29 May 2017

The Mechanics’ Institute and
Limerick’s stucco façades

The Mechanics’ Institute … fills the rear of the site of No 6 Pery Street, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

The streets of Limerick are richly laden with fine example of 19th and early 20th century stucco work.

One of the exuberant examples of this stucco work is found at the Mechanics Institute, is a substantial stucco-fronted building on Hartstonge Street that fills the entire site at the rear of No 6 Pery Square.

Despite the sad-looking replacement windows, this is an interesting example of an early 20th century, classically-styled clubhouse. This seven-bay single-storey building was built ca 1920.

It has a pitched natural slate roof with black clay ridge tiles and cast-iron rainwater goods. There is cement coping to the parapet wall, with a shaped gable flanked by a pair of console brackets to the first and last bays, and these form shallow breakfronts.

The building has painted rendered walls with a cornice spanning the entire façade and that are stepped at breakfronts with a dentilated course, and with a plinth course at the ground level.

The breakfronts are framed by pilasters, each with a moulded foliate oval wreath. There are four square-headed window openings, each with a large keystone, concrete sill, uPVC window and modern mild steel railings.

The east breakfront has a round-arched door opening with a spoked timber fanlight over double-leaf timber doors. A similar arch to the west breakfront is blind and has a shield with a coat of arms. There is a further round-arched door opening with a fanlight and double-leaf doors.

A plaque with an arm and hammer carries the motto: ‘Labor Omnia Vincit Mechanics’ Institute Limerick founded 1810.’ The Latin phrase Labor Omnia Vincit (‘Work Conquers All’). This Latin phrase, which became a popular trade union slogan across the world in the 19th century, is adapted from Virgil’s Georgics, Book I, lines 145-146: Labor omnia vicit / improbus (‘Steady work overcame all things’). The poem was written in support of Augustus Caesar’s ‘Back to the land’ policy, aimed at encouraging more Romans to become farmers.

The Plasterers’ Arms on the façade of the Mechanics Institute in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The coat-of-arms on the façade is that of the plasterers’ union and the text reads: ‘AD1670 Regular Operative Plasterers Society Brotherly Love Continued.’

The Operatives’ Plasterers is the oldest trade union in Ireland, with a history stretching back to 1670. On 13 December 1893, the Regular Stucco Plasterers’ Trade Union of the City of Dublin registered as a trade union. Since then, it has grown from a small Dublin-based society of around 250 plasterers to a national union, with around 1,000 members in the Operative Plasterers and Allied Trades Society of Ireland.

My great-grandfather, James Comerford (1817-1902) from Newtownbarry (Bunclody), Co Wexford, and many members of his extended family played key roles in the forming the new union at the end of Victorian era, and I was elected an honorary life member when the union celebrated its centenary. But the union has always claimed direct continuity with the city of Dublin Guild of Bricklayers and Carpenters, and the guild’s coat-of-arms, which the union continues to use, is displayed in stucco on the façade of the Mechanics’ Institute in Limerick.

A Dublin Plasterer, William D’Arcy, who was secretary of the Plasterers’ Society with 220 members, told a government inquiry in 1838 that his society was 175 or 167 years old, tracing it back to the foundation of the Guild of Saint Bartholomew of Plasterers and Bricklayers in 1670.

The Royal Charter granted by King Charles II in 1670 to the combined craft of Plasterers and Bricklayers gave legal authority to the working rules established between handicraft masters (employers), journeymen (day workers) and apprentices within the city of Dublin. Although the guild was not a trade union, it could fix prices, wages and hours, regulate apprenticeships, provide charity and maintain the standards of arts and mysteries of the trade.

The old guilds were dominated by the masters and the members exercised political and commercial power as freemen of Dublin, giving them direct representation on the city council and the right to vote in parliamentary elections. Anyone who was not a member of the Established Church of Ireland was excluded from membership.

As the Operative Plasterers’ Society expanded, branches were formed in Cork, Carlow, Leix, Mullingar, Mallow, Wexford and Clonmel among many others.

The members of the Limerick branch also have a long history of militant defence of the craft and workers’ rights, and many of the journeymen of the day were involved in the Limerick Soviet. The Limerick branch works out of the Mechanics’ Institute, which is the only working Mechanics Institute left on these isles.

