Through the Ages: The Families of Georgian Limerick – Published Limerick Life Newspaper, August 2017

In the last edition, we looked at 18th century Limerick, a period of prosperity in which the city rapidly expanded, both in terms of land and population. Affluent families began to move into urban areas, instead of hunkering down in secure country mansions. This brought a new vibrancy to Limerick, which was transformed from a war-torn garrison town to a lively, modern city.

While success was most certainly not universal – later in this series we will look at the contrasting lives of Limerick’s poor – the period was dominated by several wealthy families who directly contributed to the development of the city they called home. Today, we will take a look at a small selection of these denizens, and chart the progress they made.

As is the case with all family histories, hard facts can be difficult to ascertain. These stories are mired in lore that has been passed down through complicated family trees. Therefore what follows is merely a brief overview of the achievements of each family, rather than an in-depth study. It is also, regrettably, a story dominated by men, as their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters are all too often mentioned as mere footnotes. The efforts of these men, seen through a modern lens, are not always admirable, and were quite often made only in the name of members of their class and religion. Nevertheless, they are part of the fabric of our city, literally giving their names to the streets through which we walk every day.

Much of the information we can glean of these entrepreneurs is derived from the work of Fr. James White (1715 – 1768), John Ferarr (1743 – 1785) and Maurice Lenihan (1811 – 1895) who painstakingly recorded the history of their city and its best-known inhabitants. They in turn drew on manuscripts dating from as far back as the 16th century, such as that of Edmond Sexten, who was Mayor of Limerick in 1535. He also held the prestigious (if peculiar) position of Sewer of the Chamber in the court of Henry VIII, a role for which he was rewarded handsomely with confiscated land in Ireland. Included in this raft of ill-gotten gains were sites previously owned by religious orders, including the Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians. Edmond installed profitable businesses on many of the properties, including a tannery at Prior’s Land.

A century later, when the young Englishman Edmond Pery married the Limerick-based heiress Susannah Sexten, he took ownership of this vast property portfolio. Their great-grandson, Edmond Sexton Pery (the spelling altered over time), would become one of Limerick’s most notable citizens, responsible for the transformation of our city.

A map of Newtown Pery

He was born in 1718 or 1719, and like many wealthy families at the time, was brought up on Mungret Street with his numerous siblings and Reverend father. He received an advanced education (probably in Trinity College) and practiced as a successful barrister before turning to politics.

Edmond entered parliament as an MP for Limerick in 1745 and from 1771 to 1786 served as a speaker in the Irish House of Commons, where he gained a reputation as a fair, bipartisan and public-minded representative. Henry Grattan recalled of him: “He was more or less a party to all those measures of free trade and Irish liberation, and, indeed, in every great statute and measure…(a man with) a deep engraven expression of public care.”

His actions in his home city would prove this sentiment: while effectively owning the entirety of Limerick city, he is said to have donated the land for the County Hospital a rent of ‘a peppercorn a year’. He also contributed heavily to a fever hospital, and together with his second wife, Hon. Elizabeth Vesey, operated a form of building society, in which working men could access low-interest loans. When he retired, he was granted an annual pension of £3,000 – at a time in which the average labourer earned about £15 a year – and set about transforming his medieval, war-ravaged city into a modern metropolis.

First, he built St. John’s Square, with John Purdon. Historian Kevin Hannan contends that the land here was cleared of “the squalor of the huddled poor” to the allow for the construction of eight glamorous new houses, arranged in perfect symmetry and finished in stone of the highest quality. These were rented at a cost of £32 per annum. In a practice still common today, the developers reserved two houses for themselves, living alongside local celebrities of the day such as Vere Hunt (of Curraghchase House).

