14 June 2017

The missing heir from
Limerick who inspired
Rudyard Kipling’s story

The 1916 memorial on Sarsfield Bridge stands on the site of a statue to Viscount Fitzgibbon and the dead of the Crimean War (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Earlier this morning, I was describing the elegant Arts and Crafts clubhouse at Shannon Rowing Club, designed by the Edwardian architect William Clifford Smith. There are two rowing clubhouses on Shannon Island at either side of the bridge: the Shannon Rowing Club on the north side was founded by Sir Peter Tait in 1868; Limerick Rowing Club on the south side was founded in 1870 and has a simpler structure.

Both clubs add to the interesting stories of Sarsfield Bridge, whose name recalls Patrick Sarsfield, the Earl of Lucan, who played a commanding role at the Siege of Limerick in 1691.

But the bridge was known originally as Wellesley Bridge, in honour of the Duke of Wellington. The Limerick Bridge Commissioners were incorporated in 1823 to build the bridge and a floating dock ‘to accommodate sharp vessels frequenting the port of Limerick.’ The Act was introduced into Parliament by the Thomas Spring Rice (1790-1866) of Mount Trenchard, then MP for the City of Limerick and later MP for Cambridge, Chancellor of the Exchequer and 1st Lord Monteagle.

The foundation stone was laid in 24 October 1824 by John Fitzgibbon, Earl of Clare. The design of the bridge was based on the Pont de Neuilly in Paris. The bridge was designed by the Scottish architect and engineer Alexander Nimmo (1783-1832), and it took 11 years to build. Nimmo’s other projects included designing the village of Knightstown on Valentia Island, Co Kerry, the road from Galway to Clifden and the harbour of Roundstone in Connemara.

When Nimmo died in 1832, the bridge was completed by John Grantham in 1835 at a total cost of £89,601, 50 per cent more than the original estimate. The contractor was Clements and Son. When the bridge finally opened on 5 August 1835 it was a particularly important development for Limerick, allowing the city to expand on the northern shore of the River Shannon.

The design of Sarsfield Bridge drew inspiration from the Pont de Neuilly in Paris (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The bridge has five large and elegant elliptical arches with an open balustrade, running from an artificial island, originally called Wellesley Pier and now known as Shannon Island, to the north shore, and a simple flat, swivel deck with iron lattice railings crossing a canal and road from the island to what was known as Brunswick Street and is now Sarsfield Street.

Each span of the bridge reaches 70 ft, with each arch rising to a height of 8 ft 6 in. The existing metal swivel bridge, made in Darlington, replaces an earlier 19th century twin-leafed swivel bridge made in Liverpool and connects the island to the shore.

The swivel end of the bridge is no longer functional, although some of its heavy machinery is still intact underneath the roadway. A lock system has replaced the swivel section to allow for the passage of smaller boats. But, apart from this, the bridge has remained largely unchanged since it opened and still has its original lamp standards.

The monument on the bridge commemorates the 1916 Rising. But an earlier monument was erected on this site in 1857, commemorating John Charles Henry Fitzgibbon (1829-1854), Viscount Fitzgibbon of Mountshannon House in Castleconnell, Co Limerick.

John Charles Henry FitzGibbon was educated at Christ Church, Oxford, Oxford, and became a lieutenant in the 8th (King’s Royal Irish) Hussars. He was killed in the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854.

Fitzgibbon’s statue, cast by the sculptor Patrick MacDowell (1799-1870), showed him standing in his uniform on a stone plinth decorated with the names of those from Limerick who were killed in the Crimean War. The statue was flanked by two Russian cannons captured in the Crimean War.

The plaque on the bridge read:

To commemorate the bravery of
Viscount Fitzgibbon
8th Royal Irish Hussars
& of his gallant companions in arms
natives of the County & City of Limerick
who glouriously fell in the Crimean War

Fitzgibbon was reported ‘missing presumed dead’ during the Charge of the Light Brigade. There is a story that he married Frances Murphy in 1854 in a clandestine marriage, and that he had a posthumous son, William John Gerald FitzGibbon, who was born in 1855.

