02 December 2017

A Limerick college that began
life as the County Infirmary

Limerick College of Further Education … a bright architectural feature on Mulgrave Street, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I was writing earlier today about my visit on Friday to Boru House on Mulgrave Street, Limerick, the birthplace of the celebrated Limerick writer Kate O’Brien.

People in the property business have said that one of the difficulties in selling Boru House in the past decade was that this was very middle class house in a part of Limerick that was anything but middle class. When the house was built it faced a hospital complex, a barracks and prison, and was close to the Country Infirmary on Mulgrave Street.

Originally Mulgrave Street was known as the New Cork Road. It was renamed to honour Constantine Henry Phipps(1797-1863), Marquess of Normanby, who, as the 2nd Earl of Mulgrave (1831-1838) was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1835-1839). Later he was the Home Secretary (1839-1841) and the British Ambassador to France (1846-1852).

He was a direct descendant of an illegitimate daughter of James II through the Annesley family of Co Wexford, and was an outspoken supporter of Catholic Emancipation. While he was the Viceroy of Ireland, Lord Mulgrave opened the new Wellesley Bridge in Limerick in 1835, and was feted afterwards at Cruise’s Royal Hotel. The bridge is now known as Sarsfield Bridge.

On a visit to Co Wexford the following year (1836), he heard a congratulatory address in Yola, the ancient language of the Barony Forth and Bargy, then on the point of extinction. In Saint Werburgh’s Church in inner-city Dublin there is a plaque recalling John Mulgrave, a captured black African slave who was rescued from the slave-trading ship after a shipwreck and brought by the Earl of Mulgrave to Dublin, where he died of smallpox in 1838.

The Limerick College of Further Education, which stands directly opposite Limerick Prison, is one of the bright impressive buildings on Mulgrave Street, Limerick. But this was once a grim looking building. The original County Infirmary was founded in 1759 by Sylvester O’Halloran, and a new County Infirmary was built in 1811 on this site on Mulgrave Street, when it was still the New Cork Road.

In his History of Limerick in 1827, the Revd Patrick FitzGerald refers to it as the New County Hospital. That year, the hospital was visited by Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), the Quaker prison reformer, and her brother Joseph John Gurney (1788-1847), with John Jebb, the Church of Ireland Bishop of Limerick.

The visitors were gratified with the good order and cleanliness of the hospital. At the same time, they also visited the gaol and the workhouse.

The lower floor of the hospital was occupied by the hall, board room, surgery, kitchen and other apartments. Two upper floors contained ten wards for male patients and six for female patients. The hospital had a resident surgeon and served Limerick city and county until the 1950s.

The building is an important part of Limerick’s social history. Architecturally, it has an important front block with fine stucco architectural detailing to the window surrounds and it has a fine Doric porch.

This is a detached, nine-bay, three-storey rendered building, with a central breakfront and a single-storey porch to the front. There are also two six-bay, three-storey wings to the east and west, built in the decades between 1930 and 1960, and a seven-bay three-storey building to the east, built around 1920, as well as a number of prefabricated structures and a 1940s air raid shelter in the grounds.

There are square-headed window openings throughout the building, with stucco surrounds to the front elevation, a pediment entablature to the ground floor openings, and segmental pediments to the first floor windows.

The tetrastyle Doric entrance porch has three-quarters engaged columns supporting the entablature.

The building continued to serve Limerick City and County as the County Infirmary until the 1950s. By then it was a grim looking building, and it closed its doors as a hospital for the last time in 1958, when the Limerick Regional Hospital opened at Dooradoyle.

This building became a school in 1961. Later it became the Limerick School of Commerce, then Limerick Senior College, and today it is the Limerick College of Further Education. The Limerick School of Music shares the campus.

The former County Infirmary on Mulgrave Street is now Limerick College of Further Education (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Limerick house where
Kate O’Brien was born
still looks sad and forlorn

Boru House on Mulgrave Street, Limerick … Kate O’Brien was born here 120 years ago on 3 December 1897 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Boru House has a distinctive but forlorn looking presence on Mulgrave Street in the centre of Limerick. This detached, two-storey, red-brick Victorian house was built in 1880, and is an impressive work of architecture: it is a large detached, two-storey, red-brick Victorian house and originally it had many period features.

The house is known not only for its architectural eccentricities, but because the writer Kate O’Brien was born here 120 years ago on 3 December 1897. Kathleen Mary Louise O’Brien was one of the 10 children of Tom O’Brien and Catherine Thornhill who lived here. Her mother died when she was five, and she was a boarder in Laurel Hill Convent on South Circular Road, Limerick, from 1903 to 1916.

She was a journalist with the Guardian in the 1920s. Her first novel, Without My Cloak (1931), is a chronicle of middle-class Irish life. Its theme would be constant throughout her novels, namely the struggle – particularly the struggle of Irish women – for individual freedom and love against the constricting demands of family, bourgeois society and what were then ccepted as Catholic values.

