Reputations: Nineteenth-Century Monuments in Limerick

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 1997), Volume 5

Monuments were to the nineteenth-century city what corporate identity is to the modern business; they projected an image that spoke of specific character, unity and confidence. Is this just the impression gained in retrospect by the image-conscious late twentieth-century or is this what they were intended to do? Once erected, monuments take on a life of their own. Although Limerick’s nineteenth-century monuments are frequently used in civic publicity, business logos and on postcards, not all are represented equally—the Treaty Stone is pre-eminent, Patrick Sarsfield is quite popular, Daniel O’Connell and Thomas Spring Rice are mainly confined to postcards, and Fitzgibbon, who was thrown into the Shannon in the early hours of a June morning in 1931 and later replaced by a memorial to 1916, can only be seen in archival photographs. Just as this ordering reflects contemporary values distilled from tradition, aesthetic awareness and political allegiance, so the first appearance of the monuments reflected contemporary values. A study of the nineteenth-century monuments, many of which were erected through public subscription, all of which were allocated sites through negotiation with the Corporation or official bodies, can tell us much about political attitudes and power structures.

Thomas Spring Rice

Thomas Spring Rice (1791-1866) was the first figure to be celebrated in Limerick when, in 1831, a Doric column seventy-nine feet high resting on a large octagonal base topped by his comparatively diminutive statue, was erected. It was placed at the edge of the expanding Newtown Pery in New Square, an as yet undeveloped open square situated on a projected road leading from the main street of the new town. Although small in comparison to Nelson’s Pillar, erected in Dublin in 1808, the Spring Rice column must have appeared as a grand statement in Limerick, in keeping with the four-storey Georgian terraces that were accumulating by the year. A map of 1827 suggests that the column would have been isolated; a pointer to the direction in which the new town might expand, and in the centre of which the column would stand magnificently.
Optimism surrounded the project from its inception. Spring Rice, only in his late thirties when the statue was erected, was the young, independent MP for the city, first elected in 1820. This had been a triumph for the merchant interest, whose money and enthusiasm were responsible for the burgeoning city, and who, as the Commissioners of the Parish of St Michael, had defied the Corporation by setting up their own administration to service, maintain and police the streets of the new town. The election of Spring Rice had involved the breaking of the well-established conservative oligarchy that had dominated politics in Limerick for many years. On his return from Dublin on 24 July 1820, Spring Rice had been carried in triumph through the streets. Later, William Turner de Lond painted The Chairing of Thomas Spring Rice for the Chamber of Commerce in which he showed Spring Rice standing on a platform under a canopy high above the crowd, while a shower of flags decorated with the emblems of the city guilds descend from the windows of the Commercial Buildings. Spring Rice had become a symbol for the new town. Thus when Matthew Barrington was considering erecting a monument in Newtown Pery, Spring Rice, and not Edmund Sexton Pery, on whose land the new town was being built, was his choice.
The classical style of the monument and its formal placing at the centre of an open square, reflected the style of the architecture of the new town. This followed contemporary taste. The monument too had its antecedents in Ireland. Used to celebrate Nelson in Dublin, Wellington in Trim, Cumberland in Birr, the column was the accepted way to create a monument and to elevate its subject to the status of a hero. The architect of the Spring Rice column was the not very significant Henry Baker, but the sculptor was Thomas Kirk (1781-1845), who had carved Nelson for Dublin and Wellington for Trim, and had an appreciation of the use of a classical cloak and a proud gesture to give the right gloss to the figure.
Despite its fashionable appearance and grandiose scale, the monument was the statement of only one group in Limerick, which, although powerful and ebullient, did not control the Corporation. By 1840 the square, which in fact defined the edge, not the centre of the new town, had been enclosed, planted with trees and laced with paths, and building in the Georgian style had ceased. In 1840 the Municipal Reform Act was passed; the Commissioners of St Michael’s Parish were abolished and Newtown Pery was brought under a new reformed Corporation. The Spring Rice monument, enclosed and marginal, took its place in the wider city. With the enlarging of Pery Square and its conversion in 1877—with bandstand and fountain—to the People’s Park, and with the building of a library and museum in its grounds, the monument was further re-defined: it had become associated with civic leisure.

