The Franciscans closed their church in Limerick and handed it over to a trust. Last week it was the location for an exhibition of work by local art students and open to the public for the first time since the friars departed.
I have no idea when I last set foot inside this building. Decades.
Even then, it didn’t impinge on me in any meaningful sense, except in the knowledge that it was some sort of ecclesiastical establishment.
In a more remote sense, I can remember our elders bringing stuff for the holy friars to hand out to The Poor, even though our people weren’t exactly rich either. Maybe we were Muslims back then. I don’t know, but I do know this : the Franciscans made a great play about poverty. It was their schtick, so to speak. They used to walk around the town in the robes and the sandals, but somehow all that asceticism jarred with me even when I was a kid, because clearly, the place where they lived was far from humble. Far from ascetic. Not in the least poor.
They had a side door where The Poor might come for alms. The Poor knew their place in those days and would never dream of attending the front door. That was where people like our neighbours brought whatever meagre things they could scramble together for distribution to The Poor.
It’s pretty opulent, I have to say. Much more than I remember it when I was a kid.
If you built it today, this thing would cost millions and millions, provided you could find the craftsmen at all.
When the friars left, they took nothing with them, just as they’d arrived, apart from the Stations of the Cross, leaving behind the Stations of the Mildly Peeved. This isn’t necessarily as saintly as you might think. Like all monastic fellows, they were accustomed to their comfort, to skivvies and cleaners, and they weren’t all that used to tidying up after themselves. So they didn’t. Those who came to take over the building had to clean up all manner of mess, including the holy men’s dinner plates, left on the table or the floor in expectation of some woman arriving to spirit them away to a magical dishwasher.
It’s the Mary Celeste.
Unfortunately, when the good friars abandoned their temple, they entrusted the keys to a local cleric who promptly appeared in the dead of night and removed all the marble from the altar, exposing it for the formless lump of brick and mortar that it is. That’s priests for you.
It’s an extraordinary place in many ways. The confessionals remain, redolent of a time when Irish people were content to share their most intimate secrets with some callow, unformed youth, or some panting old reprobate crouched in the dark and massaging himself quietly.
It all shouts money. Serious money. Major money.
Remember, this place was started only thirty years after the disastrous famine that wiped out a million Irish people from starvation and sent another million abroad on the coffin ships. Yet only thirty years later — an eyeblink in history — the Irish clergy were spending enormous money on another monument to their greater glory.
Solid marble pulpits. Gold-leaf mosaics for the ceiling. Nothing but the best for the penniless friars.