29 August 2017

John’s Gate and mediaeval
walls still stand in grounds
of Saint John’s hospital

The round-headed entrance to the Citadel in the grounds of Saint John’s Hospital, with the guardhouse and mediaeval gate seen through the arch (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I am regularly surprised when I come across parts of the mediaeval fabric of Limerick in some of the most unexpected places.

I was visiting Saint John’s Hospital in Limerick on Monday [28 August 2017], and I was lost momentarily, trying to find my way into the main entrance to the hospital, when I found myself at the Citadel and the remain of John’s Gate.

I suppose I should not have been surprised. John’s Gate stood at the south end of Irishtown in Limerick and was once one of the gates in the mediaeval walls and fortifications around the old walled town. Other places in the name have names that indicated I should have come these mediaeval sites before, including Saint John’s Church, Saint John’s Cathedral, John’s Street and John’s Square.

John’s Gate does not appear on a 1590 map of Limerick, which indicates it was probably built in the late 16th century. But the Citadel became the main fortification in Irishtown, and many of its important features remain including rounded pointed-arched openings and loopholes.

Over the centuries, the substantial and relatively intact late mediaeval fortification at John’s Gate were added to and adapted.

The pointed arch of the mediaeval John’s Gate in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Citadel is a mediaeval limestone guardhouse. It is a square-plan, two-bay two-storey over basement heavily fortified guardhouse, built some time between the late 16th century and 1625. It has a portcullis groove, a battered base, and a large pointed arch opening that gives access to a passage running through the building.

The Citadel became the main fortification of Irishtown in the 17th century. In 1651, the city was besieged by Oliver Cromwell’s army, under the command of his son-in-law, Henry Ireton. The Cromwellians captured Limerick after a long siege in 1652, and the citadel was rebuilt in 1652-1653, with two bastions facing the city. The round-arched entrance to the Cromwellian Citadel has a projecting keystone.

Limerick was besieged again in the 1690s by the army of William III. On 27 August 1690, the Williamites launched an assault on the walls of Irishtown. But the attack was short-lived, and they were forced to retreat after 3½ hours of fighting. During the siege of 1690, the ‘Battle of the Breach’ was fought near the Citadel.

The Williamites returned in the autumn of 1691. This time, the Jacobite troops were significantly and surrendered. A plaque at Saint John’s Hospital marks the location of the Citadel Guardhouse, which was the military headquarters of the Jacobites, during these sieges.

The Citadel remained in use as an army barracks until 1752.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, cholera, tuberculosis and smallpox spread throughout Ireland. In 1781, Lady Hartstonge founded the first voluntary hospital in Limerick. She had obtained use of the guardhouse at Saint John’s Gate and converted it into a fever hospital in Limerick.

The former Lucy Pery was a sister of Edmund Pery (1719-1806), Speaker of the Irish House of Commons (1771-1785) and 1st Viscount Pery, who developed Newtown Pery, and of William Cecil Pery (1721-1794), 1st Baron Glentworth, Bishop of Killala (1781-1784) and Bishop of Limerick (1784-1794), who lived at No 104 Henry Street, Limerick.

Her husband, Sir Henry Hartstonge (1725-1797) was MP for Limerick (1776-1790), and he received an annual grant of £100 from the Irish parliament to support the new fever hospital.

Lady Hartstonge was active in giving care to the patients in the hospital, often sitting with them. The present-day Saint John’s Hospital has its roots in these humble beginnings, and it treated epidemics during the Great Famine (1845-1847).

However, the hospital fell into disrepair from the 1850s to the 1880s. In 1888, Bishop Edward Thomas O’Dwyer invited the Nursing Sisters of the Little Company of Mary to Saint John’s Hospital to provide nursing care. In the 20th century, the hospital became highly regarded, thanks to the leadership of Dr John Devane, who was a prominent Limerick surgeon at the time.

Today, the citadel guardhouse stands in the grounds of Saint John’s Hospital and the sally port of the original stronghold has been incorporated into the structure of the hospital. Many of the building’s important features remain, including the rounded pointed-arched openings and loopholes.

The nearby neighbourhood of Garryowen, to the east of the hospital, probably takes its name from the Irish Garraí Eoin, ‘the Garden of John,’ referring to Saint John’s Church, the Limerick house of the Knights Templar and John’s Gate.

The mediaeval walls still standing in the grounds of Saint John’s Hospital (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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