Fitzgibbon’s statue was originally intended for the Crescent in Limerick. But political and religious sentiments were running high, the site at the Crescent was used instead for a monument for Daniel O’Connell erected in 1857, and Fitzgibbon’s statue was erected on Wellesley Bridge.

Fitzgibbon’s body was never found and inevitably there were stories that he had not been killed at Balaclava. One story claimed in 1877 that he had been taken prisoner, and that later, for an assault on a Russian officer, he had been sent to Siberia. The stories claimed he later returned to England, and visited the Hounslow Barracks, where the 8th Hussars were stationed, and that there he was identified by Colonel Mussenden and Quartermaster-Sergeant-Major Hefferon, who had been Fitzgibbon’s servant.

Mussenden and Hefferon later denied the reports. Despite appeals in newspapers, no-one came forward to claim the title of Earl of Clare which had died with his father over a decade earlier in 1864.

A similar story gained currency 25 years after the Charge of the Light Brigade. During the second Afghan War (1878-1880), Fitzgibbon’s regiment, the 8th Hussars, were stationed near the North-West frontier.

One night a dishevelled looking man who spoke English, but seemed unaccustomed to doing so, was brought into the officers’ mess. He was invited to stay for dinner, where he surprised all by having an uncannily good knowledge of the regimental customs, indicating he was an ex-officer of the regiment. He was not asked to identify himself, but on examining the regimental records it was discovered that the only ex-officer whose whereabouts had not been positively accounted for was Viscount Fitzgibbon.

Rudyard Kipling was intrigued by the story and it provided the basis for his short story The Man Who Was, in which a man arrested for gun-stealing and believed to be an Afghan turns out to be an ex-officer who has been a Russian prisoner for many years before escaping and finding his way back to his regiment.

Meanwhile, Wellesley Bridge continued as a toll bridge, and tolls continued to be collected until 1883. The name of the bridge was changed to Sarsfield Bridge that year, but Fitzgibbon’s statue continued to stand on the bridge until it was blown-up by the IRA on 9 June 1930, leaving only the podium intact. The cannons survived and are still apparently outside the Harbour Master’s office.

The plinth was unused for many years until the erection of the present memorial, which is the work of the sculptor Albert Power, in 1954. One of the original stone plaques from the Crimean Memorial was overlain by a bronze plaque that records in Irish the names and events of the 1916 Rising. Another plaque reads: ‘This memorial was erected by means of voluntary public subscriptions in memory of the Limerick men and their comrades who died ... during the Easter Rising of 1916.’

The memorial has bronze statues depicting the Fenian Tom Clarke, a signatory of the 1916 Proclamation, pointing to the proclamation. At the top is Clarke’s brother-in-law, Commandant Edward Daly, Con Colbert from Athea, Co Limerick, who is seen crouching, and a chained allegorical figure representing Mother Ireland. The Mother Ireland figure is said to be based on Tom Clarke’s wife, Kathleen Daly, a Limerick woman.

Shannon Rowing Club: an
inspiration for Limerick’s
Edwardian architecture

Shannon Rowing Club … an inspiration for Edwardian and Art Nouveau architecture in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Limerick is defined by the River Shannon, which runs majestically through the city. The river is the core of the city, and as I regularly wait for a bus on Arthur’s Quay, enjoying the river, with views to my right of the Island, with Saint Mary’s Cathedral, King John’s Castle, Saint Munchin’s Church and Thomond Bridge, while to my left are many of the modern buildings lining Limerick’s Quays, Sarsfield Bridge and the delightful Arts and Crafts-style Edwardian clubhouse of Shannon Rowing Club.

The highly elaborate clubhouse stands out, not only for its architectural beauty, but because of its location on an artificial island between a canal and the River Shannon, connected to Sarsfield Bridge.

Sarsfield Bridge was originally named Wellesley Bridge in honour of the Duke of Wellington, and the island on which the clubhouse stands is known as Shannon Island or Wellesley Pier.

