02 June 2017

Limerick’s Augustinian Church
stands on an old theatre site

Saint Augustine’s Church stands on a prominent site in the heart of commercial Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Augustine’s Church on O’Connell Street has a prime location on the main street in the heart of Limerick’s city centre. The building, which has a strong street presence, is one of Limerick’s landmark buildings and I called in this week to visit the book shop and to see what liturgical resources were available.

The present Augustinian community traces its origins in the city to 1633, although they link back to earlier Augustinian house in Adare, and Augustinians have been in Limerick City since the 13th century.

The Augustinians trace their origins back to Saint Augustine of Hippo in North Africa. A number of scattered and diverse communities followed the Rule of Saint Augustine, and some of these came together under one Prior General in 1256.

By then, the Augustinians had spread throughout Western Europe, and by the end of the 13th century there was at least four Augustinian communities in Limerick: the Canons Regular, the Friars of the Cross, the Hermit Friars of Saint Augustine, and the Canonesses of Saint Augustine.

Inside Saint Augustine’s Church in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

At times, it is difficult to disentangle the different stories of these pre-Reformation houses in the Quay Lane, Merchant’s Quay and Fish Lane area. One was said to have been founded by the O’Briens of Thomond, another during the reign of King John. They had dedications to the Holy Cross, Saint Mary and Saint Edward, and ran a poor hospital.

The privilege of casting the first vote in the election of the Mayor of Limerick was claimed by one of these Augustinian houses, and the position of Prior was often hotly contested in the late mediaeval period. When Eugene O Faolain was removed as Prior in Limerick in 1476, he became the prior of the Trinitarian Monastery in Adare, which was often in contention with the Augustinians in Adare.

After the suppression of the monastic houses at the Reformation, Holy Cross Priory and Hospital in Limerick were granted to Edmund Sexton in 1537. The Sextons retained the prior’s privileges, including casting the first vote in the mayoral elections. This estate became the core estate of the Sexton and Pery families, and their descendants, the Earls of Limerick, who had a seat in Saint Mary’s Cathedral as Priors of Limerick.

The Augustinian foundation in Adare was also known as the Black Abbey, and the church is now Saint Nicholas’s Church of Ireland parish church. The Augustinian presence in Adare continued without interruption until the reign of Elizabeth I, when their lands were granted to Warham St Leger in 1567, although the friars may have remained in their house until about 1585.

The Augustinian house in Adare was finally suppressed in the Cromwellian era, but members of this Augustinian community had already moved from Adare into Limerick City, and in 1633 they founded a chapel in Fish Lane.

In 1778, the Augustinians built a small chapel in Creagh Lane, and they remained there until 1823. A year earlier, in 1822, they bought the Limerick Theatre on George’s Street (now O’Connell Street) for £400, although the theatre originally cost the public £5,000 to build. The community spent £600 on improving the building, and the original structure remained in use as a church until 1939.

Saint Augustine’s is an ambitious exercise in Hiberno-Romanesque Revival architecture (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The former theatre was replaced by the present church, which is an ambitious exercise in Hiberno-Romanesque Revival architecture, although it was built much later than one would be expected for this style. The original proposed façade had two towers, but only one was built.

The church was designed by the architectural partnership of Jones and Kelly and was built in 1939-1942 by GS Wallace and Son of Dublin at a cost of £49,000. The foundation stone was laid in March 1939, and the church opened on 20 December 1942.

This is a double-height, gable-fronted, Hiberno-Romanesque church with a west facing street front and a square-plan tower to the north. The gable ends each have a stone Celtic cross at the apex. A large Romanesque window with four lancet windows filled with stained glass and four round-headed arches at the ground floor level dominate the street frontage.

The 1633 lintel stone from the Fish Lane Chapel was inserted beside the church porch in 1962 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

On the right, at the entrance to the church on O’Connell Street, is the original lintel stone dated 1633 from the order’s earlier chapel in Limerick at Fish Lane. The O’Doherty family saved this stone in 1933 when the buildings in Fish Lane were knocked for new houses.

