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Renovation in St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, 1859 – 1874, Revealed by Previously Hidden Source

Renovation in St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, 1859 – 1874, Revealed by Previously Hidden Source

By Matthieu Isbell

The Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin in Limerick was founded in 1168 by King Domnhall Mor O’Brien, descendant of Brian Boru, and purportedly built on the site of the royal residence of the kings of Munster after it was given to the Church, according to Peter Galloway in The Cathedrals of Ireland. It has even been speculated that the cathedral’s Romanesque portal comes from the palatial home of the O’Brien family.

Romanesque portal (left) and view of the 14th-century tower (right) of St Mary's Cathedral, Limerick. Image courtesy of the Very Revd Niall Sloane, Dean of Limerick
Romanesque portal (left) and view of the 14th-century tower (right) of St Mary's Cathedral, Limerick. Image courtesy of the Very Revd Niall Sloane, Dean of Limerick

The beginning of the subsequent century saw the cathedral being renovated under the bishop Donat O’Brien, with further additions over the next four centuries, such as the current bell tower at the west end of the cathedral added in the 14th century. In the 17th century, the cathedral was despoiled by Cromwell’s New Model Army, whose soldiers destroyed the monument to the Earl of Thomond Donough O’Brien (d.1624), stole the 13th–century high altar (see box image above), sharpened their weapons on the western portal, and even stabled their horses in the cathedral.

The building was further damaged during the wars with William of Orange, but restorative work ensued in the 17th and 18th centuries, which work was then scorned as unbecoming of the cathedral’s originally Gothic style. William Ferrar in 1786 even went so far as to decry the internal ornamentation, like the Corinthian pillars around the communion table and the cathedra, as ‘Grecian architecture’ ruining the Gothic structure.

Thus, St Mary’s was not untouched by the 19th–century Gothic Revival, and architects from James Pain to William Bardwell to Sir Robert Bourke to William Slater to G.E. Street to J.F. Fuller all strove to renovate the cathedral and restore what they believed was truest to the original medieval style of the church. A volume recently acquired by the Representative Church Body Library with financial support from the bishop, diocese, and St Mary’s Cathedral, which has been accessioned as Ms 1048 in the Library’s extensive manuscript collection, highlights one part of that history from 1859 to 1863.

Cover of the volume created by John Armour Haydn (left) documenting the mid-19th century restoration of St Mary's Cathedral, with detail of the preliminary statement of the committee that undertook this work, RCB Library Ms 1048
Cover of the volume created by John Armour Haydn (left) documenting the mid-19th century restoration of St Mary's Cathedral, with detail of the preliminary statement of the committee that undertook this work, RCB Library Ms 1048

Although there is equally reference to the cathedral’s funds after 1863 going into 1874, the primary material of the volume, effectively a scrapbook of minutes, press–cuttings, subscription lists and other memorabilia is related to the construction projects of 1859–1863. It is a collection of articles, reports, and accounts of funds of the renovations within those five years, as compiled by a certain John Armour Haydn, whose name and presumed ownership appears on the front cover of the book. There are two possible creators of the volume – a father and a son. Haydn Sr. (1845–1920), who is commemorated by a stone memorial plaque in the cathedral, was the canon, treasurer (1906–1912), and chancellor (1912–1913) of the cathedral in addition to being the archdeacon of Limerick (1913–1918).

Memorial plaque to John Armour Haydn Snr (1845-1920) in St Mary's Cathedral, Limerick. Image courtesy of Philip Talbot
Memorial plaque to John Armour Haydn Snr (1845-1920) in St Mary's Cathedral, Limerick. Image courtesy of Philip Talbot

Haydn served the cathedral for 40 years, being the first secretary of the ‘Friends of St Mary’s’ and having donated £4,000 in total to the cathedral’s funds. The ‘Friends’ were set up to preserve and generate interest in St Mary’s. It is probable that, being a founding member of a group designed for that purpose, Haydn compiled the text to record how his predecessors serving in the cathedral acquired funds and raised awareness of the structure. A recurrent figure in the volume is one Robert O’Brien (1809–1870), a member of the aristocratic Inchiquin family of Limerick and a man devoted to the cathedral’s upkeep and coordinator of the restoration works from 1858 onwards, according to Lynda Mulvin. Robert O’Brien’s life may have elicited Haydn’s interest.

