13 June 2020

A roadside monument is
a reminder of the great
house at Mountshannon

The Fitzgibbon Memorial and fountain, erected by Lady Louisa Fitzgibbon at Lisnagry, near Castleconnell (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Two of us went to Castleconnell for an hour or two this afternoon, to walk along the banks of the River Shannon, to enjoy the unexpected sunshine, to walk through the woods and to cross the bridge that spans the river between Co Limerick and Co Clare.

On the way, we stopped at Lisnagry, to see the Fitzgibbon Fountain, a Victorian memorial that is reminder of the Fitzgibbon family and their Mountshannon estate.

Mountshannon House was once the largest and most impressive house in the Castleconnell area, standing on a 13,000-acre estate, including 900 acres of parkland, about 3 km from Castleconnell, on the road to Limerick. The Mountshannon estate was bounded on the west by the River Shannon and on the south by the River Mulcair, and extended from Newgarden to Annacotty.

Mountshannon House had a seven-bay, two-storey portico with four large Ionic columns. It is said that the house had 365 windows, one for each day of the year, and that the entrance hall was so wide that a coach and four could easily be driven through it. The gardens and parklands were laid out and landscaped by John Sutherland.

Mountshannon House was built by Silver Oliver of Kilfinane in 1750. Soon after, the White family bought the estate and it came into the Fitzgibbon family around 1765 when it was bought by John Fitzgibbon (1708-1780). When he died in 1780, Mountshannon was inherited by his son John Fitzgibbon (1748-1802), known as ‘Black Jack.’

This John Fitzgibbon entered politics in 1780, soon became Attorney General, was appointed Lord Chancellor of Ireland in 1789, and became the first Earl of Clare. He opposed to Catholic Emancipation, was involved in putting down the 1798 Rising, and supported the Act of Union.

He once fought a duel with John Philpot Curran, when Fitzgibbon, but, although he was a crack shot, he fired wide to spare his opponent’s life, and it is said he was instrumental in saving the lives of many United Irishmen after 1798.

Fitzgibbon retired to Mountshannon, and there are many tales of his cruel treatment of the workers and tenants.

Lord Clare was badly injured when he fell from his horse at Mountshannon at Christmas 1801. He died in Dublin on 28 January 1802 and was buried at Saint Peter’s Church. Clare Street in Limerick and Clare Street, Fitzgibbon Street and Mountshannon Road in Dublin recall his name.

Black Jack’s son, also John Fitzgibbon (1792-1851), succeeded as the 2nd Earl of Clare and to Mountshannon estate at the age of 10. The poet Lord Byron had a schoolboy crush on him, and later declared he could never hear the name ‘Clare’ without ‘a murmur of the heart.’ Byron wrote of him:

Friend of my youth! When young we rov’d,
Like striplings, much belov’d,
With Friendship’s purest glow;
The bliss, which wing’d those rosy hours,
Was such as Pleasure seldom showers
On mortals here below.

The Bishop of Limerick once commented that this Lord Clare had not ‘a particle of the fiery enterprising genius of his father.’

Mountshannon House was remodelled by the English architect Lewis Wyatt … an image beside the Fitzgibbon memorial (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

During his life, Mountshannon House was remodelled by the English architect Lewis Wyatt, who added the imposing two-storey portico. The second earl later became Governor of Bombay. When he died, the titles and estate passed to his youngest brother, Richard Hobart Fitzgibbon (1763-1864), 3rd Earl of Clare. He also contributed handsomely on several occasions to the building of the Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Castleconnell.

His son, John Charles Henry Fitzgibbon (1829-1854), Viscount Fitzgibbon, died at Ballaclava in 1854 while leading the Royal Irish Hussars in the charge of the Light Brigade. A statue to his memory was erected on the Wellesley Bridge (now Sarsfield Bridge) in Limerick city but was destroyed in an explosion in 1930. The monument was replaced by the 1916 Memorial.

