Tall tale: Diocese of Limerick ‘shrinks’ St John’s Cathedral

Mike Dwane


Mike Dwane

QED: Dan Clery, South Circular Road, and Billy Wallace, Dooradoyle, with an original drawing from M&S Hennessy Architects in 1878 showing the height of the spire at St Johns was 258 feet. Picture: Michael Cowhey
THE Diocese of Limerick has revised down its estimate of the height of St John’s Cathedral by almost 50 feet.

THE Diocese of Limerick has revised down its estimate of the height of St John’s Cathedral by almost 50 feet.

And in a week when Limerick lost their Munster hurling crown to Cork, the city has also lost its claim to have Ireland’s tallest church building to St Colman’s in Cobh.

Wikipedia also lists St John’s as Ireland’s tallest church, at 93.8 metres. And this figure – 308 feet including the cross atop the spire – was also the one used in Limerick historian Dr Liam Irwin’s recent book The Diocese of Limerick: An Illustrated History.

But the tall tales about St John’s attracted the attention of Billy Wallace from Dooradoyle.

Now retired, the 81-year-old was clerk of works when Bishop Jeremiah Newman hired architects PJ Sheahan & Partners to carry out restoration works on the cathedral in the 1970s.

Mr Wallace wrote to the Limerick Leader in February that the actual height of the tower and spire at St John’s (not including the cross) was 258 feet. He also submitted drawings and contract documents from 1878 in support of this, although these were not published in this newspaper at the time.

Dr Irwin responded in March that it was none other than PJ Sheahan & Partners who had measured the height during its restoration and found it to be “308 feet and three inches from the base of the tower to the top of the cross”. This made it, according to Dr Irwin, the tallest church in 

And Dr Irwin dismissed Mr Wallace’s figure of 258 feet as “grossly inaccurate”.

This failed to placate Mr Wallace, however, and Dan Clery, South Circular Road, took up his case by writing to the diocese – as well as the Leader. Mr Clery had also examined drawings from city firm Healy & Partners relating to further works carried out at St John’s over 10 years ago.

“I sourced the Healy drawings from 2001 in the planning department. They showed a height of around 262 feet, which was a 2% error factor whereas there was a 20% error factor in the 308 feet claim,” said Mr Clery.

Following represen-tations to the diocese, a fresh survey of St John’s was commissioned in recent weeks.

A spokesman for the diocese explained: “The reference point for the height of the spire at St John’s Cathedral quoted in the The Diocese of Limerick – An Illustrated History was an architect’s survey commissioned by Bishop Jeremiah Newman in the 1970s.

Following recent communications to us questioning the veracity of this survey, we commissioned a new survey and it has concluded that the height difference from the top of the cross to the average ground level at main entrance is 81 metres or 265 feet and 9 

“The original cross on the spire, which was circa 12ft, was removed in 2000 and replaced with a much smaller cross, c. 3 feet in height. Therefore, the height of the spire including the original cross was c. 274 feet 9 inches.

“Any future edition of the Diocese of Limerick or any other publications from the diocese referencing the height of St John’s Cathedral will take account of the most recent survey results and we will be amending this on our website as well,” the spokesman stated.

Contacted this week, Dr Irwin said he “of course accepted the latest survey results.

“I took my information from Bishop John Fleming’s book on St John’s Cathedral and he based it on a survey done by Sheahan Architects for Bishop Newman.

“The diocese searched for that original survey by Sheahan’s on which Bishop Newman and Fleming based their statements but couldn’t find it so I think that was why they commissioned the new one – and it is what it is,” said Dr Irwin.

Mr Wallace said he had never doubted that the true height of the cathedral was closer to 258 than to 308 feet.

He also questioned the methodology whereby the new survey had seemingly taken the datum level from in front of the main entrance rather than closer to the spire itself, which he estimated could be 200 feet away.

“There could be two or three feet difference between the ground at the entrance door and the finished floor level nearer the spire,” he said.

And talk of the height of the cross was “irrelevant” to his contention about the spire itself.

“It’s the spire that counts, the top of the stonework. You could have a bag of balloons on top of that but that wouldn’t make the spire any higher,” 
he said.

Mr Wallace said this year was not the first time he had taken pen to paper to the Limerick Leader on the subject. He had written in response to another publication in 2003 that claimed the height was 308 feet.

“I understood that the whole thing about the height of the spire was done and finished with in that letter. Then I got Liam Irwin’s book. I was going through it and the first page I went to was St John’s Cathedral and here I see it again. I found it extraordinary to see this thing about 308 feet again,” said Mr 

Mr Clery criticised the historian for seemingly dismissing Mr Wallace.

“I cannot understand how these historic documents could be overlooked and dismissed and cannot understand how he denied Mr Wallace could have evidence of such significance,” 
he said.

A trailer which aired in recent weeks for the RTE series Building Ireland contended that – at 94 metres - St John’s Cathedral had the highest spire in Ireland. But the episode in question has not yet hit our screens.

The official information leaflet for St Colman’s in Cork proclaims the height of that cathedral to be 300 feet, meaning Cork are not only closer to Liam McCarthy but also seemingly closer to God.

And the revision also means that St John’s has been surpassed by St Mary’s in Killarney and St Patrick’s College Church in Maynooth.

But Mr Wallace said St John’s remained an architectural treasure that did not need “any exaggeration or embellishment”.