IN 1691, the year when Williamite guns tore a hole in the Englishtown walls and Patrick Sarsfield surrendered Limerick at the end of its second great siege, people moved into a small row of innocuous limestone houses built in the castle’s shadow.
With pepper pot chimneys facing out onto a small courtyard off Nicholas Street, the houses were part of the legacy that an English administrator, Jeremy Hall, bequeathed to the city. For three centuries after, these almshouses sheltered elderly widows under the keep of a charitable trust that carried Hall’s name.
However 50 years ago, in the late spring of 1962, the decrepit state of the houses became front-page news. The damp, cold homes had barely been touched since they were built, and the people that they sheltered were at risk of being forgotten.
The story of the Nicholas Street almshouses sparked a wave of outrage and sympathy which reached far beyond the city, and caused an outpouring of charity that nudged the widows, ever so slightly, into the 20th century.
Jeremy Hall was an Englishman who came to Dublin in 1639 at the age of 19 to study. He later moved to Limerick after he received employment working with the Governor of Munster, the Earl of Orrery.
Hall was paid an income of £100, but he supplemented this with rents from a number of properties he acquired in the city. He later left the city after the Earl’s death, and it is not exactly clear when he passed away. However in his will, dated March 1 1687, Hall specifically outlined what he wanted to happen to his estate, and in particular the site off Nicholas Street.
As well as the creation of a school, Hall wished that houses to the rear, near Barrack Street, would become homes for “four old aged, unmarried and four old aged women, widows, who are not able to labour to get their livelihood, nor have relations that are able to maintain them”.
The houses were administered by a charitable trust for generations, before they were gradually absorbed into State provision.
However by March 1962 the houses stood essentially as they were when they were first built, untouched and largely forgotten. A total of 22 widows lived there at this point, but their living conditions were terrible. They had no running water, and the houses were damp and poorly insulated. An article in the Limerick Leader edition of March 28 carried a report from a city council meeting in which Labour TD and Alderman, Stephen Coughlan, attacked the rotten state of the almshouses. Mr Coughlan said that the widows’ neighbours had to take it on themselves to ensure that they had fuel and other basic provisions.
Cllr G B Dillon went further, describing as a “miracle” the fact the widows were able to survive that previous winter. The majority of the widows, the councillor added, were over 75-years-of-age, “had reared decent families” and deserved to be treated better.
However, despite stinging protests, the Corporation manager T F McDermott was frank. While they were investigating installing running water, the Corporation “had no responsibility” for providing light or heat. He admitted that the houses were “not in good condition”, but they had nowhere else to put the widows. Even the City Home was full.
But the widows were not simply abandoned to their lot. On April 7, the Leader carried a triumphant front page report that a small charitable campaign started on the widows’ behalf by a local publican, Michael Crowe, had exploded to life since their plight was made public. In just two weeks, donations came from as far afield as America, and the Widows’ Light Fund Committee now sat on a pot of £150, enough to bring electricity into each home for the first time.
Mr Crowe told the Leader that they did not intend to stop there: “When we have the lighting installed we are going to provide them with new bedding. We are going to make this place look like a hotel.”
The paper reported that in a week’s time the widows, the oldest of whom was 93-year-old Bridget O’Riordan, were to be taken on a day trip to Shannon Airport. When they returned that evening, “they will witness... the switching on of electric light in their homes, that have only known the candle and the oil lamp”.
The Leader’s reporter spoke to many of the widows themselves, whose quiet dignity pierced the squalor in which they lived. Many of them had lived there for 27 years, receiving a pension of between just 30/- and £2 per week, the paper said. They were used to it.
“One of them said she eats very little meat. Another, who only came out of hospital the day before said: ‘I’ll have a cup of tea, and a bit of bread and butter for my tea. I’m thankful for that’”.
Mr Crowe said that there was no clamour for praise or kudos on the committee’s part. They were simply providing for the widows where others had failed. “We got sick and tired of promises and decided to do it ourselves. Promises had been made by politicians, but they were only promises.”
The houses were renovated by the Corporation in 1970, and again in 1993, and served as sheltered housing until their residents were moved out and the buildings boarded up. However, acting out of fears that the listed buildings would be damaged or destroyed by vandals, in 2009 they were refurbished as the headquarters of the St Mary’s area integrated development group.