Saturday, 24 June 2017

Villiers Almshouses: a reminder
of 19th century Limerick charities

Villiers Almshouses … endowed by Hannah Villiers and designed by the Pain brothers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

My first diocesan synod in the Diocese of Limerick, Killaloe and Ardfert took place today [24 June 2017] in Villiers School on the North Circular Road in Limerick.

Earlier this morning, I was discussing the original Villiers School building on Henry Street, which was designed by the Limerick-based architect James Pain. Pain and his brother George Richard Pain also designed the Villiers Almshouses, close to Thomond Bridge and overlooking the banks of the River Shannon.

Like Villiers School, the Villiers Almshouses were endowed by Hannah Villiers in her will. The Elizabethan-style building, designed by the Pain brothers, was built in 1826 in the garden of the former bishop’s palace by her trustees for the benefit of 12 ‘poor Protestant and Presbyterian widows,’ and opened in 1827.

Historically, there was a number of almshouses in the Nicholas Street and Church Street area of Limerick. They included the Corporation Almshouse, built soon after the siege of Limerick, on the site of the mediaeval Saint Nicholas’s Church.

The Villiers Almshouses stand beside Saint Munchin’s Church and churchyard and close to the former Bishop's Palace, located further north along Church Street.

This block of almshouses is made up of detached multiple-bay dormer two-storey almshouses. They form three interconnecting wings, arranged on a U-plan, with nine residences that open onto a courtyard. The end bays once housed a male and a female national school. The raised gabled centrepiece has a crenellated parapet surmounted by a limestone Tudor-style finial, and also has a clock face.

A plaque on the gable of centrepiece reads: ‘These alms houses and schools endowed by Mrs Hannah Villiers were erected by her trustees the Revd John Duddell and the Revd John Pinkerton AD 1826.’

The almshouses stand in their own secluded grounds with a garden and modern boundary railing to the west. In addition, there is a single-storey gate lodge and gateway with stout limestone piers to the south.

There are substantial remains of the city walls to the north, including the remains of two towers, that form part of the garden wall, and there is a high stone wall to the east.

Samuel Lewis described it in 1837 as ‘an asylum for 12 Protestant or Presbyterian widows, each of whom receives £24 Irish per annum; a preference is to be given to any descendant of the testatrix who may apply for admission.’

Some of the other church-related endowments that survived until at least the 19th century included an almshouse founded by the widow of Alderman Craven for poor Protestant widows. When the building was demolished, 50 widows of the parishes of Saint Mary, Saint John, and Saint Munchin were to receive £4 a year each and the remainder was to be divided at Christmas among the poor. Mrs Craven also left £60, the interest of which was distributed among ‘confined debtors and the poor of the city parishes.’

The widow of George Rose left £800 to the Dean and Chapter of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, who were to distribute the interest every Christmas equally among 16 poor widows.

Members of the Pery family left bequests for distributed funds among the poor of Saint John’s parish. Saint John’s parochial almshouse housed seven poor Protestant widows, and was supported by subscriptions and bequests from Mrs Craven, Mrs Crone and the Earl of Ranfurly.

Oher similar establishments and charities in 19th century Limerick included the Female Orphan Asylum, the Limerick Protestant Orphan Society Hallgarden of the former , the Harvergal Hall, a charitable pawn office associated with Barrington’s Hospital, an Asylum for the Blind, linked with Trinity Episcopal Church, a Magdalene Asylum, a Mendicity Association, an Institution for the Relief of Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers, a Savings Bank and the Mechanics’ Institute.

Villiers Almshouses now house old and retired people. Each resident gets his or her own flat with a kitchen, a living room and an en-suite bathroom with shower. The gardens are in pristine condition and the residents meet up most days for card games, day trips and excursions.

The buildings have been modernised but are substantially unchanged. Despite the detraction of uPVC windows, this very fine and intact block of almshouses retains much of its original architectural character.

Villiers Almshouses … built in the garden of the former bishop’s palace (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Visiting the old
and the new
at Villiers School

The former Villiers School on Henry Street, Limerick … designed by James Pain like a Palladian country villa (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I am in Villiers School on the North Circular Road, Limerick, for most of today [24 June 2017], for the Limerick, Killaloe and Ardfert diocesan synod. This is my first time to take part in a synod for this diocese, and it is also my first time to visit Villers School too.

The school was founded from the estate of Mrs Hannah Villiers in 1821, and in 1953 it moved to its present location on the Tivoli campus on the North Circular Road, less than a mile from the city centre.

But, a few weeks ago, I visited the original school buildings on Henry Street in the city centre. The school was founded for Protestant girls and endowed by Mrs Hannah Villiers in her will of 1815. In her will, she also endowed the Villiers Almshouses on Nicholas Street.

Samuel Lewis observed in 1830 that the large schools were being built, and it seems to have been completed around 1837-1839. It is said James Pain, the Limerick-based architect, designed the school building, which was built around 1830 at a cost of £3,089.18s.10d. A generation later, in the 1860s, 94 children were being educated in the school.

The school building compares favourably with the archetypal Palladian country villa, with a central corp de logi flanked by wings linked to terminating pavilions. The quality of the ashlar limestone work gives further distinction to this fine classical building on Henry Street.

The former school building consists of a five-bay, two-storey over-basement central block with a centrally-placed pedimented entrance breakfront. This is flanked by straight single-storey over basement three-bay wings that have blank recessed horizontal panels above apertures. The building comes to an end at two single-bay, single-storey pedimented pavilions with concealed basements.

When the school moved, the old building was bought by Steve Foley in July 1954 for £5,000 and became the Shannon Arms Hotel. The hotel had beautiful gardens that were described at the time as a ‘must’ for the bride and groom at weddings there. In 1974 the hotel was sold to the Kelly family and subsequently to the Ryan family.

The old school buildings on Henry Street now house offices and an apartment building. Meanwhile, the school campus on the North Circular Road has expanded in recent years as the school acquired an adjoining two acre site and two period houses, which I hope to see during a break at today’s diocesan synod.

The portico of the former Villiers School on Henry Street, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)