The City of Limerick
With a population of roughly 60,000, Limerick is the fifth largest city in Ireland. Overlooked by Woodcock Hill immediately to the north, and the Silvermine Mountains to the east, the city is spread along both banks of the Shannon River, a few miles east of the Shannon estuary. Limerick has traditionally been seen as a down-to-earth city and has long been eclipsed by Galway, its neighbor to the north. But this is true no longer. The Limerick of today is a busy, bustling city and the commercial capital of the mid-west of Ireland - the poor, dreary, rain-sodden town, ever-present drunk townspeople, and religious maniacs which Frank McCourt so memorably evokes in “Angela's Ashes” is no more. Like many other Irish towns and cities, Limerick changed and prospered greatly during the success-driven 90s, and is currently in the midst of a comprehensive makeover. As a result, you'll often see cranes and scaffolding during your wanderings through its streets, as Limerick's renaissance unfolds.
Limerick is a compact, walkable city where most of the sights and attractions are within a stone's throw of each other. Most are located in the gridiron of streets south of
In recent years Limerick has become an important cultural center. Lyric FM, RTE Radio's well-regarded arts and classical music channel, broadcasts from a building in the restored Cornmarket. The University Concert Hall, at the Shannonside campus of the
The Hinterland of Limerick: Counties Limerick and Clare
County Limerick is compact and roughly rectangular in shape, bounded to the north by the spreading estuary of the River Shannon, the longest river and most important natural feature in Ireland, and to the south by the Mullaghareirk and Galtee mountains. Most of the county consists of a fertile limestone plain, providing the best dairying country in Ireland, broken here and there by little hills and ridges. The fertility of the soil explains the succession of invasions and settlements of the region down the centuries. When viewed as a whole, the mass of Neolithic remains around Lough Gur in the center of the county constitutes one of the most informative archaeological sites in Europe. The county has the highest concentration of ringforts (earthen embankments which once protected a dwelling) in Ireland. These date from the early Christian period. One theory suggests that the ringforts were built as a defense against cattle-raiders. Areas such as Limerick, which supported many farming families, have high concentrations of ringforts, while barren regions such as Donegal have relatively few. In early Christian times, County Limerick consisted of a collection of small, independent kingdoms, or 'tuatha' in Irish. The farmers who lived in the ringforts leased the land from kings or nobles.
Another perhaps more conspicuous feature of the landscape is the sheer number of Norman castles and keeps. Limerick, with over 400 of these, has more than any other county in Ireland. The Normans also built seven large monasteries in the county, including three at Adare. The English and Scottish planters who settled in the West of the county after the seventeenth century built many of the solid Georgian houses you'll come across in your visit.
In the west of the county, the landscape begins to assume the ruggedness one associates with coastal Ireland. As the fertile Golden Vale gives way to the crags and broad beaches of the west coast, the influence of nearby County Kerry and the Atlantic makes itself felt—the mountains become higher, the land less fertile, and the rain rather more abundant!
County Clare is less fertile than its southern neighbor but is even more scenic. The county town, Ennis, is one of Ireland's prettiest provincial towns. Recently, it has joined the twenty-first century with a vengeance, having been named an Irish Technology Town which means that every home is linked up to the Internet free of charge. Ennis was also the power base of the de Valera family, who formed the principal political dynasty of Ireland.
In the east of the county, the land falls in gentle terraces and slopes to the lush lowlands of the Shannon valley and the shores of —
In the Middle Ages, the River Shannon was the main access route to the centre of Ireland, and the river has shaped the destiny of Limerick ever since. Denmark Street, in the city centre, commemorates Limerick's Norse founders. In the mid-ninth century the Vikings built a fortified ship-shelter on a spit of land, known as Inis Sibhton, in the lower reaches of the Shannnon at its confluence with the Abbey River. From here the feared Northmen ranged far and wide on voyages of plunder. The settlement provided a base for waterborne raids on the rich monastic settlements of Clonmacnoise and Birr in the Irish midlands.
The Vikings ruled the roost in Limerick for some forty years, during which time their waterside settlement grew into a small town. But for all their ferocity, the Vikings were never numerous or powerful enough to extend their rule over the rest of Thomond, the medieval kingdom which took in parts of the modern-day province of Munster. They may have been no more than vassals of King Mahon of Thomond and his brother Brian Boru, to whom they paid an annual tribute of 340 tons of wine. Consequently, the rulers of Thomond may simply have been waiting for an opportunity to crush them.