Pery then leased – it has been said, at nominal rates – the site upon which the offices of Limerick Life stand, on O’Connell Street, previously Newtown Pery, or South Prior’s Land. He worked with Davis (or Daniel) Duckhart, designer of the Custom House, to lay out this area in a modern grid pattern. Glentworth Street, Mallow Street and Cecil Street were named after Edmond’s brother, William Cecil Pery, later Bishop of Limerick and Lord Glentworth of Mallow. Over the following decades, many of the city’s most industrious citizens built houses in Newtown Pery, most often in the style of terraced three-bay four-storey over basement red brick residences. One of the attractions to the area, Ferrar notes, is that the development was tax-free, situated as it was then in County Limerick.

He was created the 1st Viscount Pery of Newtown-Pery on 30 December 1785, but as he had two daughters (ergo, no male heirs), the title became extinct upon his death in 1806 at the age of 87.

A map of Limerick, showing Newtown Pery

Edmond Pery’s sister Lucy married Sir Henry Hartstonge, 3rd Baronet. Wealthy landowners from Bruff, Co. Limerick (by way of Norfolk, originally), the Hartstonges built their fortune by managing large estates in Limerick, Cork and Tipperary, serving as members of parliament, and marrying rich heiresses.

Henry (c. 1725 – 1797) was educated in Trinity College, Dublin and would later sit in the Irish House of Commons, representing Limerick County. He is legendary for having ousted the memorable ‘Black Jack Fitzgibbon’ from his seat in the Irish Parliament in 1783.

Ferrar notes that “Sir Henry Hartstonge made an embankment at Sluice Island in the year 1775, at great expense and built several good houses on the mall.”

To this day, Harry’s Mall contains a memorial to Sir Henry, and Hartstonge street was named for his wife, Lucy. She was dedicated to charity, helping to build Leamy’s School for the education of the poor children of the city.

Ferrar records that “Limerick is particularly indebted to the enterprising spirit and perseverance of Mr Patrick Arthur, merchant, who has built a spacious and useful quay….and (is) erecting an elegant and uniform range of houses on said quay.”

The houses are now sadly gone, and the quay now boasts a shopping centre which bears the great merchant prince’s name.

Patrick Arthur’s ancestors first arrived in Ireland as part of the Norman invasion and quickly settled in the countryside of County Limerick, farming in Pallas and Emly. As a family, they would go on to become key members of Limerick society, contributing twenty-one mayors, two bishops and an array of high-ranking civil servants and administrators.

Most of the family’s wealth was derived from trade, as practiced by Nicholas Thomas Arthur, an exporter of hides and skins, who was taken prisoner and ransomed by pirates in the 15th century. Another relative, Dr Thomas Arthur, became a widely-respected medical doctor, active during the Cromwellian sieges of 1650-51. As a prominent, wealthy Catholic family, they were stripped of their lands by Cromwell in the Act of Settlement, although some were restored in the latter years of the 17th century.

By the 18th century, the Arthurs were based largely in Mungret Street. The best known member of the Arthur family is Patrick Arthur (1717 – 1799). A canny investor, he spotted the potential in the slob land beyond the old walls and purchased a tract of land leading down to the Shannon’s edge. There, in the early 1770s, he built most of Francis Street, Patrick Street and Ellen Street, named after his children. On these sites he erected tall, elegant buildings with a vibrant red brick kilned in Coonagh Brickfields.

Leamy’s School, a Georgian building

While austere in style, the houses commanded superb views over the River Shannon and beyond. He also built a modern quay at the old port of Limerick, transforming it from Mead’s Quay to Arthur’s Quay. As a busy merchant, this was crucial to his trade, as it allowed him to bring timber, textiles and other products right into the heart of his new development. He himself eventually moved into the new neighbourhood, leaving Nicholas Street for Francis Street. He also donated the land on which St. Michael’s Church was built.

In recent years, a plaque was uncovered, dedicated ‘to the memory of Mr Patrick Arthur, merchant, who closed a life spent in the discharge of all social and Christian duties…to him the poor have lost a liberal benefactor, the afflicted an example of resignation and his family a tender and affectionate parent.’

