Saturday, 4 November 2017
During my walk around Thomondgate in Limerick earlier this week, I visited Saint Munchin’s Church on the corner of Clancy Strand, High Road and Thomondgate.
This church faces the Treaty Stone, looks over the River Shannon, across to King John’s Castle and Saint Mary’s Cathedral, and serves a Roman Catholic parish that is located between the River Shannon and the southern edges of Limerick’s border with Co Clare.
Saint Munchin’s Church was built in 1922, but replaced older churches that had stood on the same site since the Penal Laws began to be eased in the mid-18th century.
Saint Munchin is the patron saint of Limerick. But the saint’s original name has been lost in the passing of time, and the name simply means ‘little monk.’ According to local lore, his church, built in 561 AD, was the first cathedral in Limerick, and stood on the site of the later Church of Ireland parish church of Saint Munchin, beside Villiers Almshouse.
Saint Munchin’s parish was one of the five original parishes in the mediaeval city Limerick, along with Saint John’s, Saint Michael’s, Saint Mary’s and Saint Patrick’s.
The Civil Parish of Saint Munchin’s lies partly in Co Clare and partly in Co Limerick, including part of the city centre. The Co Limerick part of the parish is in the borough of Limerick and part in the barony of Pobblebrien. The part in Co Clare is in the Barony of Bunratty Lower.
The origins of Saint Munchin’s Roman Catholic parish can be traced back to the Treaty of Limerick in 1691. An early chapel called Saint Lelia’s was built in 1744 outside the city walls at Thomondgate in 1744 to replace an earlier mass house. One tradition says Saint Lelia was the sister of Saint Munchin.
This was the first Roman Catholic chapel built in Limerick City after the Reformation. It was replaced by a second chapel built in 1799, and the name of the parish was changed to Saint Munchin’s in 1812.
The present church was built in 1920-1921 with a cruciform plan with an octagonal partially projecting belfry to the apex of the east elevation, gabled transepts and a five-sided apse.
The Romanesque style door at the entrance to Saint Munchin’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)
The popularity of the Romanesque style in early 20th-century church architecture is seen in the architectural style of Saint Munchin’s. The Romanesque style door has limestone ashlar piers and a gable parapet. The limestone plinth bases support polished granite colonnettes with limestone cushioned capitals and a chevron archivolt with stepped Romanesque detailing to the soffit. The double-leaf plank timber doors have wrought-iron hinges, and there is a panelled tympanum with Christian and Celtic motifs.
There are rose windows in the transept gables set in smooth limestone ashlar surrounds, with limestone ashlar tracery and stained glass.
Joseph O’Malley (1867-1933) was the architect and the builders and contractors were J Kenny & Sons.
Saint Munchin’s Church was built when Canon O’Driscoll was parish priest and Bishop Hallinan was Bishop of Limerick. The church was consecrated on Easter Sunday 1922.
The stained-glass windows in the church were designed by the FX Zettler Studio in Munich. Francis Xavier Zettler was the son-in-law of Joseph Gabriel Mayer and worked with Mayer and Co until setting up his own studios in 1870. His company was appointed as the Royal Bavarian Art Institute for Stained Glass by King Ludwig II in 1882.
The High Altar is to the memory of Margaret Carroll. Behind the altar there are three stained glass windows of Saint Munchin, Mary Mother of Sorrows and Saint Michael.
On the left side of the nave, two plaques in Irish commemorate George Clancy, Mayor of Limerick, who was killed during the War of Independence on 7 March 1921. The plaque says in Irish that he was killed while fighting the ‘English Crown forces.’
On the right side of the nave, there is a plaque to the memory of Micheál Ó Ceallacháin, who was the Mayor of Limerick in 1920. The plaque is in Irish and states that he was the first Mayor who gave loyalty to the Republic because of his faithfulness to the freedom of Ireland. He was killed on 7 March 1921.
Personally, I felt uncomfortable with the wording of these plaques. They seem to convey a definition of Irish identity that excluded me, and conveyed a political message that I feel is out of place in a church today.
