Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Peter’s Cell: the story behind
a hidden plaque in Limerick

Peter’s Cell … the sign that points to the story of a lost convent (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Peter’s Cell is an unusual place-name in the heart of the old city in Limerick. But it is one of the reminders that the east side of Englishtown in mediaeval Limerick was lined with religious houses, some of which were incorporated into the Walls of Limerick.

A plaque erected by Bord Failte Eireann on a hidden corner of a building on Bishop Street explains the origins and meaning of the name of Peter’s Cell:

Site of Peter’s Cell

Established by Donal Mor O Brian (1168-1194) for the Canonesses of St. Augustine, this was a branch house (cell) of Cill Eoin Nunnery in Thomond. Its old name was ‘Teampall Na gCailleach Dubh.’ At one time Ross Brien (originally ‘Fearann na gCailleach’) was part of its property.


The Canonesses of Saint Augustine, who arrived at Peter’s Cell in 1171, were the first nuns to come to Saint Mary’s Parish.

There was a number of different orders of the Augustinians based in Limerick over the years. The Canons Regular of Saint Augustine became established in a number of Irish towns, having spread from their foundation in Armagh, where there were some communities of missionary priests. They had come to Ireland from Continental Europe, and this is probably the case too with the Canonesses in Limerick.

Very little is known about these canonesses, apart from the fact that they had a church dedicated to Saint Peter. It was from this church that the area was called Peter’s Cell, the word cell coming from cella or a room for each nun.

The site of Peter’s Cell is disguised by modern buildings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The convent stood at the end of Pump Lane or Peter Street and was close to the Walls of Limerick.

Some accounts of the convent in later centuries imply that there were Dominican nuns there, perhaps because of the proximity to the mediaeval Dominican friary.

At the Great Reunion in 1256, five different groups who professed to the Rule of Saint Augustine came together under one prior general, and became known as the Order of the Hermits of Saint Augustine. This new unified group of Augustinians was a branch of the Augustinian Canons and they came to Ireland around 1280.

After the Dissolution of the Monastic houses at the Reformation, the Augustinians left the city after 1541and moved into the surrounding countryside.

Peter’s Cell … almost opposite the corner of Bishop Street and Peter Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Despite the forced departure of the Augustinian canonesses, the name of Peter’s Cell survived in a small corner near the junction of Bishop Street and Peter Street. In the late 17th century, the Quakers had a small burial ground near Peter’s Cell, and the Dissenters, the precursors of the Presbyterians, rented the former site of the canonesses, from Lord Milton from the 1690s until they built a new meeting house or chapel and a minister’s house nearby in Peter Street in the 1765.

Meanwhile, part of the ruined convent buildings was converted into the Peter Cell Theatre around 1760. The new theatre in the former convent had a stage, a pit, boxes, a gallery and some dressing rooms.

Spranger Barry, a theatre manager in Dublin and Cork, began a regular summer season here in 1760. Audience participation was encouraged, doubtless leading to raucous evenings. The theatre was still operating as late as 1770.

Peter’s Cell also became a favourite location for the residences of professional men of the city. At this time, the old name for the Exchange was Monk’s Lane.

John Ferrar records later how a Mrs O’Dell built a handsome house on the site. Contemporary accounts say her house had ‘excellent gardens, the town wall giving shelter for the fruit trees, and in the garden was a spring well, which supplied the neighbourhood with water.’

Later, Saint Munchin’s College was located in Peter’s Cell briefly in 1800-1809.

The name of Peter’s Cell is also retained in the name of the small theatre at the Belltable Arts Centre, where Peter’s Cell is a reminder of the earlier, Georgian theatre on the site that was home to the mediaeval Augustinian canonesses.

The name of Peter’s Cell has survived in this small corner of Peter Street and Bishop Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Returning from Glenstal Abbey
with four books for reading

Four books and some icon cards bought in the bookshop in Glenstal Abbey last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

One of the joys of a few days away is finding a good bookshop. I have long regretted that Ryanair cabin baggage restrictions limit the number of books I can take back with me from visits throughout the year to Lichfield and Cambridge, or my regular visits to Greece.

However, cabin baggage regulations did not apply when I travelled in the car of a friend and colleague for my retreat in Glenstal Abbey, Co Limerick, last week.

The shop in Glenstal Abbey is both theological and devotional, stocked with books from the best theological publishers across quite a broad range, as well as icons, cards and other devotional materials.

