When I applied to take part in Failte Ireland’s Limerick Tour, it was almost solely based on the night described as a Limerick Slam at Michael Flannery’s pub in Limerick. I’m an English Lit major and a writer; can you blame me? I was a little disappointed that the Limerick Slam fizzled out almost immediately. We were all given a piece of paper to jot down our limericks, but then we turned them in and when none of us volunteered to read them aloud, the “Slam” was over.
The night wasn’t a bust, though. As a surprise to us, we were joined by Michael McConnell – a friend of (now deceased) Angela’s Ashes author Frank McCourt, and a former tour guide for the Angela’s Ashes walking tours.
I read Angela’s Ashes when it first came out and was completely absorbed in the memoir. It described a gritty, dangerous, poverty-stricken area of Ireland that sounded like the childhood my ex-husband and his Irish family would have endured if his family hadn’t immigrated to a gritty, poor area of New Jersey instead. His childhood wasn’t all that different than the one described by McCourt (though his mother didn’t resort to prostitution to pay the rent, and they weren’t quite as destitute as the McCourts, but they weren’t far from it, either). I knew that Angela’s Ashes was set in Limerick and had hoped for a little free time to visit the Frank McCourt Museum which is housed in McCourt’s old schoolhouse, but our itinerary didn’t allow for that. Imagine how pleasantly surprised I was to sit down with a Jameson whiskey and listen to Michael McConnell tell us stories of what it was like growing up in Limerick with the McCourt boys. He remembers the Limerick that they do.
It seems that there was an uproar following Angela’s Ashes. Other people from Limerick called it an exaggeration and argued that McCourt’s description was not an accurate depiction of Limerick. One such denouncer was actor Richard Harris (Dumbledore in Harry Potter), who also grew up in Limerick, but in a much more affluent area than McCourt. Apparently he considers McCourt’s version of Limerick to be completely fabricated. But he was probably protected from the seedier side of town by his family’s wealth. He may have been blind to it, but not seeing it doesn’t make it not so. (Feel free to cringe at my double negative here.)
McConnell and our tour guide, Tony, both grew up in Limerick as well, and were able to describe the dichotomies of their childhood town. While I’m sure that they would rather have visitors focus on the nicer parts of Limerick, I would have loved to wander the streets where McCourt’s childhood took place. I would have liked to bring his story to life with my own eyes.
Unfortunately (for me, not the city), Limerick demolished its slum district — the “lanes” of McCourt’s childhood — and created a park along the Shannon River and new office buildings. I’m 20 years too late to see the Limerick of McCourt’s childhood. But since McCourt’s death in 2009, attitudes in Limerick seem to have turned around and the Pulitzer-prize winning author has now been honored with a statue and had his ashes scattered over the Shannon.
McCourt’s work is but one connection between Limerick and literature. The other that is harder to trace is the connection between Limerick, the place, and limerick, the poetry form. Limerick is the only place in Ireland (and perhaps the world?) to give its name to a form of poetry. The Limerick Writers’ Centre is doing its part in bridging the two and hosted an international limerick contest as part of The Gathering in Ireland this year. Their aim is to create awareness, locally, nationally and internationally, of the connection between art and place so that Limerick can establish itself as one of the few places that gave its name to a literary form.
It’s not even known for sure why limerick poems are named for the town of Limerick. There are more than a few thoughts on how the term became synonymous with the place, not the least of which was because of a battle of words between two men. Sound familiar? Let’s just say that Limerick lends itself well to literary argument.
Next year, Limerick will be the 2014 National City of Culture. I hope they embrace all that the city embodies: good, bad, and otherwise. Every city probably has a past that they’d like to forget, but it is that history of struggle, upheaval, and transformation that make a city’s culture so rich.
What appeals to you about a city? Is it the cleaned-up version that a tourism board would like to show to the world? Or is it the nitty gritty history of a place that makes you want to see it for yourself?