Early resolutions of the Trustees of the restoration project, as agreed on 12 October 1859, RCB Library Ms1048
Early resolutions of the Trustees of the restoration project, as agreed on 12 October 1859, RCB Library Ms1048

Alternatively, the name on the cover could refer to his son, John Armour Haydn Jr. (1881–1957), a secretary of the cathedral vestry from at least the 1930s. Haydn Jr. commissioned a model of St Mary’s which is still on display at the church, indicating his own interest in the architecture of St Mary’s that may have equally inspired him to research the history of St Mary’s renovations. Like his father, Haydn Jr. was passionate about the history of St Mary’s and advertising it to a wider audience, as evidenced by his authoring a historical survey on the cathedral’s bells for the Limerick Chronicle in 18 July 1936, in addition to a guidebook for visitors to St Mary’s in 1950, as well as a booklet on the 15th–century misericords of St Mary’s.

Front cover of J.A. Haydn Jnr's “Misericords” (the cathedral guidebook) as published in 1950, RCB Library printed collection
Front cover of J.A. Haydn Jnr's “Misericords” (the cathedral guidebook) as published in 1950, RCB Library printed collection

Coincidentally, we read in the Haydn scrapbook that Robert O’Brien asked the same Limerick Chronicle to advertise the antiquity of St Mary’s and the fact that it is one of the last surviving 12th–century Irish churches ‘not in ruins’ to generate public interest in the restoration works. Therefore, Haydn Jr., given his own interest in the cathedral’s history, is just as likely to have created the volume as his father and to have been inspired by Robert O’Brien’s commitment to St Mary’s. Haydn Jr.’s ownership of the volume is suggested by the address on the front cover which was his address according to letters elsewhere in the Library’s collection (RCB Library C4/).

Whichever Haydn was responsible, the volume is a Haydn creation, consisting of a combination of written notes and tables, newspaper cuttings, and letters from the people coordinating the cathedral’s restoration in 1859–1863. It is thus valuable in that it provides written evidence contemporary with the renovations. More importantly, the volume provides primary source evidence of the work done at St Mary’s at that time, which is especially necessary since much of what the architect in charge of the works, William Slater, intended in terms of furnishings and flooring was destroyed in the 1990s. Thus, the volume complements our understanding of the architectural history of the cathedral. A noticeable problem of the volume is that the top of its pages have been severely damaged, but without loss of information. Moreover, the volume is not in strict chronological order, suggesting a later compilation rather than a compilation contemporaneous with the restoration. For example, although there is a progression from 1859 to 1863, there are moments when the volume regresses. Thus, for instance, in pages 31 and 32, one reads an account of funds from July 1861 preceding an appeal for donations from October 1860. Page 43 shows a letter from September 1860, while page 47 shows a letter from the month before.

The stunning stained glass windows of St Mary's Cathedral, Limerick. Images courtesy of the Very Revd Niall Sloane, Dean of Limerick
The stunning stained glass windows of St Mary's Cathedral, Limerick. Images courtesy of the Very Revd Niall Sloane, Dean of Limerick
Details of the images in the new west window to be erected in memory of Sir Mathew Barrington, Baronet, who died on 1 April 1861, from RCB Library Ms 1048
Details of the images in the new west window to be erected in memory of Sir Mathew Barrington, Baronet, who died on 1 April 1861, from RCB Library Ms 1048

The Haydn manuscript teaches us the primary causes for the renovations in 1859–1863. Firstly, there was the intent to honour the memory of individual such as Augustus Stafford O’Brien Stafford (1811–1857), remembered for his care of wounded soldiers in the Crimean War. The construction of his memorial (the window on the east end) attracted donations from all over Great Britain and Ireland, as evidenced by the subscriptions paid by figures such as the Duke of Cambridge Prince George, the Lord Primate of Ireland John Beresford, Lord Chelmsford, the Bishops of Limerick, Killaloe, and Oxford, as well as Florence Nightingale. By 1860, the cathedral Chapter accrued £1556 for the memorial. Meanwhile, Sir Matthew Barrington (1786–1861), to honour his contributions to the development of the railway in Ireland, was memorialised with a window in the west end.

Finally, Thomas Westropp (d. 1839) received a memorial on the south transept window. All three windows were designed by Slater and Clayton & Bell. Even more notable is the fact that the construction of the east window required the expensive dismantling of another recently built window by James Pain in 1843. A descendant of the Arthur family even restored his family’s medieval funerary monument (see image below), as is revealed in the volume.

