Chain of command – An Irishwoman’s Diary on the mayors of Limerick
The mayoral chain with the smaller sheriff’s chain. Photograph: City of Limerick Libraries
All this talk about directly elected mayors in Cork, Limerick and Waterford takes me back to a time when I basked in the title of receptionist in the City Hall of Limerick City.
It was a general dogsbody job. I answered phones, took care of the post, had an enquiry hatch to attend, and people waited in my office until the person they had come to consult was free – the list was endless.
I suppose one of my most important duties was to have all the necessary accruements for state occasions available on time.
Let me take you back to such an event.
The City Hall is a hive of activity. His Worship the Mayor of Limerick is going out wearing full regalia. The mayoral robe is ordered from storage and has to be brushed back to its red gloriousness for the public showing.
The two ancient silver maces and the mayoral chain are removed from the vault and remain in my possession until His Worship is ready. Having those precious objects in my office is no big deal. It’s just part of my job.
All this pomp and circumstance meant nothing to me until one day the heavy gold chain in its soft leather pouch was delivered early and placed on my desk, and I had a while to take a closer look at it.
I spread the chain across my desk and counted 69 rings or medallions in total, and looking a little closer I read some of the hidden history of Limerick City
It is quite long and heavy and its weight in gold is estimated to be worth more than a million euro.
It had become the custom during the late 19th century for each mayor to add a gold ring engraved with his name and year of office. As time went by the rings became more elaborate and individual mayors added medallions rather than rings. And the purpose of these medallions was to record important events, engraved in gold, of that particular mayoralty.
I spread the chain across my desk and counted 69 rings or medallions in total, and looking a little closer I read some of the hidden history of Limerick City.
The first legible inscription says that Pierce Shannon was elected mayor in January 1844 and sadly died in his mayoralty in June of the same year.
William Lane-Joynt, mayor of Limerick in 1862, records great distress in Lancashire consequent on the civil war in America.
Eugene O’Callaghan in 1861 records the renovation of the Corporation Gas Works and the birth of a son to the Prince of Wales.
The year 1870 sees William Spillane, not alone mayor of Limerick, but also president of the Limerick Athenaeum and school of art, the public free library and Limerick Boat Club. War is declared between France and Prussia and the Irish Land Act became law.
In 1873 some 300 citizens were invited to accompany the Earl of Spencer to Scattery Island.
John Kerr in 1907 opened the All Ireland Industrial Conference in the town hall. He also opened the Tuberculosis Exhibition in the Athenaeum.
Miceal O’Ceallachain elected in 1920 carried out his duties amid the Troubles and his medallion records that: I gcoimhne na h-oíche, 7 Marta, 1921, ina thig féin duhmarbaoidh e at Gallaibh i láthair a bhanchéile. His successor was Seoirse Mhic Fhlannchadaha – who met the same fate and was also executed at his own home in front of his wife in 1921.
But it isn’t all about such tragedies. Col PF Quinlan was elected mayor of Limerick in 1933. He inaugurated the poor children’s excursion to Youghal. President Éamon de Valera opened the Civic Carnival in October. The Atlantic Fliers Capt Pond and Lieut Stabelli were entertained and took a petition from the mayor to Pope Pius XI. He was re-elected in 1934, receiving an apostolic benediction from the pope.
And there is an account of a fete opened by the Countess of Dunraven, which realised £3,000 for Barrington’s Hospital.
George Russell was mayor of Limerick three years in a row from 1954 and his contribution to the city was recorded on a medallion paid for by the 16 surviving former mayors of Limerick.
Their signatures are engraved perfectly in the gold – and I read: Michael B O’Malley, John Carew, Kevin Bradshaw, Desmond J O’Malley, Stephen Coughlan . . . and then a name that stopped me in my tracks. Patrick O’Connell, BC, PC. His signature is just as I remember it – so familiar – and I am speechless.
I watched him sign his name so many times – on the letters, official documents and on birthday cards. He was my grandfather – mayor of Limerick in 1947 and part of the hidden history of Limerick.