The elegant lady with a new sense of buzziness
In a new series of visits to exciting places and people outside Dublin, Barry Egan meets the great and good of Limerick, the magnificent city overlooking the mighty Shannon
The late John McGahern once noted that Ireland was a peculiar society in the sense that it was a 19th-century society up to about 1970 and then it almost bypassed the 20th century. Mike Fitzpatrick - who looks like a character from a vintage Disney movie with his cuddly beard - recalls Limerick in 1970 as being a "bleak place job-wise," but it was ahead of itself in terms of a sense of fun.
"The people were absolutely extraordinary - and remain so to this day. I had great fun at university in Limerick. I was ensconced in Dick Devane's when a local wondered up to me and enquired if he could have a sup of my pint. Now that you could describe as community togetherness. I said, 'Work away!'"
Mike, who is the director of Limerick 2020, credits a central characteristic of Limerick people thus: "The Rubberbandits came closest to it with the term 'pure awkward'. We're all kind of pure awkward in some ways in Ireland but we don't admit it. But here in Limerick, you wear your pure awkwardness on your sleeve."
"We can laugh at ourselves. I think it is a Limerick thing," says Vicki O'Toole, the MD of JJ O'Toole's Paper and Plastic Packaging company. "Other counties can't do that."
What does 'pure awkward' mean?"
'Pure awkward' is when you are out in a situation that you don't know how to react," answers Rich Anton of the website I Love Limerick - and possibly Limerick's coolest gay man.
Helen O'Donnell, from Sligo, was possibly pure morto when she walked into a shop in Limerick over 30 years ago.
The former honorary national secretary of Fine Gael got engaged to her husband Limerick politician Tom in April, 1984. "So our photograph was on the front of the Limerick Leader," recalls Helen, who now runs the very chic Hunt Museum cafe.
"I thought, 'Where am I going to go to get the paper without being really noticed?' I went into a small paper shop on Catherine Street. Now I am 6ft tall and this small elderly lady was behind the counter.
"She looked at the paper and she didn't look at me at all. Looking at the paper, she said, 'Jaysus! Who's he got engaged to?' I was thinking, 'How am I going to get out of this?' Before I could say anything, the woman said, 'God, she's gone stolen one of our own! ' The woman was still engrossed in the picture on the front page of me and Tom when I handed her the money and I left the shop. And she didn't know any different as I left the shop."
Fianna Fail's very own local legend, Willie O'Dea, had his own moment of pure awkwardness in Limerick.
"I had just been appointed junior minister. I think it was 1992. That was the year Fianna Fail went in with Labour.
"Dick Spring was our main opponent in opposition. He excoriated Fianna Fail every day in the Dail. People were shocked and the media were genuinely upset that he had gone in with the arch enemy, Fianna Fail, and propped us up for another term.
"So I went out to a rugby match in Greenfields to support Young Munster, a working-class-supported rugby team here. It got to rain. I opened my brolly. Of course, that obscured certain people's view of the match.
"A fella grunted behind me, one of the Young Munster supporters, 'Oh, I suppose, we can all open our brollies now that the minister has opened his fecking brolly!` I said, 'Ah, no. Come under my brolly.' And he said, 'No, no, Dick Spring went under your brolly and look what happened to him!'"
Look what happened to Limerick too. In less than a decade, it has gone from a city with a certain reputation - thoroughly undeserved - to one of the hippest and most culturally happening places in Ireland. It is a city alive with a sense of vibrancy, as the chic culture vultures gathered in the penthouse of the fashionable Strand Hotel can attest as they look across the River Shannon and down as far as King John's Castle and back this way again, towards Garryowen Football Club.
There is definitely something happening.
"We employ 700 people, growing to 1,000 by 2017," says Catherine Duffy, GM of Northern Trust, Limerick, and president of Limerick Chamber of Commerce.
"For business, what makes Limerick great is the collaboration and cohesion between the educational institutions, the local authority and the business community. Genuinely people work hard to make things work.
"Living in Limerick, staff get the city job and the country life. There is loads to do in Limerick, a good buzz and a great network of friends. Having a very active Limerick chamber helps."
"Limerick is a great place to hang out, with a wicked sense of humour," says Mike Fitzpatrick of Limerick 2020. "I love the gentle faded Georgian Quarter, the Shannon river washing up on the walls of John's Castle, the creativity, and fun brought by the art and design students, but most of all the real bars and newer eateries where all the 'real' business gets done.
"This casual balance is leading to a flow of industries, from small start-ups to large companies, involving people who can enjoy a nice lifestyle in a compact, connected European city."
