Saint Mary’s Cathedral was founded in 1168 A.D. on a hill on King’s Island, which is the oldest part of Limerick. It is the oldest building in Limerick still in continuous daily use. The priests and people who worship here belong to the Church of Ireland, but all Christians are welcome to visit to attend a service, to pray, reflect, to take a tour or attend a choral concert or other special event.
The Cathedral was built where the palace of the late King of Munster, Donal Mór O’Brien once stood. During the last eight centuries, it has witnessed invasions, sieges, battles, wars, famine, unrest and times of great peace.
There are 6 chapels within the cathedral – the Chapel of Saint James & Mary Magdalen; the Lady Chapel; the Chapel of the Holy Spirit; the Jebb Chapel; the O’Brien Chapel; and the Glentworth Chapel
The altar in Lady Chapel is 4 metres long (13 ft), weighs three tons and is the cathedral’s original, pre-Reformation High Altar. In 1651, after Oliver Cromwell captured Limerick, his army used the cathedral as a stable – a fate suffered by other cathedrals during the Cromwellian campaign in Ireland. His troops also removed the altar and dumped it. But it was recovered in the 1960s and was reinstated.
One of the most famous features in Saint Mary’s are the carved misericords. These misericords are unique in Ireland and are the only surviving pre-Elizabethan carvings. They probably date from 1480-1500, perhaps from the restoration work carried out by the last pre-Reformation Bishop of Limerick, John Folan (1489-1522).
In the early church, priests stood for most service, and sitting was prohibited. The lip on the edge of each of these seats allowed the clergy to rest while the seats were tipped up, so that they appeared to be standing but were allowed to sit in act of mercy – hence misericords.
Of the 21 carvings, 16 are different, with mediaeval emblems such as a two-legged one-horned goat, a griffin, a sphinx, a wild boar, an angel, a head resembling Henry IV, a dragon biting its tail, antelopes with inter-twined necks, a swan, an eagle, the Lion of Judah with a dragon, as well as a human head wearing a ‘chaperon’, a cockatrice or two-headed lizard holding its tail, and a wyvern or two-legged dragon biting its tail.
Each window tells a story, and the stained glass work throughout the cathedral is of exquisite quality. Many are memorials to benefactors of the cathedral, but most of them illustrate in great colour the biblical stories of our salvation.
Standing in the main aisle of the Cathedral, you will see the 12th century arcaded arches. High up above them you will see on the north, west and south sides, a clerestory or ‘monk’s walk’ which is still intact today. These are all original. All the other cathedrals which date from this period to the Norman invasion in 1169 A.D. are long in ruins.
The wooden interior roof is made of the famous Cratloe oak, from the forests of nearby County Clare. The oak trees from this forest also provided the timbers for the roofs of London’s Westminster Hall and the Royal Palace in Amsterdam.
Tradition claims that the door, Romanesque in style and elaborately carved, was once the entrance to King Donal Mor O’Brien’s Palace. Above it is the 120 foot tower, which is unusual as cathedrals of this age would tend to place the tower more centrally in the building.
In 1691, the Cathedral suffered considerable damage from cannon balls, particularly on the east end, during the Williamite Siege of Limerick. You can see two of these cannon balls during your visit.
In the north transept, there is an opening in the Cathedral wall called ‘the leper’s squint’. In medieval times the medical opinion was that leprosy, which was common in those times, was highly contagious and therefore Lepers were not allowed into churches. The Cathedral’s ‘leper’s squint’ allowed them to see and hear mass and receive Communion through this opening.
The oldest part of the graveyard around Saint Mary’s Cathedral dates from the 12th century, but the earliest burial records date from 1726. Still an active graveyard, this churchyard has been hallowed ground for nine centuries. Remarkable and noteworthy burials and points of interest include the Barrington and Sexton vaults, the Protestant Orphan Grave, The Exchange Wall (dating from 1693), the United Nations Peace Garden, and the grave of Prince Milo Petrović-Njegoš of Montenegro.