29 June 2018
The ‘Leper’s Squint’ survives in
Limerick from the Middle Ages
I spent much of Thursday [28 June 2018] in Limerick, first at a meeting of charity trustees and then in Saint Mary’s Cathedral to record a Eucharist at which I was the preacher as Precentor.
The recorded Eucharist is to be broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 on Sunday morning 15 July 2018. The Dean of Saint Mary’s, the Very Revd Niall Sloane, presided, the other clergy who too part included the Revd Edna Wakeley and the Revd Paul Fitzpatrick, who is to be licensed as the cathedral curate tomorrow afternoon [30 July 2018], and the choir was directed by Peter Barley.
As I was wandering around the cathedral while the choir was rehearsing and others were testing sound levels or putting the finishing touches to their notes, I took a look at what is known as the ‘Leper’s Squint’ in the original north transept or Chapel of the Holy Spirit, which dates from around 1360.
The ‘squint’ is hidden to the left and behind the organ, and so visitors often miss this opening in the cathedral wall.
Visitors who see it are often told that the prevailing medical opinion of the day meant lepers were not allowed inside churches in mediaeval times, but could watch celebrations of the Eucharist or the Mass through this opening and also receive the Holy Communion.
Leprosy was common in the Middle Ages, when it believed to be highly contagious and therefore Lepers were not allowed into churches. The Cathedral’s ‘leper’s squint’ allowed them to see and hear mass and receive Communion through this small opening or slot to the side of the High Altar.
There is a surviving reminder of the prevalence of leprosy in mediaeval Ireland in the name of Leopardstown in suburban south Co Dublin.
But was the opening in the original north transept in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, truly a ‘leper’s squint’?
Openings like this are rare in Irish churches but are found in mediaeval churches throughout Europe. An opening like this is known as a hagioscope, from the Greek words άγιος (ágios, ‘holy’) and σκοπεῖν (skopein, ‘to see’).
This architectural term denotes a small splayed opening or tunnel at the eye level of people who are seated so that they can see through the internal masonry of a dividing wall in a church.
These openings are usually in an oblique direction, south-east or north-east, to facilitate one or more worshippers in side-chapels, private manorial chapels, chantry chapels at the east ends of the aisles, or other parts of a church.
Sometimes, the High Altar in the chancel was not visible, making it difficult to witness the elevation of the host and the chalice after the words of institution. A hagioscope offered a good view of the High Altar to everyone within the sectioned-off area.
Perhaps the best-known hagioscope must have been that provided for Julian of Norwich. But Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII and grandmother of Henry VIII, was also provided with her own screen, private viewing facilities that still exist in the Chapel of Christ’s College, Cambridge.
However, when a squint was made in the external wall of chapel, church or cathedral, it allowed lepers and other people regarded as non-desirables to watch the liturgy without coming into contact with the rest of the congregation. These squints were often known as leper windows or lynchoscopes.
Apart from the blocked-up lepers squint in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, Athenry Priory in Co Galway also once had a leper’s squint, and there were leper’s squints or similar stone openings too in Furness Church, a 13th century Norman church near Naas, Co Kildare, and Saint Mary’s Church, Inis Cealtra or Holy Island on Lough Derg.
Perhaps the opening in the wall in Saint Mary's Cathedral, Limerick, served a mediaeval hermit, a small community of nuns, or even a rich local merchant or patron with his own private chapel. The obvious family in this case would be the Arthur family, for Canon Geoffrey Arthur, the fifth recorded Treasurer of the Cathedral, was buried here when he died in 1519. A stone slab with his name and a decorated cross is set into the triple arched sedilia recess.
But the story of a leper’s squint seems to be more engaging for visitors who manage to find it behind the organ.