Liz O'Donnell: Limerick has been in doldrums for too long – it deserves a chance to sparkle
Published 12/11/2013 | 02:00
Those of us who know and have lived there were heartened by the recent designation of Limerick as national city of culture for 2014. Others may have been surprised.
To the outsider, Limerick can appear far from cultural. Negative impressions have lodged in the public mind; criminal feuds, sprawling housing estates, complete with roaming horses and feral youths, have too often characterised the city. Sadly, this was the reality for certain areas, neglected by the planning and policing authorities.
Intergenerational joblessness resulted in a handful of communities doomed to poverty, underachievement and criminality. Despite the best efforts of community workers, priests, teachers and gardai, the statistics were stubborn when it came to social mobility or advancement. These were classic ghettoes.
Violence and intimidation were rife. A spate of killings eventually provoked an overdue political response. The Limerick regeneration programme was established some years ago under the leadership of John FitzGerald and at the end of September this year the long-awaited Limerick regeneration framework implementation plan was published. The ambition of the 10-year €253m plan is "to address the social and economic inequalities of the city and to improve the physical connectivity of the regeneration areas with the wider region".
Strange as it may seem, in a parallel universe detached from the localised 'Love/Hate' reality, the rest of Limerick has always been home to a vibrant cultural community of artists, musicians, dancers, poets and patriots.
The primary cultural obsession is sport of all kind and the 2014 programme includes major sporting events such as the Special Olympics' opening ceremony in June and an international sports literature festival in October.
When I grew up in Limerick, in the days before the arrival of what is now the University of Limerick, the Art School was the main third-level centre for those with an artistic bent, and a cohort of distinctive artists emerged such as Jack Donovan, John Shinners, Brian McMahon, Michael Fitzharris, Charlie Harpur and Ger Sadlier.
The city has since developed a major college of fashion and design.
UL has become much more than a third-level college of international repute. It is also home to the Irish World Music Academy of Music and Dance founded by Professor Micheal O Suilleabhain with Jean Butler as artist in residence.
Former MEP and president of the European Parliament Pat Cox chairs the Limerick 2014 board along with such local heroes as Munster legend Paul O'Connell and Riverdance composer Bill Whelan.
The recent launch of Limerick 2014 was a contemporary affair, with graffiti art, traditional dance, hip hop and emerging local band Leading Armies providing a colourful foretaste of an inclusive and innovative programme.
It was also a mix of politics and art. Three government ministers attended the launch. The regeneration of Limerick is a multimillion investment of private and public money. As a time of scarce resources, this overall initiative cannot be a vanity project with uncertain outcomes.
The regeneration plan is a masterpiece of social engineering. Learning from the mistakes and neglect of the past and planning for a brighter future is not only about housing but also education and jobs. Designating the city as a national cultural centre for 2014 is a sign that culture and the arts is quite properly a key part of the physical, social and economic renewal of the city. It is a brave but inspired choice.
With local elections due in 2014, this will be good for the government parties. After all, Limerick is the home base of Finance Minister Michael Noonan, who has taken on the role of national political heavyweight charged as he is with navigating the country out of the bailout.
But he is also a former English teacher from the city, who quoted Yeats in his recent Budget speech when referring to austerity: "Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart." He and his fellow Limerick deputies like Des O'Malley, Willie O'Dea, the late Jim Kemmy and now Jan O'Sullivan have toiled long and hard for the constituency. It has been a battle against inequality and underinvestment even in times of plenty.
The programme laid out for 2014 is diverse, combining the intensely local with major international acts. New Year's Eve will be a night to remember, with spectacular light parades around King John's Castle and Thomond Bridge with the bells of St Mary's Cathedral ringing in 2014. Riverdance, celebrating its 20th birthday, will have a homecoming and will be the inaugural flagship event from 16-19 of January in the sports arena of the University
It is difficult to think of a city more deserving of an opportunity to sparkle in 2014.