The sweet sounds and sights of my native sod
I didn't realise how much I missed the sweet sound of my native Limerick accent until I was back visiting the old sod on a couple of occasions in the past 10 days.
On a lovely bright Saturday, we travelled to Limerick city to give our French student Estelle a last taste of the country before she left.
We were headed first to the Milk Market and parked in the car park on Charlotte's Quay. I asked the attendant what time they closed. "6.30pm, sharp," he said. "A minute later and I'm gone."
The tone was snappy, the content purely factual, but his accent sounded - I can scarcely believe I am saying this - pleasing.
Note that this was the same thin-vowelled accent which, when I first went to the big smoke and spoke my name, people used to ask "In … who's In?
I am very happy in the midlands, with Limerick little more than an hour away I can return there often. But sometimes I miss the familiarity of the place where I grew up and lived a fair chunk of my life. To be honest, I think it will always be at my core.
Turning onto Michael Street, there was a batty pony grazing in the garden of a block of flats. Ruth's eyes opened wide in amazement. But I pointed out to her that this wouldn't be an unusual sight in Limerick. A kangaroo might. Or maybe not.
Moving along, I noticed she was looking down at the footpath pointing to broken glass and complaining in a voice that I recognised as my own about litter.
I jumped to my native city's defence and said, "just because you see one little bit of litter, don't assume it's going to be the same everywhere".
With that, we turned onto Ellen Street and had to close our eyes from the flurry of dust and sweet wrappers. QED, as the man that I know best would say.
I've visited the Milk Market on a Saturday a number of times in the past few years and noticed that it's really buzzing.
When Estelle's parents came to visit, her dad wanted to eat a dish called tartiflette, a type of potato bake made with a soft raw cow's milk cheese called Reblochon, which is very popular where they live, in southeast France.
Her dad was disappointed, but one of the first things we saw was a unit selling tartiflette and various other French goodies; alongside a host of fresh vegetable, flower and various fast-food outlets with gourmet burgers, sausage rolls and Middle Eastern falafels.
Stands being run by foreigners greatly out number the locals. The indigenous regulars include Peter Ward's well established Country Choice and Quarrymount Free Range Meats owned by Ray Dunne of Killeigh, Co Offaly.
When Ray started farming in 2000, the beef sector was still suffering the horrible post-BSE hangover.
Around the same time he was working as a policy officer for the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association (ICSA) where he got a chance to learn how the sector works.
One of the first things that struck him is the vast majority of beef farmers - in stark contrast to other food producers - never knowingly meet any consumers of their produce.
That's the side of the business he enjoys and, after briefly considering opening a butcher's shop, decided to go the farmer's market route, setting up the business in 2006.
The meat is free-range - like the majority of beef produced in Ireland - though Ray says he is constantly surprised to find that a lot of consumers believe intensive is the norm.
Ray now attends four markets every weekend -- the others being Tullamore, Marlay Park and Dún Laoghaire People's Park - plus a few irregular ones. Of these, Limerick is the best for business. At the Dublin ones, people tend to see them as a day out rather than a shopping trip.
Ray believes there are opportunities for more farmers to work more directly with consumers, such as butchering an animal and selling it to neighbours.
Mind you the investment is significant, as is the work involved. Ray also points out that he is lucky to have a good local abattoir nearby, Feely Meats.
He is now selling an animal a week and the gross return is in the region of €2,700.
"It's a high margin rather than a high volume business," says Ray, adding "volume is for vanity, margin for sanity."
We then made our way to King John's Castle. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that this was our first time to visit this remarkable 13th century bastion, and the recently developed interactive visitor experience really engaged the younger visitors.
A personal highlight were the views from the top. Flanked to the southwest by the majestic Shannon, with the home ground of my beloved Munster Rugby, Thomond Park, just beyond.
A nearby tour guide was pointing out the (King's) Island, Moyross and Ballynanty and, somewhat disconcertingly, adding their attendant gangland family connections. In the opposite direction, we could see the Galtees and, beyond them, the Comeraghs.
Last week, I was back in Limerick again, for the funeral of Irene Wall (nee Magner), Tallyho House, Rathkeale, who died at 92 years of age, with her close-knit family by her side.
Very well known in greyhound racing and dairy farming circles, she was a first-cousin once removed of my mother Rita and one of her closest friends.
My mother is dead almost 22 years but I kept up the friendship. Whenever I was around, I would try to call.
Tallyho is an old traditional farmhouse with thick walls and low ceilings, a large kitchen with a big table, a solid fuel range always on the go and bread made fresh every day.
At its beating heart was Irene, with her twinkling eyes and steely spirit. She had a long and full life. To Lucy, Carmel, Noel, Irma, Olive, Richard and Colette and the extended family, I offer my sincere condolences.
As it so happened, another first cousin of my mother, on the other side of her family, died on the same day; Aileen Cussen, originally from Ballyegna House in Ardagh. To her siblings Ann Holden and Mary Foley, brother-in-law Gerry, sister-in-law Kathleen Cussen and their families, I also extend my sympathies.
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