Thursday, 24 August 2017
Saint Michael’s Church: part of the story of mediaeval Limerick
Saint Michael’s Church, Denmark Street, Limerick, stands at the bottom of Chapel Lane in the heart of Limerick’s shopping and commercial area. Its name is a reminder of one of the five original parishes in the mediaeval city of Limerick: Saint John’s, Saint Mary’s, Saint Michael’s, Saint Munchin’s and Saint Patrick’s.
The Anglo-Normans probably built the first church in Limerick dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel. This church stood on an island where the Abbey River spreads out above Baal’s Bridge. From old maps and drawings, this island was between Englishtown and Irishtown. This area was outside the city gate called West Watergate.
Saint Michael’s is first referred to in the Black Book of Limerick in 1205. It was originally a prebendal church, but by 1418 it was attached to the Archdeaconry of Limerick.
The church fell into disuse after the Reformation. By the early 17th century, it was in ruins, and it was totally dismantled at the time of Cromwell’s siege of 1651. The old graveyard at Michael Street is hidden behind buildings but was restored by the Limerick Civic Trust in 1986. The oldest headstone is in memory of Catherine Barry who died in 1766, aged 92.
In the Church of Ireland, the name of Saint Michael’s Church was used for a new parish church built for the Newtown Pery area in 1844, replacing Saint George’s Church on George’s Street (now O’Connell Street).
In the post-Reformation Roman Catholic Diocese of Limerick, Saint Michael’s was a joint parish with Saint John’s until 1704, when Father Murtagh O’Hehir became the first priest in a new parish.
The Arthur family, who were involved in developing Arthur’s Quay and the Georgian houses built in the area in the mid-18th century, owned the land on which the church was built. Instead of building houses on the site, Patrick Arthur donated the land for the original Penal-era church.
Work on building Saint Michael’s began in 1779. The Revd Thady Lynch laid the foundation stone in 1779, building work was completed in 1781 and the church was opened on Saint Michael’s Day, 29 September 1781.
The church was enlarged in 1805, and Daniel O’Connell held some of his rallies there. A church bell was acquired and was first rung on 1 January 1815.
Saint Michael’s Church was rebuilt in 1881 at a cost of £7,400 to designs by the Limerick-based architect Martin Morris (1823-1901). While the church was being built, Mass was celebrated in the Town Hall from summer 1881 until Christmas Day 1882.
When the new church was being built, human remains were found. They were thought to be bodies of soldiers who fought in defence of the city in the siege of Limerick in 1690. They were reburied under the Sacred Heart altar in 1881.
Saint Michael’s is a fine Italianate church, with Romanesque architectural features. It is a T-plan limestone church, facing north-west with double-height side aisles and three apses to the south-east chancel elevation. The earlier, Penal-era church forms part of the south transept of the present church.
Inside, Saint Michael’s is plain and simple, but in the past it was known as the ‘chapel of statues’ because of the large numbers of statues inside. Most of these statues were removed in the post-Vatican II years.
The High Altar stands on the site of the old sacristy from 1779. A side altar shows a scene from the Last Supper and may have once been part of the old High Altar.
There are two large plaques in the north transept. The first plaque is in memory of Father Patrick Hogan and was commissioned after his death in 1838. It was designed in the style of a 15th century memorial by William Bardwell (1795-1890), the architect who also designed Glenstal Castle for the Barrington family.
The second monument is to Patrick Arthur, and was erected by the people of the parish after he died in 1779. Before the church renovations in 1881, there was a flagstone over his grave in the centre of the church.
A pair of carved stone fonts at the entrance to south transept date from ca 1720. One font shows the Archangel Michael putting the Dragon in chains. The other font shows Saint Christopher fording the river with the Christ Child – although some descriptions also say this could be the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child, or Saint Elizabeth holding Saint John the Baptist.
The church has a four-stage bell tower and a three-bay three-storey presbytery. The bell tower is capped by a striking gilt figure representing the Archangel Michael vanquishing Satan.
From 1781 to 1816, the priests of the parish lived in Robert Street, which was next to the sacristy. Later, the priests also lived in Sexton Street. Edward Thomas O’Dwyer, who was a curate in the parish (1875-1886), later became Bishop of Limerick (1886-1917).
The parish has changed greatly since the 18th century church was built. Saint Michael’s was once described as ‘the biggest parish in Munster.’ But the parish was divided and subdivided to form new parishes as the city of Limerick grew and expanded.
Saint Michael’s ceased being a mensal parish with the bishop as its parish priest in 1973, and the first parish priest was the Very Revd Michael Manning.
The present area of the parish is now roughly from Cecil Street to Bank Place and the population of the parish is around 1,000. It is now the smallest parish in Limerick, and is in the heart of the central shopping area of the city. As a place of worship and a feature in the streetscape, it is a significant building, adding a religious element to a largely commercial and retail area.
Limerick is now home to about 10,000 Poles, and more than 500 people attend the Polish Mass in Saint Michael’s every Sunday. Father Andrzej Sroka has been the Polish chaplain in Saint Michael’s Parish since 2012. The Cantate Deo choir sings in the church once a month and is part of this thriving Polish community.