Like Pamela O’Malley, the Limerick-born writer I was discussing yesterday, she also lived for a time in Spain, and was a vocal critic of Franco’s fascist dictatorship. Her Farewell Spain (1937) led to her being banned from Franco’s Spain.

Her later novels included The Ante-Room (1934), Mary Lavelle (1936), Pray for the Wanderer (1938), The Land of Spices (1941) and The Last of Summer (1943). Many were seen at the time as too explicit in their discussions of women’s sexuality and were banned in Ireland.

Her most successful novel was probably That Lady (1946), set in 16th century Spain. In 1951, she published a short biography of Saint Teresa of Avila.

Meanwhile, Kate O’Brien had returned to Ireland in 1950. She settled in Roundstone, Co Galway, where she wrote The Flower of May (1953) and As Music and Splendour (1958), set in the world of 19th century Italian opera. In 1962, she published My Ireland, an idiosyncratic pen-portrait similar t0 her earlier Farewell Spain. A few years later, she returned to England in 1965. There she contributed a column to The Irish Times from 1967 to 1971. She died in Faversham, near Canterbury, on 13 August 1974.

In August 2005, Penguin reissued her final novel, As Music and Splendour (1958), which had been out of print for decades.

The crest from the O’Brien coat-of-arms on the gable breakfront reads ‘Boru House AD 1880’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Boru House was built by the writer’s grandfather Thomas O’Brien. He was from Kilfinane, Co Limerick, and when he was evicted in 1852 he moved to Limerick City, set himself up as a horse dealer, and become a wealthy horse breeder and supplier of horses to the army and gentry.

In 1880, he built Boru House on Mulgrave Street as his family home, and used the large open space of land behind the house for stabling and exercising his horses.

This is a detached, six-bay, two-storey polychrome red brick building, with a single-bay two-storey gabled entrance breakfront to the middle third bay and a three-sided canted bay window to the west. The red brick faced fa├žade is laid in English garden wall bond with limestone ashlar platpands.

The middle bay is surmounted by a limestone arm holding a sword, the heraldic emblem on the O’Brien family crest. The raised lettering on the limestone platbands of the gable breakfront reads ‘Boru House AD 1880.’

One of the two cast-iron gates at Boru House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

At the front of the house, there is a red brick wall with limestone coping, cast-iron railings and two cast-iron gates.

Beside the house, on its west side and facing onto the street, is a red-brick carriage arch. A limestone name plaque above the gabled tympanum that reads: ‘M. O’Brien.’

Kate O’Brien’s father, Thomas O’Brien, died in 1916, and Boru House was sold by the O’Brien family to the Lloyd family in 1919.

The carriage arch has a limestone plaque on the gabled tympanum that reads ‘M O’Brien’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

A decade ago, there were hopes that the house would become a writers’ centre. It had been on the market for three years through John de Courcy estate agents in Limerick, with an initial asking price of €1.4 million. The Lloyd family who owned the house, were hoping the house would reach considerably more, but over three years there was little interest and no keen buyers.

The house was described then has having seven bedrooms, with four extra rooms in the attic space, and a total floor area of 36,023 sq ft, with extensive gardens to the rear.

But estate agents said at the time that the problem was that this is a middle class house in an area that is not a middle class residential suburb. It is directly opposite Saint Joseph’s Hospital, and close to Limerick Prison.

By 2008, the house was said to be ‘near a state of dereliction’ and falling into disrepair. A month later the house was damaged by two fires within hours of each other, and there were reports of vandalism and visible neglect. Both the Limerick leader and the Limerick Post reported it looked more like a condemned structure than a protected listed building.

The acts of vandalism continued to be repeated, and despite continued pleas, negotiations and feasibility reports, Limerick City Council did not buy out the owners. Despite the collapse in the property market in the intervening years, the asking price remained at €1.4 million.

The asking price dropped eventually to €350,000 and the house was sold to a private buyer early in 2012, reportedly for around €85,000, perhaps as little as €80,000. Later, the Limerick Leader named the new owner of Boru House as David Fitzgerald.

There were promises at the time of a full restoration, including the interior plasterwork and fitting and the railings and cast-iron work outside, and turning the house into a writers’ centre or museum.

Instead, the house has been divided into apartments, and once again it looks sad and neglected despite all the plans and hopes of recent decades.

Two plaques commemorating Kate O’Brien at Boru House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

But Kate O’Brien was honoured about two months ago with a plaque at the house where she was born and grew up. The Limerick Writers’ Centre and Limerick Civic Trust organised the commemoration of Kate O’Brien in October as part of a larger plan to create a Limerick Literary Trail.

Kate O’Brien’s papers are now held in the Glucksman Library at the University of Limerick.

Boru House has a distinctive but forlorn looking presence on Mulgrave Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)