All manner of routes – by road, rail and even air, to nearby Shannon Airport – lead to LIMERICK, the Republic’s third city, which is gradually overcoming its reputation as both a dour industrial centre and a focus for internecine gangland feuds, and has far more going for it than such images might suggest. Indeed, over the last five years, the city has been rejuvenated, thanks to some sensitive and imaginative development projects, especially alongside the river. You could easily spend half a day poking around the beautiful Hunt Museum, a rich and diverse collection of art and antiquities in the Georgian Custom House. The Anglo-Norman castle and cathedral are also both impressive, and it’s well worth checking out the year-round roster of vibrant festivals. As well as substantial renovation of the Shannon quays, regeneration efforts have included the extensive campus at Plassey, 3km southeast, which is also the site of the National Technological Park – the three colleges here, the university, Institute of Technology and College of Education, certainly help to enliven the city’s cultural life and nightlife.
The Vikings sailed up the Shannon in about 922 and established a settlement here on a river island, formed by a narrow branch off the main flow that is today called the Abbey River. This port at the lowest fording point of the river was coveted by the Anglo-Normans, who in 1197, decisively seized, and set about fortifying, the town. This involved building high city walls around what became Englishtown, to keep out the local Irish, who retreated to a ghetto to the southeast across the Abbey River – Irishtown.
In the late seventeenth century, the final bloody scenes of the War of the Kings were played out here. After their defeat at the Boyne in 1690, the Jacobite forces in Limerick castle, under the Earl of Tyrconnell and local hero Patrick Sarsfield, refused to surrender. Though beset by a vastly superior force, Sarsfield managed to raise the siege by creeping out at night with five hundred men and destroying the Williamite supply train. When William’s army came back in 1691, however, the medieval walls of the castle were unable to withstand the artillery bombardment. Tyrconnell having died of a stroke, Sarsfield surrendered on October 3, 1691, on supposedly honourable terms, according to the Treaty of Limerick. The Jacobites – some twelve thousand in all, later known as the “Wild Geese” – were permitted to go to France, in whose cause Sarsfield fought and later died. The treaty also promised Catholics the comparative religious toleration they had enjoyed under Charles II, but the English went back on the deal, and between 1692 and 1704 the Irish Parliament passed the harshly anti-Catholic penal laws.
The eighteenth century proved to be far more prosperous for Limerick, which in the 1750s received a grant of £17,000 from the Irish Parliament towards a major redevelopment. Completed in 1840 and named after the local MP, Newtown Pery comprised a grid of broad Georgian terraced streets, built well to the south of the cramped, fetid medieval city. In the early twentieth century, however, Limerick suffered greatly during the nationalist struggles, which, in 1919, gave rise to a radical movement that’s unique in Irish history. In protest against British military action during the War of Independence, the local Trades Council called a general strike and proclaimed the Limerick Soviet. With help from the IRA, they took over the city, controlling food distribution, setting up a citizens’ police force and even printing their own money. It lasted only a few weeks, however, collapsing under pressure from the Catholic bishop. In 1921, both Limerick’s mayor, George Clancy, and the former mayor, Mícheál O’Callaghan, were murdered by the Royal Irish Constabulary. One of the effects of the Troubles was that the rich were persuaded to move out of the city: many of their Georgian houses in Newtown Pery became tenements and remain dilapidated to this day, while recent investment has concentrated on developing an industrial base around the city and on renovating the quaysides.