07 May 2017

Finding the cultural legacy in
the far reaches of a new parish

Saint John’s Church, Listowel … the former parish church is now a theatre and arts centre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I am beginning to realise the vast extent of my new parish boundaries. Although many churches from the past have long closed or even been demolished, their residents and parishioners are still within my new group of parishes, which includes towns such as Newcastle West, Abbeyfeale, Ballybunion and Listowel.

A recent funeral was an invitation to explore the town of Listowel in north Kerry, best-known to many for Listowel Writers’ Week and where the former Church of Ireland parish church, Saint John’s, is now used during the festival for drama, readings, lectures, music and exhibitions.

Saint Michael’s Church stood in Church Street, on the site of an earlier, 13th century Norman church. But all that remains of Saint Michael’s is a three-stage tower built ca 1775 at the entrance and the surrounding graveyard.

The old church tower is all that remains of Saint Michael’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The site for a newer parish church in the centre of the new Town Square was presented to the community in 1814 by William Hare (1751-1837), 1st Earl of Listowel. Saint John’s Church was designed in the Gothic style by the Limerick-based architect James Pain (1779-1877).

Pain was born in Isleworth, Middlesex, the son of James Pain, a surveyor and builder. He and his younger brother, George Pain (1792-1838), were apprenticed to John Nash (1752-1835), the architect responsible for the design and layout of much of Regency London under the patronage of the Prince Regent.

The Pain brothers moved to Ireland in 1811 with James moving to Limerick and George living in Cork. The buildings they designed or worked on include Dromoland Castle, Co Clare; Saint Columba’s Church, Drumcliffe, Ennis, Co Clare; Saint Mary’s Church, Shandon, Cork; Saint Patrick’s Church, Cork; Holy Trinity Church, Cork; Blackrock Castle, Cork; Baal’s Bridge, Thomond Bridge, and Athlunkard Bridge, all in Limerick; Limerick Gaol; and part of Adare Manor, where Pain was replaced as architect by AWN Pugin.

In 1824, the Church of Ireland appointed James Pain as architect to the Board of First Fruits in Munster. He designed and built a great number of churches and glebe houses in Co Limerick, including the former rectory in Askeaton, Castletown Church, near Pallaskenry, and Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, two of the four churches in this group of parishes.

From church to theatre

Bryan MacMahon celebrated in a shop window in Listowel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Pain’s new church in Listowel was built with the stones from Saint Michael’s, and Saint John’s was built completed by 1819. The tower of Saint Michael’s has been in ruins since in 1939, and the remaining parts of the earlier church was demolished around 1940.

In the 1980s, the parish stopped using Saint John’s Church, and it was deconsecrated in 1988. But both the parishioners and the wider community in Listowel were anxious to preserve the building and make it a centre for local cultural activities and heritage. The church was transformed into Saint John’s Theatre and Arts Centre and also houses a Tourist Office. The programme and performances include theatre, music, dance, exhibitions and educational programmes as well as an annual summer school.

John B Keane celebrated in a shop window in Listowel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

John B Keane ran his pub on William Street from 1955 after returning from London to Listowel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Listowel is one of Ireland’s 26 ‘Heritage Towns’ and the home to Ireland’s oldest and leading literary festival, Listowel Writers’ Week, which takes place this year from 31 May to 4 June. It is the home of writers such as Bryan MacMahon, John B Keane, Brendan Kennelly, George Fitzmaurice, and Maurice Walsh, and the town claims to be the ‘Literary Capital of Ireland.’

A statue in the centre of Listowel commemorates John B Keane, who died in 2002 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

John B Keane wrote once:

Listowel where it is easier to write than not to write …

Both Bryan MacMahon and John B Keane are buried in the churchyard beside the ruins of Saint Michael’s Church.

Architectural legacy

The ‘Maid of Erin’ … the best-known work of stucco art and architecture by Pat McAuliffe in Listowel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

During writers’ week, visitors to Listowel are attracted to Saint John’s, and to John B Keane’s statue and his former pub on William Street. But I also went in search of the town’s architectural heritage, and the work of the great stucco and architectural artist Pat McAuliffe (1846–1921), who lived and worked in Listowel as a builder and plasterer.

McAuliffe used stucco to decorate the façades of townhouses, shops and pubs throughout Listowel. His work has left the town with a distinctive architectural and artistic legacy in the colour and variety of the shopfronts he designed, and his oeuvre reveals an awareness of classical narratives.

His wonderfully detailed shop and house façades are an eclectic mixture of classical, art nouveau, Celtic and Byzantine influences. They are important examples of the late 19th century pan-European quest for a national style, and remind me of the style of stucco work by my great-grandfather, James Comerford (1817-1902), at the Irish House on Wood Quay and the Oarsman in Ringsend, Dublin.

Pat McAuliffe lived and worked in Listowel from 1846 to 1921, and races of his work can also be found throughout Listowel and in the surrounding region. As a builder, he applied exterior plaster, or stucco, on the shopfronts and townhouses he designed. Then, from the 1870s on, he began to develop an ambitious and often exuberant style within the compositional framing of façades of everyday buildings in the region.

‘The Maid of Erin’

The ‘Maid of Erin’ is part of Pat McAuliffe’s work on the former Central Hotel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

His best-known work, undoubtedly, is ‘The Maid of Erin’ at the former Central Hotel at 12 Main Street, facing the Square and Saint John’s Church in Listowel. The location of this building at the primary entrance to Listowel’s main square was an appropriate place for what is a monumental work, reflecting then-prominent constitutional nationalist desires.

