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The history of Limerick


In the mid-west of Ireland sits the County of Limerick with idyllic countryside, bustling towns and a lively city. Life in the north of the county is intricately linked to the Shannon River. While the south of the county is bordered with mountains ranges of the Galtees, Ballyhoura and Mullaghareirk Mountain.

Limerick is an ancient county with settlements in the area around Lough Gur dating back to 3000 BC. The remnants of ringforts, the homes of settler mostly from 600 AD to 900 AD are still dotted throughout the countryside. In Irish they were ráth, caiseal or cathair (anglicised to caher or chair), giving rise to names like Caherconlish and Rathkeale.

The rivers Shannon, Maigue, Deel and Feale brought with them the opportunity for trade and travel. Ancient settlements in the county sprang up along the banks of these rivers. The town of Mungret grew out an early monastic site, founded by Saint Nessan before AD 551. The location of Mungret on in Shannon Estuary gave easy access to fish but it also brought with it threats from others sailing up river. The monastery was plundered by Vikings four times in the ninth century alone. The scars of the seventeenth century can still be seen today in the ruined monasteries in many of the county towns including beautiful examples in Kilmallock, Askeaton and Adare.

The County of Limerick Civil Survey 1654-56 opens with the statement, “It is part of the vicissitudes of human life that the established order should never be permanent. Like a bolt from the blue, at irregular intervals, comes a social upheaval and the old way of things gives place to a new.”

This note was written a few short years after Cromwell’s forces ravaged the county of Limerick, leaving the shells of monasteries and castles in its wake. It was not the first upheaval of the seventeenth century and it was by no means the last. The motto of Limerick Urbs Antiqua Fuit Studiisque (an ancient city fierce in the skills of war) was borne out of this period.

The unusual continued in the county when in 1919, Limerick city declared itself independent as the Limerick Soviet. The leaders of the movement produced their own currency which was exchanged for goods in the city stores. Alas they did not receive support from the church or state so the Limerick Soviet ended after two weeks.

Some of Limerick’s most noted exports bear its name ‘Limerick Ham’, ‘Limerick Lace’ and ‘Limerick Gloves’. Limerick city was often known as Pigtown due to the number of bacon factories in the urban area. ‘Limerick Ham’ used a unique curing technique that made it a favourite among the royalty of Europe it would grace the table of Queen Victoria each Christmas. The delicate ‘Limerick Lace’ which was made on a mesh was worn at the weddings of princesses in the nineteenth century. A ‘Limerick Lace’ christening robe was given to the US President John F. Kennedy during his visit to the city. Finally, ‘Limerick Gloves”, so delicate that a pair could fit inside a walnut shell, were a must at high fashion balls.

When thinking of the name Limerick the mind also wanders to the five lined verse of the same name. Poetry runs deep in the veins of the people of Limerick. A prime example of this were the Maigue Poets who lambasted each other through rhyme. The eighteen century Maigue Poets were Sean O’ Tuama and Andrias MacRaith. The men were originally friends having grown up near to one another in County Limerick. O’Tuama became a publican and the two men had a falling out. This resulted in a volley of public performances or publications of poems one slandering the other.

The beautiful port town of Foynes used the Shannon Estuary with flying boats landing on the wide river. This hustle and bustle of new arrivals in this westerly port saw the invention of the Irish Coffee. The chef in the airport restaurant Joe Sheridan, noticed the passengers’ shivering after disembarking into the stiff Atlantic winds and added a splash of whiskey to their coffee to warm them up.

Among those who have called Limerick home are Richard Harris, a twice Oscar nominated and Golden Globe winning actor. The world famous rock band The Cranberries whose song "Zombie" which reached the number one spot in ten countries received the Best Song Award at the 1995 MTV Europe Music Awards beating Michael Jackson, Seal, The Offspring and TLC. The BBC broadcaster Terry Wogan, has been immortalised with a statue in his home city. Finally, Michael O’Shaughnessy an engineer from County Limerick who brought water to San Francisco from the mountains in Yosemite National Park almost three hundred kilometres away.

The County of Limerick has a wide ranging history spanning millennia. The people of the county have shown their bravery, inventiveness and artistic abilities again and again. It is not a county to be overlooked.

By Sharon Slater

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