The reference to ‘English Crown forces’ also seemed to be unnecessary, if not offensive, in its phrasing. Were there no Scottish, Welsh or Irish members of the army at the time? It was, after all, not just the English army, and not just the British army.
My point is illustrated, perhaps, in the Baptistery, which was donated by Sir Vincent and Lady Nash in memory of their eldest son James, a lieutenant in the 1st Battalion Irish Guards who was killed near Arras in France on 27 March 1918, aged 20. And perhaps my point is further underlined by the fact that this Baptistery is the one part of the church that is sadly neglected and in a state of disrepair today.
The Crucifixion scene outside the church was erected to the memory of Canon Andrew Murphy on Good Friday 1929. The High Altar of the earlier Saint Munchin’s church once stood on this site, and the two churches had stood side-by-side until the old church was demolished.
With the growth of Limerick City in recent decades, new parishes have been shaped out of the original boundaries of Saint Munchin’s, including Holy Rosary Parish (1964), Christ the King Parish in Caherdavin (1970), and Corpus Christi Parish in Moyross (1976).
As I was waiting between buses in Limerick earlier this week, I cross Thomond Bridge and strolled through Thomondgate, one of the old, traditional areas of Limerick, on the north side of the River Shannon, opposite Saint Mary’s Cathedral.
In the past, Thomondgate provided the link between the Englishtown area of Limerick City on one side of the river, and the Kingdom of Thomond or Co Clare on the other bank of the river.
The mediaeval city of Limerick was confined to the Englishtown area until Thomondgate and the ‘Northern’ Liberties were granted to Limerick in 1216. Thomondgate was connected to Limerick by Thomond Bridge over the River Shannon.
Co Clare was shired or created in 1565, but this part of Limerick remained on the border between Munster and Connacht until Co Clare was annexed to Munster in 1602.
Although Thomondate survives as the name of one of the narrow, charming, winding streets in this part of Limerick, High Road was the main street in Thomondgate.
After the Siege of Limerick in 1690, it is said, the Treaty of Limerick was signed in 1691 in Thomondgate at the Treaty Stone, which now stands on a pedestal on Clancy Strand.
Following the Treaty of Limerick, the area was settled with many families of Dutch weavers, whose trade flourished until the early 19th century. The area also had a quarry, and a distillery that survived until the early 1920s.
Thomond House is an elegant survival from the late 18th century. This house, which is now a women’s refuge, is one of the few surviving 18th century houses in Thomondgate. It is a three-storey, five-bay, gable ended house, was once the home of John Buchanan, the first person to organise a regular coach service between Limerick and Dublin – a journey that took four days, compared to a bus journey of 2½ hours today. With the introduction of newer and better coaches, the journey was cut to two days, and then halved again to one day.
Today, Thomondgate is a mainly working class district of the city and has grown rapidly over the past years.
In the heart of this district, JJ Bowles at No 8 Thomondgate, which backs onto the riverbank, is one of the surviving traditional pubs, and popular with Munster rugby supporters.
The pub takes its name from JJ Bowes (1879-1948) from Thomondgate, who lived here. He was the Irish Handball Champion for almost 25 years and who contested the World Championship in New York in 1909.
This end-of-terrace two-bay two-storey rendered public house, seems to date from 1794, making it one of the contenders for the title of the oldest pub in Limerick. Some sources point out that the building claims to date back to the 1600s, but while the pitch of the roof and the thick walls indicate this earlier date, it is difficult to give an accurate date for the building.
The 19th century timber shopfront has six Doric pilasters joined by a timber fascia with a cornice above, and two display windows rising from rendered stallrisers, with timber mullions and shoulder arches.
I walked through Thomdgate and along High Road as far as Thomond Park Stadium, the home of Munster Rugby, and also visited Saint Munchin’s Church on the corner of High Road, Thomondgate and Clancy Strand before having lunch in Jack Monday’s.
In Jack Monday’s, overlooking the banks of the Shannon, I heard stories about the Limerick Soviet. But these are stories for another day.