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Diocese of Limerick
Diocese in Ireland; includes the greater part of the County of Limerick and a small portion of Clare, and has an area, approximately, of about 500,000 acres. It corresponds with the ancient territory of Hy Fidhgheinte. St. Patrick visited the district, and was followed in the work of converting the natives by St. Senan, who lived in the sixth century and who was at one time Abbot of Scattery Island. In the same century lived St. Munchin, the patron of the diocese, who established a monastery and school at Mungret. This school became so famous that at one time it had 1,500 students. An offshoot from Mungret was a hermitage at Kill-Munchin, near Limerick. Thither St. Munchin retired, and there he spent his closing years, and, no doubt, from this hermitage and from Mungret the spiritual needs of the surrounding district were supplied. But as yet there was no city of Limerick, and no diocese till after the Danes came. Quick to discern the advantageous position of the place for trade and commerce, they settled there in the ninth century, and from this as their stronghold they oppressed the natives around and plundered the religious establishments along the Shannon. They were severely punished in the end of the tenth century by Brian Boroihme, who expelled them from the city, and they were readmitted only as subjects and tributaries of the kings of Thomond. Gradually they became Christians, though they still disliked the Irish, and had their bishops at Limerick consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury and subject to him.
It is said there was a Bishop of Limerick about 1050, but his name and acts are unknown. We do know, however, that there was a bishop at Limerick about 1100, a remarkable man, Gillebert by name. Educated at Bangor, he had been abbot there, and then, having travelled abroad, he met Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, at Rouen. Perhaps it was through Anselm's influence that he became Bishop of Limerick and also Apostolic delegate. Probably it was under Anselm's advice that he endeavoured to introduce unity of liturgy in the Irish Church, instead of the bewildering diversity of Offices and Masses which prevailed. He presided at the Synod of Rathbreasail (1118), where the number and limits of the Irish dioceses were determined, when Limerick itself, freed from the jurisdiction of Canterbury, was made subject to Cashel as the metropolitan See of Munster. Gillebert resigned his position as papal delegate in 1139 and in the following year died. His immediate successors in the See of Limerick were all Danes; then came Donat O'Brien, of the royal House of Thomond. During his episcopate (1179-1207) the cathedral of St. Mary was built, a cathedral chapter was set up, and Scattery Island was united to Limerick. Meantime the city of Limerick, alternately ruled by native and Anglo-Norman, was in 1199 taken possession of by de Burgh, who soon ruled with the power of an independent prince. Under Anglo-Norman rule English influences prevailed, and for two centuries the bishops appointed were English, or of English descent. During that period the privileges of the diocesan chapter were enlarged, and the diocese was divided into deaneries. One bishop of Limerick, in 1351, ruled Ireland for a short period as lord deputy; and another had a serious quarrel with the Archbishop of Cashel, whom he drove out of Limerick by force. This militant prelate resigned his see in 1400 and was succeeded by a very able man, Cornelius O'Dea, a descendant of one of the ancient Dalcassian chiefs. His mitre and crosier, both beautifully ornamented, still exist. His successors, like his predecessors, were of the Anglo-Irish stock; nor did anything noteworthy occur during their rule until the Reformation, and then, though a Limerick priest, William Casey, accepted from Edward VI the position of Protestant bishop, both Irish and Anglo-Irish united in rejecting the new doctrines.
During the wars of Elizabeth the diocese suffered much, nor did any city rejoice more sincerely than Limerick at the death of the queen. The city was again prominent in the wars of the seventeenth century. The nuncio was present in its cathedral, in 1646, when a Te Deum was sung for the victory of Benburb; and when the city was captured, in 1651, by Ireton, after a most heroic defence, one of those specially excluded from mercy was the Catholic bishop. He managed, however, to escape, and died at Brussels, in 1654. For nearly twenty years subsequently Limerick had no bishop; and then came the partial toleration under Charles II and the fleeting triumph under James II, followed by the Jacobite war, which, in Ireland, was mainly a war of religion. The Treaty of Limerick, which ended the war and was supposed to have secured toleration for the Catholics, was soon shamefully broken, and in the eighteenth century Limerick-city and diocese-experienced to the full the horrors of the penal laws. From 1702 to 1720 there was no bishop, but after that date the episcopal succession was regularly maintained. Shut out from every position of honour or emolument, the Catholics were prohibited from dwelling within the city, unless registered, and as late as 1744 there was no Catholic church within the city walls. Gradually, however, the old religion gained ground. The Catholics, defying the law, settled in Limerick and soon outnumbered the Protestants, and being free to engage in trade, they amassed wealth and built churches. In 1805, when the bishop, Dr. Young, undertook the building of a diocesan college, he had no difficulty in getting sufficient funds for the purpose. Dr. Young was one of those who refused to subscribe to the episcopal resolution of 1799 favouring the veto, and he denounced the project in 1808, when it was sought to have it revived, His successor, Dr. Tuohy, was equally vigorous (1814) in condemnation of the letter of Monsignor Quarantotti. One of Dr. Tuohy's most notable acts was to introduce the Christian Brothers into the city. He died in 1828, and was succeeded by Dr. Ryan, who died in 1864. The long episcopate of the latter was marked by the erection of many churches, including the cathedral of St. John, the foundation-stone of which was laid in 1856. Convents, also, were multiplied, and where, in 1825, there was but one convent for women throughout the whole diocese, at Dr. Ryan's death there were in Limerick City alone five convents, these including the Good Shepherd, Presentation, and Mercy orders. And the good work of building churches, convents, and schools was carried on with equal energy by Dr. Ryan's successor, Dr. Butler (1864-86).
The present bishop is Dr. Edward Thomas O'Dwyer, born in 1842, educated at Maynooth, ordained priest in 1867, and consecrated bishop in 1886, an eloquent and fearless man, always listened to with respect on public questions. Among eminent persons connected with the diocese may be named the poets Gerald Griffin, Sir Aubrey de Vere, Bart., and his son Sir Aubrey Thomas de Vere, the second baronet. In 1910 the diocese contained 48 parishes, 46 parish priests, 2 administrators, 60 curates, 7 professors, 115 secular and 54 regular clergy, 94 district churches, 12 convents with 144 religious living in community, 4 monastic houses with 38 religious living in community. In 1901 the Catholic population of the diocese was 111,170.
LENIHAN, History of Limerick (Dublin, 1866); BEGLEY, History of the Diocese of Limerick (Dublin, 1906); LANIGAN, Ecclesiastical History of Ireland (Dublin, 1822); MacCAFFREY, The Black Book of Limerick (Dublin. 1907); Irish Catholic Directory (1910).
E. A. D'Alton.