Although the lettering on the façade on the Mechanics’ Institute in Hartstonge Street appears to claim a history dating back to 1810, the first such institute, the London Mechanics’ Institute, opened on 2 December 1823, and the first Mechanics’ Institute in Ireland opened in Dublin in 1824.

In the following year, similar institutes opened in 1825 in Limerick, as well as Armagh, Belfast, Cork, Galway and Waterford. These were followed by Carrick-on-Suir, Cashel, Coleraine and Tipperary. By the time the Mechanics’ Institute was established in Clonmel in 1842, there were 200 such institutions on these islands.

When I worked in the Wexford People in the 1970s, the shop front and the editorial offices were housed in the former Mechanics’ Institute on North Main Street.

The institutes were primarily facilities for members of the traditional crafts and the craft unions, and in hard times the rent on the Limerick premises was often paid by the Bakers’ Union. Due to a chronic shortage of money, the Limerick institute never reached its full potential. It was unable to provide lectures for the members, had no apparatus or equipment, and its main activities were confined to a reading room and library with books and newspaper.

Despite its early foundation date in 1825, a lecture in the Athenaeum in Cecil Street by William Smith O’Brien on 19 December 1857 was described as the ‘inaugural lecture.’

In the 19th century, the institute building was in Bank Place before moving to No 5 Glentworth Street, a building once owned by the Roches, one of the great merchant families in Limerick.

Later, the Mechanics’ Institute moved to No 6 Pery Square, a large Georgian Housed on the corner of Pery Square and Hartstonge Street. The composer Franz Liszt was a guest in this house when he visited Limerick in 1841.

The institute was known popularly as ‘the Bars,’ probably because unemployed members gathered at the railings outside No 6. The records of many Limerick craft unions, including the bakers, were kept in the cellar until a misguided caretaker decided to use them for fuel in the furnace.

The Mechanics’ Institute sold the house on Pery Square in the 1960s to pay off accumulated debts, but held onto the Assembly Hall in Hartstonge Street. The date 1810 outside refers not to the date of the formation of the Mechanics’ Institute, or the Operative Plasterers’ union, but to the Limerick Council of Trade Unions, which was formed in 1810 and still has offices in this interesting building.

Stucco decoration on the façade of the Mechanics’ Institute (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Curraghchase and the search for
the elusive Lady Clara Vere de Vere

The house at Curraghchase was the home of the Hunt and de Vere family for almost three centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

During the weekend, I went for a walk at Curraghchase Forest Park, through the woods and around the lake, stopping for coffee in the De Vere Café and to see the once great-stately home which has inspired poets and writers through the generations.

Curraghchase is just 6 km east of the Rectory in Askeaton, but this was my first time to visit it since I moved here four months ago. It lies half-way between Askeaton and Adare and about 20 km west of Limerick City. The forest park covers about 3 sq km (774 acres) and includes a number of interesting archaeological remain as well as tourist trails and a popular camping and caravan park.

For almost 300 years, this was the family estate of the Hunt and de Vere families. Many generations of the family are buried in the churchyard at Saint Mary’s, Askeaton, and the family including the de Vere baronets and the poet Aubrey Thomas de Vere.

The house was probably built on the site of Curragh Castle, which is mentioned in the late mediaeval Desmond Roll and was originally owned by John FitzGerald. In 1657, the estate became the property of Vere Hunt, who acquired vast tracts of land in Co Limerick and Co Tipperary in the mid-17th century. He was an officer in Cromwell’s army in Ireland and claimed indirect descent from the Earls of Oxford, who traced their ancestry back to Aubrey de Vere in the reign of William the Conqueror.

The estate continued in the hands of the Hunt and de Vere family for almost 300 years. In 1703, John Hunt expanded the family estates with further land acquisitions and purchases in Co Limerick.

A descendant of this family, Sir Vere Hunt (1761-1818), was given the title of baronet in 1784, the year he married Elinor Pery, a sister of the 1st Earl of Limerick. At the Act of Union, he was the last sitting MP for the Borough of Askeaton.

