02 August 2019

Saint Mark’s Chapel: a
prayerful corner in Saint
Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick

Saint Mark’s Chapel on the north side of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick … one of the mediaeval side chapels in the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I suppose I could be very busy in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick. An old record says that the Precentor was expected to preach in the cathedral of Saint Bartholomew’s Day (24 August), Saint Andrew’s Day (30 November) and the Second Sunday in Lent. In addition, as the Prebendary of Ballycahane, I would have been expected to preach on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost and on the Second Sunday after Easter.

I was busy in the cathedral with a number of meetings earlier this week [31 July 2019]. As I walked around the cathedral before and after these meetings, I realised how the Dean, the Very Revd Niall Sloane, and the dedicated team of staff and volunteers, are busy restoring and refurbishing the public and worship spaces in the cathedral, including the choir stalls, the solarium and the side chapels.

The chapels in the mediaeval cathedral included:

● the Lady Chapel at the east end;
● the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, which was the original North Transept and now houses the organ but is also known for the so-called ‘Lepers’ Squint’;
● the Chapels of Saint Nicholas and Saint Catherine, which have since been merged to form the Jebb Chapel, once known as the Arthur Chapel;
● the O’Brien Chapel, also known as Saint Mark’s Chapel;
● the Creagh Chapel, which later became the Baptistry;
● the Pery or Glentworth Chapel, once Saint George’s Chapel;
● the Consistorial Court, which was once two chapels, Saint Anne’s Chapel and the Sexton Chapel;
● the Chapel of Saint James and Saint Mary Magdalene in the original south transept.

Saint Mark’s Chapel was once the burial place of many members of the O’Brien family of Thomond (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Many members of the O’Brien family of Thomond, once the Kings of Munster, are buried in the crypts beneath these chapels.

There are large O’Brien monuments at the east end of the cathedral, on the north side of the former place of the High Altar, in what is now known as the Lady Chapel. One source records how for many years a sum of £10 was paid once a year from the bequests of the Earls of Thomond to the vergers of Saint Mary’s Cathedral to keep these monuments clean.

A Maunsell family monument in Saint Mark’s Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The O’Brien Chapel, also known as Saint Mark’s Chapel or the Chapel of Unity, was the burial place of choice Murrough O’Brien (1614-1674), Earl of Thomond. He was known as Murrough of the Burnings because of his penchant for burning churches: he stormed and burned the abbey in Adare in 1647, and days later set fire to the cathedral on the Rock of Cashel in 1647, hoping that the Archbishop of Cashel was inside. It was said 3,000 people were slain in his assault on Cashel.

In exile in France in the 1650s, Murrough O’Brien became a Roman Catholic. But when he returned to Limerick after the Caroline Restoration he remained truly unpopular.

When he died on 9 September 1674, he was buried in the O’Brien Chapel or Saint Mark’s Chapel. But he was so hated that the populace of Limerick stormed the cathedral the next day, disinterred his body and caste him into the River Shannon below the west door of the cathedral. No memorial and no inscription survive to indicate where he might have been buried.

Instead, the walls are decorated with a number of memorials to members of the Maunsell family, and there are two stained-glass windows commemorating members of the Napier family.

The two-light window in Saint Mark’s Chapel commemorates General Sir Thomas Erskine Napier and his wife Erskine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The window on the left or west side is a memorial to General Sir Thomas Erskine Napier (1790-1863). He was born in Govan, Lanarkshire, and began his military career as an ensign in the 52nd Foot in 1805. During the Peninsular War, he was an aide-de-camp to Sir John Hope in 1813. He lost his arm at the Battle of Nives but went on to fight at the battles of Nivelle, Pyrenees, Salamanca, Vittoria, Fuentes, D’Onor and Corunna.

Later he was appointed assistant adjutant general in Ireland (1843), and was the commander of the Limerick district in 1849. He commanded the troops in Scotland (1852-1854), was appointed colonel of the 16th Foot (1854), of the 71st Foot (1857), and a general in 1861.

Napier died at Polton House, Lasswade, near Edinburgh, in 1863. His brother, Admiral Sir Charles John Napier (1786-1860), was also a Liberal politician and was a trusted friend of the Italian revolutionary Garibaldi.

Napier’s coat-of-arms in the window in Saint Mark’s Chapel is decorated with his military decorations and his honours in the Order of the Bath. But this coat-of-arms is the one he used before he was knighted.

In the second light in this window is the coat-of-arms of the family of his wife, Margaret Falconer. They were married in Edinburgh on 18 December 1821, and Margaret died in Duddingston in 1885 at the age of 93.

The three-light window in Saint Mark’s Chapel recalls Matilda Alexina Napier, an only daughter who died in Limerick in 1849 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The second window on the right or east side of Saint Mark’s Chapel is a three-light window that is a memorial to General Napier’s only child, Matilda Alexina Napier, who died in Limerick on 16 April 1849 at the age of 23.

The window illustrates the raising of the daughter of Jairus, with the quotation, ‘Weep not, she is not dead but sleepeth’ (Luke 8: 52).

To the left and right of the central depiction, four angelic figures bear scrolls with lettering: ‘To me, to live is Christ,’ ‘And to die is gain’ (Philippians 1: 21-23) ‘Lord, what is my hope!’ and ‘My hope is even in Thee’ (Psalm 39: 8). Between each pair of angels are the initials ‘MA’ for Matilda Alexina.

The lierne vaulting in Saint Mark’s Chapel invites comparisons with the cathedrals in Gloucester, Ely and Chester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The ceiling of Saint Mark’s Chapel has a roof of lierne vaulting, which connects it to the styles of Gothic vaulting found in other cathedrals, including Gloucester, Ely and Chester.

Saint Mark’s Chapel, which faces the south porch on the opposite, south side of the cathedral, was recommissioned five years ago on 23 April 2014.

On Sundays, Saint Mark’s Chapel is used by the cathedral Sunday school (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The chapel is used on Sundays by the cathedral Sunday School. During the week, this is a quiet and peaceful corner of the cathedral that invites spiritual reflection and prayer.

There are plans to paint the chapel, and the alternative name of ‘the Chapel Unity’ invites images of a potential ministry that might be inspired by the ministry of the chapel with a similar name in Coventry Cathedral.

Looking from Saint Mark’s Chapel towards the south porch in the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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