Daniel O’Connell and Viscount Fitzgibbon

On 17 May 1855 two monuments were being discussed in a Corporation meeting. An announcement had been made that £1,040 had been collected for a monument to be erected in Limerick to Lord Viscount Fitzgibbon, who had died at the battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War. The mayor, who was chairing the proceedings, had suggested that it be given a site at the centre of Richmond Place (now the Crescent). Several of those present had, since 1852, been involved in organising the funding of a monument to Daniel O’Connell. They had earmarked this prominent location—the highest and widest point in George’s Street—for the monument, and they argued that the Council would have to be consulted before a final decision could be made. The Fitzgibbon proposal galvanised them into action—meetings were held, a sculptor contacted, a further appeal launched for subscriptions—and the Limerick Reporter and Tipperary Vindicator argued forcefully for the O’Connell monument. At a subsequent meeting the Council voted to adopt the site for the O’Connell monument. The Fitzgibbon statue was given a site on Wellesley Bridge.
The controversy reflected two different political camps within the corporation; the older interest—Protestant, landed, unionist—and the group left in the wake of O’Connell’s political advance—Catholic and nationalist. In Limerick Corporation this latter group was represented by men such as Maurice Lenihan, who supported initiatives to establish a Catholic university in Ireland, to disestablish the Church of Ireland, and who had voted for Repeal. Lenihan promoted nationalist ideas in his newspaper, the Limerick Reporter and Tipperary Vindicator, and he was a city councillor. It was he who had proposed the O’Connell monument.
Neither O’Connell nor Fitzgibbon had more than a tenuous connection with Limerick. O’Connell had held monster meetings in the vicinity of the city and visited several times, but it was as MP for Clare, that he first sat in parliament. Fitzgibbon was the son of the third Earl of Clare whose family lived at Mount Shannon, near Limerick. The statues of these figures were not erected primarily to represent the city but to demonstrate the city’s nationalist and unionist credentials respectively. Lenihan wrote in his history of Limerick: ‘there being no appearance of the national monument in Dublin, the propriety of renewed local exertion was mooted to commemorate the fame of the illustrious chieftain in “the city of the violated treaty”’. Limerick was the first city to erect a monument to O’Connell; the national testimonial in Dublin was not proposed until 1862. Fitzgibbon was a war hero who had fought for British imperial interests. As the Crimean War was more often publicly recognised by the display of captured cannon Limerick’s proposed statue was particularly noteworthy.
The contest between two statues for one site suggests that monument building was a common phenomenon in Ireland at this time. This was not the case. The Nation, a nationalist newspaper, had called for more statues of Irishmen in Dublin in 1843, but by 1855 only one statue was being prepared; a monument to the popular poet, Thomas Moore. A group in Limerick had advertised for sculptors to submit models for a monument to Patrick Sarsfield in 1845, but Joseph Robinson Kirk’s model had been turned down and the project dropped.
Different political affiliations in Limerick in 1855 did not translate into different styles: both monuments were typical examples of the mid-Victorian way of celebrating ‘great men’. Portrait statues were erected on moderately-sized plinths so that the viewer could appreciate the details of the sculpted figure—the clothes, the expression, the pose—each designed to elicit admiration and to teach of public duty and private virtue. There were differences, however, deriving from the artists commissioned. John Hogan (1800-58), a sculptor who had spent much of his life in Rome, and who had carved a marble figure of O’Connell for the City Hall in Dublin in 1846, was an exponent of the neo-classical style. He made a bronze figure of O’Connell for Limerick presenting him, sheathed in a Roman toga and holding a text of the Act of Catholic Emancipation, as the dignified elder statesman. Hogan did for O’Connell in Limerick what he had done for him in Dublin, he made an Irish leader into a classical hero and thus elevated his subject in the vocabulary of neo-classicism. ‘It is my opinion,’ he said, ‘that the classic draperies, which have been so long used, raise the artistic character of the work and the dignity of the subject.’ Patrick McDowell (1799-1870), on the other hand, presented Fitzgibbon as a dashing young army officer in the act of unsheathing his sword; another idealisation but not as dependent on classical style and accoutrements as Hogan’s. Wellesley Bridge joined the city to County Clare; the presence of the Fitzgibbon statue there marked the landed interest that had promoted the building of the bridge in the 1820s. Meanwhile, the presence of the figure of O’Connell in Richmond Place can be read as part of the contemporary redefining of the character of Newtown Pery through the building of national schools, Catholic churches and other institutions associated with a democratising of politics in the nineteenth century. The older interest remained but it could feel threatened; the wife of John Russell, Quaker industrialist, merchant and speculator, reputedly refused to open the blinds of the windows in her Crescent house for fear of encountering the masterful gaze of O’Connell!
When the O’Connell monument was unveiled in 1857 it was his role in securing the Act of Catholic Emancipation in 1829 that was emphasised. The MP for the city, Sergeant O’Brien, made a speech in which he painted Irish Catholic history in a few sweeping strokes which also put Limerick at the centre:

