21 May 2024

Bourke’s House: a chapter in
a new local history book on
Athlunkard Street in Limerick

The Bourke House or Castle Friary … one of the oldest surviving houses on King’s Island, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I missed the lauunch of Denis O’Shaughnessy’s new book on the history of Athlunkard Street, Limerick, which was launched in Limerick last month while I was in Crete. The book marks the bicentenary of the opening of the street and as part of the Athlunkard Street 200th anniversary celebrations.

The Story of Athlunkard Street 1824-2024 by Denis O’Shaughnessy (Limerick: 2024) was launched in Saint Mary’s RFC clubhouse by Councillor Conor Sheehan on Friday 19 April 2024. The evening included readings and music. The book sells at €15 in Saint Mary’s Credit Union office and in McMahons Butcher. Proceeds are going to Saint Mary’s Branch Vincent de Paul.

My four-page contribution to this new resource on local history in Limerick is:

Bourke’s House

Patrick Comerford

Local lore says that Bourke House (top of Athlunkard Street) is as old as Saint Mary’s Cathedral, and that it was built ca 1168 by Domhnall Mór O Brien, after he donated his palace as the site for Saint Mary’s Cathedral.

However, the name of the house and its remains date from a much later period. Bourke House probably received its name from John Bourke, a Roman Catholic alderman who owned the house and lived there in 1641. The house was listed in 1654 in the Cromwellian ‘Civil Survey’ of Limerick City as the house of William Bourke of Limicke [sic] Irish Papist. During the Penal Laws, Bourke House was used as a Franciscan friary from 1730 to 1780, so that the house was also known as the Castle Friary.

Much of the original mediaeval house was demolished in 1824 to allow the construction of Athlunkard Street. The name Athlunkard comes from the Irish Ath an Longphuirt, ‘the town of the naval fortress.’ After the demolition of the Walls of Limerick in 1760, the new bridge became an economic and social necessity with demands to expand the city into the surrounding countryside.

The new street and new bridge were improvements that were much needed in Limerick in the first decades of the 19th century. The project followed immediately after Wellesley Bridge – now known as Sarsfield Bridge – and opened up new sites for housing development.

Athlunkard Bridge opened another route from the city into Co Clare. It was the first of the Limerick bridges designed by the Pain brothers, and was soon followed by Baal’s Bridge, replacing an older bridge in 1829, and Thomond Bridge in 1838. Only one wall of Bourke House survived this major development in town planning in Limerick, with the internal façade facing onto Athlunkard Street. Work began on laying out Athlunkard Street on 26 April 1824. The new road cut through two mediaeval houses on Mary Street that had been built in the style of fortified tower houses. One of these houses was fully demolished, while only the north gable of Bourke House remained.

Athlunkard Street by-passed Sir Harry’s Mall and George’s Quay and opened up a direct route into Newtown Pery through Bridge Street and the New Bridge that was rebuilt in 1844-1846 as Mathew Bridge.

In 1860, a Gothic-style drinking fountain was inserted into the façade of the building as a gift to the city by the Malcolmson family. A section of Bourke House survives to this day with the interior of the house gable facing onto Athlunkard Street. Preservation work on the house was carried out by Limerick Civic Trust through a FAS Teamwork Scheme in 1989.

The Gothic-style drinking fountain inserted into the façade of Bourke House in 1860 was a gift to the city by the Malcolmson family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Another view

Seamus O Cinneide, historian and columnist in the Limerick Leader, wrote a series in that newspaper headed Photonotes of Old Limerick. In the edition of 20/11/1982, he traced the history of Bourke’s Castle or House, portion of which is still extant at the top of Athlunkard Street, as follows:

The remains are of a medieval castle, which according to the Civil Survey of 1651, was the residence of Alderman John Bourke, of St. Mary’s Parish, Limerick City. The ruins today are seen between Devane’s Pub and Pal Electronics premises at the head of Athlunkard Street. While the historic site is popularly called Bourke’s Castle, the medieval building was really a tower town house – a fortified residence.

From its many robistic handsome fortified medieval residences of this type, Limerick was called “Limerick of the Castles. ”They were the residences of Limerick’s urban aristocrats or rich merchants after the 1169 invasion of the Normans to the Treaty of 1691.

Citizens of lesser ranks lived in wickerwork and clay plaster type dwellings known in Gaelic as ciseachs. Both types are listed in the Civil List of 1641. (Ciseach is closely related to the Gaelic word cisean: a wickerwork basket).

The Bourkes or Burkes came as de Burgos with the Normans in 1169 in Limerick City. Herbert de Burgho (who died in 1250) was a distinguished bishop of Limerick. He was one of the “Six Prelates” buried at St Saviour’s great Dominican Priory on the King’s Island of the city. He was commemorated in a Latin verse on a sepulchral monument at that medieval priory.