His son, Sir Aubrey Hunt, who succeeded as the second baronet, changed his surname to de Vere in 1832, becoming Sir Aubrey de Vere. When he changed his surname by royal licence to reflect his descent from the de Veres of Oxford, he also changed the name of the family house and estate from Curragh to Curraghchase.

The house at Curraghchase was rebuilt for Sir Aubrey de Vere by the Regency architect Amon Henry Wilds in 1829 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The existing house dates from the early 19th century, when it was rebuilt by Sir Aubrey de Vere. The new house was designed in 1829 by the fashionable Regency architect Amon Henry Wilds (1784-1857).

Wilds was an English architect who also worked on Pery Square in Limerick. Wilds was part of a team of three architects and builders who are better known for developing Brighton in the early 19th century, with the houses, hotels, churches and social venues that give Brighton its distinctive Regency character.

This was a detached, 11-bay two-storey over half-basement house, built ca 1750, with two adjoining fronts, the shorter one dating to the 18th century, the longer front dating from ca 1829.

Walking through the woods at Curraghchase at the weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Sir Aubrey was a poet and a friend of the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), who was a regular guest at Curraghchase and wrote the poem ‘Lady Clara Vere de Vere,’ still famed for the lines:

Kind hearts are more than coronets,
and simple faith than Norman blood.

It is said that Tennyson wrote the poem to show his close friendship with the family. But the poem shows disdain for the fictitious Lady Clara, her aloof airs and her snobbery – indeed, no baronet would have claimed a coronet and no baronet’s daughter would have called herself ‘Lady Clara.’ Tennyson shows his contempt for these pretensions by dropping her assumed title in the last two stanzas.

Of course, there never was a Lady Clara Vere de Vere. But earlier maps show a ‘Lady’s Island’ on the lake below the house at Curraghchase. During one visit, Tennyson told of seeing the mystic arm of the ‘Lady of the Lake’ thrust above the waters. A century and a half later, it still said that on Christmas Eve each year, the burning figure of a woman can be seen floating along the waters of the lake.

Lines from Sir Aubrey de Vere in the De Vere Café at Curraghchade (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Sir Aubrey married Mary Rice of Mount Trenchard, Co Limerick, and they had five sons. When his eldest son and successor, the third baronet, Sir Vere Edmond de Vere (1808-1880), died without a male heir, the tile passed to his next brother, Sir Stephen Edward de Vere (1812-1904), the fourth and last baronet.

As a student, Stephen de Vere was influenced by the Oxford Movement, and in 1847 he became a Roman Catholic. That year, at the height of the famine, the future Sir Stephen sailed on a ‘coffin ship’ with emigrants to North America to see the conditions that were causing the deaths of so many passengers.

In the 1850s, Stephen built a smaller house on Foynes Island in the River Shannon, adjacent to the port town of Foynes, about 20 km (12 miles) east of Curraghchase. There he wrote poems, political pamphlets and translated several editions of the works of Horace, considered by some as the best English translation of Horace's verses.

He was a Liberal MP for Co Limerick (1854-1859), and was High Sheriff of Co Limerick in 1870. He built Saint Senanus Church, a Gothic church in Foynes designed by JJ McCarthy, and is buried beside it. On his death in 1904 the family title of baronet died out too.

His younger brother, the poet Aubrey Thomas de Vere (1814-1902), was a poet and critic too. The younger Aubrey recalled that in his youth the lake at the bottom of the house was a rich meadow when he was in his youth. A slender stream divided this meadow. Across the lake, a monument to the de Vere family stands on a small hill. Near the house, there is a small cemetery for the de Vere family pets.

Aubrey de Vere’s work was influenced by his decision to follow his brother and to leave the Church of Ireland for the Roman Catholic Church in 1851. He was a prolific writer, and his Poetical Works were published in six volumes in 1884. He is best known for A Lyrical Chronicle of Ireland (1862) and his Famine relief tract, English Misrule and Irish Misdeeds (1848).

‘Little Heaven’ ... where Aubrey de Vere meditated (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The younger Aubrey recalled that the lake at the bottom of the house was a rich meadow when he was in his youth. A stone seat behind the house is marked as the place where he sat for hours and meditated. He died at Curraghchase on 21 January 1902, at the age of 88, and was buried in Saint Mary’s Churchyard, Askeaton.