I returned to the Rectory in Askeaton with four books from Glenstal Abbey that illustrate the theological range on the shelves of the shop.

Rodney Stark is a professor in both Baylor University, Texas, and Peking University in Beijing. His Reformation Myths: Five Centuries of Misconceptions and (Some) Misfortunes (London: SPCK, 2017) was published last year to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Reformation on 30 October 1517 … and he takes no hostages as he charges through five centuries of history.

He begins by pointing out that there was not one single Reformation, but many reformations, with different principles and emphases, including Luther’s, Calvin’s, and the Anglicans, as well as the Anabaptists and others, which were contradictory and often mutually antagonistic. There is no one, single agreed or coherent definition of the word ‘Protestant,’ and the ‘average’ Protestant is a statistical fiction. Indeed, as he asserts, the differences make a nonsense of any ‘Protestant-Catholic’ comparisons.

Stark is both stark and forthright in discussing Luther’s ‘venomous’ anti-Semitism and its dreadful impact in Nazi Germany. He agrees with Diarmaid MacCulloch that ‘Luther’s writing of 1543 is a blueprint for the Nazi’s Kristallnacht of 1938,’ when paramilitary Nazi forces smashed and burned Jewish synagogues, stores, hospitals, schools and homes throughout Germany and Austria on Luther’s birthday.

He links the Reformation with the rise of nationalism in Europe, and sees the outworking of its consequences in World War I and World II. He challenges the myth of the ‘Protestant Ethic’ and the myth of the Protestant scientific ‘revolution,’ pointing to the many French, German, Italian, Dutch, Flemish and Polish scientists who were Catholics – to which he might have added the discoveries of Spanish and Portuguese explorers.

He looks at the myth of Protestant individualism and suicide, concluding that ‘Martin Luther did not cause the rise of Western individualism. Neither is Protestant individualism a cause of suicide.’

Other myths he challenges include ‘Protestant secularisation,’ supposed harmful Protestant effects on the Catholic Church. Yet, ‘despite all the myths and nonsense,’ he has ‘no doubt that the Reformations were good for Christianity. Pluralism is what makes it the fastest-growing religion in the world.’

A very different set of myth is examined by Hugh Rayment-Pickard in The Myths Time, From Saint Augustine to American Beauty (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2004).

Hugh Rayment-Pickard is a parish priest in west London with a PhD in the philosophy of religion who has taught at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

This book asks many questions I have been asking myself since I touched on the themes in this book in a sermon in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, on 5 February 2012, the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

This is a stimulating examination of the theology of time and history, drawing from art, literature, philosophy, theology and reflections on everyday life to show how we experience time. He believes that time is given meaning by a cluster of basic myths about human destiny.

Far from being an abstract singular concept, we view time in a complex, multi-layered way that has strong implications for how we behave and approach our lives.

Kenneth E Bailey is both a Presbyterian minister and canon theologian in the Diocese of Pittsburgh in the Episcopal Church. He spent 40 years in the Middle East teaching New Testament studies, and is the author of many books in English and Arabic.

In Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Cultural Studies in the Gospels (London: SPCK, 2008), he draws on his knowledge and experience of Middle Eastern culture to offer a deeper understanding of the person and significance of the Jesus of the Middle East.

The book is helpfully divided into six sections: the Birth of Jesus, the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, the Dramatic Actions of Jesus, Jesus and Women, and the Parables of Jesus. He lifts away layers of modern Western interpretation to introduce Jesus in the light of his historical and cultural settings.

Dom Mark Tierney, who died in Belgium almost six years ago [31 December 2011], was a notable liturgist and historian and a monk of Glenstal Abbey.

His school textbooks, The birth of modern Ireland (with Margaret Mac Curtain, 1969) and Modern Ireland, 1850-1950 (1972), shaped the historical outlook of a generation of Irish schoolchildren. His preparation and publication of the calendar of the papers of Archbishop Croke was pioneering work, and his work on the Croke papers was crowned with his biography of Croke (1976).

Later, he focused on the life of Columba Marmion, the Irish-born Abbot of Maredsous in Belgium who is a key figure in the story of the foundation of Glenstal Abbey.

And so, Mark Tierney’s Glenstal Abbey: A Historical Guide (Glenstal Abbey Publications, 2018) is appropriate reading, not only as a guidebook, but as a way of catching up on the history of Glenstal that I missed out during my 24-hour retreat last week.