|The Spirit of Ireland
Limerick and Clare
by Lynn Doyle
Published by B.T. Batsford Ltd , 1935
This description of Limerick is contemporaneous with Frank McCourt's childhood there.
Please mail the site if you would like to see chapters on other areas of Ireland by Lynn Doyle.
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The city of
I wronged the mighty stream on my first visit to
Looking downstream from Thomond
Bridge you will see Honan’s Quay and Arthur’s Quay, the latter all Georgian houses
that give a suggestion of the trading importance of Limerick at the time they
were built, and of well-to-do merchants not yet grown above their business. The
Honans were one of a number of Irish families who, being under the Penal Laws
unable legally to hold land or enter public life or the professions, devoted
their energies to business, and prospered exceedingly; much as the Quakers did
in England and Ireland through their voluntary abstention from what they
considered light-minded pleasure.
It is worth your while looking at
the façade of an old fortified house in Athlunkard Street, that from it you may
reconstruct in your imagination the beautiful old Limerick that has been lost;
and near the Cathedral you may pause to think that close at hand there stood
the house in which Ireton, Cromwell’s son-in-law and possible successor, died
of the plague. You will notice that
Perhaps my Irish fashion of
harking back to history may also bring you to smile. But the repulse of William
the Third from
The Irish people have a right to
be proud of the victory at
After the battle of the
The spirit of optimism finds
nourishment in the proximity of Ardnacrusha, the source of the enormous voltage
of electricity that pulses through the whole of the twenty-six counties of the Free
State, but should be of advantage to Limerick most of all. Ardnacrusha is about
three miles from
The citizens, however, need not
complain. The city is becoming a model of cleanliness. Almost all its streets
are cemented, even the narrow closes or laneways that run between the smaller
streets and were once foul and unsightly
channels. I remember the title of only one – “Squeezeguts Alley.” “The name
bespeaks him.” You had to suck in your breath to get through.
But the alleys themselves are
fast disappearing. The slum clearance scheme of
The sports and pleasures of
I went to a restaurant one
evening. There was a competent band; and though a perfervid patriot might have
deplored the modern dances he could have found little other fault with the
Passing out of
Ennis is a characteristic but not a commonplace Southern Irish country town. Externally it is redeemed from dullness by the busy river Fergus which flows through the middle of the town, washing the bases of houses and the edges of gardens. At one time it did more useful work, but Ennis’s flour- and corn-milling industry is largely a thing of the past, though the great mills are still standing.
The streets of Ennis are narrow, and sometimes tortuous. As I walked down the principal street I saw that the shops were enterprising, and that Ennis does not neglect the more intimate amenities of life. Men’s shirts at 3s. 9d. seem incredible, but pale before the marvel of ladies’ stockings at 1s., and ladies’ silk pyjamas at 2s. 11d.
It was fair-day. On the outskirts of the town I met ten sturdy young fellows driving a bunch of eleven small cattle. All the ten carried sticks, mostly ash-plants. I reckoned that some seven hundred men had entered Ennis on account of the fair, and 699 sticks. The fair-ground was not crowded, with either cattle or people. The dominant notes were mud and the lowing of cattle. Hardly any women were to be seen. The young men wore peaked caps and startlingly coloured mufflers and pullovers that looked as if they were home-knit. The older men were dressed as nondescriptly as remote small-farming people are usually dressed. Overcoats in general had a strong suggestion of the heirloom.
“A small bad fair,” an old farmer
told me; and then asked me if I was in favour of the Government. The farmer was
being ruined, he said. He showed me a bullock of about a year and half old for
which he had been offered nothing better than 35s. He thought it was a bad
business this falling out with our best customer,
The Clare man is slow to alter
his politics. He still remembers that he is a Dalcassian, one of the tribe that
under Brian Boru was the principal agent of the rout of the Danes at Clontarf
in 1014. There is still a feeling in Clare that the men of that county have
always come to the help of the nation in the hour of its need. Did they not
rally to Daniel O’Connell in the struggle for Catholic Emancipation, and later
to Parnell in the Land War? Fired with these recollections they threw
themselves into the recent struggle for independence with desperate enthusiasm.
