27 May 2017

Saint John’s Church, a surviving
reminder of mediaeval Limerick

Saint John’s Church stands on the site of a church dating back to the 11th or 12th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Saint John’s is one of the five original parishes in Limerick City, the others being, Saint Munchin’s, Saint Michael’s, Saint Mary’s and Saint Patrick’s. During my visit to Saint John’s Roman Catholic Church this week, I also visited neighbouring Saint John’s Church, the former Church of Ireland parish church.

This Saint John’s Church stands on the site of an earlier church in the Irishtown area of the city, which dated from the 1200s. The link between Saint John the Baptist and the area is long-standing. According to the local historian Begley, the Knights Templars had a house in this area in the 12th century that was dedicated to Saint John the Baptist.

The pre-Reformation mediaeval church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist dates back to before the 15th century, perhaps as early as the 11th or 12th century. This important site is adjacent to the former John’s Gate and the town walls where the existing Citadel is located and incorporated within Saint John’s Hospital.

During the Reformation, Saint John’s became the property of Edmund Sexton. The mediaeval church was demolished in the 1850s, when it was replaced by Saint John’s Church of Ireland parish church. The new Saint John’s was oriented to address an open side of John’s Square

The Romanesque door at the west end of Joseph Welland’s 1850s church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Saint John’s was built by the architect Joseph Welland (1798-1860) in the Norman Romanesque style in 1851. It was intended to accommodate 1,000 people. The church stands at one end of John’s Square, the first development of Newtown Pery, and predates Saint John’s Roman Catholic Cathedral.

The foundation stone of the new Saint John’s was laid on 15 January 1851 and the church was dedicated on Saint John’s Day, 24 June 1852.

The architect Joseph Welland was born in Cork. He was the architect to the Board of the First Fruits for seven years. When the board was dissolved in 1838, he was appointed to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners as one of four architects, working alongside James Pain. He was finally nominated sole architect to the Church of Ireland, and his works include over 100 churches.

Saint John’s is a free-standing double-height Romanesque-style limestone church, built in 1851-1852 on the site of the earlier mediaeval church. The gabled west elevation has a centrally-placed Romanesque portal door opening and a blind arcade of three round arches at first floor level, with a rose window in the gable above. Welland indicated a debt to AWN Pugin by roofing the nave, apse and aisles separately, and by revealing the roof structure.

There is a square-plan three-stage tower at the south-west corner, with a splay-foot pyramidal limestone spire, rising from a nail-head enriched cornice, decorated with foliate fleurs-de-lis to the corners and capped by a foliate finial.

There is an apsidal east end and a sacristy at the north-east corner.

The north and south sides are made up of four-bay, single-storey, aisle elevations, with a clerestorey elevation articulated by shallow piers and an oculus window to each bay. There are squared and snecked tooled limestone ashlar walls throughout, with smooth limestone ashlar dressing, including a plinth course, sill courses, a dentil enriched eaves course and copings with supporting corbel blocks to the gable parapet walls.

The five-sided apse has limestone ashlar piers with squared and snecked walls and a dentil enriched eaves band. The single and paired round-arched aisle windows in the aisle and apse elevations have limestone ashlar reveals, flush canted sills and plain glazing. The windows are obscured by recently-installed metal security grilles.

The Russell Mausoleum in Saint John’s churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The ancient church grounds form an island site in the middle of busy traffic. The walls around the graveyard were built in 1693 to replace walls damaged during the siege of Limerick and there are many significant tombs, table tombs and grave markers in the grounds.

A folk tale in the area says this is the burial place of the poet Brian Merriman (ca 1747-1805), author of the satirical Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (The Midnight Court). It was the burial place too for many Limerick merchant families, including the Russell family who ran the largest mills in Limerick in the mid-19th century.

The Russell mausoleum is a fine classical mausoleum and adds significantly to the architectural and social history of the site. It is well-composed and the classical temple elevation contrasts with the Romanesque elements of Saint John’s Church.

John Norris Russell was merchant who also became a ship-owner and industrialist. He built the Newtown Pery Mills on Russell’s Quay and the Newtown Pery store nearby on Henry Street, and he was one of the founders of the Limerick Savings Bank.

This limestone mausoleum, built in 1873, has a tetrastyle temple front in the Doric order. Limestone ashlar walls with Doric pilaster supporting plain entablature and pediment. The heraldic decorations include cast-iron relief goat figure above ribbon band with the Russell motto and date: Che Sara Sara 1873.

A plaque reads: ‘Here lieth the mortal remains of Francis Russell who died the 25th day of August 1800. He was an affectionate husband, a kind and indulgent parent, a true friend & an honest man.’ Another plaque reads: ‘John Norris Russell dedicated this monument to his father Francis Russell. A tender husband, an affectionate parent, a kind friend & an honest man.’

The Unthank Mausoleum in Saint John’s churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Unthank mausoleum is also in the style of a classical temple. This limestone mausoleum on a raised limestone podium was built ca 1850 for the Unthank family, with an aedicular façade in the Doric order. The ashlar stonework facing has been recently removed from the street-facing east elevation. There is a square-headed door opening with a Greek Revival architrave.

A plaque reads: ‘IHS. The remains of Robert Unthank, Esq, are deposed in this monument. Who died May 1814, aged 26 years. Also the remains of his mother Mrs Mary Unthank who died Sep. 22, 1847 aged 75 years. And his sister, Mrs Percy Scanlan who died February 4th 1829, aged 37 years.’

Another plaque reads: ‘IHS. To the memory of John Unthank, Esq. of Thomas Street on this city who departed this life on the 19th February 1849, aged 57 years. This monument is erected as a small testimony of the respect and affection of his sorrowing wife and children.’

The fountain in Cathedral Place erected by the Unthank family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Unthank family is also associated with the public fountain outside the church grounds in Cathedral Place. This Gothic Revival-style drinking fountain was erected by the Jubilee Committee in 1865. It once met the sanitary and health needs of local people in Saint John’s Parish.

A plaque reads: ‘The inhabitants of St John’s Square are earnestly requested to protect this fountain from injury.’ Another plaque reads: ‘This fountain was erected by the suggestion of the late Isaac Unthank Esq, former Hon Sec of the Society for the benefit of the inhabitants of St John’s Parish and for which the corporation have granted a free supply of water.’

The rectory for the parish was at No 3 John’s Square. It is easily identified with its elaborate doorway, composite pillars and fanlight. The last Rector of Saint John’s to live here was Canon Frederick Langbridge (1849-1922), a novelist, poet and dramatist. His daughter Rosamund was the author of three novels, The Flame and the Flood (1908), Land of the Ever Young (1920) and The Green Banks of the Shannon (1929).

As the Anglican population in Limerick city fell into decline, the church fell into disuse in the early 1970s and it was handed over to the Limerick Corporation in 1975.

The interior was completely redesigned and for a period the church was used as a base for the Dagdha Dance Company and is now the hub for Dance Limerick.

The former rectory in John’s Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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