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Visiting cathedrals and castles in Limerick

St. Mary's Cathedral
St. Mary's Cathedral
Carole B. Rosenblat

St. Mary's Cathedral and King John's Castle


During a recent visit to Ireland I stayed in Limerick or a few days. You can't do a trip to Ireland without visiting a few cathedrals and castles. I visited one of each in the city of Limerick.

I began the day visiting St. Mary's Cathedral. Founded in 1168, this is the oldest building in Limerick and the worshippers belong to the Church of Ireland. The Cathedral consists of six inner chapels each with breathtaking stained glass windows. When the Cathedral was built most people were illiterate and stained glass was used to teach people the stories in the bible. The Chapel of St. James and Mary Magdelene displays a window consisting of five lights which represent the lives of Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Solomon.

In the Lady Chapel you'll find a mosaic triptych showing Christ as a prophet, a priest and a shepherd. A vault was discovered under the sanctuary floor in which three decapitated skeletons were found. Who they were and what happened to them nobody knows.

You’ll also find the Misericords, Latin for "act of mercy." These are seats constructed between 1480 and 1500 which can be raised. In early church history clergy stood throughout the services and on the lip of each of the twenty-three seats there is a ledge. This allowed for the occupant to appear to be standing although they were able to rest on this ledge, thus the nickname of "Mercy Seats." These are the only examples of this kind of furniture preserved in Ireland.

St. Mary's Cathedral also contains an enormous amount of plaques, sculptures and sarcophagi
dedicated to the memories of a variety of people from everyday men and women to soldiers and parish leaders. The tributes are touching while the statues are beautiful pieces of art.

While in Limerick I also visited King John's Castle, one of the most famous castles in Ireland. The building of King John's Castle began in 1212 and continued for decades. The castle has survived three sieges; The Siege of 1642 in which 800 people were trapped within the castle walls, The Siege of Limerick in 1651 and The Siege of 1690/1691 (apparently the 1600's were a tough time to own a castle in Limerick). The beginning of the walk through the castle is a museum with interactive displays which lead visitors through the history of Ireland beginning in medieval Ireland and ending with the sieges. It's very well done and gives one the feel of how tough living was and what Ireland has survived.

Once through the museum area visitors exit into an archaeological site with wooden walkways to view the site without disturbing it while signs and drawings explain what you're seeing. From there visitors head outside to the courtyard which, 800 years ago, was a bustling center of activity where people visited the blacksmith, the mason and the chapel amongst other businesses involved in daily life. Actors now play the part of some of the characters you might have met back in the day. It's well done and not over the top. For instance, when you visit the blacksmith he tells some tales of life back in the 1600's. He'll explain that, as coins were made of real silver, people would shave off the sides and collect some of the extra silver. After a year or so, they would take it to the blacksmith, who made swords and such - he also doubled a whitesmith, making jewelry and decorative items - to get their silver melted down and sculpted into jewelry. It was all well and good unless you were caught in which case your hand would be cut off.

During your visit you can also explore the castle by climbing the various staircases throughout and stopping at interactive video displays with actors playing the parts of people you might meet there. You can also take in spectacular views of Limerick from the walkways and turrets.

King John's Castle is well worth the visit and you'll come away with a much greater understanding of the history of Ireland.