Portrait of a city
A fascinating new publication featuring paintings, sketches and the earliest detailed maps of Limerick will shed light on the development of the city and the events that shaped it, writes Jennifer Moore
HAVE you ever wondered why the heart of Limerick city today is not centred on its historic foundations at St Mary's Cathedral as a Viking port in the tenth century?
Or why the city held such strategic importance in the seventeenth-century turmoil when Limerick citizens endured three sieges?
Or what the city may have looked like if its walls and gates were not taken down in the mid-eighteenth century?
The answers to all these questions, and more, can be found in the Royal Irish Academy's
latest publication, 'Irish Historic Towns Atlas, No. 21, Limerick' by Eamon O'Flaherty
The publication offers a fascinating insight into the city's development over the centuries and the major events that shaped it.
The atlas comes in two main parts: large loose sheets of maps and views of Limerick and a text section containing an essay describing the urban development of the city from its Viking foundations to the start of the 20th century.
Several thematic maps project Viking and medieval Limerick onto a modern map, pinpointing sites such as the original Viking longport near Athlunkard, the Frank House of Knight's Templar, or the long since disappeared, St Nicholas's Church.
There is also an extensive gazetteer of topographical information that breaks down into 22 sections that range from population, to the street names, factories, areas of primary production, hospitals, entertainment and residences, for example.
To accompany the text, and help bring Limerick's urban history to life, there are 27 historical and reconstructed maps and 12 views and photographs of Limerick depicting its growth, shape and importance as a trading post and one of military significance.
This work on Limerick is the fruit of many years of research by author and Limerick man, Dr Eamon O'Flaherty, a former Crescent student who now lectures in UCD.
The atlas traces the complicated histories of Limerick's three distinct urban cores: the Viking and Anglo-Norman Englishtown located on King's Island; the medieval Irishtown off the axis of Broad Street and John Street; and the Georgian Newtown Pery where today's city is concentrated.
Limerick is exceptionally well endowed in terms of illustrations, maps, plans and accounts of the city. The three earliest maps are from about 1590, pre-dating Dublin's earliest known map by 20 years.
Each map, varying in style, captures Elizabethan Limerick and shows individual houses, gardens, as well as the defences and religious houses. The originals are to be found in Hunt Museum, Trinity College Dublin and the National Archives in London, so it is fascinating to be able to compare each of these cartographic wonders side by side.
Common to each is the characteristic hourglass shape of Limerick city that continues through to the late eighteenth century. On closer examination of the beautifully crafted Hardiman map (TCD), a windmill and a hound may be seen chasing a bird in Irishtown; such details as these will entrance history lovers.
When compared to the later eighteenth-century maps and plans, the development of the three urban cores in the city is quite apparent.
Other sources, such as the Civil Survey, commissioned by the Cromwellian government and completed in 1654, supplies the basis for a detailed reconstructed map of mid-seventeenth century Limerick.
It provides the reader with a snap shot of the city that highlights the different types of houses and cabins, and also positions the mills, forges and tan houses of early modern Limerick.
Much of the information from the early religious churches of the city have been taken from the famous Black Book of Limerick. It records churches such as St John's dating back to 1200. The later thirteenth-century Dominicans, Augustinians and Franciscans built their substantial religious houses on the west side of King's Island.
King John's Castle has always featured prominently on the urban landscape of Limerick and has had many functions through its near 800 year history, and was even granted to the citizens for ten years in 1427.
The castle, while domineering at times, proved to be expensive for the crown to maintain with many enhancements added to it over the centuries, as it had to withstand many assaults, sieges and undermining.
The walls of Limerick, dating to c. 1175, have been vitally important to the protection of its citizens over the centuries. They were constantly being rebuilt, extended and strengthened up to the late seventeenth century when the city was famously besieged in 1690 and 1691.
Limerick was one of the last fortresses in Ireland to have its walls removed in the 1760s. The city was expanding and needed more space for its growing population.
It was at this point when a new town, adjacent to the medieval one, was planned out by Edmond Sexton Pery, a prominent politician.
He inherited vast tracts around the city and commissioned Christopher Colles to plan a new town on his land that became known as Newtown Pery.
This sparked a flurry of building on the grid system to specifications akin to the Georgian developments in Dublin and London, and still characteristic to Limerick today.
Important buildings, such as the Custom House (now the Hunt Museum), the Matthew Bridge and the canal were built on his land. All of which improved communication and transport to Newtown Pery.
Added incentives for people to move from Englishtown and Irishtown were lower taxes, better amenities, modern housing, drainage and entertainment facilities. The Newtown was even governed by a separate body for nearly 40 years, and Limerick became the second fastest growing city in Ireland after Belfast until about 1830.
In no other town in Ireland can the divide between medieval lanes and winding streets and the grid system be seen so clearly. Colles's extraordinary plan of the city is reproduced in colour in the atlas and shows Limerick at the dawn of its greatest change â€“ shifting the heart of the city from King's Island to Pery's land.
In terms of the various factories in the city, Limerick proved to be a bustling trading post. From mills dating back to 1,200 the city had countless granaries, stores and warehouses earning it the epithet 'The granary of North Munster'.
The nineteenth century saw a number of bacon curing factories dotted around the city including Matterson's and Shaw's. Limerick also had many markets around the city, the first documented in 1108.
The printing trade is well represented in the city, the earliest known printer was established by 1673. However, it did not become a popular trade to enter until the later eighteenth century when large numbers of printers established newspapers and printing houses, notably on the corner of Bridge Street and Mary Street where John Ferrar's Limerick Chronicle was founded in 1768, the Republic's longest running newspaper. Indeed the Leader's Office is recorded on a detailed insurance map of the city from 1897.
Longstanding Limerick institutions such as Cruises Hotel, and Todds and Cannock's department stores feature in the atlas. Their histories are traced as drapery stores in the early nineteenth century to their expansive department stores by 1900.
In the entertainment section of the gazetteer, we learn of the numerous theatres, club houses and dance halls that were the social focal point for Limerick people from the eighteenth century.
The sporting element of the city was also present in the nineteenth century with numerous gymnasiums, tennis and ball courts, bicycle, athletics, rowing and tennis clubs all forming in the second half of the nineteenth century.
For more on the project see http://www.ria.ie/projects/ihta
, or contact Irish Historic Towns Atlas,
Royal Irish Academy, 19 Dawson Street, Dublin 2.
Irish Historic Towns Atlas, no. 21, Limerick by Eamon O'Flaherty is available in shops from the 6th of February and retails at â‚¬35.
Jennifer Moore is an editorial assistant with the Irish Historic Towns Atlas and also a Limerick historian.