Limerick & Literature

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.

Michael McConnell shares stories of Limerick

Michael McConnell shares stories of Limerick

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.

Whiskey first. Then limericks and stories.

Whiskey first. Then limericks and stories.

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?

17 responses to “Limerick & Literature

    • You make a good point. I didn’t mean it quite that way. I wouldn’t have presumed that there’d be any tourism attached to the back lanes of McCourt’s childhood. I would have just wandered there myself. (Much to my family’s dismay.) I like to see the environment that inspires writers to write what they write. I like to imagine seeing it through their eyes.

      • I read a post recently (where? where??) from someone who visited New Orleans. Apparently they have started a push for visitors to come through the worst-affected Katrina districts only in sanctioned tour buses (at the request of locals who were getting fed up with people wandering through to look at the damage). I’m probably feeding off that 🙂 .

  1. I know EXACTLY what you’re talking about. I went down to New Orleans with a group a year after Katrina. We did tour the devastated areas and then volunteered for a revitalization project. Three years later, I went again, and the areas still looked exactly the same. They have left the houses there marked with the search markings and have no intention of rebuilding or revitalizing the area. Like you said, they’ve turned the Katrina devastation into a tourist attraction. It’s been over 8 years and it still looks the same. Part of the reasoning I heard (from the locals there) is that Katrina hit the poorest neighborhoods and displaced those people. They didn’t own the homes there and the home owners have no plans to rebuild. The main reconstruction in that area is the Make It Right foundation that Brad Pitt started. I toured those environmentally-sound homes, too. I must say — they’re beautiful.

  2. I like the nitty gritty. I didn’t even really like it when they refurbished so many castles in Ireland because I loved the feel of the castle ruins. It seemed easier to imagine the past that way. I never made the connection between limericks and Limerick! It sounds like a fun tour even without the limericks. I went on a literary tour of Dublin years ago and that was a lot of fun because it was mostly visiting the pubs that the writers hung out in. 🙂

  3. I suppose we’re all pleased that the slums are gone – Dublin had some of the worst in the world until quite recent times. What has replaced them though often lacks any character and is entirely functional.
    Far worse is the way city planners have deemed it OK to knock down swathes of architecturally and historically significant buildings to be replaced by more modern and ‘efficient’ ones. I think that sense is prevailing now somewhat but it’s almost too late.

    • In an ideal world we’d preserve that history and just clean up living conditions. I see the same thing happen in Cincinnati, though there are areas where they are working hard to revitalize the neighborhoods rather than tear them down.

  4. This reminds me of an article I’d once read about India and the gap between the affluent areas and the slums. There was a picture in which behind this glittering town, there was a huge slum-town pretty much right next to it. I do think most cities would want to clean up the grittier parts but at the same time, I would hope they can find a way to make it nicer without erasing everything that made it the way it was. (Not sure if that made sense.)

    • You make sense to me. I don’t want people to have to live in such extreme poverty, but I also don’t think it should be hidden when it does exist. I know it was a good move for the city of Limerick to clean up its streets, but I would have liked to have seen the world McCourt lived in and brought to life in his books.

  5. I loved both of McCourt’s books. The description of the poverty in Limerick was powerful. While I would also like to see where he grew up, I would also want the city to improve the living conditions of the low income families.

  6. I really enjoyed reading Angela’s Ashes. It was a most engrossing book. It must have been so fascinating listening to Michael McConnell’s recollections. Lucky you. 🙂

  7. We spent a week in Ireland several summers ago, so I’ve been enjoying reading your tales, Juliann. In response to your question posed here, I think that it’s not so much the aesthetics of a place (whether it’s perfect or ‘gritty’) rather, is it a museum town where locals only commute there for tourists, or is it really lived in, with ‘authentic’ shops and activity?

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