Life Ireland

Monday 22 September 2014

City Slickers: Limerick City's charms

Limerick, City of Culture 2014, is not to be missed, says Anne Cunningham, who discovered quirky museums and standout theatre when she visited the Treaty City

Published 03/08/2014 | 02:30

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Limerick, City of Culture 2014.
Limerick, City of Culture 2014.
The Frank McCourt museum.
The Frank McCourt museum.
King John's Castle Limerick City at sunset
King John's Castle Limerick City at sunset

We all know the anthem ‘Limerick, You’re A Lady’. I can’t say it’s my favourite song, but I can say I have fallen for the city.

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Flanking the Shannon Estuary on both sides, Limerick is an ancient and historic port, and a buzzing metropolitan hive of activity. The “Lady” has been given a makeover to play hostess to City of Culture 2014; her streets are teeming with flowers, her parks are immaculate, and her heart’s bursting with céad míle fáiltes. 

No. 1 Pery Square is a very elegant Georgian boutique hotel just minutes from the city centre, overlooking the picturesque People’s Park. It’s like stepping back in time here, a time of afternoon tea in the drawing room and reading a book in the tranquil garden. The hotel is meticulous in its detail, with Farrow & Ball-type muted tones on the walls, clawfoot bathtubs, huge candles after dark, and big, soft beds you could get lost in. And despite the peaceful ambience, it’s so central, I left my car there for the whole weekend.

Dinner in No. 1 Pery Square is very special, too. Try their sublime sea bass. Or their Asian duck starter. And for a really different breakfast, try their charcuterie platter. All ingredients are organic and local, and the kitchen takes its food very seriously. It’s a wonderful place to stay and to dine in. 

King John’s Castle provides hours of amusement for the family. The balance of history mixed with fun for the children is hugely imaginative. In the courtyard, characters in period costume go about their business, and the amount of fascinating activities for the kids — young and old  — makes it well worth the visit. It has a large interpretative centre and restaurant, and you can see the entire city from the tower tops. 

If it’s nostalgia you’re after, drop into Nicky Woulfe, creator and curator of the ‘Music, Memories and Memorabilia’ exhibition, in Creative Limerick on Rutland Street. The young, obsessed with everything retro, and the not-so-young who grew up in Retroland, are in for a treat.  I was flung back to the sitting-room of my childhood, where my older brothers’ vinyl albums were stacked by the stereo. Remember the days when album sleeve art was as important as the music? If you do, then you’ll easily while away a sentimental hour in this treasure trove of memories.

A whole different class of memorabilia is just across the road on Rutland Street.  The Hunt Museum, in the old Customs House building,  is the lifetime accumulation of objets d’arts by John and Gertrude Hunt, who bequeathed their priceless collection to Limerick University in 1978. The throngs of foreign tourists there on the day I visited signifies just how important this collection is. Everything from Neolithic to current exhibitions by local contemporary artists is housed in this mini-Louvre. It feels very special to open a drawer and find a Renoir watercolour inside. And a Gauguin sketch in the drawer beside it! I missed the Picasso in yet another drawer, I was too gobsmacked by the Jack B Yeats on the walls, and almost blinded by the colours of the 17th century Italian ceramics. It feels completely accessible, the staff are exceptionally knowledgeable, and since I ran out of time, I really look forward to revisiting. 

 A highpoint of the weekend was the performance — in a private home — of ‘Wake’, by Chamber Made Opera company. It was an unforgettable piece of multimedia experiential theatre, as we found ourselves at the wake of a fictional woman killed in the recent Limerick floods. It left me lost for words. It was so authentic, so stylish and accomplished, it beggars a fitting description, although my companion described is as “walking into someone else’s nightmare”, and that statement fits the bill. Limerick dancer Katherine O’Malley dragged us into the intimacy of her grief so deftly, we could feel it rather than just see it. Bravo to all concerned. ‘Wake’ is an astonishing triumph. 

Una Heaton is a talented painter and proprietor of the Frank McCourt Museum, in his old primary school on Hartstonge St.  She’s doing a wonderful job and this is a must-see for McCourt fans. The interior of the tenement of his childhood has been re-created, as has his classroom — and it is his real classroom! The museum houses a huge stash of Frank’s personal memorabilia, much of it provided by his widow, Ellen. It’s a project infused with affection and considerable artistry. I loved it.

The Cornstore Restaurant in Thomas Street just keeps winning awards. With a Manhattan-style theme, complete with cocktail bar, it’s got just the right ambience of chic and casual. I had the monkfish starter, done in tempura batter. Amazing. My companion’s halibut main course was thick and fresh and gorgeous, as was my pork belly. The food and presentation is high-end but their prices are very much mid-range. Portion sizes are not for skinny-minnies! This is healthy, hearty and exquisite food, cooked with love and skill and real enthusiasm.

Later we went to see an outdoor production of Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’ in the courtyard of King John’s Castle. The weather was glorious, and so was the play. Produced by Chapterhouse Theatre Company, this was a fun evening’s entertainment. It was an informal, bring-your-own-picnic-and-wine affair, and it was superbly done. Hilarious, too.

The contrast between Jane Austen and the avant-garde production of the Tain, by Dance Limerick, couldn’t be more stark. The re-setting of the ancient Irish myth into modern urban Irish fable, with its gangs and its turf wars, drew an extended standing ovation. Great music, wonderful dance and a rap-style narration with some real poetry, it’s a fantastic piece of theatre.

We’re still only half-way through the year, and Limerick has the following attractions still to come:

For rugby fans, there’s the World Club 7’s — Ireland’s first hosting of a rugby 7’s event, with 12 teams from 5 continents competing on the weekend of August 9th and 10th. Throughout the same weekend, commencing on the 8th, Limerick is hosting Sarsfield’s Day, celebrating the local heroes of 1690. Fully costumed Jacobean horsemen will parade through the streets, there will be battle re-enactments, fun and fireworks, and a medieval market. A full weekend for the family. 

Later in August, from the 18th to 24th, Limerick hosts the Brian Boru Millenium Harp Festival, with concerts in St Mary’s Cathedral, and a conference and summer school.

The Giant’s Journey, specially commissioned for Limerick City of Culture, takes place on September 5-7th. A massive giant will be marauding through the streets, with 72 hours of free family entertainment. Don’t miss it.

It’s a marvellous city, Limerick, steeped in history and stuffed with artistic and cultural hotspots. And if Limerick really is a Lady, she is one of many faces. She has countless historic tales to tell, but she’s also got some of Ireland’s most innovative talent in art, music, dance and theatre. She’s a seductive melt of Grand Dame and Rock Chick, with dozens of other veiled personae in the pot. She’s a lady of intrigue and flair. Go check her out.  

Visit discoverireland.ie/limerick for more information on festivals, events and ideas to help you plan your perfect cultural break in Limerick.

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