29 July 2017
I am sure many people walk by No 96 O’Connell Street every day without noticing this architecturally beautiful building, and without ever gaining a hint of the splendid plaster work, fireplaces and interior fittings.
This is the offices of Limerick Chamber of Commerce, one of the five oldest Chambers of Commerce in Ireland and Britain. It was established as a Chamber of Commerce in 1805, but its roots go back to the Society of Merchants of the Staple, whose origins can be traced to the Guild of Merchants in the early 17th Century.
The Chamber of Commerce had its first headquarters at the former Commercial Buildings on Patrick Street, built in 1805. It was formally constituted by Royal Charter from King George III on 2 June 1815, and it moved to No 96 O’Connell Street in 1829 or 1833.
During the first half of the 19th century, the chamber played a key role in the development of Limerick Harbour and also assumed control over pilotage in the River Shannon and made payments to individuals who salvaged vessels and marked hazards in the estuary.
No 96 O’Connell Street was built about a decade earlier, ca 1815-1820 on what was then George’s Street. The house remains a fine building, with much of its early 19th-century interior still intact, in sharp contrast to the later 19th-century stucco façade.
Because the building still has many of its original fine architectural and decorative details, which are all well-maintained, when I visited No 96 on Thursday afternoon I was able to appreciate the fine Georgian interiors and details that add to the restrained effect intended by the architect who designed this townhouse.
This terraced, three-bay, four-storey over basement former townhouse was built ca 1815-1820 as part of the development of Newtown Pery. It was refaced in stucco ca 1880 and it is distinguished by the channel rusticated ground floor elevation, foliate frieze to the parapet entablature and the cast-iron balconette that emphasises the entablature enriched window openings of the piano nobile.
The roof is concealed behind the parapet wall to the front and rear, with a red-brick chimney-stack to the party wall.
The tooled limestone ashlar basement elevation ends at the ground floor level with a smooth limestone ashlar course.
The building has a stucco rendered façade, with a channel rusticated ground floor that ends with a running mould sill cornice at the first-floor level, and above this the façade is plainly rendered.
A sill course delineates the second-floor level and the façade terminates with a dentil enriched parapet entablature.
The segmental-arched window openings at ground floor level have painted profiled sills and painted stucco architraves with vermiculated keystone and foliate brackets that add emphasis to the frame. There are one-over-one timber sash windows with segmental horns.
The square-headed window openings of the piano nobile have a continuous painted stucco sill course, a lugged architrave and outer pilaster uprights with an entablature that has guilloche mouldings to the frieze, supported by a parapet entablature. The continental-style casement windows have fixed horizontal over-lights and date from ca 1880.
There are square-headed window openings on the second and third floor, with a continuous sill course at the second-floor level, and a profiled sill course at the third-floor level with consoles beneath.
The architrave surround at that second-floor level has an entablature and is enriched by a Greek key frieze that terminates with rosettes. There is a lugged and kneed architrave at the second and third floor level. There are two-over-two timber sash windows at the second-floor level and replacement uPVC windows at the third-floor level.
The segmental-arched door opening has a surround treatment that echoes the window openings at ground level. The inset timber doorframe has a profiled timber lintel separating the plain glass over-light from the flat-panelled timber door. The remains of part of the brick arch of the original door opening can be traced on the neighbouring late Georgian façade to the right.
At the front, the basement area is enclosed by a limestone ashlar plinth wall that ends with limestone piers with stop-chamferred corners and pyramidal capping stones. There is canted coping to plinth wall supporting distinctive arched cresting.
The flight of limestone steps leads up to the limestone flagged front door area, where there is still an original cast-iron boot-scraper.
Inside, No 96 retains much of the spatial arrangement and architectural detailing dating from ca 1815-1820.
The entrance hall has a glazed inner porch screen that dates from the late 19th or early 20th century in origins.
Separating the stair hall is an arched opening with an inner door-case comprising slender composite columns and responding quarter pilasters joined by an entablature with an enriched frieze that has a webbed fanlight above. There are plain sidelights and a replacement panelled timber door leaf.
The door opening to the ground floor front room has a fine architrave of flanking pilasters with rosettes that link with the lintel architrave.
The ceiling in the entrance hall has low relief compartments with wheat husk swags tied with ribbon flanking an acanthus ceiling boss with scrollwork enriched by floral motifs. There is a low-relief modillion cornice running along the flat ceiling.