Neither Sir Stephen Edward de Vere nor his younger brother Aubrey Thomas de Vere had children, and so when they died the family title died out too. Meanwhile, the family estates had passed to their nephews Aubrey Vere O’Brien, who inherited Curragh Chase in 1898 and assumed the name de Vere in 1899, and Robert Vere O’Brien, who inherited the farm on Foynes Island.

In 1906, the house at Curraghchase was home to Henrietta L de Vere. By the 1930s, it was the home of Robert Stephen Vere de Vere (1872-1936). He was born Robert Stephen Vere O’Brien but 1899 his name was legally changed by royal licence to Robert Stephen Vere de Vere, so that the de Vere name would continue at Curraghchase. He was a son-in-law of Bishop Handley Moule of Durham, Chief Justice of Seychelles (1928-1931) and Chief Justice of Grenada (1931-1935).

The main entrance to the estate at Curraghchase (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The house at Curraghchase was accidentally destroyed by fire in December 1941. The house has been derelict ever since, and in 1957 the grounds were bought by the State in 1957. The property is now used for commercial timber, with tourist trails, and a popular camping and caravan park.

Although the fire severely damaged Curraghchase, the house retains much of its original fabric, such as its limestone sills and decorative window surrounds. Its imposing size and austere appearance make a notable impression on the surrounding landscape. The surviving outbuildings and yard at the rear of the house add context to the site.

From the house, we walked down to the artificial lake, on the east side of the house. But there was no sign of the Lady of the Lake or of Lady Clara de Vere. Instead, a pair of swans were carefully tending their signets on the lake, while ducks were nestling in the warm early summer sunshine on the edge of the lake.

‘The lion on your old stone gates / Is not more cold to you than I’ … a side entrance to Curraghchase (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Lady Clara Vere de Vere, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
Of me you shall not win renown:
You thought to break a country heart
For pastime, ere you went to town.
At me you smiled, but unbeguiled
I saw the snare, and I retired:
The daughter of a hundred Earls,
You are not one to be desired.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
I know you proud to bear your name,
Your pride is yet no mate for mine,
Too proud to care from whence I came.
Nor would I break for your sweet sake
A heart that dotes on truer charms.
A simple maiden in her flower
Is worth a hundred coats-of-arms.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
Some meeker pupil you must find,
For were you queen of all that is,
I could not stoop to such a mind.
You sought to prove how I could love,
And my disdain is my reply.
The lion on your old stone gates
Is not more cold to you than I.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
You put strange memories in my head.
Not thrice your branching limes have blown
Since I beheld young Laurence dead.
Oh your sweet eyes, your low replies:
A great enchantress you may be;
But there was that across his throat
Which you had hardly cared to see.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
When thus he met his mother’s view,
She had the passions of her kind,
She spake some certain truths of you.
Indeed I heard one bitter word
That scarce is fit for you to hear;
Her manners had not that repose
Which stamps the caste of Vere de Vere.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
There stands a spectre in your hall:
The guilt of blood is at your door:
You changed a wholesome heart to gall.
You held your course without remorse,
To make him trust his modest worth,
And, last, you fixed a vacant stare,
And slew him with your noble birth.

Trust me, Clara Vere de Vere,
From yon blue heavens above us bent,
The gardener Adam and his wife
Smile at the claims of long descent.
Howe’er it be, it seems to me,
’Tis only noble to be good.
Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood.

I know you, Clara Vere de Vere;
You pine among your halls and towers:
The languid light of your proud eyes
Is wearied of the rolling hours.
In glowing health, with boundless wealth,
But sickening of a vague disease,
You know so ill to deal with time,
You needs must play such pranks as these.

Clara, Clara Vere de Vere,
If Time be heavy on your hands,
Are there no beggars at your gate,
Nor any poor about your lands?
Oh! teach the orphan-boy to read,
Or teach the orphan-girl to sew,
Pray Heaven for a human heart,
And let the foolish yeoman go.

The house at Curraghchase seen from the lake (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)