Construction on St. Mary’s Cathedral started in the 12th century, and was completed around 1194. The full title of this Cathedral is the “Cathedral and Parochial Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary”. It was started in 1172 by Donal Mor O’Brien, the last King of Munster. The design has strong indications of both Romanesque and gothic styles of architecture with Romanesque arches and doorways and gothic windows. The cathedral is not pure in any one style, with the plan and elevation giving the impression of the design being altered in the course of construction. The original plan of the church was in the form of a Latin cross. Additions were made to the Cathedral, two centuries later, during the episcopate of Stephen Wall, Bishop of Limerick. The Romanesque doorway on the west side is an impressive carving of chevrons and patterns. Like many medieval churches in Ireland, the building has been heavily ‘restored’ by the Victorians.
Between 1856-63, English architect William Slater restored the east end, adding a new east window as a memorial to Augustus Stafford. He also was responsible for a new roof on the nave and a southern transept.
The interior of the cathedral shows its medieval origins with its thick walls and piers supporting the wooden roof. The walls are relatively plain, having a rubble stone surface – any carvings or embellishments being kept for various screens and memorials set into the walls. Despite the thickness of the walls, the church is remarkably bright inside – due mainly to the larger windows inserted during various Victorian ‘restorations’. The building has many memorials on the walls of various luminaries and worthies from the vicinity.
Notable features of the interior are the carved misericords in the choir. These miserichords are unique in Ireland as the only surviving pre-Elizabethan carvings, and probably date from 1480 when Bishop Folan restored St. Mary’s. Of the 21 carvings, 16 are different, representing such mediaeval emblems as a two-legged one-horned goat, a griffin, a sphinx, a wild boar, an angel, a head resembling Henry IV, a dragon biting its tail, antelopes with intertwined necks, a swan, an eagle, the Lion of Judah with a dragon, and a cockatrice holding its tail.