Three Days in a Wonderful City of Dense Culture, Limerick
By Cindy Bigras
I know what you’re thinking. When you read “Limerick” you think of limericks. “There once was a man from Nantucket” goes lilting through your mind because these sassy, memorable, off color verses are impossible to forget!
Did limericks actually originate here? Later in 2014 local historian Dr. Matthew Potter will present evidence documenting the history of the poetic verse and its connection to Limerick. It’s one of many events sponsored by Limerick City of Culture, 2014.
Why is the City of Culture a big deal?
It’s recognition that this charming hub is home to all genres of creative endeavor. Artists, musicians, dancers, and tourists are arriving for concerts, performances of all types, and poetry readings.
There will be seminars, writing workshops (memoir anyone?) films, art and technology exhibits, and walking tours of Limerick’s historical streets lined with stately Georgian architecture. Also on the schedule are crafts, pipe organ lessons, pipe organ concerts, pop-up museums, food celebrations, and, interestingly, greyhound racing.
Judging by what I see today, the creative climate will continue long after 2014. Limerick is NOT a bustling metropolis but it’s a very happening place right now. It’s easy to navigate on foot – Henry Street to O’Connell Ave to Arthur’s Quay. Dock Road along the mighty River Shannon, Ireland’s longest. I recognize these streets.
Frank McCourt lived them in Angela’s Ashes, a beautifully written memoir of his childhood in a Limerick of poverty and alcoholism. The Frank McCourt Museum on Hartstonge Street is housed in the actual Lowry National School building, familiar to readers of the book.
Fortunately, today’s Limerick is a very different place, quaint and prosperous. The streets are lined with pubs and cafes as well as residences with spring blossoms peeking out from countless flowerboxes.
St Mary’s Cathedral overlooks River Shannon and is the oldest building in town. Built in 1168 on the site of a Viking Palace, it’s used for daily church services and for community events, and not just during the City of Culture festivities.
The medieval climate is noticeable – like all churches, there are the requisite tombs and stained glass. What’s missing is polished marble and tourist souvenir booths. The thick stone walls are crumbling in places and reveal artifacts anytime they are opened up. The building is known for great acoustics as I’m to learn very soon.
Dusk on Saturday. I settle into a seat at St Mary’s for what’s described as a Choral Extravaganza. The chandeliers are lit with sturdy tapers, not electricity, and the cozy atmosphere embraces locals and tourists alike. Muscular men lug cases of wine for the intermission when I’ll mingle with the many locals who have turned out.
The music is lovely until it turns absolutely and hauntingly beautiful. Noirin Ni Riain has taken the stage, or I should say, the aisles, because she walks among us rather than performing at the front.
If you haven’t heard of her you’re a) not Irish or b) you don’t listen to spiritual music. Her voice soars and my soul senses an ethereal presence of angels and spirits hovering behind every column, as if her magical voice has called the dead in from the graveyard outside.
Further down the river sits King Johns Castle, a massive Norman fortress so well preserved that I’m prepared to encounter medieval soldiers preparing for battle.
Thanks to touchscreen technology I actually do come face to face with the blacksmith, the constable and several soldiers in period costume recounting episodes of their daily lives. Guided exhibits take me through the siege of 1642 when 800+ people were trapped in the castle. Do ghosts inhabit these walls after hours?
Bunratty Castle & Folk Park is a 19th century Irish village created by relocating buildings from other parts of Ireland. It depicts the life of Irish urban and rural folk – a tough life it was, due to extreme poverty and famine. There are farmhouses, a weaver’s shed, the post office, and a school house with segregated sections for girls and boys.
The church was relocated from County Tipperary and the Byre home, from County Mayo, is a teeny residence for the family and their cows living in the small room! Fires burn in almost all dwellings and the putrid odor sears my lungs. Peat, here called turf, was used to heat these homes and after visiting the first two I’ve had my fair share of its foul smoke.
The other constant is The Virgin Mary or Christ hanging, framed, in every room of all the homes. The village abuts Bunratty Castle where banquets and special events take place. But even on a normal day, like today, it’s a fun place to tour and imagine the fifteenth century kings and earls who roamed its narrow halls.
Dave Neville of Nevsail WaterSports hands me a Barbie-sized wetsuit assuring me it’ll be just right. A few stretches and several giggles later I slink out of the dressing room knowing that every french fry or twinkie I’ve ever eaten is there for all to see. Wet suits are tight by design!
Ten minutes later I’m paddling a kayak on the River Shannon. Dave leads our small group through calm waters, demonstrating how to paddle and turn. We approach dozens of large white swans – graceful gliders until they decide we’ve come too close.
One by one, up they go, lumbering hulks, lifting off slowly, wings wildly flapping, rippling the water below. Horses watch from the right bank and countless birds chirp from the vegetation on every side. The hot sun is made bearable by each welcome splash that hits my face. We follow the river around bends, under bridges and towards the city’s center up ahead.
The Atlantic is only 60 km from here which means the river has tides. At high tide the current is gentle and the water’s surface flows well above the rocks.
But it’s low tide now and the water isn’t so calm. All of a sudden the group is making a beeline to the right bank where a van waits. Dave is shouting directions, “Paddle! Paddle! Paddle! Just the right oar!”
And so I paddle, splashing water everywhere, but the current is too strong and pulls me towards the rocks. These eddies and rocks don’t qualify on any register of kayaking difficulty but it feels like an unexpected adventure to see rocks and fast water ahead, especially because my kayak has spun around and is facing backwards! Down I go, stabilized to some extent by Dave who has raced to the rescue. I’ve survived these mini rapids which won’t even exist once the tide comes in.
Having liberated myself from the wetsuit, I make one last stop in the city at The Hunt Museum located in what was formerly the Customs House on the river. It’s the private collection of John and Gertrude Hunt whoso children ensured it would be available as a museum in the 1970s.
The Hunts collected for personal taste, making for an eclectic collection of paintings, religious items, puzzles and ceramics from the Bronze age to contemporary pieces. A coin sitting behind glass is reputed to be one of the silver pieces Judas received for betraying Christ. Could it really be? Carbon dating or not, it will always remain a mystery.
“This is the real Ireland” says Aine Barry, our enthusiastic and passionate guide to Lough Gur, 21 km southeast of Limerick. “It’s grass and cow dung, hills, history, and stories”. Aine has the ability to recount the past through the lives of those who lived here, evoking the mystery surrounding this hallowed ground.
The Grange stone circle, built during the Bronze age, is located at a point where the earth’s energies are strong and is said to be inhabited by faeries after dark. Its purpose was ceremonial as well as practical, providing guidance to the seasons.
Massive boulders are perfectly aligned so that the rays of the rising solstice sun line up between the two entrance rocks and pass directly through the circle’s center.
Is Lough Gur inhabited by faeries and ghosts? According to legend it certainly is; many many years ago the earl of Desmond was banished to live at the bottom of the lake after having tuned himself into a black raven. Since that time he has reappeared every seven years on a full moon. He circles the lake on a white stallion, round and round, all night long, and will continue to do so until the silver horseshoes wear out.
This, and several other local legends, can be heard on high quality audio recordings at the Lough Gur Heritage Center. Audio recordings are also available to those who want to bike or walk the i-Trails around the lake. Take a listen at www.loughgur.com.
In Ireland, a quaint town can be found
Distinguished by the arts all around
With an Aer Lingus flight
You’ll get there overnight
And that’s how you’ll be Limerick bound!