06 October 2017

Fanning’s Castle is
Limerick’s last
surviving tower house

Fanning’s Castle is Limerick’s last surviving tower house (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I spent much of this morning [Friday 6 October 2017] in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, where I am the canon precentor, being interviewed by Darragh Roche for a feature in next week’s edition of Limerick Life.

I had an opportunity during the morning to visit a number of key sites on King’s Island, including the Tholsel, the site of the mediaeval city gaol, and the remains of the last remaining tower house in Limerick is Fanning’s Castle, on a small site off Mary Street and Creagh Lane on King’s Island.

These ruins are close to many other mediaeval landmarks in the city, including Saint Mary’s Cathedral and King John’s Castle, which make this a fascinating part of Limerick.

There are no surviving remains of the timber cage-work houses that would have been characteristic of the ‘English Town’ in this part of mediaeval Limerick. By the late 16th century, part of Mary Street, which was then the High Street in this part of Limerick, was lined with four-storey and five-storey battlemented stone houses with gables facing onto the street.

Some of these townhouses, including the one known as Fanning’s Castle, were first planned as tower houses.

Although it is known as Fanning’s Castle, this never was a castle. Rather, it is a late mediaeval, fortified townhouse or tower house. It is said to have been built by Dominic Fanning, a former mayor of Limerick, around 1641, as his personal residence.

Other sources suggest it dates from the 16th or even the 15th century, when the opulent merchant families of Limerick lived on Mary Street, then known as High Street.

The walls of the tower were built of roughly squared limestone blocks of varying sizes. The tower would have had a view of the Abbey river. Few aesthetic flourishes are visible within the ruined building today, consisting of two walls of those square limestone blocks.

Fanning’s Castle was originally five storeys high, with a vaulted undercroft. But, due to the passage of time and building development in this area, the first storey is now almost at ground level.

On the first storey, the most complete and intact wall has a flat-headed window, divided by a mullion.

On the second and third floors, two ogee windows are placed one floor above the other.

The third floor windows being slightly smaller than those on the second floor.

Finally, there is a single round-headed window on the top floor.

The doors on the upper levels suggest that at some point the tower had external balconies or stairs. The tower house would have originally incorporated a turret staircase and battlements and would have been an impressive sight on Mary Street.

Dominick Fanning led the resistance in Limerick against Cromwell. However, when he was caught, he was forced had to give up his residence at Fanning’s Castle, and he was executed by the Cromwellian forces in 1651.

Later, Fanning’s Castle it was known as Whitamore’s Castle, or even as Limerick Castle. The Irish Jacobite general Patrick Sarsfield is said to have stayed here as a guest of Francis Whitamore, then the Mayor of Limerick, during the Williamite siege of Limerick in 1691.

But over time, Fanning’s Castle deteriorated, with drastic consequences for its fabric. Today, it looks out of place, crumbling away in a part of the city where many of the sites appear abandoned or deserted street.

Undeniably, because of its architectural and historical significance, the castle has potential to be one of many tourist attractions in the city. But a fence has been placed around the castle ruins and the surrounding grounds, which seem to be used as a car park, sealed off by an automatic gate, making it part of the hidden Limerick.

Over time, Fanning’s Castle deteriorated, with drastic consequences for its fabric (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Irish Coffee, a tradition that
begins in Foynes in 1943

Telling the story of Joe Sheridan and the invention of Irish Coffee at Foynes in 1943 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Visitors who stay in the Rectory in Askeaton enjoy visiting Foynes and the Flying Boat and Maritime Museum, which is just 12 km from here, a 15-minute drive.

For many, when they visit Foynes, it’s a must to find out about the story about Irish Coffee.

The displays in the museum boast that this was the drink of the stars at Foynes, including Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller.

Although I never developed a taste for whiskey. But the flying boats and Foynes are closely linked to Irish coffee, which many visitors believe is an Irish tradition, although it only dates back to the 1940s.

In 1943, Brendan O’Regan opened a restaurant and coffee shop in the Foynes terminal building, and it soon earned a reputation as one of the best restaurants in Ireland. The Chef Joe Sheridan, who was from Castlederg, Co Tyrone, was recruited by O’Regan to run the kitchen.

Late one night in the winter of 1943, a flight left Foynes for New York. But, after flying for several hours in bad weather, the captain decided to return to Foynes to wait for safer conditions. A Morse code message was sent to the Foynes control tower to tell them of the planned return. The staff were called back in and when the plane landed the passengers were brought to the restaurant for food and drink.

When Joe Sheridan was asked to prepare something to warm the weary passengers, he was inspired to put some Irish whiskey into their coffee. One passenger approached the chef and thanked him for the wonderful coffee, asking if he used Brazilian coffee. Joe jokingly answered, ‘No, it was Irish coffee!’

A few weeks later, Chef Sheridan knocked on O’Regan’s office door. He showed O’Regan his new drink in a stemmed glass and asked, ‘How about that for eye appeal?’

O’Regan answered, ‘Genius, Chef!’

And so Irish coffee was born.

It continued to be served to passengers at Foynes and visitors can still enjoy Irish Coffee in the Irish Coffee Centre at Foynes.

Joe Sheridan was born in 1909 in Castlederg, Co Tyrone, one of six sons. His family moved to Dublin after his father died. He worked in a restaurant in Dublin until 1943, when he applied for the job of chef at the airport in Foynes.

Sheridan’s crisp, concise application to Brendan O’Regan was simple and straight-forward: ‘Dear Sir, I’m the man for the job. Yours sincerely, Joe Sheridan.’

O’Regan later said that it was the impudence of Sheridan’s application that made him decide to arrange an interview. He hired Sheridan after they met.

But what happened to Joe Sheridan?

When Foynes closed in October 1945, Joe Sheridan and the rest of the catering staff moved across the Shannon Estuary to the new airport at Rineanna, Co Clare, now Shannon International Airport. There he continued to serve his Irish Coffee.

Stan Delaplane, a well-known journalist and travel writer, was travelling through Shannon Airport in 1951 when he was served an Irish coffee. By then, it had become the traditional welcoming drink at the airport.

When Delaplane returned to San Francisco, he told his friend Jack Koeppler of the Buena Vista café about the drink. The staff at Buena Vista tried to reproduce the drink, but it never came out quite right. Each time they tried it, they had a problem with the cream and could not get it to stay floating on the top.

Koeppler offered Sheridan a position at Buena Vista in 1952. The chef decided to emigrate to America and accept the job. Delaplane continued to popularise the drink by mentioning it frequently in his travel column.

Joe Sheridan died 10 years later in 1962, and is buried at Oakland Cemetery outside San Francisco.

Of course, although I never developed a taste for whiskey, I enjoy a double espresso each time I bring visitors to Foynes.

‘The stars enjoy Irish Coffee’ … telling the story at Foynes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)