Lady Louisa Isabella Georgina Fitzgibbon (1826-1898), a daughter of the 3rd Lord Clare, inherited Mountshannon when her father died. She was an extravagant and generous woman who gave lavish banquets and balls at the house, but she frittered away the Fitzgibbon fortune and ran up huge debts to maintain her lifestyle.

Her first husband, the Hon Gerald Normanby Dillon (1823-1880), was the sixth son of Henry Augustus Dillon-Lee, 13th Viscount Dillon, and changed his name to Fitzgibbon when they married.

Following his death in 1880, Lady Louisa became engaged to a Sicilian noble, General Carmelo Ascene Spadafora, Marchese della Rochella, son of the Duke of Santa Rosalia, thinking his wealth would rescue her from financial ruin, only to discover that he too was almost penniless and was marrying her for the same reason.

At the party in Mountshannon to announce their engagement, the Italian marquis discovered that Lady Louisa was a near bankrupt. But, in the spirit of noblesse oblige, he went ahead with the marriage in 1882.

It is said the Irish climate ruined his health and he died a few years later, still pining for sunny Sicily. Lady Louisa was forced to sell much of the contents of the house, including the books in the library. Her former friends left her to the mercy of her creditors and she was forced to sell the house and the estate.

Lady Louisa left Mountshannon in 1887 and went to live in the Isle of Wight at Saint Dominic’s Convent, where she spent the rest of her life. When she died some years later, she was buried in the convent grounds.

A public water fountain at Lisnagry was erected by Lady Louisa Fitzgibbon and her first husband, Gerald Dillon, in 1875 in memory of their eldest son, Charles Richard George Dillon (1849-1870), who died of blood poisoning at the age of 20. It originally stood by a water pump, erected by her uncle, the second earl.

The memorial is a gabled, gothic arch of dressed limestone. Above the white marble memorial stone is the quartered Dillon and Fitzgibbon coat of arms and the motto Nil Admirari, ‘To be astonished at nothing.’ The arch was once surrounded by railings, and was a well-known landmark on the Limerick-Nenagh road.

The marble memorial stone is inscribed: ‘The pump placed on this spot by John, Earl of Clare, KP, was renovated in 1875 & this memorial erected by his niece, Lady Louisa Fitz-Gibbon, of Mountshannon, and by her husband, the Honble Gerald N Fitzgibbon, in memory of their eldest son, Charles Richard George, who died on the 30th of July 1870, in his 21st year. ‘The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away; as it has pleased the Lord so it is done, blessed be the name of the Lord.’ Job 1. 21 v. Requiescat in Pace.’

Lord Clare’s pump continued in use until the 1960s. Limerick County Council dismantled the memorial in 2001 to make way for the Limerick South Ring road. It was restored in 2011 and re-erected in Richhill after the construction of the M7.

As for Mountshannon, it was bought by Thomas Nevins, and then by Dermot O’Hannigan, who was the last owner of Mountshannon. The house was destroyed by fire in 1921 during the War of Independence, the estate was divided up and sold off by the Land Commission and little remains of Mountshannon House apart from the ivy-clad shell.

The quartered Dillon and Fitzgibbon coat of arms on the Fitzgibbon Memorial at Lisnagry, near Castleconnell (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

A new interpretation of
Andrei Rublev’s icon of
the Visitation of Abraham

The Visitation of Abraham … a new interpretation by Kelly Latimore of a well-known icon by Andrei Rublev

Patrick Comerford

Throughout the lockdown that is part of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, I have continued the practice of preparing my Sunday morning sermons, and have posted them on my blog, my Facebook page and the parish Facebook page each week.

We are in the weeks immediately after Trinity Sunday, and there is a Trinitarian theme in many of the readings these Sundays.

Richard Rohr, the Franciscan theologian and spiritual writer talks about the Trinity as ‘God for us, God alongside us, God within us.’