True, the leaders of the Clare revolutionaries found themselves, after the Treaty,
fighting almost as bitterly against one another as they had done against
This proud independence of Clare
is due to geographical conditions. The county is almost completely segregated
from the rest of
There is an even more curious
legend, namely that the aboriginal inhabitants of
The Burren district is one of the
most extraordinary natural phenomena in
In the Memoirs of Ludlow, the Cromwellian general, the following account of the Burren is given: “ We entered the Barony of Burren, of which it is said that it is a country where there is not water enough to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him, which last is so scarce that the inhabitants steal it from one another; and yet their cattle are very fat; for the grass growing in tufts of earth of two or three feet square that lie between the rocks is very sweet and nourishing.”
This statement is true, and
accounts for the seemingly strange fact that men trouble to fence their
holdings of an apparent desert. The soil created by gradual attrition of the
rocks is of a wonderful fertility, and supports among other things the richest
flora in these islands, including Alpine plants such as the gentian. And there
are other advantages that make the district valuable to a farmer. It is
admirable ground for wintering cattle. The hummocks and bushes give the cattle
shelter, the limestone land affords them dry beds. The grass is sweet and
succulent, and does not rot in winter but becomes a kind of growing hay. Spring
finds the young cattle healthy, and in excellent case to thrive on the fat soil
The whole of Clare is not, of course, like the Burren. Much of the rest is, however, but middling land, stony and light. It is in such surroundings that the Clareman makes his living and forms his character, a character not to be sneered at, compounded of industry, honesty, a certain forthrightness of speech, and a tendency to welcome straightforward speech in others but bitterly to resent double-dealing.
Clare farmers used to fatten young calves for veal. The practice, for economic reasons, has now been given up. But kids are still reared for the table; and I had rather distressing evidence of this. As I walked through a small seaside village I heard a mild bleating issuing from a dingy school-cart. There were three young kids lying in the well of the cart, pretty little blue-eyed things of six to eight weeks old. A young country lad and a butcher were chaffering over the price. After much haggling the three kids were sold for eight shillings; and when I passed that way, half an hour after, three pitiful little carcases, split open, were hanging at the butcher’s door. But after walking on the pier I left the town with a better taste in my mouth, and a memory of three fine upstanding old men, rosy and white-haired, each of them over seventy, who were sturdily unloading a cargo of seaweed they had brought from a creek six miles away. All were native Irish speakers, though they could speak English also. They would have eaten roast kid without a qualm, and had been glad to get it. There is no use being sentimental. Three men are better than three goats, though not always.
In its amusements Clare does not
differ from the other Western counties. Gaelic football and hurling are the
chief games, and Clare excels in both. The camán or hurling-stick is sometimes
used as a weapon of offence, and a very effective weapon it must make, being
about the same weight as a hockey-stick but with the curved end broader. At a
certain famous election in the North, before the struggle for independence had
united Nationalism, two or three hundred Claremen armed with camáns were
brought on the scene to keep order. Unhappily some supporters of the then
orthodox Nationalist side thought fit to import a strong body of their supporters from
“What're you doing that for, Joe?” he asked.
“Och, Mr. G.,” returned the man, with the grin of one who knows he will not be misunderstood, “I’m just doin’ it for luck. – These Claremen may know somethin’ about raisin’ cattle; but when it comes to riotin’ we’ve served our time to it!”
I have permission to cull from a
local history the picture of an eager-tempered masterful citizen of long-ago
Clare – a woman, not a man.
“I am she that was the wife of Conor O’Brien,” she answered, “and now am his widow. I have come to submit myself to you, and will make good my submission by marrying one of your officers.”
Another Cromwellian was found who
did not fear red hair, one Colonel John Cooper, and Maire duly espoused him.
The couple did not at once enter into possession of Conor O’Brien’s stronghold,
Maire Ruadh and her two
daughters, “Mary and Slaney Brien,” are buried in the