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.
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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.
Limericks became common in Britain in the nineteenth century, popularized by Edward Lear, but their origin is shrouded in the mists of time. One possible theory is that the form derives from the satirical rhymes of the Maigue Poets (named after the river that runs through Adare), who were translated from Irish into English in the mid-nineteenth century.
The Hunt Museum
The beautiful and fascinating displays in the Hunt Museum date from the Stone Age to modern times. Over the course of the twentieth century, John and Gertrude Hunt gathered together this diverse collection of art and antiquities, especially known for its religious works, and bequeathed it to the people of Ireland. You’ll get the best idea of the spirit of the place in the Epilogue Room, which juxtaposes pieces of wildly different origins, such as an eighteenth-century Chinese porcelain cockerel and an English stone rabbit from the fifteenth century. In the 1990s, a fitting venue was found for the bequest in the old Custom House on Rutland Street, built in the 1760s in elegant Palladian style and best appreciated from the river side.
Particular pieces to look out for include the beautiful, early ninth-century Antrim Cross, one of the finest examples of early Christian metalwork from Ireland. Made of bronze decorated with enamel in geometric and animal designs, it was discovered by chance in the River Bann in the nineteenth century. Keep an eye out also for the Beverley Crozier, a piece of walrus ivory intricately carved with miracles of healing, dating from the eleventh century; a vivacious, rearing bronze horse by Leonardo da Vinci; and a ten-drachma coin, minted in Syracuse in the fourth or fifth century BC, which is reputed to be one of the thirty pieces of silver received by Judas for betraying Christ – it was highly revered from the thirteenth century on as a relic of the Crucifixion, despite its portrayal of the pagan Greek demigods, Arethusa and Nike. Other highlights include works by fine Irish artists such as William Orpen, Jack B. Yeats and Roderic O’Connor, and a whole room devoted to depictions of the Crucifixion – which the museum’s map-guide aptly misspells as “Crucifixation”.
The city lays on a compelling menu of festivals throughout the year. Undoubted highlights include EVA (Exhibition of Visual Art; www.eva.ie), Ireland’s pre-eminent annual exhibition of contemporary art, taking place during Autumn biennially.
In late May, the Limerick International Music Festival is a four-day showcase for the Irish Chamber Orchestra and prestigious guest artists (t061/202620, wwww.irishchamberorchestra.com).
In late June and early July, Blas, a highly regarded, two-week, summer school of traditional music and dance, takes place at the Irish World of Academy of Music and Dance, Limerick University (wwww.blas.ie), with plenty of associated concerts and sessions around the city. An international poetry festival, Cuisle, encompassing readings, open-mike sessions and workshops, takes place in mid-October (t061/407421, wwww.limerickcity.ie).