fourth
‘cathedral’ in Limerick?
According to a recent illustrated history of the Church of Ireland, edited by Claude Costecalde and Brian Walker, ‘it is said there are three cathedrals in Limerick – St Mary’s, St John’s and Thomond Park (home of Munster rugby).’
Perhaps it could be said that Limerick has four cathedrals, for tradition says Saint Munchin’s Church, a former Church of Ireland parish church on King’s Island, looking across the estuary of the River Shannon, stands on the site of the first cathedral of the Diocese of Limerick, built in 561 AD by the patron saint of the diocese.
Saint Munchin’s is one of the five original parishes in Limerick City, the others being Saint John’s, Saint Michael’s, Saint Mary’s and Saint Patrick’s. As a civil parish, Saint Munchin’s Parish lies partly in geographical Co Clare and partly in Co Limerick, including the city centre of Limerick. The parish is divided into two parts by the intervening parishes of Saint Nicholas and Killeely.
The part of the city on King’s Island is mostly in the parish. Saint Munchin’s Church is located on Church Street, between the Bishop’s Palace and Villiers Almshouses, on the banks of the River Shannon, overlooking the river and across to the Treaty Stone.
The church takes its name from Saint Munchin, traditionally listed as the first Bishop of Limerick, and according to tradition the first church on this site was the first cathedral of the diocese of Limerick.
Saint Munchin’s feast day is celebrated on 2 January (or 3 January), and he is said he lived in the late sixth or the seventh century. If the dates are consing, so too are the stories about the saint, and the legendary accounts give different versions of his background.
The first legend says Saint Munchin was the nephew of a King of Thomond who was also a disciple of Saint Patrick. Another legend says Saint Munchin was one of Sétna’s three sons who came from Co Clare. It is also said that Saint Munchin’s brother Ainlid was a local ruler in the late seventh century.
The most popular legend about Saint Munchin tells of the building of his first church in Limerick. While the workers were building the church, Munchin asked for the help of some local people whom were passing by. They refused to help, and Munchin placed a curse on them, praying they would be unsuccessful and unfortunate in life. He then appealed to some strangers who were passing, who readily gave their assistance. Saint Munchin appreciated their kindness and prayed they would always prosper.
The poet Michael Hogan wrote a poem in detail about the happenings, The Curse of Saint Munchin (1868).
The original church of Saint Munchin’s is said to have been built in 561, and to have once been the cathedral of the diocese of Limerick. As the first Bishop of Limerick, Saint Munchin is supposed to have been buried in the churchyard.
The legends say that Saint Munchin’s father Sétna belonged to the Dál Cais, and give him a pedigree linking him to the ancestors of the O’Brien dynasty. Mainchín is said to have founded Limerick when Ferdomnach, King of the Dál Cais, granted him land at Inis Sibtond, an island on the River Shannon.
However, there are major problems with the legends. The Dál Cais are unknown before the 930s, having migrated from the Deise area in what is now Co Waterford. population which migrated into the region at an uncertain period.
It has been argued that Munchin’s appearance in Limerick is actually due to his adoption by the later Norse there.
In fact, no successors of Munchin as Bishop of Limerick are known before the 12th century, and his existence cannot be verified before then. The church may have been a Viking foundation. The first recorded Bishop of Limerick is Gilli, also known as Gilla Espaic, of Gilbert. He was consecrated ca 1106, probably by Anselm of Canterbury at Rouen. He was the Papal Legate at the Synod of Rathbreasail in 1111, when the Diocese of Limerick was recognised as one of the 24 dioceses in Ireland. He resigned in 1140, and died in 1145.
According to some traditions, Saint Munchin’s Church was burned by the Danes. A later, single-cell mediaeval church stood on the site for centuries.
When the present Church of Ireland church was built in 1827 near the site of the old church, a layer of ashes was found under the foundation of the old church, which may confirm the story of the earlier burning.
The latest church on this site was designed in the Gothic style by the brothers George Richard Pain and James Pain (1779-1877). The Pain brothers collaborated on many works and were commissioned by the Board of First Fruits to design churches and glebehouses in Ireland. In 1833, James Pain was appointed one of the four principal architects of the Board of Ecclesiastical Commissioners. He lived in Limerick for much of his life.
The church is primarily built with limestone and it follows a Perpendicular Gothic style. Saint Munchin’s is a well-proportioned Board of the First Fruits Church. It is a four-bay church, with a square-plan tower to the west elevation, and an entrance porch at the north-east corner. There is an artificial slate roof to the church and a pitched slate roof to the porch. The four pinnacles at the top of the tower provide this church a distinguished aspect.
Until the 19th century, the church still had an episcopal throne, reflecting or feeding the legends that this was the site of the first cathedral in Limerick.
The graveyard has been in use for hundreds of years and there are many grave markers and table-tombs from the 18th and 19th centuries. There is a special plaque to commemorate three Norwegian children buried there in the 19th century. They had been passengers on an emigrant ship that had stopped in Limerick for repairs. The significant architectural quality of the many mausoleums in the churchyard and their good condition add to the interest of this site.
The church was deconsecrated in 1968, at a time when many Church of Ireland churches were being closed and dioceses were being amalgamated. Saint Munchin’s had fallen into disrepair over two decades when it was renovated by the Limerick Civic Trust in 1988-1989.
The church was used for a period by the Island Theatre Company until 2008, and later the University of Limerick architecture school held occasional exhibitions of students work here.
Major renovation work continues in the church and the churchyard. More recently, the towers of the church have been used by beekeepers to house beehives and help pollinate the city’s flowers and trees.
The church stands on an outcrop overlooking the Shannon River to the west and Villiers Almshouses to the north. It is enclosed by rubble limestone walls with square-plan piers and wrought-iron gates.
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