Pop-up museum offers a walk through Georgian Limerick

Mike Dwane


Mike Dwane

Cait Ni Cheallachain and Dr Ursula Callaghan at the pop-up Georgian Museum on Rutland Street. Picture: Adrian Butler
HISTORIAN Ursula Callaghan points to two events as key in bringing about the handsome Georgian vistas of the Limerick we know and love in 2014.

HISTORIAN Ursula Callaghan points to two events as key in bringing about the handsome Georgian vistas of the Limerick we know and love in 2014.

One was the decision not to rebuild the walls after the siege of 1690 and the other the election to parliament of Edmund Sexton Pery in 1751.

It was this lawyer’s development dreams that ultimately saw the creation of the city centre and the grid plan we can all admire today. It was conveniently to be built on lands owned by Sexton Pery himself to the south and west of the old city - and would make him a fortune.

Newtown Pery remains one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the world but many of its townhouses have seen better days.

The Limerick Chapter of the Irish Georgian Society (IGS), however, believe the redbricks have a future and, as part of Limerick City of Culture 2014, they have opened a pop-up Georgian Museum for the summer months.

Dating from the 1770s, Number 5 Rutland Street is one of the oldest townhouses in Newtown Pery. Formerly Glynn’s Butchers, it now forms part of the council-owned Opera Centre site, the future of which is the subject of much debate.

Thanks to the hard work of IGS volunteers, the support of Limerick City of Culture and the goodwill of Limerick City and County Council, the building is open to the public (at weekends and on Wednesday evenings) until August.

“All we wanted to do was to draw attention to this building and show how early it was because it was virtually unknown how old it was. Now that they do know, we just hope for a better future for the building. We don’t have any agenda other than hoping that it is saved,” explains conservation architect Cait Ni Cheallachain, project manager of the pop-up museum, who is working alongside Dr Callaghan (no relation) as curator.

The ground floor of number 5 had been a business from the time a John Abel opened a hardware store there in the 1820s. A mural from its days as a victuallers dates from the 1950s, the terrazzo flooring from the early 1900s, Dr Callaghan says.

But other architectural features - the fireplaces, the architraves and coving, a staircase Cait Ni Cheallachain believes to be virtually unique - are all around 250 years old.

Some of the details were only uncovered in recent weeks as a team of volunteers got to stripping the wallpaper, removing the drop ceiling and generally clearing out number 5.

While the grandeur of the house may have faded over the years, records found by Dr Callaghan demonstrate how prized a piece of real estate the site once was - at least according to an ad placed in the Limerick Chronicle by its owner, the banker Angel Monsell, in 1769.

“It’s an early example of auctioneer-speak,” says Ms Ni Cheallachain of the ad that proclaims the virtues of “the first built street of Newtown Pery, a rising city free from tides etc, the situation advantageous, the prospect delightful and the title indisputable”.

It continues:

“From here you can see the prospect of many agreeable objects, particularly the romantic grandeur of the County Clare mountains; the house and improvements of Quinboro (Parteen); the Army exercising and reviewing on the King’s Island; Thomond Bridge, so remarkable for the various construction of its arches; two watermills; a large cascade (Curragower) and spacious basin alternately as the tide ebbs and flows; the ancient city of Limerick; the new customs house (Hunt Museum) and other public works; all the shipping passing and repassing at the several quays and the pool...in short the most elegant town residence in the kingdom or perhaps the world cannot boast such rural beauty or so fine a landscape and the variety is daily increasing.”

We don’t know who Monsell sold the property to but Dr Callaghan and Ms Ni Cheallachain are confident another couple of days rummaging around in the Land Registry should reveal all.

“Rutland Street only is a later name for the same street,” explains Dr Callaghan.

“It was the New Street, Bridge Street, New Bridge Street, Uzuld’s Quay or could it be Uzuld Street? Between 1770 and 1795 there are at least six names it could have been called and that’s what we are trying to narrow down.” One of the main displays in the museum is the town plan for Newtown Pery drawn up by engineer Christopher Colles in 1769. Blown up by Limerick company Alphaset, the plan is recognisable as the Georgian city of today save for a couple of plazas - including at Bedford Row - that were never realised. While Colles had a masterplan, Ms Ni Cheallachain said that Georgian Limerick was in fact developed piecemeal by individuals. The latest of the buildings we regard as Georgian went up around the Crescent and Pery Square in the 1840s, although Victoria was by then on the throne. Across the city, St John’s Square dates from the Georgian era but is not Georgian in style.

As well as the architecture, visitors to the pop-up museum can also learn about political events and daily life in Limerick from the 18th and early 19th century - taken from contemporary accounts from newspapers published in the city.

Dr Callaghan, as a social historian, is particularly to have found an account of a fancy dress ball at the Bishop’s Palace on Henry Street published in the Chronicle in 1785.

The guests included: “Mr John Hunt, a jockey; Mr Vandelure also; Mr Brown, a gardener; Mr Gough, a running footman; Mr Croker, a drunken sailor; Col Irvine, the Great Mogul in a dress most superbly decorated, the train of which was supported by a black page; Sir Vere Hunt, a Beau of the last century; Honorary Capt O’Bryen, a knight of St Patrick; Mr Bruce, a black footman; Mrs Crosbie, a shepherdess of the alps; Mrs Fitzgerald in a Venetian Domino; Mrs Odell, an Irish farmer’s wife; and Mrs Mary Pery, an old Irish gentlewoman for which she was dressed with the utmost propriety”.

For all the notions people might take from this account, the townhouses of Georgian Limerick were not the preserve of the richest of the rich, Dr Callaghan said.

“These houses were built by and for tradespeople. The population in the 18th century was 85% Catholic; it was Catholic people who lived in these houses predominantly. It is often assumed that because it is Georgian that it is Anglo-Irish or elitist in some way but that was not the case. It is hoped that the pop-up museum will return Georgian Limerick to the people of the city from now through August 31. Opening hours are 10am to 5pm Saturdays and Sundays and Wednesday evenings from 4pm to 9pm when there will be a series of lectures. Follow the programme on Twitter @GeorgianPopUp. Admission is free but donations are welcome.