The original primary staircase rises to the second-floor level. This has two half landings and a slender turned timber balustrade with an elaborate ground floor level curtail step. This staircase is open string with scrolled tread ends, which are either carved timber or composite.
At the second-floor level, an arched opening with a running mould archivolt springs from pilaster uprights and gives access to the private accommodation corridor.
The stair hall ceiling is enriched by low relief decorative plasterwork, typical of its period, forming an acanthus ceiling boss and outer floral and foliate oval tied by ribbon. A low relief frieze that runs along the ceiling is made up of a foliate frieze and an egg-and-dart course.
The half landings receive natural light from round-arched window openings with shutter box architraves comprising slender pilasters and archivolt, and having a panelled window back, flat-panelled shutters with applied bead mouldings, and a flat-panelled arch soffit. There are original six-over-six timber sash windows with segmental horns and a fanlight to the upper sash.
Because of meetings in the building, I did not get into the rooms upstairs this week. But I understand the three-bay piano nobile room has an arched inter-communicating opening to the rear room, with door leaves sliding into cavities in the dividing wall.
I am told this room has a flush chimney-breast with marble chimney-piece that has carved figurative panels, an Adam-inspired fire grate and a Victorian cast-iron fender. The window openings retain their original shutter boxes and flat-panelled timber shutters with applied bead mouldings. The ceiling is decorated with a sprayed feather boss with an elaborate low relief surround of scrolled foliations and an outer grape vine garland.
The first-floor rear room is similarly decorated with further enrichments to the ceiling. The chimney-piece is equally fine with a centrally-placed plaque depicting a Roman gladiator. There is a brass Regency fender with lion’s head masks that enrich the chimney-piece.
I did not get to the back of the building, but I understand the rear site still has the original coach house with a triangular pediment and an unusual triangular-shaped red-brick dovecote with oval windows set in brick surrounds.
Earlier this week, I was discussing Archbishop Michael Ramsey and his visit to Limerick in 1961 to dedicate the Ascension Window in the Jebb Chapel in Saint Mary’s Cathedral memory of Horace Stafford-O’Brien (1842-1929).
The window was commissioned by Horace Stafford-O’Brien’s son, Major Egerton Augustus Stafford-O’Brien (1872-1963), of Cratloe, Co Clare, who was an uncle by marriage of Archbishop Ramsey’s wife, Joan.
I returned to Saint Mary’s Cathedral at the end of this week to see some other windows and memorials that are associated with the Stafford-O’Brien and O’Brien families.
Horace’s uncle, Augustus Stafford O'Brien-Stafford (1811-1857), was perhaps the best-known member of the family. He was the MP for Northamptonshire North from 1841 until his early death in Dublin in 1857, and was Secretary to the Admiralty in Lord Derby’s short-lived government from February to December 1852. In 1847, he assumed by royal licence the additional name of Stafford by royal licence in 1847 to distinguish himself from his kinsman William Smith O’Brien.
During the Crimean War, Augustus Stafford went to Scutari in 1857 to assist Florence Nightingale’s work with the sick and wounded. It was said at the time that Florence Nightingale had paid for the large, three-light stained-glass East Window in his memory in Saint Mary’s Cathedral.
This East Window was erected in 1857-1860 in the early English style and replaced an earlier perpendicular window designed by James Pain and installed in 1843. Pain’s East Window was considered out of keeping with the west windows and the transept windows, and was moved by Saint Michael’s Church in Pery Square, which was designed by the brothers James and George Pain in 1836-1844.
The new window was designed by the English architect William Slater (1819-1872), who was restoring the East End or Chancel of Saint Mary’s Cathedral at the time, and was filled with stained glass as a memorial to Augustus Stafford.
Augustus Stafford was the eldest son of Stafford O’Brien of Blatherwick Park, Northampton, and Cratloe Woods, Co Clare, and his wife Emma, sister of Lord Gainsborough and daughter of Sir Gerald Noel MP.
Augustus Stafford was born in 1811, was educated at Trinity College Cambridge, and as the MP for Northamptonshire, he sat as a Conservative Protectionist.
