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 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 area. 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 center 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 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 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 center.
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 — 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 vast ocean.
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.