This terraced, two-bay, three-storey house was built ca 1870 as one of a pair. In 1912, McAuliffe renovated the wooden shopfront of Potter’s public house and inn, and rendered ‘JM Galvin’ on the fascia, for the new owner, Jeremiah M Galvin. The stucco sculpture above an elaborate cornice has since become the most widely known example of McAuliffe’s work.

A sunburst motif rises from the horizon of a scroll featuring the title ‘Central Hotel.’ Below, the figure of Erin leans on her harp, with a wolfhound at her feet and a round tower beside her. McAuliffe’s arabesque symmetry, Scandinavian strapwork, urns, and acanthus-leaf motifs frame the symbolic sculptural rendering between the first-floor windows.

The political climate at the time often demanded that Erin should be presented as a figure of aesthetic beauty. But McAuliffe challenged these norms with his large-scale figurative work, presenting sculptural, architectural, political and social challenges to the norms of the day.

The Maid of Erin is portrayed as topless, a heavy-set woman, barefoot, clearly of and for the land, resting upon a mound that is the island of her destiny. This massed shape has shamrock embellishments, loose Celtic interlacing and the text ‘Erin go Bragh’ (‘Ireland forever’) on its surface.

In the mid-1980s, the premises was renamed the ‘Maid of Erin’ in honour of McAuliffe’s heroine. But in the process the original McAuliffe lettering on the fascia board was destroyed. Over a decade later, the Maid herself was at the centre of a controversy in 1999 when a new owner decided to ‘cover her dignity’ and have a dress painted over her ample, bare bosom. A debate ensued and he was persuaded to return her to her original semi-naked state.

Harp and Lion

The Horseshoe Bar … an early pub front by Pat McAuliffe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

One of Pat McAuliffe’s earliest works in Listowel may be the nearby Horseshoe Bar at William Street. It was built ca 1840 as a terraced, single-bay, three-storey house with a dormer attic. It was renovated, ca 1895, with a render pilaster pub-front by McAuliffe, whose work here includes panelled pilasters, paired consoles and a moulded cornice.

The premises was extensively renovated in late 20th century, with single-storey recessed canted oriel windows inserted to the upper floors and the addition of a dormer attic.

The Harp and Lion on Church Street, Listowel … Pat McAuliffe’s design for PM Keane’s public house (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

McAuliffe’s last major work in Listowel was completed at Patrick M Keane’s public house, a terraced, two-bay, three-storey house at 44 Church Street, near the original, ruined Church of Ireland parish church. Today, the premises is known as ‘The Harp and Lion’ because of his sculptural details.

This terraced, two-bay three-storey house was built ca 1840 as part of a terrace of four, and was renovated by McAuliffe around 1915. Here he favoured a more focussed installation, with a sculptural shield on the first floor, placed between the windows.

The harp and lion challenged nationalist demands of the early 20th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

This first-floor composition consists of a lion upon an entablature, surmounting the harp beneath. The lion gazes out towards the street, indeed seemingly protective of the emblem of Ireland – another challenge to nationalist expectations of the day.

This arrangement is enclosed by scrolled mouldings, with Latin, French and Irish slogans: ‘Spes Mea in Deo’ (‘My hope is in God’), ‘Maison de Ville’ (‘House of the Town’) and ‘Erin go Brath’ (‘Ireland Forever’). The shield is completed with rendered heads at each end of the entablature and zoomorphic motifs clutching onto shamrocks around the harp.

Pilasters at each side of the front consist of symmetrical strap-work patterns, above capitals that each feature incised plaster impressions of a songbird. Consoles jut forward, each embellished with arabesque decoration.

The original cresting above the cornice has since disappeared, as over time metal armatures encased in the plaster have oxidised and expanded, splitting and cracking the plaster around it. Renovation work began after these difficulties were identified in the late 1960s. A delicate skeletal-pattern infill was replaced by a more pronounced arrangement of harped motifs and round-headed dividing blocks, made in metal.

The original fascia board, with the lettering ‘PM Keane,’ has been missing since a change in ownership in the 1980s. At the same time, arrow motifs at either side were lost. The loss of all these details is unfortunate, considering the vibrant Celto-Byzantine and Art Nouveau imitation style of the façade. The Harp and Lion is now an attractive antique shop.

Missing flamingos

The New Kingdom Bar at No 85 Church Street, Listowel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Further along Church Street, on the opposite side, the New Kingdom Bar at No 85 is a terraced, three-bay two-storey house, built around 1880, as a pair with the adjoining house. No 85 was renovated by Pat McAuliffe, with his render pilaster pub front inserted to the ground floor, with panelled pilasters and a corbelled moulded cornice. Each window case on the first floor has a figure to a tympanum as a keystone.

Each window on the first floor of the New Kingdom Bar has a figure as a keystone to the tympanum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Much of Pat McAuliffe’s original work on the neighbouring Star and Garter at No 83 has since been lost. Here, he completed his pub front design across a two-storey, three-bay building. Only the architrave and quoin details remain today. The lost embellishments included two dragons that McAuliffe had delicately placed above an upper storey cornice and flamingos picking at grapes.

Recent fieldwork in the North Kerry and West Limerick region indicates that 35 to 40 buildings in this area may been be the work of McAuliffe. There is more of his work that I need to find in the streets of Listowel and throughout my new group of parishes.

The Star and Garter has lost much of Pat McAuliffe’s original work (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Canon Patrick Comerford blogs at www.patrickcomerford.com . This feature was first published in May 2017 in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

Saint Patrick’s Hall in the centre of Listowel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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