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 neighbour 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 peopled by drunks 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 reinvention 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 King John’s Castle. This eye-catching, handsome building on the banks of the Shannon is the heart of Limerick and the city’s trademark. A look around the castle and the area immediately around it, known as Irishtown, will immediately provide an insight into the history and origins of the city. In the undercroft of the castle are the remains of a Viking settlement, the original nucleus of the city of Limerick. The castle itself was built by the Normans as a defensive outpost from which they could keep and eye on the restive Gaelic tribes on the other side of the Shannon. The castle and the walled city around it were the last centre of Irish resistance to English rule during the seventeenth-century wars. The fall of Limerick in 1691 confirmed English authority in Ireland. Having seen off their enemies, the new rulers set about expanding the city in the 18th century, building the handsome Georgian quarter – Newtown Pery – which is bisected by O’Connell Street, Limerick’s main shopping thoroughfare. This sensitively restored district provides a gracious and elegant focus for the city.
In recent years Limerick has become an important cultural centre. 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 University of Limerick, is one of the leading venues in Ireland, and the world-famous Hunt Collection has recently been rehoused in the renovated Customs House. These new institutions have been vital in the reinvention of Limerick and have helped to enliven its now thriving city centre.
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. Taken together, the mass of neolithic remains around Lough Gur in the centre of the county constitute 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 defence 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. Many of the solid Georgian houses you’ll come across in the county were built by the English and Scottish planters who settled in the West of the county after the seventeenth century.
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 neighbour 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 as the Irish Technology Town — which means that every home is linked up to the Internet free of charge. Consequently, the lucky residents of Ennis can now browse wcities.com to their heart’s content. 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 Lough Derg. In the west, the scenery is rather different – the Cliffs of Moher are among the highest sea cliffs in Europe and provide breathtaking views of the Atlantic. To the south, Hook Head, complete with pretty fishing villages, stretches into the ocean.
History of Limerick
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, anglicised 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 losing 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 offence 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 1990s — this is a trend which has continued into the 21st century.