RTE TV series ‘Building Ireland’ highlights some of the achievements of Limerick’s built heritage for a local and national audience and draws attention to the significance of urban development in forming the landscapes we take for granted
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Tonight (Tuesday July 29) on RTE1 at 7pm, the new series ‘Building Ireland’ highlights some of the achievements of Limerick’s built heritage for a local and national audience and draws attention to the significance of urban development in forming the landscapes we take for granted every day.

The programme, entitled ‘St John’s Cathedral’, highlights how powerful interests and personalities – and, indeed, the ordinary citizens of Limerick – were determined to leave their mark on the skyline of Victorian Limerick and on its buildings and infrastructure.

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Tim Joyce in Limerick

Chartered engineer Tim Joyce sets out to explore some of the big 19th-century civil engineering projects of the city. “This city, located deep within the estuary of the Shannon, has had a long relationship with water. It’s the clever engineering that spanned this mighty river and grew the port that I want to explore,” says Joyce.

He examines the relationship between the city and its river through two key pieces of infrastructure: the Sarsfield Bridge (Wellesley. Bridge) and, just 100 metres downstream, the entire port complex key pieces of infrastructure needed to transform Limerick into a modern city and port.

Limerick’s characteristic blue limestone had an international reputation in the 19th century as a building block of beauty and, above all else, hardness. Geographer Susan Hegarty explores the skills involved in shaping the stone. “Even the simplest ornamentation requires hours of skill and strength. Limerick stone-workers continue to cut and shape the limestone using the same skills and techniques passed on down through the generations,” says Hegarty.

But it is ultimately St John’s Cathedral that stands out as a symbol of the aspirations and challenges faced by the people and parishes of Limerick in a post-Catholic emancipation era. And it is through the building and design of the church that the story comes through, as it has a very distinct look and feel. It has all the hallmarks of the medieval Gothic with architects like Charles Hardwicke, who designed the cathedral, expressing their admiration for the medievel ethos. This Gothic Revivalism took root in Victorian church architecture as an aspiration for a ‘purer’ church and society. But St John’s is quite unusual and Orla Murphy our architect explores why St Johns doesn’t have iconic flying buttresses wall supports like most Cathedrals of this era.

VICTORIAN GOTHIC

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What the cathedral would have looked like if the classic flying-buttress technique had been used, instead of the soaring A-frame design

In the architecture of the spire we see the difference emerging of the the delay between the opening of the cathedral and the completion of the spire. As architect Orla Murphy points out, “There’s a clear difference in the design approach between the spire and the main body of the church. Locals here have always called this the ‘cathedral tower’, not the spire. The tower is square and the spire is octagonal.

“In the decorative details, we see why this spire is a purer representation of the Victorian Gothic than the church itself. Every detail was made to emphasise height, moving towards the heavens so columns elongated and arches became pointed, all the while accentuating the drama and the move towards the heavens,” highlights Murphy, as she examines the details of the spire up close on a crane.

How this spire was actually built is an intriguing tale of engineering and design, as its height makes it a challenge to service even now. So, just how did they cap off a spire of such scale and height in the late 19th century, with only rudimentary scaffolding? The programme has specially commissioned animations that explain exactly how they did it.

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St John’s Cathedral, Limerick

“The height of the spire has now been surveyed and it’s now claimed, until proven otherwise, that St John’s no longer has the tallest spire in Ireland,” says series director Brian Gray. “It begs the question as to whether other regional cathedrals could lay claim to the title, including Kerry’s own St Mary’s in Killarney, at over 86 metres tall.

“Also, the claim that the title of Ireland’s tallest spire now passes to St Colman’s in Cobh is technically not accurate, as no formal official survey has been completed on Cobh. So, who should lay claim to the tallest spire in Ireland?” ponders Gray.

Finally, Murphy goes on to explore the development of Newtown Pery, one of the finest Georgian developments proposed anywhere in Europe. The skills and traditions are still being carried on in Limerick by Randall Hodkinson, an ecclesiastical decorator whose great-great-grandfather worked out the very studios he has today, designing and painting St John’s Cathedral when it was originally built.

As Murphy says, “Limerick is very much a city of the 19th century. From the 1830s onwards, bridges, docks and churches were constructed as a response to economic stagnation and the hunger of the Great famine. It’s a legacy that we can see everyday in the very fabric and atmosphere of this city.” And it best sums up the spirit of the programme and the series.

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  Tonight (Tuesday July 29) on RTE1 at 7pm, the new series ‘Building Ireland’ highlights some of the achievements of Limerick’s built heritage for a local and national audience and draws attention to the significance of urban development in forming the landscapes we take for granted every day. The programme, entitled...