Here was the Capitulation and the Treaty, so honourable to the Irish Catholics, so disgraceful to our rulers by whom the provisions of that Treaty were shamefully and unhesitatingly violated. By their perfidious conduct we then lost that religious freedom which after nearly 150 years was again recovered under the guidance of O’Connell. It is right therefore that Limerick should be foremost in paying this homage to his memory.

Treaty Stone

The signing of the Treaty in Limerick in 1691 had concluded the wars of the seventeenth century and heralded what might be described as the Protestant peace, the period when British authority was secured through the re-organisation of government and the successful establishment of Protestant landowning families. The Treaty had promised rights to Catholics but, with the subsequent passing of the penal laws, Catholics lost much of their political power and many of their civil rights. The table on which the treaty had been signed was reputed to be a stone, and Limerick claimed to know where it was. Travellers in the late eighteenth century were returning with tales of the Treaty Stone—John Harden of Cork recorded the tradition of the signing of the treaty in his diary in 1797, and in 1810 Bishop Milner was shown the stone by his friend Bishop Young of Cork. Lenihan, who was sceptical of the tradition, tells us that a possible contender was originally situated on the north side of Thomond Bridge, an ordinary lump of limestone used by country people for mounting horses when leaving Limerick by the old Ennis mail coach road. In 1865 this stone was moved to the other side of the bridge, given a cut stone pedestal decorated with the city’s coat of arms, motto, and Latin inscriptions, and made into a monument. The Treaty Stone subsequently became a symbol of the city.
In 1867 three Fenians were hanged in Manchester. Immediately the Manchester Martyrs, as they became known, became a focus for nationalists, and mock funerals were organised. Limerick too had a public procession and the newly elevated Treaty Stone was covered with a pall and decorated with the shamrocks, rosettes (green with a small black knot at the centre) and laurel which the processionists were themselves wearing and carrying. There was some debate about how the Treaty Stone was to be interpreted: did it represent the violated treaty and thus invite scorn? (One organiser suggested that people should spit on the stone as they passed) or did it symbolise the Catholic rights that the treaty had promised? Dressed in mourning and passed respectfully it was the latter interpretation that won out. Equally, it seemed to be a symbol of the city which had put on mourning for this event.