Limerick Life has examined the Roche family before, recounting the life of William Roche and his famous Hanging Gardens. But he was not the only remarkable member of the dynasty; believed to descended from Norman Flemish knights who fought with Strongbow, the Catholic Roches were active participants in the Confederate and Williamite Wars of the 17th century. They lost many of their titles, land and castles as a result.

Like many industrious Catholics living under Penal Laws, they turned their attention to commerce. To our great fortune, this often coincided with property development. Lenihan recorded that in 1715, the authorities of the city “commenced to make some improvements…westward of west water gate, they built a new quay, now known by the name of Mardyke.” This area had previously been marshland, used only by visiting game-hunters (Jim Kemmy tells us they shot snipe).

Patrick Street, named for Patrick Arthur’s son

In 1747 the city leased the land at Mardyke to Mary Sexton, and in 1787 Philip Roche bought the ground and set about building a hugely expensive warehouse. As a Catholic, he was prevented from buying it in his own name. His friend, Rt. Rev. Dr. Pery (the Protestant Bishop of Limerick) is believed to have served as a proxy purchaser.

Like his nephew William Roche, Philip had excellent vision when it came to financial investments. He used the warehouse to store the provisions he traded in (flax, cereals, seeds, spices and spirits), and later it was put to more profitable use as a bonded store, i.e., a place where alcohol could legally be stored.

He was remembered by a contemporary as “a merchant prince and venture”, and Fr. White would list him as one of the most successful businessmen in southern Ireland at that time. He also held a number of government contracts, a practice which he, like many others before and after, found hugely profitable. In 1755 his father fitted out a huge ship, the largest of its kind ever seen in Limerick, and dispatched it to the West Indies. He had it mounted with 14 sixteen-pounder guns to fend off pirates on its hazardous journey. Two years later, Philip signed a petition against the levying of ‘quarterage’ on merchants by the Limerick Corporation. Jim Kemmy wrote that Philip was a “charitable man (who) frequently gave grain to the starving people of the city.”

He died in 1797, and his son and namesake took over much of the business, earning handsome profits during the Peninsular War. When he died in turn, he is said to have left his fortune to his nieces, with the proviso that they marry neither Irishman nor Spaniard. They duly obliged, and each took an English colonel as a husband.

The Roche family left their architectural mark on the city: first, with Philip Roche’s magnificent warehouse, now known as the Granary, and later with the Hanging Gardens, now under re-development for the 21st century.

The Smyths too, were a well-known and influential family in Georgian Limerick: they were heavily involved in politics, representing Limerick City in the House of Commons for the entirety of the period from 1731 to 1797. Their descendent, Jonathan Spurrell has devoted much research to his family tree, tracing his forefathers back to Rt Rev Thomas Smyth, a former Bishop of Limerick. In 1776 the Reverend’s son, Charles, became MP, Chamberlain and Mayor of Limerick City. While in office, he attempted to put tackle the heavily corrupt corporation. He reduced their debts and halved the mayor’s bloated salary. He used the savings to make improvements in the city: Ferrar notes that the industrious mayor laid the first stone on the new Custom House at Mardyke Quay.

Mr Spurrell writes that a year later Charles organised a grand jubilee, organising a host of no-expense-spared celebrations including a regatta, concerts, plays and an elegant fancy dress ball, which was attended by all the grand families in the area. It’s quite likely that among the guests – decked out in elaborate masks and ornate plumery – were names such as Sexton, Pery, Stacpole, Barrington, Roche, Hartstonge and Arthur.

They are all still recalled daily in our quotidian jaunts through the streets of Limerick. Kevin Hannan remarks that the elegant Georgian buildings and modern thoroughfares “stand as a monument to the genius and enterprise of Pery…(who was) centuries ahead of his time.” He, and his compatriots transformed our city, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for this service.

As we shall see in the next edition, however, beyond the freshly-laid streets and luxury homes, a deep dissatisfaction was being felt by the ordinary working people of the city. Rebellion was brewing.

Rachael Kealy

August 22, 2017

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