The stone was kept in a stone-cutting yard until it was brought to the attention of the Prior, Father Vincent Lyons in 1961. He bought the stone and it was inserted into the wall of the church in October 1962. In the porch are two holy water fonts from the early church in Creagh Lane.

Saint Augustine’s Church has an extensive and valuable collection of stained glass windows from the Harry Clarke Studio. The semi-circular half-domed apse to the east has a stepped Romanesque arch with a heavy chevron motif, supported by four colonettes with cushioned capitals. The five windows are by the Harry Clarke studio and represent Saint Joseph, Saint Monica, Our Lady of Consolation, and Saint Nicholas of Tolentine.

The principal west window is also by the Harry Clarke, studio with a decorative plat-archivolt supported by long colonettes and with the organ gallery in front. This west window has been described as ‘a symphony of light and colour.’ The four long panels depict scenes from the life of Saint Augustine (from left): Saint Augustine’s conversion, his consecration as bishop, writing his Confessions, and with his mother Saint Monica at Ostia. Below are four symbols of his life: the book and quill, twin symbols of the Augustinian Order and the scales of justice.

The window is dedicated to Father Joseph Hennessy (1872-1941), who played a key role in the planning and building the church.

In the side aisles, the church has traditional shrines dedicated to Saint Jude, Saint Therése, Saint Nicholas, Saint Anthony, Saint Joseph, the Sacred Heart, Our Lady of Good Counsel, Saint Augustine and Saint Monica, Saint Rita of Cascia and Padre Pio.

The interior of the church was redesigned and refurbished in the 1990s. The church was divided into a worship area and a hospitality space by an ornate screen mirroring the architectural features of the church, with the Millennium glass doors at the entrance to the worship area.

The Abbey Bookshop and gift shop is on the left inside the entrance doors, and there is a pastoral care area, hospitality and exhibition spaces, and a peace garden laid out in 1997 to commemorate the Good Friday Agreement.

In 1998, a silver chalice was discovered in a cylinder at the back of a safe behind the high altar. The inscription says Dame Alice Nagle donated it to the Augustinian Sisters in Dublin in 1750.

The bells of the church are believed to have come from a church in London. When Father Larry Doyle heard the bells had been brought to Ireland, he bought them for the church.

The Augustinian priory next door stands on the site of the Country Club, built in 1825. The Augustinians rented the ground floor of the premises in 1897 for £2,075 from Dr Pryce Peacocke for a lease of 999 years. They bought the building for £15,000 in 1946, and the priory was officially opened on 25 May 1948.

Meanwhile, the FitzGeralds of Kildare retained the title to the former Augustinian friary in Adare. In 1713, Robert FitzGerald (1675-1744), 19th Earl of Kildare and grandfather or Lord Edward FitzGerald, sold the buildings to Valentine Quin, grandfather of the first Earl of Dunraven.

Lord Dunraven reroofed the church in 1807, gave to the Palatine community for use as a church. In 1811, it became the Church of Ireland parish church in Adare with the name Saint Nicholas.

The Harry Clarke window in the organ gallery depicts the life of Saint Augustine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

An invitation to speak about
the Wyatt family of Weeford
in Lichfield next year

Saint Mary's Church in Weeford … generations of the Wyatt family were baptised, married and buried here (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

In recent days, I have been invited to be part of next year’s programme of the Lichfield Civic Society.

The Lichfield Civic Society was founded at a public meeting in the Guildhall in 1961, at a time when major developments were destroying the special character of many old towns and cities. There was no reason to believe that Lichfield would be immune from these threats – at the time there plans to drive a new road through The Windings and across the grounds of Lichfield Theological College.

Over half a century later, the society continues to keep a watching brief on local planning and environmental issues in Lichfield, including housing developments, new shopping facilities and street furniture.

Each year, the society awards a merit plaque for the best new architecture, conservation or landscape scheme in the city.

