St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick: newly discovered 19th Century Renovation Story

St Mary’s Cathedral 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. This year has marked the 850th year since its foundation, and to conclude a year of anniversary celebrations, the RCB Library in Dublin has published online a digital copy of a previously hidden 19th-century source documenting the story of its renovation between 1859 and 1863, together with detailed analysis of its content. The volume came up for sale a year ago, and with local financial support from the Bishop, diocese and cathedral the Library, which is the Church of Ireland’s record repository, was enabled to purchase it, accessioning it as Ms 1048 and working creatively to promote its content, thereafter.

Ms 1048 is effectively a scrapbook of original minutes, press-cuttings, subscription lists and other memorabilia related to conservation and rebuilding works that took place in the cathedral between 1859 and 1863. The volume further includes articles, reports, and accounts of funds of the renovations up to and including 1874. It was assembled by a certain John Armour Haydn, whose name and presumed ownership appears on the front cover of the book.

Cover of the volume assembled by a certain John Armour Haydn, © RCB Library Ms 1048

There are two possible creators of the volume – a father and a son. Haydn Sr. (1845-1920) was a canon, and also Treasurer (1906-1912), and Chancellor (1912-1913) of the cathedral in addition to being the Archdeacon of Limerick (1913-1918). It is probable that he compiled the text to record how his predecessors serving in the cathedral acquired funds and raised awareness of the structure. Alternatively, the name on the cover could also 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 authored a guidebook for visitors to St Mary’s in 1950, as well as a booklet on the 15th-century misericords of St Mary’s.

Whichever Haydn was responsible, as the online exhibition accompanying the digitzed copy makes clear, the volume is a Haydn creation of original materials dating from the time of restoration in 1859-1863, with some additional materials up to 1874. Whilst perhaps arranged into the volume at a later time, these are contemporary to the renovation work including even the original resolutions of the committee and trustees who oversaw the works. It thus makes a significant contribution to understanding the cathedral’s architectural history.

The title page of the volume contains an explanatory “preliminary statement” revealing why the mid-19th century restoration works were required in 1859. A committee had been formed in September of that year to oversee the erection of a suitable memorial to the late 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 Archbishop of Armagh (the Most Revd John Beresford), Lord Chelmsford, the Bishops of Limerick, Killaloe, and Oxford, as well as Florence Nightingale. However in the course of the works for the memorial, it was revealed that the roof over the chancel had become “imperfect and unsightly”, requiring urgent attention.

The preliminary statement outlining the rationale for the renovation works commencing in 1859, as contained on page 1 of RCB Library Ms 1048

Thus, the volume is a window on hidden history detailing the causes of the restoration and conservation – the parts of the fabric that were replaced, but also how the cathedral’s essential medieval features were salvaged, and how the funds were raised to cover extensive costs. It is sobering when leafing through the volume to learn of the many complications to the building projects, and challenges of fund-raising; nothing has changed for those who safeguard such buildings today.

The detailed analysis of the Haydn volume which accompanies the digitized content was carried out at the RCB Library by Matthieu Isbell, a first-class honours graduate of Trinity College Dublin, who spent a two-month intern placement there earlier this year. Speaking from the RCB Library, the Librarian and Archivist, Dr Susan Hood, comments: ‘We were delighted to give Matthieu an opportunity to learn about the varied collections here, and the Library benefited from his contribution and knowledge on a number of projects – including the detail in this previously unknown source.’

The Dean of St Mary’s cathedral, the Very Revd Niall Sloane, comments: ‘As we look back with thanksgiving for 850 years of service and Christian witness, we are reminded by this fascinating source that looking after it through the centuries has not been without 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 and 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 is not only fit for purpose for stranger and pilgrim; but ultimately, a beautiful and awe-inspiring place for the worship of God.’