The Old Irish name for the area around the Viking settlement, anglicized as Limerick, translates as 'vulnerable land'. King Mahon and Brian Boru demonstrated the aptness of the term in the 10th century. They moved against the Vikings in 967, defeating them at Solohead, in County Tipperary, and went on to sack Limerick. Their descendants built earthen ramparts around the reconstructed settlement, which became the seat of power of the O'Brien dynasty for the next 200 years.
At this point, the Anglo-Norman invaders seized the walled city of Limerick. The Normans built a five-sided bastion—King John's Castle—on the original settlement. From its parapets they kept a wary watch on the surrounding countryside. The island became known as 'Englishtown' after the conquerors removed its Gaelic occupants to the area now referred to as 'Irishtown', on the other side of the Abbey River.
By Irish standards, Limerick had a fairly quiet time of it for the next 400 years. Its inhabitants remained loyal to the English crown, and built up a substantial trading port, building on the city's strategic location on the Shannon estuary.
The Williamite Wars and the Treaty of Limerick
Limerick fared badly during the religious wars which followed the Plantation of Ireland by English and Scottish settlers in the early seventeenth century. An Irish Catholic army occupied Limerick in 1642; an English army retook it nine years later. Then, after the lifting of the Siege of Derry in the summer of 1689 and the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, an Irish/French army loyal to King James, the Catholic pretender to the English throne, fell back on Limerick in 1691. An English army, in hot pursuit, surrounded the city. The Siege of Limerick—the city was the last redoubt of the Jacobite army—was a bloody, protracted affair. The Jacobite commander, Patrick Sarsfield, led daring forays out of the city, and his soldiers doggedly defended a breach in the city walls. However, a year into the siege, the English managed to break in and force their surrender. When Sarsfield signed the Treaty of Limerick in 1692 the conquest of Ireland, which had taken the English six hundred years, was finally completed. 'Limerica capta, Hibernian subacta, Octobris 1691' reads the inscription on a coin struck to mark the great event.
After the Treaty, the Catholic Irish aristocracy and their regiments departed Limerick for France and Spain, where they received a splendid welcome. Back home, the leaders of Irish Protestantism, who bridled at the relatively generous terms the Treaty offered the Catholic Irish, were demanding greater subjugation of the papists. They got it with the enactment, in 1695, of the Penal Laws. These effectively made the profession of Catholicism a criminal offense and would remain in force for decades to come. The enemy within now subjugated, the English and Scottish settlers could begin rebuilding and expanding Ireland's cities. Over the next 130 years Limerick's centre of gravity shifted to the south-west, where a gridiron network of commercial and residential streets was constructed in the Georgian style. The new development was named Newtown Pery after the general patron of the city, Edward Sexton Pery (1719-1806).
Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Limerick
Since the early nineteenth century Limerick's fortunes have more or less reflected those of Ireland. The industries established in the city in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were not large enough to absorb the unemployed or curb emigration. The city, strategically placed on the Shannon, witnessed widespread street fighting during the Irish Civil War, as the Free State Army wrested control of the city from its Republican defenders, while thousands of starving people fled into the surrounding countryside.
The 'disillusioned decades' which followed the civil war are clearly evoked by Frank McCourt in Angela's Ashes, his harrowing memoir of slum life in the city in the 1940s. The first stirrings of prosperity, in Limerick and in the country as a whole, followed the anti-protectionist economic reforms of the late 1950s.Shannon Airport lies close to the city and has acted as a spur to the economic development of the mid-West region as has the National Technology Park in the suburb of Plassey. Limerick, like Ireland, prospered as never before in the later 1990's—this is a trend which has continued into the 21st century.
Limerick: Images of a Changing City, a book of photographs published by the Chamber of Commerce, is a fine pictorial record of the massive regeneration the city has undergone in recent years.
During the course of your visit to the city, at least one barman will tell you that the best Guinness in Ireland is served in Limerick; you may wish to put this claim to the test! Limerick has its fair share of brash, themed pubs offering head-splitting music and overpriced beer, but the city does—thankfully—have more than a few notable taverns. The Curragower Bar, a hundred metres from the Treaty Stone on Clancy's Quay, serves an excellent seafood chowder and good Guinness. Lager-lovers might want to try Warsteiner, a German brew on tap in the Curragower. Continental lagers, still something of a rarity in Ireland, have more bite and taste than the weakish Irish versions. In clement weather you can eat and drink in the beer garden, taking in the view across the Shannon to the swans dawdling on the water below King John's Castle.