Patrick Sarsfield

The proposal in 1845 to erect a monument to Patrick Sarsfield, the general who, in 1691, had defended the city until it was finally overwhelmed by the troops of William of Orange, also emanated from Limerick’s preoccupation with its national role at the end of the seventeenth century. Another influence may have been the suggestion by Thomas Davis, an early nineteenth-century poet and writer on Irish culture, that Irish subject matter should be used in Irish art. He had published a list of subjects in The Nation in the 1840s and articulated a nationalist purpose: ‘When we speak of high art, we mean art used to instruct and ennoble men; to teach them great deeds, whether historical, religious, or romantic; to awaken their piety, their pride, their justice, and their valour.’
It was Ambrose Hall, a land and insurance agent, who formed the committee to erect a monument to Patrick Sarsfield. Hall’s idea was to erect a triumphal arch on the city side of Thomond Bridge. It would be decorated with relief sculptures depicting episodes in the life of Sarsfield—the defence of Limerick, the blowing up of the guns at Ballyneaty and the Black Battery, his death on the field of Linden—and on top there would be a statue of Sarsfield, sword in hand, defending the breach in the city walls, stones from the Black Battery behind him. Unfortunately this richly dramatic monument was not realised. Instead only the figure of Sarsfield ‘in the picturesque costume of a general of the period, sword in hand, and pointing to the enemy in the distance’ was eventually sketched by a local artist, Henry O’Shea. In 1875, when the subscription list was reopened, this sketch was sent to John Lawlor (1820-1901), a prominent sculptor, born in Dublin and trained at the Royal Dublin Society’s Schools. He was now working in London where he had received the commission to carve the figures representing engineering on the Albert Memorial. Lawlor’s statue of Sarsfield, one of the most attractive of the period in Ireland, shows the hero pointing to the enemy, sword in hand; dramatic and romantic. Lawlor obviously enjoyed the flamboyant details of seventeenth-century costume, exaggerating the details; the knee-high boots with their buckles and wide tops, the great cuffs, the length of fastenings on his flying coat, the ringletted hair.
There was intense discussion about the siting of the monument. Ambrose Hall wanted it to have a prominent site in Newtown Pery; the corner of Mallow Street and George Street in the centre of the new town was requested. The Corporation refused. They offered Bank Place, then an impoverished area of the city. Hall wrote a letter to the Limerick Chronicle : ‘I ask what would the Dublin people think of their Corporation if they refused a site unless at Patrick’s Close or the Coombe—the Cork people if offered one on Coal Quay—the Londoners if offered at Seven Dials or Billingsgate?’ The Corporation was intransigent. Hall, elderly, determined and disillusioned finally by-passed the Corporation, negotiated with the Catholic bishop, and a place was found in the grounds of St John’s Cathedral. Detractors argued that this cast a sectarian shadow over the project, but Hall contended that it was near the site of the ancient walls that Sarsfield had defended. The site was, and remains, peripheral to the main areas of the city. This may have prevented this vigorous sculpture from shouldering the symbolic burdens that it looks as though it could easily have carried.


What do the monuments amount to? The central city park has a column, the main street has a statue, one of the busiest bridges has a monument (Fitzgibbon’s plinth, but a memorial to 1916 erected in 1956) all conforming to the principles of classical urban design. An independent MP, a nationalist MP and two references to the siege and treaty of 1691 survive. In Dublin nineteenth-century monuments included two memorials to Napoleonic war heroes (Nelson and Wellington), statues commemorating a poet (Thomas Moore), a playwright (Oliver Goldsmith), and a philosopher (Edmund Burke), a statue to a local politician (John Gray), two monuments to nationalist political figures (O’Connell and William Smith O’Brien), a statue of an eighteenth-century politician (Grattan), a viceroy (Earl of Carlisle), a commander in the British army (Lord Gough), a member of the royal family (Prince Albert) and two philanthropists (William Dargan and Benjamin Lee Guinness). In Cork only one monument was erected, to Father Mathew, a local friar who had a national reputation as the leader of the temperance movement. In Galway too there was only one monument, to Lord Dunkellin, a local figure active in the administration of the British Empire. Dublin was of course pre-eminent and it would be expected that the major nationalist, unionist, administrative and cultural figures would be celebrated there. According to the standards set by Cork and Galway Limerick might have been expected to produce the contemporary locally resident figures—Spring Rice and Fitzgibbon. Unusual was the responsibility taken to commemorate O’Connell. Exceptional was the engagement with the siege and the treaty, with Patrick Sarsfield and the Treaty Stone. Arising from a collective identification with the siege and its immediate aftermath, these monuments have also helped to perpetuate this image of Limerick, and perhaps contributed to the twentieth-century perception of the city as a difficult, occasionally violent and sometimes uncompromising place, a reputation that is only now fading.

Judith Hill lectures on the history of design at the Limerick School of Art and the National College of Art and Design, Dublin.

Further reading:

J. Hill, Irish Public Sculpture—A History (Dublin 1998).

J. Sheehy, The Rediscovery of Ireland’s Past: the Celtic Revival 1830-1930  (London 1980).

M. Lenihan, Limerick: Its Histories and Antiquities (1867, 1967 Cork).

This article is dedicated to Jim Kemmy, stone mason, trade unionist, politician and historian who died on 25 September 1997. He originally commissioned it for the Old Limerick Journal, which he edited for eighteen years.


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