"The place I call home," concurs Helen O'Donnell, "is an elegant lady - from her edgy, multi-cultural underskirts to her fabulous Georgian crescent. A melting pot of glitz, sweat and people with passion who work hard and party harder. Here, you become more passionate than the natives and never leave."
"I think we have the right jockeys on the right horses facing the right direction and they are all working together," says Sean Lally, GM of the grand Strand Hotel (JP McManus comes in for a pint. He has no airs or graces.)
"You have key leaders in key positions - you have a very good city manager, Conn Murray; you have Denis Brosnan, ex-Kerrygold (who has worked on the regional jobs task force and many other projects). He has done a huge amount of work over the last seven or eight years. He had a great plan.
"The buzz in Limerick in the last two years is absolutely unprecedented," adds Sean. "It is just rocking. People want to be in Limerick now.
"The quality of living in this region is second to none. It is one of the best places to live in the world. You are only an hour from the coast, the Cliffs of Moher, and Kilkee. There are an awful lot of pluses. The houses are good value. The educational facilities, the whole art side. The standard of living in this region is fantastic."
"The thing is, all the Limerick people, they love Clare, because once the sun comes out, you know, they head west," says Michael O'Doherty, bio-energy treatment guru to Michael Flatley and such international luminaries.
"I first came to Limerick in 1982. There was always a great welcome in Limerick, particularly if you played sports."
"My earliest memory would have been playing rugby with Old Crescent," says rugby legend Liam Toland, who captained Leinster once upon a time, "and going to under-age games and having our car stoned as we arrived in - I won't name the club.
"My father played football for Donegal and my mother is from Connemara. We had a rugby background. So at 10 years of age, I was sworn to hate Garryowen rugby club. And to this day, I still hated them. But I don't know why!" he roars with laughter.
"I'm a retired army officer," adds Liam. "I'm an old age pensioner of sorts! I would have been over in Kosovo, in Pristina, when I met Willie (O'Dea, who is sitting opposite him in the penthouse of The Strand) when he was Minister for Defence. I retired in 2008.
"So I had just come back from Kosovo. Pristina is a very troubled spot but there was more economic activity in downtown Pristina than there was when I arrived into Limerick. I have an office opposite the Clarion Hotel. I opened a home care business.
"I was aghast at the lack of general activity around the place. There was a negativity. I am amazed at the energy from the people around here who have injected so much into the core of the city. You see coffee shops opening up, which is a real sign.
"I think they talk about when there is more traffic on the M50, the country is on the way up. But when there are more people engaged in the city, it is the same. Things like The Milk Market brings people into the city. Ever since 2008, I can see people and a huge amount of activity. There is a definite culture of passion in Limerick."
"There is an urban legend that the map of New York is taken from the map of Limerick," says Nicole Dunphy, the business woman who was on the cover of last month's Aer Lingus Cara Magazine.
I ask them all for earliest childhood memories of the sometimes maligned town they love so well.
Willie O'Dea: "I was born a bit outside the city - 12 miles out the road - and my earliest childhood memory was coming into town, into Pery Square and experiencing the city . . ."
Nicole, Limerick's confectionery queen, smiles and says: "My earliest memory is being allowed off by myself to the local shop on the North Circular Road in Limerick. I would stand there for about an hour going, 'I'll have one of those and one of those and one of those. . .' until I had spent all my 15 pence!"
"My earliest childhood memory is Irish dancing in St John's Hall as a kid," smiles the legendary Celia Holman Lee, "and being in pantomimes, Little Red Riding Hood - playing the wolf. And I'm still playing it! I love Limerick. It is the greatest city in the world."
"My earliest childhood memory is being brought to Gaelic grounds for a Limerick match at the age of about four," says Ollie Moran, former Limerick senior inter-county player, "and smelling the smoke and being up amongst the old men with the old pipes, watching Limerick and Tipperary battle it out."
"My earliest childhood memory is, before we went to Kilmarnock we lived in a house beside Mungret national school, on the way down from Raheen church," says Vicki O'Toole.
"It was a tiny boreen. My earliest memory is of picking mushrooms. I used to sell them to the cement factory lorries as they were going home and we used to go to the shop and buy ice cream.
"My eldest children, who are 28 and 26, they used to talk about not wanting to be in Limerick. They are both settled in Limerick now. One is a nurse in Barringtons Hospital and the other is a solicitor with Holmes O'Malley Sexton. They are settling in Limerick now, which is amazing.
"They don't talk any more about all their friends having gone away because all the friends are coming home now, bit by bit".
There is certainly a lot to come home to in Limerick.
'Here you become more passionate than the natives and never leave'