Historical pastiche a dubious tribute to Limerick's heritage


Shannon Development rolled out the red carpet last weekend for the official opening of its latest flagship project, a £3.8 million tourism development involving the construction of a street beside King John's Castle and the refurbishment of its visitor centre.

Castle Lane contains "a blend of several different examples of Limerick's architectural heritage" - a mid-18th century granary, two early 18th century "Dutch Billy" gabled houses, a more humble urban labourer's cottage and a stone-fronted merchant's house with a 17th century appearance.

All beautifully built by Michael McNamara and Company, the complex is the end-product of market research commissioned by Shannon Development which identified the need for a "magnet tourism project" for Limerick that might transform it into an "international tourist destination".

The State's only regional development company had a problem. The grey metal-clad visitor centre at the castle, built in 1990, had never won public approval; Cllr John Gilligan, an independent member of Limerick Corporation, once invited "the entire populace" to throw stones at the offending structure.

Browbeaten by this continuing controversy, Shannon Development turned away from contemporary architecture towards quasihistorical pastiche when it came to building Castle Lane - despite strenuous objections from the Heritage Council, which felt such a solution would lack authenticity.

The National Monuments Service opposes the scheme because it meant building in the early 13th century castle moat, parallel to its southern wall. This involved abandoning earlier plans to line Castle Lane with "medieval" buildings, forcing Shannon Development to pick a later period for its project.

Murray O'Laoire, the award-winning architects' firm which designed the castle's visitor centre, believed a contemporary building would be the most appropriate solution. But its advice was rejected, although it was persuaded to stay on, at least, as project managers, leaving the design work for others.

Mr Hugh Murray, who heads the firm's Limerick office, said last weekend he was unhappy about a Shannon Development press release listing Murray O'Laoire as the architects. "I've always said that, no matter what happens, I'll be defending the visitor centre but I won't be defending [Castle Lane]."

To counter public loathing of the visitor centre, Event Ireland - which specialises in heritage projects - was commissioned to improve its appearance by fixing a series of full-height heraldic banners on both sides of the structure. These give the building a lift, making it look more festive.

The visitor centre forecourt has also been re-ordered, with the moat and bridge removed and steel handrails replaced by timber. Inside, the "complete refurbishment" includes covering up the main windows to provide space for wax dummies in full regalia of James II, William III and others involved in the Siege of Limerick.

As for the buildings on Castle Lane, the "mid-18th century" granary at the corner of Nicholas Street will be the new home of Limerick City Museum; it is relocating there from a real Georgian house on John's Square. The remaining buildings constitute a very large "themed pub".

The pair of Dutch Billys, nicely tuck-pointed and "authentic" in every detail, house the kitchen and toilets of the new Castle Lane Tavern; one entrance is a fire exit from the pub. And the humble labourer's house next door is also part of this "re-created early 18th century tavern".

Executed by McNally Design, responsible for numerous Irish "themed pubs" abroad, it has beams decorated with old carpenter's tools to evoke a workshop while upstairs visitors are seated at trestle tables in a room with painted trompe l'oeil blockwork on the walls and even the ceiling.

At both levels, the "labourer's cottage" opens out into the "17th century merchant's house", which contains a "gentry bar" with a stone-built fireplace on the ground-floor and an even larger one upstairs, where the high ceiling, supported by king-post trusses, is decorated in mid-19th century Gothic Revival style, after Pugin.

The piece de resistance is an oriel window in the corner, which offers a panoramic view over the River Shannon; otherwise, because the windows are relatively small and there are few of them, the building fails to capitalise on its location - though Castle Lane does link Nicholas Street with the riverside walk.

"In essence, from an architectural viewpoint, the buildings which make up Castle Lane represent different examples of Limerick's built heritage of which some [notably the Dutch gables] are now largely lost to us," says Shannon Development. "They represent a tribute to an architectural legacy which is being increasingly destroyed."

This is part of the problem. While the new quasi-historical complex was clad in brick and stone salvaged from buildings demolished in Limerick, it is clear the city is failing to look after its real architectural heritage; a plethora of PVC windows deface the Crescent, centrepiece of Georgian Limerick.

Shannon Development is on firmer ground with its latest project at Bunratty Folk Park. This involved re-erecting a redundant Regency Gothic Church of Ireland parish church from Ardcroney, near Borrisokane, Co Tipperary. There are even plans to plant yew trees to make it look as if it has always been there.

Bunratty Folk Park also contains several invented buildings, and there is nothing wrong with that because they stand within a corral. But was it right to build quasi-historical buildings at Castle Lane in the heart of Limerick?