The first reading tomorrow (Genesis 18: 1-15 [21: 1-7]) tells the story of the angelic visitors to Abraham and Sarah at the oaks of Mamre, often interpreted as an early manifestation of God as Trinity. This interpretation has become a regular way of reading this passage through the popularisation of Andrei Rublev’s icon of this scene, which is copied in churches and monasteries around the world and used to illustrate many books on theology.

In the last few days, as I was putting the final touches to tomorrow’s sermon, I came across this version of the Visitation of Abraham or Rublev’s Trinity by the American artist Kelly Latimore, who became well-known recently for his portrayal of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt as refugees trying to travel from Central or Latin America into the US.

I found this interpretation of Andrei Rublev’s icon this week on the Facebook page of Saint Thomas’s Anglican Church in Kefalas, on the Greek island of Crete.

This icon by Kelly Latimore was a commissioned by the Revd Dr Mark Bozzuti-Jones, a Jamaican-born priest on the pastoral team at Trinity Wall Street Church in New York.

As humans, we really can only talk about God through metaphor. Speaking and language itself is simply metaphor. The common western notion of God has been monarchical and so both God the Father and Christ are often imagined or depicted sitting on thrones, although the theology of the Trinity is about the interior relationship or indwelling of God as Trinity.

Rublev’s icon was original in its time, imagining this Triune relationship, drawing on the story of the three angels who visit Abraham and Sarah. His icon shows the three angels sitting at the table, each angel representing the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Rublev was using the metaphors he had to depict the Trinity in the form of an icon.

Mark Bozzuti-Jones and Kelly Latimore collaborated on an interpretation of Rublev’s icon that Mark that was based on this well-known icon but with an understanding of metaphors of God that allowed them to see the angels as women without problems, yet allowing an but an important exploration of God as mother/sister/feminine.

The three figures are sitting at the table, but this time they are holding hands. The Christ figure is in the centre, bridging the Holy Spirit and the first Person of the Trinity.

In traditional iconography, blue always represents divinity (the sea and the sky) and red is humanity (blood). God the first person of the Trinity is on the left in bright heavenly robes, points towards the viewer and looks at the other seated figures, acknowledging the viewer’s presence.

The Holy Spirit is dressed in green, representing growth, wilderness, nature, the earth, she holds out her hand inviting the viewer to the table.

On the table the rainbow tablecloth is yet another metaphor, symbolising that at the table of the Trinity all people are welcome. Instead of the Eucharist, as in Rublev’s version, there are grapes and wheat, symbolising the work that is still to be done.

In the background, we see a Temple, where God dwells, a tree representing Christ crucified, and a mountain symbolising the spirit calling us out into the wilderness, towards a new way.

Kelly Latimore started painting icons in 2011 while he was a member of the Common Friars from 2009 to 2013. Their collective work was about being more connected – to themselves, to each other, to their surrounding community and to the land.

However, he says, he does not wish to approach iconography as an art form that simply follows an inherited tradition, knowledge and practice. ‘I want it to be a creative process, meditation, and practice that brings about new self-knowledge for the viewer and myself. Who are the saints that are among us here and now?’

Kelly feels the need for new images. So, in some icons he seeks to embrace the traditional forms and images. But for many icons he believes the images need re-shaping, re-imagining, and re-wondering.

He says, ‘I was not taught by a traditional iconographer, and so to some, I am breaking many rules. There are icons here that people may find theologically unsound and wrong, or for others, helpful and inspiring. I think both reactions are important. My hope is that these icons do what all art can potentially do, which is, to create more dialogue.’

He hopes that, ‘by transcending our biases, listening and having inner silence about our convictions, our inherited traditions, or our favourite ideas we can become open to the patterns of work, knowledge and experience we may not have seen in the other or buried in ourselves.’

Prints are available here: https://www.artpal.com/KLicons

The Holy Family as Refugees … an icon by Kelly Latimore