10 January 2018

A visit to a private chapel in
a house in Georgian Limerick

Inside the private chapel built by the O’Mara family in the former Hartstonge House in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

I was invited into a hidden and almost-forgotten late Victorian chapel in Limerick yesterday when I visited Ozanam House, the Limerick offices of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.

Ozanam House, which was once known as Hartstonge House, is a tall narrow town house, with no garden, standing alone at the Pery Square end of Hartstonge Street, with the former Leamy School, now the Frank McCourt Museum, on one side, and the other side a laneway that runs between the house and the Mechanics’ Institute.

The house was built about 1840, and from the 1860s to the1880s, it was the home of the Harris family, the proprietors of Harris’s Bakery in Henry Street. Later members of this family included the actor Richard Harris.

Stephen O’Mara (1844-1926) bought Hartstonge House from the Harris family and moved into the house from Roche’s Street in 1886. Politically, Stephen O’Mara was a strong supporter of Parnell. He was a town councillor in Limerick, Mayor of Limerick (1885 and 1886), Home Rule MP for Queen’s County Ossory (1886), but he did not stand in the next election.

Ozanam House was built as Hartstonge House around 1840 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

That year, the O’Mara family, who made their wealth from their bacon factory on 30 Roche’s Street, moved into Hartstonge House, and later built a private chapel in a return room at the second floor.

Stephen O’Mara continued to be politically active: he was High Sheriff of Limerick City in 1888, became an alderman, and was present at Parnell’s deathbed in Brighton in 1891.

At the 1901 census, the house had 13 rooms, with 10 windows at the front of the house, two coal cellars and assorted out-buildings. The O’Mara family continued to live in the house until about 1909, when the family moved to Strand House. Stephen O’Mara was a senator in the new Senate of the Irish Free State from September 1925 until he died on 26 July 1926.

A plaque on the front of the house says Stephen O’Mara’s brother, Joseph O’Mara (1864-1927), the opera singer, lived there: ‘Joseph O’Mara (1866-1927) The Internationally famed Operatic Tenor lived here. He formed his own company in 1912 and starred in many acclaimed productions. He was a Freeman of Limerick.’

The tenor Joseph O’Mara, who has been described as ‘the Irish Caruso,’ was born in Limerick on 16 July 1864, and educated at the Crescent. As a child, he sang in the choir at Saint Michael’s Church, Denmark Street, and later went on to become ‘the leading Irish tenor before the arrival of John McCormack.’

He was granted the Freedom of Limerick in 1908. To mark the occasion, he sang from the balcony of Hartstonge House to a huge crowd gathered on the street below. His last public appearance was at concerts in March 1927 to celebrate 700 years of the Dominicans in Limerick. He died on 5 August 1927 at his home, Glenmore, 14 Ailesbury Park, Dublin. When he was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery on 8 August 1927, the Limerick city flag flew at half-mast at the town hall.

The house now houses the Limerick offices and facilities of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, which has renamed it Ozanam House after the founder of the society, and the name Hartstonge House is used by another house on the street.

The Gothic-style screen survives in the former chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The statues and the altar from the private chapel of the O’Mara family were donated to the Jesuits in 1920, and the former chapel is now used as an office. However, the Gothic-style wooden and glass screen still survives, and during my private visit to chapel yesterday, I could see niches where statues once stood on each side of the altar.

Back outside, as I stood at the Leamy School and then in the laneway between Ozanam House and the Mechanics Institute, I could see the three limestone arched windows at the back of the building on each side of the former chapel.

The windows of the former chapel seen from the Leamy School (Photograph; Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The windows of the former chapel seen from the laneway beside the Mechanics’ Institute (Photograph; Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The house is a freestanding, four-storey over basement townhouse built ca 1840. Apart from the chapel, it is distinguished by a three-centre arched door opening and a fine Adam-style cast-iron balcony with quadrant sides on the first floor. There are cast-iron balconettes on the second floor, and nursery rails at the third floor. The red brick walls are laid in Flemish bond with cement repointing.

The three-centred arch door opening has bull nose moulded patent reveals, and an inset doorcase with full Ionic columns rising from the limestone ashlar plinth bases and supporting a plain entablature with plain fanlight with lettering: ‘St. Vincent de Paul Society.’

Inside, the house still has its original late Georgian floor plan and many original features, including joinery detailing, marble chimneypieces, and vine leaf and grape enriched cast decorative plasterwork. There is encaustic tilework in the stair hall and entrance hall, and the original staircase has attenuated turned timber balusters on a pear-shaped base, and carved tread ends.

This fine house appears to be contemporary with the nearby Tontine terrace of houses around the corner in Pery Square, which may indicate that James Pain was the architect. If it was intended as part of a terrace, this was never completed. Nevertheless, it forms a superb termination of the southern vista of Catherine Street.

The impressive doorcase with its Ionic columns rising from the limestone ashlar plinth bases (Photograph; Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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