25 February 2017
I am told that the ancient West Door of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, is now only used on ceremonial occasions.
It was not opened last Sunday evening as I was being installed as Precentor in the joint chapter of the cathedrals of Limerick, Killaloe and Clonfert. Perhaps this great West Door is only opened on occasions such as the enthronement of a new bishop.
According to tradition, the last King of Munster, Domnall Mór Ua Briain, founded Saint Mary’s Cathedral on the site of his palace almost 850 years ago on King’s Island in 1168. His palace had been built on the site of the Viking meeting place, or Thingmote – the Vikings’ most westerly European stronghold – and this had been the centre of government in the early mediaeval Viking city.
Parts of the palace may have been incorporated into the present cathedral building, including the great west door. Indeed, local tradition claims this door was once the original main entrance to the royal palace.
The west door is made of sandstone with foliate capitals, and was possibly taken from the earlier church. Until the 17th century, this was door was the main entrance to the cathedral. It was heavily restored in the 19th century.
Today, the Romanesque West Door faces the Courthouse and parts of the transepts were the oldest parts of the building. Brian Hodkinson, who carried out excavations in the Cathedral, surmised that the Romanesque West Door came from the earlier building on the site and was incorporated later into the new structure.
For centuries, the Bishops of Limerick have knocked on this door before entering the cathedral for their enthronement ceremony.
The Romanesque doorway has an impressive collection of carvings of chevrons and patterns. These may have inspired the traditions say that during the many sieges of Limerick the defenders of the city used the stones around the west door to sharpen their swords and arrows, and that the marks they made in the stonework can be seen there today.
Although the West Door was closed throughout my installation last weekend, I managed earlier to climb the cobbled walkway and steps leading up to the West Door. Looking back, I could see how if this was once the Royal Palace of Munster, it commanded a strategic position above the banks of the River Shannon.
Above me was the cathedral tower standing at 120 ft high and dating from the 15th century. The belfry also dates from the 15th century and contains eight bells, six of which were presented to the cathedral in 1673 by William Yorke, three times Mayor of Limerick.
Before the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, the Precentors of Limerick were also Rectors and Vicars of Kilfenny and Loughill, Rectors of Nantinan, Shanagolden, Knocknagaul and Dromdeely, and Vicars of Morgans, and also presented the Vicars of Dromdeely.
Many of these, including Loughill, Nantinan and Shanagolden are now in the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes, where I am the priest-in-charge. I imagine there are more chances of doors being opened to me there than the west door of Limerick Cathedral being opened for me.
On the gable end of premises facing onto East Square in Askeaton, a puzzling and perplexing sign proclaims in Latin: Ecce Signum, ‘Behold the Sign.’
The Latin phrase Ecce Signum means ‘Behold the Sign,’ or ‘Here is the Proof.’
What does it mean? Is it a question or a declaration? What is the sign, what does it signify, or what is it pointing to?
Ecce Signum is the members’ handbook for Alpha Phi Delta (ΑΦΔ), a male student fraternity in the US that evolved from an exclusive Italian society (Il Circolo Italiano) at Syracuse University in 1914 and that is still seen as a traditionally Italian-American fraternity.
But other occurrence of the phrase Ecce Signum I am familiar with is in Henry IV Part 1, one of the Shakespeare plays that was on my English curriculum in school in my teens.
In Act 2, Scene 4, Falstaff says to Hal:
‘I am a rogue if I were not at half-sword with a dozen of them two hours together. I have ’scaped by miracle. I am eight times thrust through the doublet, four through the hose, my buckler cut through and through, my sword hacked like a handsaw. Ecce signum! I never dealt better since I was a man. All would not do. A plague of all cowards! (points to Gadshill, Peto and Bardolph) Let them speak. If they speak more or less than truth, they are villains, and the sons of darkness.’
I wondered whether someone in Askeaton had once been a member of an American student fraternity. If so, did he have an Italian cultural heritage.
Or did someone in Askeaton have an interest in Falstaff?
Perhaps he was at school at the same time as I was.
But why did he place a sign about a sign in Latin slogan as a relief sculpture on a gable end in Askeaton, facing the ruins of the Hellfire Club?
What appears to an eloquent use of Latin is, in reality, a clever piece of art entitled ‘A Glossolalia,’ by Sean Lynch.
Sean Lynch is a visual artist living in Askeaton, and he works with Michele Horrigan at Askeaton Contemporary Arts. He studied fine art at the Stadelschule, Frankfurt am Main, and in 2015 he represented Ireland at the Venice Biennale. He has also held solo exhibitions at The Rose Art Museum, Boston, Modern Art Oxford and Dublin City Gallery, the Hugh Lane.
Daniel P Mannix, in his 1978 study of the 18th century Hellfire Clubs, discusses the use of obscure classical phrases and language by their members. Mannix writes in The Hellfire Club (London, 1978) of a ‘Macaroni Latin,’ macaroni being the slang name used for elegant young gentlemen of the day.
In ‘Macaroni Latin,’ Latin words were twisted to make puns in English or combined to create a ridiculous effect.’ Perhaps Sean Lynch’s work lacks any comprehension or meaning.
Sean Lynch’s intriguing words are embossed on a white mounted scroll on a gable end in East Square.
But perhaps they are not meant to be intriguing or perplexing at all. Perhaps they say nothing more than ‘this is a sign’ and the sign has no importance beyond its presence and appearance.
Perhaps, like Falstaff, he is telling us all ‘I am a rogue’ while at the same time pointing across at those who can no longer speak from the ruins of the Hellfire Club about their past behaviour: ‘If they speak more or less than truth, they are villains, and the sons of darkness.’