Lichfield Civic Society also organise a series of monthly meetings addressed by speakers on a wide variety of topics. The meetings take place in the Lichfield Room, Wade Street Church Community Hall, Frog Lane, with a short time afterwards for questions and discussion.

Last month’s lecture [25 May 2017] was by David Wood on ‘The Work of a Master Thatcher’; this month’s lecture [20 June 2017] is by Ned Williams on ‘Prefabs – the Palaces of the People.’ Later this year [21 November 2017], Ken Knowles is talking about his life and times as the Town Crier in Lichfield.

Last week, Mike Pearson, the programme secretary of Lichfield Civic Society, invited me to be part of next year’s programme and to give the monthly lecture on 24 April 2018 on the Wyatt family of Weeford.

The Wyatts are a unique architectural dynasty, and I visited Weeford, about 6 km south of Lichfield, a few weeks ago when I was back in Lichfield and researching a feature on the Wyatt family due to be published in two diocesan magazines next Sunday [4 June 2017].

A day after I had visited Weeford, I called in by chance to the Oxfam second-hand bookshop in Market Street, Lichfield, and came across a rare copy of the Weeford Parish Register, prepared for the Staffordshire Parish Register Society, edited by the society secretary, Norman W Tildesley of Somerford Place, Willenhall, and printed privately in Wednesbury around 1954-1956.

The Weeford parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials date from 1562 and continue until 1812. They were transcribed by HR Thomas of Wolverhampton. On the back of the fly leaf of the first register are two interesting prayers written in an unformed hand:

By thy crucified body deliver me from the body of this death.

O let this blood of thine purge my conscience from vain works to serve the living God.

The Weeford Parish Registers are a valuable tool for genealogists and local historian (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

These registers show that the Wyatt family has been living in the parish since at least 1562, if not earlier. The baptism of Thomas Wyatt, son of Robert Wyatt, on 29 July 1562, is one of the fifth entry recorded in the registers, and is followed by daughters Margery in 1565 and Margaret in 1567.

Entries for members of the Wyatt family, including inter-marriages within the family, continue for generations and for centuries. There are Wyatt memorials in the parish church and Wyatt graves scattered throughout the churchyard.

The registers record not just baptisms, marriages and burials, but the events too that led to these rites of passage. An entry in 1614 records: ‘Buried: Roger Whately, a Carrier, that was murthered at Weeford Park on Sundaie the 27th November, buried the last of November.’

There is a moving entry from 13 February 1745: ‘Buried a woman that came to ask charity at Packington Hall and died in the fold there.’

On 13 March 1758, the registers record the death of ‘James Holmes who was kill’d by a waggon wheel at Mr Manley’s of Swinfen.’ An unnamed 'Travelling Irishman' was buried is recorded as being baptised on on 15 August 1759, although this must surely refer to a burial. On 24 February 1760, we read of the death of ‘Mr Joseph Grundy from Swinfen Hall, who was killed by being thrown off a load of Hay.’

Some the entries record family tragedies in very simple terms. Jone (Joan) Basford, the daughter of Raphe Basford, was baptised on 28 January 1571, ‘and was burried [sic] the morrow after.’ An unknown stranger is buried on 3 February 1578 without being named. Thomas Thickbrome’s two daughters, Margaret and Ellin, are buried within ten days of each other in October 1580. Robert and Constance Turner, brother and sister, were baptised on 7 March 1586 – they were both buried five days later. Charles, the son of Joseph and Mary Wyatt, was baptised on 27 November 1757, and buried the next day.

To read of the high rate of infant mortality, even centuries later, is heart-rending.

Thomas Tew and Ales Mustard were married on 2 December 1574, and their son William was baptised three weeks later, on Christmas Day 25 December 1574. The registers can be quite blunt, or even cruel, in commenting on domestic situations. A child baptised in 1576, and another in 1578, are each described as spurius, while a child baptised in 1584 is said to be ‘baseborne.’