He was a distinguished scholar and statesman, and was regarded as an eloquent speaker in Parliament. But he was also highly regarded for his philanthropic work. Following the Battle of Balaklava in the Crimean War, Augustus Stafford visited Crimea, and helped to administer medical aid and comfort to the wounded and dying soldiers.
Not every Irish observer was impressed by his work in Crimea, however. Colonel John Bourke, a former MP for Kildare, wrote to his brother, Lord Naas, claiming Augustus lived away from Scutari and only came to the hospitals for a few hours each day in an act of self-publicity.
On the other hand, Florence Nightingale hailed him as a hero, and Chichester Fortescue, the Liberal MP for Louth, recalled how Augustus had ‘behaved so well’ at Scutari.
The poet Aubrey de Vere, who lived at Curragh Chase near Askeaton and who was a friend of Augustus Stafford, recounted years later that when cholera raged fiercely on ships, Augustus attended the sick crew members ‘at imminent risk of his own life.’
When he returned to Westminster, he spoke in the Commons about the needs of the invalid veterans and their families, and on the death toll. He returned to Crimea again in 1855.
He died suddenly in a Dublin hotel on 18 November 1857, while he was on his way back to Limerick from England. A committee was formed to raise funds for the window in Saint Mary’s Cathedral as a public memorial to him in Limerick. The committee members included the Marquis of Drogheda, the Earl of Powis, five senior clergy and two MPs.
They raised over £1,500, and the rumour soon spread that the principal if not sole donor was Florence Nightingale – although her contribution amounted to three guineas, while the tenants and labourers of the Cratloe Estate contributed almost £50.
The glass, by Clayton and Bell of London, one of the most prolific and proficient English workshops of stained glass during the late 19th and early 20th century. Clayton and Bell also designed the five-light window in the north transept of the cathedral in memory of Samuel Caswell. Windows by Clayton and Bell can be seen in churches throughout Ireland, including Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin, Lurgan Parish Church, Virginia, Co Cavan, and Saint Mary’s Church, Julianstown, Co Meath.
The Biblical subjects represented in the East Window are:
In the centre: Christ enthroned; overhead, the Charity of Dorcas; below, the Good Samaritan. On the left (north side): Burying the dead. A stranger and ye took me in. In prison and ye came unto me. Thirsty and ye gave me to drink. On the right (south side light), Guiding the mind. Naked and ye clothed Me. Sick and ye visited Me. Hungry and ye gave Me to eat. (Matthew 25: 31-35).
The window was renovated, re-leaded and cleaned in 1923 by the Dublin Co-operative Stained Glass works, under the supervision of Sarah Purser RHA.
To the right of the East Window, there are two interesting memorial windows on the south side of the chancel. The larger of these two windows is another memorial to a member of the O’Brien family. The two-light window represents the Biblical subject, ‘The Building of the Temple.’
The inscription at the foot of the window reads: ‘The Hon Robert O’Brien, of Dromoland Castle. Born 1809. Died 1870.’
Robert O’Brien was the fourth son of Sir Edward O’Brien of Dromoland Castle, Co Clare, and a brother of then Lord Inchiquin. He married Eleanor Jane Alice Lucy, daughter of Sir Aubrey de Vere of Curragh Chase, and formerly MP for Limerick City.
Robert O’Brien took a deep and practical interest in all matters concerning the cathedral and he helped liberally in carrying out many important renovations. During his lifetime, he lived at Old Church in the neighbourhood of Limerick, and he was buried in the family vault in Newmarket-on-Fergus.
Below this window, a small circular Agnus Dei window is a memorial to Charles Maunsell, and was presented by his sister, Mrs Robinson. The window shows Christ as the Lamb of God, with a nimbus or a halo and a white banner with a red cross as a symbol of the Resurrection.
On the north side of the chancel, the O’Brien family is also commemorated in the majestic, Renaissance-style O’Brien monument.
This memorial is built at three levels. At the base is the lid of the sarcophagus of Dónal Mór O Brien, the founder of the cathedral, who died in 1194. At the next level is an effigy of Donough O’Brien, 4th Earl of Thomond, who died in 1624. Above this, at the third and highest level is an effigy of his wife, Elizabeth Fitzgerald.
The effigies of Donough and Elizabeth were badly damaged by Cromwellian soldiers. But the memorial survives as part of a collection of tributes to the O’Brien family at the east end of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.