Another pub to visit in good weather is the Castle Lane Tavern. You can sup on the lawn outside and savor the view downriver. Then, when it starts raining, retreat to the open fire within. The Castle Lane serves delicious soups and claims to offer the best carvery lunch in Limerick. With its low ceilings, sawdust-strewn floor, and roaring turf Nelly Blake's in Denmark Street is a well-preserved traditional pub; it's a good spot for a quiet afternoon pint, but fills up pretty quickly in the evenings. James Gleeson's, at the corner of O'Connell and Glentworth Streets, is a marvelously unreconstructed Victorian pub with a limited bar menu but great atmosphere. Meanwhile, you're guaranteed a traditional music session any night of the week at Dolan's on the Dock Road. South's, the pub Frank McCourt's father Malachy graced with his custom in Angela's Ashes, is on O'Connell Avenue. Were he to return, of course, the old soak wouldn't recognize his former local—it's now 'one of them yuppie places', as a Limerick burgher put it.
Two Limerick restaurants receive special praise from no less an authority than Ireland's Finest Places to Eat, Drink and Stay. Brulees, at 21 Henry Street, specializes in fresh fish, and offers an international menu with an Irish twist. Upon your arrival you'll be offered spicy olives and black bread to nibble on while you wait. A popular dish is fillet of John Dory, served on a bed of tomato and goat's cheese, with mashed potatoes, caramelized onions and a creamy fennel sauce. DuCarte's, at the back of the Hunt Museum, is a popular lunch-time haunt, and serves 'healthy home-cooked food in the modern idiom'. The cooks source all ingredients for their dishes locally. In good weather you can eat outside on the terraces overlooking the Shannon.
Paul's, at 59 O'Connell Street, is a bright, spacious place inside a beautiful old building. The starters are huge and cheap; the entrees are mostly pasta-based Mediterranean dishes. The Mogul Emperor, at the corner of Sarsfield and Liddy Streets, serves Indian regional specialties in goodly portions, toothsome naan breads, and an excellent house red. Don't be put off by the dowdy facade of the building. The Limerick Food Centre (061 302033) will clue you in on the annual Limerick Good Food Festival, held annually in June. Mortell's, a cheery fresh food shop at 49 Roche's Street, is a good place to load up on picnic fare.
Limerick has a wide range of tourist accommodation but it's always a good idea to book ahead, especially during the summer months. If you have no luck with the places listed, the Tourist Office on Arthur's Quay can help you find somewhere to stay. If money's no object you might consider a night or two at the Bunratty Castle Hotel which, to go on the findings of a recent survey of 70,000 holiday makers, is the best five-star hotel in the country. Four-star Derrynagittagh House (061 924308) outside Feakle, some fifteen miles north of Limerick, is a refurbished eighteenth-century gentleman's residence set in mature gardens.
There is a string of reliable three-star hotels on the Ennis Road in Limerick. The Limerick Ryan is built around an original Georgian house, and has a gym, restaurant, and two bars. The Limerick Inn Hotel is a vast two-storey building with a swimming pool and fitness centre; while Jury's Hotel is the closest of the three to the city centre. Its sister hotel, Jury's Inn, is located bang in the middle of the city itself.
The recently-refurbished Royal George Hotel on O'Connell Street is as central as it gets. It has a good restaurant, a secure car park, and an authentic Irish shebeen. There are several other reasonably-priced hotels in the city centre. The Glentworth Hotel, on Glentworth Street, is in a renovated Georgian building between the railway station and the city centre. Hanratty's, on the same street, is a lively place, with a restaurant, nightclub and bar. The Railway Hotel, opposite Colbert Station, is the traditional Irish establishment. It's in a noisy part of town, with many bars and take-aways, so is perhaps best avoided if you like to turn in early.
Limerick is well provided with B & Bs and hostels. The latter tend to be cheaper but don't provide the traditional hearty cooked Irish breakfast. Tariffs and quality of accommodation can vary. While the B & B's along Davis Street are cheap and rather austere places, there are some good B & B's on the Ennis Road. Clifton House is quite close to the city centre and is large (16 rooms) with plenty of facilities. Cloneen House is closer to town and set in a quiet garden. The Mount Gerard and the Rosmoy Town House are two tastefully-appointed B & Bs on O'Connell Avenue. The Sarsfield Bridge Inn is a roomy, modern hostel in the city centre overlooking the Shannon. Barrington's Lodge and Hostel is a converted nurses' lodgings by Baal's Bridge in Englishtown, the oldest part of Limerick.