The medieval funerary monument of the Arthur family, which was restored during the mid-19th century restoration. Image courtesy of the Very Revd Niall Sloane, Dean of Limerick
The medieval funerary monument of the Arthur family, which was restored during the mid-19th century restoration. Image courtesy of the Very Revd Niall Sloane, Dean of Limerick

The Haydn manuscript details restoration and conservation as another cause for the works. This included repairing the cathedral’s oak ceiling, initially in the chancel and choir and then the rest of the nave ceiling. This was then followed by work done on the transept ceiling to ensure it corresponded with the nave. Through the manuscript, one equally reads of restorative work done on the floor of the cathedral due to damage from dampness, with further work done on the foundations of the east gable to preserve it from street water flowing underneath and compromising the soil. In addition to these projects were the reseating of the nave, renovating of the clerestory windows and opening of the cathedral’s archways, installation of carved oak canopies on the choir stalls, the displacement of the organ, and the recasting of one of the cathedral bells. However, the volume relates other construction projects that no longer exist. For instance, we read of a promised reredos for the Stafford memorial, which has been seemingly replaced by the chancel’s present reredos which was designed in 1907.

The restoration and conservation of the oak ceiling in the cathedral is recorded in detail in Haydn's manuscript, RCB Library Ms 1048
The restoration and conservation of the oak ceiling in the cathedral is recorded in detail in Haydn's manuscript, RCB Library Ms 1048

Another noteworthy element of the compilation’s account is the apparent Anglican apprehension at the recent Catholic cathedral of St John the Baptist in Limerick, built from 1856 to 1862, which was used to drive the restoration at St Mary’s. The Committee in charge of the renovations at St Mary’s appealed to the Protestant citizenry of Limerick for donations in 25 August 1860 and for the subsequent month by relating the recent construction of the Catholic cathedral and how the Catholic parishioners invested greatly into its construction (the appeal even referred to one lady investing £1000 into building the cathedral’s altar). The Committee’s donation appeal thus used the new Catholic cathedral to encourage the Protestant citizens of Limerick to further fund the work at St Mary’s, so that they would not be surpassed by the Catholic community in devotion to their ecclesiastic structures. Indeed, as Niamh NicGhabhann has suggested there was a sense of rivalry between the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church through the construction projects at St Mary’s, most likely engendered by Limerick’s Catholic cathedral being constructed in such close proximity to St Mary’s to emphasise its connection to the medieval cathedral. Thus, the renovation at St Mary’s served not only to restore the seven–century–old cathedral to a medieval style but also in response to Catholic construction projects in the city.

The erection of the new Catholic cathedral (left) was reported in the miscellaneous appeal literature (right) contained in RCB Library Ms 1048
The erection of the new Catholic cathedral (left) was reported in the miscellaneous appeal literature (right) contained in RCB Library Ms 1048

Furthermore, the volume shows us another interesting element of the 1859–1863 renovations. Robert O’Brien’s aforementioned petition to the Limerick Chronicle in September 1859 emphasised the desire to restore St Mary’s based on ‘early Irish Gothic architecture’ and even believed that many people beyond Limerick, ‘on national grounds, would contribute to preserve a building of such antiquity’. Another letter from before November 1859 primarily appealed to the inhabitants of the diocese and county of Limerick, describing King Donal as ‘a brave defender of the rights of his country’. Therefore, one infers from the compilation that those coordinating the construction work at St Mary’s, in trying to raise funds, appealed to patriotism and the cathedral’s antiquity. This reflects the connection between the Gothic Revival and national identity in Europe at the time as NicGhabhann has also suggested. Moreover, this further reflects the aforementioned competition with the Catholic Church in Ireland, since the Irish Church derived its legitimacy from the purportedly independent missions of St Patrick as well as its control of the medieval ecclesiastical buildings in Ireland. Thus, it was necessary to preserve the ancient structures for their continued use by the Church of Ireland. As one enters 1860, the appeals reached out to a wider British audience, as evidenced by an appeal from October 1860, where the cathedral is described as ‘one of the most interesting Ecclesiastical Structures in the Empire’ and ‘one of the most Ancient Churches in the United Kingdom’.