Shannon Rowing Club, the oldest rowing club in Limerick City, was founded in 1866 by Sir Peter Tait, the Limerick entrepreneur who is remembered on the city streets in the Tait Clock in Baker Place. Last year, the club celebrated its 150th anniversary [2016].

Shannon Rowing Club with Saint Mary’s Cathedral in the background (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

In 1902, an inventive young English architect, William Clifford Smith (1881-1954), won an international competition to design a new clubhouse. The new clubhouse was built by Messrs Gough at a cost of £2,000 and was completed in 1905.

This is a highly elaborate clubhouse in the Edwardian Arts and Crafts idiom. This is such a fine example of Edwardian architecture that, as far as I know, it is the only listed sports building in Ireland.

This detached two-bay, two-storey over basement stone clubhouse stands on a limestone pier to the north-east of Sarsfield Bridge, with a limestone entrance platform bridging at basement level. The variation of the windows, the contrasting façade finishes at each level, and the large-scale massing of the building with its gables, bays and balconies are some of the attractive features in a building that is still in an impeccable condition.

Clifford Smith’s attention to detail is seen in the Art Nouveau repousée metal finger plates on the interior doors. Among his attractive features are the asymmetry of the building, and the corbels, brackets, arches and columns.

Shannon Rowing Club stands on an artificial island in the river in the heart of Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

William Clifford Smith was born in Poole, Dorset, in 1881 or 1882. In 1901, at the age of 19, he was an architect’s pupil and still living in Poole with his parents, Lucy and John C Smith, a draper.

On winning the competition, Clifford Smith decided to stay to Ireland and he settled in Limerick. In 1906, he designed a terrace of small dormered cottages at Fair Green in Adare, Co Limerick, for the 4th Earl of Dunraven. In 1907, Dunraven also invited Clifford Smith to design the Village Hall and Clubhouse in Adare in the Arts and Crafts style.

Around 1910, Clifford Smith designed the former Bank and Post Office in Foynes, Co Limerick, the only building to be completed as part of the vision of Inigo Thomas for a Market Square in Foynes, and Creeven Cottages, a row of cottages at the east end of Foynes.

The Shannon Rowing Club gave impetus to an Edwardian freestyle that marked out the building on Limerick’s riverscape. It is a style that can be seen too throughout the city in suburban houses in Ennis Road, O’Connell Avenue and Shelbourne Road.

Some of these houses are three-storied with an assortment of balconettes, oculi and timbered gables. Others have horizontal mullioned windows, and steep roofs with prominent chimney stacks, which owe much to the Arts and Crafts style. Contrasting materials were also carefully chosen – brick, limestone and pebbledash – combined with Art Nouveau-inspired cast-iron railings.

The Belltable Theatre … the former cinema in O’Connell Street was remodelled by William Clifford Smith (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

By 1911, Clifford Smith was boarding in the home of Elizabeth McCarthy on Ennis Road. He may have served in the Royal Engineers during World War I. But he returned to Limerick after the war, and in 1919 he designed what is now the Belltable Arts Centre at 69 O’Connell Street.

This was the Coliseum Theatre and then the Gaiety Cinema. The former Georgian townhouse was substantially remodelled at ground floor level to accommodate a theatre in the late 19th century, and in the 20th century it became one of the most important venues in Limerick for the performing arts.

The former townhouse is one of the larger three-bay houses in a terrace of 11 houses between Hartstonge Street and Mallow Street, and which has been described as ‘one of the most noble street elevations in the city.’

Clifford Smith designed the limestone front at ground floor level with panache and without compromising the uniform quality of the streetscape. The façade continues to retain his bold elliptical arch and mannered columns.

Clifford Smith worked from 75 O'Connell Street for much of his career. In 1928, he formed a partnership with Edward Newenham, known as Clifford Smith & Newenham.

William Clifford Smith lived at Northesk, Lansdowne, Limerick, from before 1937, when his daughter Doreen married Charles Johnston, until he died in 1954. Clifford Smith & Newenham amalgamated with the Dublin practice of Dermot Mulligan in 1968 to become Newenham Mulligan & Associates.