There are three sad entries, one after another, on 2 August 1591, beginning with the burial of Elizabeth Maxfield, noting ‘The said Elizabeth Maxfield a little before her death of two sonnes, the name of the first is Edward, the other Thomas, the father of the said children is unknown.’ The writer then goes on to record the baptisms that day of each new-born child.

A child found in the church porch ‘was baptized by the name of Anne, according to the Cannon [sic]’ on 31 December 1637.

There are few entries for baptisms during the Cromwellian era (1649-1660) and the entries are poorly organised, indicating the strong Puritan streak among the ministers appointed to the parish, although this does not necessarily mean the parishioners agreed with the ministers imposed on them.

The four main families in the parish were Swinfen of Swinfen Hall, Levett of Packington Hall, Manley of Manley Hall and Lawley of Canwell Hall. Packington Hall had been built by James Wyatt for the Babington family, and later passed by marriage to the Levett family.

As an indication of the social prejudices of the day, families like these tend to receive more attentive entries in the register. John and Ann Swinfen were witnesses on 14 October 1790 at the marriage of ‘The Honourable John Colvill, eldest son and heir apparent of the Right Honourable John, Lord Colvill of Culrooss in Scotland and Elizabeth Ford of Swinfen.’ It is interesting to note that Elizabeth’s parentage is not referred to.

The register records the four children of James Wyatt (1717-1783) and his wife Elizabeth Somerford or Sommerford. This James Wyatt was a son of John Wyatt (1675-1742) and Jane Jackson (1677-1739). He was the youngest child in a family of eight sons and one daughter, and he was a younger brother of William Wyatt (1702-1772) and Benjamin Wyatt (1709-1772), the ancestors of the Wyatt architectural dynasty.

James Wyatt and John Wyatt, probably twins, the sons of James Wyatt and Elizabeth Somerford, were baptised on 22 January 1760. Infant mortality also struck this couple, and the two boys died later that year: John was buried on 23 September and James was buried on 20 December 1760. The baptism of a daughter Mary in 1762 is not noted, although the register records her burial in Weeford later that year on 22 October 1762, without naming her parents. A third son, also James Wyatt, son of James Wyatt and Elizabeth Somerford, was baptised on 24 May 1763. A fourth son, John Wyatt, son of James Wyatt and Elizabeth Sommerford, was baptised in Weeford on 27 December 1765. Despite the heartbreak of infant mortality, James and Elizabeth appear to have been determined to keep the names James and John in the family. The second John Wyatt died in 1791.

James Wyatt was buried in Weeford on 15 August 1783. An entry on 23 February 1804 records: ‘Elizabeth Somerford from Lichfield, bur[ied], Copied to here.’ This is probably his widow, although this is not clear from the burial register; if she is his widow, one wonders why her married name is not used.

Weeford is less than 10 miles south of Comberford, in the neighbouring parish of Wigginton, and there is at least one record showing how close the two villages are with the burial of ‘John, s[on] of Edw[ard] Lakin of Cumberford’ on 27 November 1726. As the register shows, the spelling of surnames did not become standardised until later in the 19th century, and I wondered whether some descendants of the Comberford family of Comberford that I had not known of may have continued to live in this part of Staffordshire for longer than my researches had shown. Indeed, it would have been interesting to come across a marriage between the Wyatt and Comerford families, just at a time when the Comerfords were introducing Wyatt-style windows to the domestic architecture of Newtownbarry (Bunclody).

But I was quickly dissuaded. Perhaps Sommerford and Somerford were not misspellinsg for Comberford or Comerford, but derived from Somerford, about 18 miles west of Weeford and a mile east of Brewood, the same Somerford that also gave its name to Somerford Place in Willenhall, where Norman W Tildesley, the editor of this volume, lived in the 1950s. Thomas Somerford of Somerford Hall, his wife, his mother and his children were Quakers by the 1680s. But the Somerford family had sold or lost Somerford Hall by 1705; if Elizabeth is descended from that family I have yet to discover how.