The Haydn volume reveals a variety of innovative fund-raising efforts, including the Ladies' Subscription Fund which includes the names of the leading female members of Limerick society, mid-19th century, RCB Library Ms 1048
The Haydn volume reveals a variety of innovative fund-raising efforts, including the Ladies' Subscription Fund which includes the names of the leading female members of Limerick society, mid-19th century, RCB Library Ms 1048

Another way in which the volume’s content helps us understand the renovations at St Mary’s in 1859–1863 is in the various complications surrounding the projects. One especial problem was the never–ending challenge of finance. Both the Committee and the cathedral’s Chapter which commissioned it were in continuous need of funds to support the construction projects at St Mary’s. This is evidenced by the aforementioned fact that appeals for donations were extended beyond Ireland but also to people in the United Kingdom, because appeals were made to as many people as possible, instead of simply the local populace of County Limerick. Before that time, we see evidence of financial complications. A report dated 24 August 1860 explains that while the ‘Chancel and Roof Restoration Programme’ were completed, the Chapter’s funds were exhausted and an additional £400 were required to fund a new screen and other fittings for the cathedral. Attempts were made to raise funds through a ‘Fancy Fair’ in Limerick in early September 1860, but due to a low turnout, explained by the absence of many people from Limerick around that time, only £117 were raised.

Notice of the Fancy Fair held in September 1860 which raised further modest funds towards the restoration, RCB Library Ms 1048
Notice of the Fancy Fair held in September 1860 which raised further modest funds towards the restoration, RCB Library Ms 1048

Further complications in the restoration work at the cathedral seemed to stem from some indifference. A letter dated 17 August 1860 by Captain Frederick Brine, published in the Limerick Chronicle, complained that of all his acquaintances, Robert O’Brien and Lord Limerick were ‘the only ones who appeared to take any active interest in the old edifice’, implying that few people were actively interested in the cathedral. Moreover, the same letter relates a moment where Captain Brine suggested raising £2000 for the restoration works through subscriptions of £10 from 200 people each, which idea was not only repeatedly dismissed by everyone except Robert O’Brien but even when undertaken ‘a tolerable sum was collected, but not, as hoped for, £2000’. Thus, not only was Brine’s suggestion dismissed for being unrealistic, but even when implemented not enough people contributed to it. An anonymous author (‘Venerator’) of 25 August 1860 even declared that ‘no Cathedral in Ireland has hitherto met with greater neglect’. Even the £533 accrued for the Barrington memorial fell short of the estimated £620 needed to construct it. These financial complications are all the more significant because they happen even before the Church of Ireland’s disestablishment in 1870, showing the precarious monetary situation in which some Irish Church establishments found themselves even before being officially disendowed by the British government. It was certainly of no help that the cathedrals of the Irish Church were denied access to funds that were otherwise invested into restorations of the parish churches, which explains the continued appeal for donations in the Haydn manuscript. What exacerbated the complications in the works at St Mary’s was a lack of coordination between the Dean and the Trustees. One especially notes this in the volume when the Dean commissioned a reseating of the nave, costing £160, without communicating with the Trustees.

The volume also brings to light otherwise hidden contemporary press coverage of the restoration, such as the letter of Captain Frederick Brine, as published in the Limerick Chronicle, 17 August 1860, RCB Library Ms 1048
The volume also brings to light otherwise hidden contemporary press coverage of the restoration, such as the letter of Captain Frederick Brine, as published in the Limerick Chronicle, 17 August 1860, RCB Library Ms 1048

During 2018 St Mary’s Cathedral has celebrated its 850th anniversary of continued service since its foundation in 1168. The current dean, the Very Revd Niall Sloane comments: “As we look back with thanksgiving for 850 years of service and Christian witness, we are reminded that this was not without its challenges…

…Today we embark on new chapter in the history of St Mary’s where the preservation, conservation and restoration of the building must be seen in the light of current legislation, health & safety requirements, visitor as well as worshipper needs…

“…We are heartened and encouraged that thanks to the generosity of the community as a whole we should be in a position to hand the Cathedral onto the next generation that it not only fit for purpose for stranger and pilgrim; but ultimately, a beautiful and awe inspiring place for the worship of God.”

For further information go to: www.saintmaryscathedral.ie/history

To view the fully digitized copy of the Haydn volume (RCB Library Ms 1048) capturing the challenges of the 19th–century restoration click here.

Mid-19th century promotional flier for the restoration, containing cathedral history, RCB Library Ms 1048
Mid-19th century promotional flier for the restoration, containing cathedral history, RCB Library Ms 1048