The de Burgh’s became Gaelicised as de Burca’s. They were Lords of Catleconnell. Becoming “more Irish than the Irish”, the de Burca’s, Lords of Claonghlas (now Springfield) near Dromcollogher, in West Limerick, were patron hosts of a Bardic School of Poets. Their most famous “Poet Laureate” was Daithi O Bruadair who idolized General Patrick Sarsfield who defended Limerick against the English Williamite forces.

The de Burca’s were mostly faithful to the Catholic Faith after the Reformation. Sir John Burke of Brittas Castle near Murroe was hanged in Limerick for sheltering a Catholic priest in Elizabethan times.

In 1824 a road to link Limerick City with the “salubrious suburbs of Corbally”, as described by Maurice Lenihan, the famous historian, who described that “across the Abbey River area was cut through the mediaeval Roche castle at the head of what’s now Athlunkard Street.

The façade is of exceptional interest to students of historical architecture. The “v” shaped corbels – which supported the floor beams of the mediaeval residcence – can be seen high up on the façade.

In the romantic conservationist 19 th century manner the corbels – flagged by flag stones - support an assembly of surplus stones from the original building.

Typical medieval recesses can also be seen. There is a large one at the extreme right lower end.

A delightful (sadly inoperational) water fountain was erected into the wall of the castle, a relic of the times before Limerick citizens had a Corporation water supply. An inscription says it was erected in 1860 and adds an appeal “to protect what is erected for your benefit.” The arch around the water fountain is coruscated as is the upper arch. Above the upper arch’s keystone another inscription tells us “This drinking fountain erected AD 1860.”

A final reminder, it’s the inside wall if a medieval tower house you see at the head of Athlunkard Street. Also, about twenty years ago, during work to install new machinery at Tubridy’s Bakery premises (now occupied by Pal Electronics) some vaulted medieval cellars – with broken wine bottle fragments of the same era – were uncovered. The medieval wine bottle fragments – thought to be of French type – weren’t surprising as Limerick (like other Irish coastal cities) shipped its wine in from continental European cities like Bordeaux.

The Story of Athlunkard Street 1824-2024 by Denis O’Shaughnessy (Limerick: 2024) was published in April 2024, to mark the bicentenary of the opening of the street and as part of the Athlunkard Street 200th anniversary celebrations. The book was launched in Saint Mary’s RFC clubhouse by Councillor Conor Sheehan at 8 pm on Friday 19 April 2024. The evening included readings and music. The book sells at €15 in Saint Mary’s Credit Union office and in McMahons Butcher. Proceeds are going to Saint Mary’s Branch Vincent de Paul.

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
13, 21 May 2024

The Empress Helen depicted in a fresco in the Church of Saint Constantine and Saint Helen in Rethymnon, Crete … she is commemorated on 21 May (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The 50-day season of Easter came to an end on Sunday with the Day of Pentecost (19 May 2024). The Church Calendar has returned to Ordinary Time, which continues until Advent, and the liturgical colour returns to green.

This week, between the Day of Pentecost and Trinity Sunday next Sunday (26 May 2024), my morning reflections include the daily Gospel reading, the prayer in the USPG prayer diary, and the prayers in the Collects and Post-Communion Prayer of the day.

Today, the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers the Empress Helena (330), Protector of the Holy Places.

The Empress Helena came to power in the Roman Empire when her son Constantine became Emperor, in the year 306. Although she had previously been abandoned by her husband, her son raised her to a position of great honour.

Helena was a Christian, and in the year 326 she made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There she helped to found the building of a basilica on the Mount of Olives and another at Bethlehem. According to fourth century historians, she discovered the cross on which Christ was crucified.

In the Eastern Church, she is commemorated on this day, together with her son Constantine.

Before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Mark 9: 37) … a window in Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, commemorating Catherine Browne of the Friary, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Mark 9: 30-37 (NRSVUE):

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it, 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33 Then they came to Capernaum, and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them, and taking it in his arms he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

The Emperor Constantine and his mother, Saint Helena, with the True Cross … a fresco in Analipsi Church in Georgioupoli, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Tuesday 21 May 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Pentecost Reflection.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with a Reflection by the Revd Duncan Dormor, USPG General Secretary.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (21 May 2024) invites us to pray:

Lord we pray for the Global Church and for the Anglican Communion – may we move forward in peace and unity.

The Collect:

O Lord, from whom all good things come:
grant to us your humble servants,
that by your holy inspiration
we may think those things that are good,
and by your merciful guiding may perform the same;
through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Gracious God, lover of all,
in this sacrament
we are one family in Christ your Son,
one in the sharing of his body and blood
and one in the communion of his Spirit:
help us to grow in love for one another
and come to the full maturity of the Body of Christ.
We make our prayer through your Son our Saviour.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The discovery of the True Cross … an image above the door into the funeral chapel at Analipsi Church in Georgioupoli, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

The Church of Saint Constantine and Saint Helen … a modern, neo-Byzantine church above the bus station in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)