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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Limerick castle in the present day                                  LIMERICK

The city of Limerick was born with a silver spoon in its mouth. Perhaps the metaphor is a violent one. There is little resemblance between a spoon and a river; and it is the Shannon that gives Limerick its unique quality among Irish cities.

I wronged the mighty stream on my first visit to Limerick, for walking to the foot of Patrick street in artificial light I mistook the Abbey river, one of the Shannon’s tributaries, for the Shannon itself. But I had my thrill the next morning as I looked from Thomond bridge and saw under a bright sky the Shannon rolling down in broad majesty, still a river, rippling and curling and eddying along, a living thing with an abundant life of its own, not yet a dull estuary already half-swallowed by the sea.

But Limerick has at least one other mark of distinction. O’Connell Street supports not unworthily the honour of being a city’s chief street. Broad, straight, and rising graciously to the skyline, it sets off the formal dignity of its terrace after terrace of fine Georgian houses, a few of them transformed into shops or offices, but triumphing over the degradation. I mention Georgian houses again at the risk of provoking a smile; but the truth is, very little good domestic architecture other than Georgian survives in Ireland, if any ever existed. 

Limerick being known to Irish history as the City of the Broken Treaty, you will naturally visit the Treaty Stone at the north end of Thomond Bridge. It is unlikely that the Treaty of Limerick, 1691, was signed on a stone; and there is at any rate no evidence that it was signed on this stone. But, unhappily, the Treaty – made between the Irish forces, and Ginkel on behalf of the British – was broken by the British Government, though William the Third wished to keep it.

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 Sarsfield Street, at right angles to O’Connell Street, is, by chance or design, a continuation of William Street. It wasn’t the first time that Sarsfield and William had met.

Perhaps my Irish fashion of harking back to history may also bring you to smile. But the repulse of William the Third from Limerick in 1690 is one of the most treasured memories of the Irish people; and is to this day continually before them. Songs are still sung about the famous victory, and orations delivered. If you have the curiosity to go to a céleide – an Irish evening of song and dance and story-telling – you may dance “The Walls of Limerick.” Symbolically you will make the circuit of the walls, passing from partner to fresh partner; and if there is a large company on the floor nothing but your Irish sympathies will prevent you from wishing that William’s men had carried the breach. 

The Irish people have a right to be proud of the victory at Limerick. It is one of the two famous sieges in Anglo-Irish history.

After the battle of the Boyne in 1690, William followed the defeated Irish and French – though not so fast as Marlborough would have done if he had been in command – and besieged them in Limerick. A romantic and gallant foray led by Sarsfield intercepted and destroyed part of William’s siege artillery and delayed his operations against the city. At last the walls were breached, but in the space of time between breach and assault a masked battery had been placed so as to bear directly on the breach, which was flanked by other guns on vantage points; and William’s troops (ten thousand strong, Dutch, Brandenburghers, Danes, Irish, and English – a Jacobite eye-witness calls them “the rebels”) were swept with cannon fire as they entered the walls. A desperate struggle followed. The Irish fought with a courage and spirit that made them invincible. The very women fought, throwing stones, or anything they could lay their hands on, at the attackers. William’s men maintained the assault gallantly for three hours, but in the end gave way, leaving from 1,500 to 2,000 on the ground. They were not cowed by their repulse; and pressed for another assault. But William had lost heart, or was anxious to get back to England for political reasons. Alleging – apparently with little foundation – that the weather and the lateness of the season made further operations in the field impossible, he raised the siege, and went off, abandoning a quantity of war material. It was the one gleam of Irish victory among long years of defeat and humiliation. No wonder that “Limerick” is still a trumpet-call to the Irish people, and the city a Mecca; and that young Irish men and maidens dance in memory of the victory as the Scots used to dance in commemoration of Bannockburn. Ultimately, it must be admitted, the Scots gave it up; but if shipbuilding continues so depressed on the Clyde they may begin again. I question whether even the removal of the British duties on cattle would stop the dancing of the “Walls of Limerick” in Ireland. 

But Limerick by no means lives entirely in the past. On the contrary its citizens are forward-looking, preparing for the prosperous future that the change in economic conditions, the advantageous position of their city, and their past accomplishment justify them in expecting. Limerick bacon is famous the world over. The docks are being extended; rather optimistically, I thought, as I walked along the existing docks and saw a single steamer, discharging coal.

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 Limerick and is well worth a visit. There is about the huge turbines and the mighty power-house something of the impressiveness of a great cathedral. Hardly a man is to be seen. There is not a sound but the deep humming of the dynamos; and that is felt rather than heard. The mind travels, swift as the current, through sleepy village and busy town, hears machinery stir into activity or sees the darkling street leap to light, then returns on itself to the quiet house of power beside the harnessed Shannon. 

Municipally Limerick is in the same anomalous position as Cork. It possesses a Council, but its affairs are directed by a City Manager; well directed, as in Cork, for the city’s rates have fallen almost one-third. But the principle of democratic government gains little support from the situation.

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 Limerick is the most thorough of Ireland, so thorough as sometimes to be indicted for harshness; but the casual visitor cannot assess rights and wrongs in such a controversial business, and can only admire the new and healthy Limerick that is resulting.

The Limerick middle-class are a body of progressives, sane and moderate in their outlook and actions. The great revolution goes on in Limerick, too, but slowly and without bitterness or hardship, without offence to anyone who has a sense of logic, without great anxiety to anyone who remembers that even a motor-car has to be “run-in” for five hundred miles or so before it begins to function at its best. This moderation is producing a reward. I met several former members of the old ascendancy party who had whole-heartedly laid aside prejudice and identified themselves with the new Irish nation. Such men will look with respect and admiration towards the modern England, and sometimes with regret; but their attitude does not cause them to be ostracised by their fellow-citizens; and though they are a small and decreasing minority they help to lubricate the Irish car, Liberty, while it is running itself in. 

The sports and pleasures of Limerick are the normal ones of these days of transition, and the hospitality – Irish.

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 night-life of Limerick. The atmosphere was almost oppressively decorous. Of the six tables in front of where I was sitting five were occupied by pairs of young girls unaccompanied by men. There was no visible reason for it.

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The Cliffs of Moher                                   CLARE

Passing out of Limerick on the road to Ennis there is little change in the quality of the country until after Bunratty Castle, one of the best preserved Norman castles in Ireland. You will then observe a quite unexpected outcrop of limestone throughout what is in other respects an excellent field of grass. It is Co. Clare’s advance notice of itself. There are other things in Clare, fine bold scenery, good farmers, strong politicians, comfortable hotels, excellent fishing and shooting, friendly hospitable people; but the foundation of it all is limestone.

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, England; but when I asked him bluntly whom he would vote for at the next election he changed the conversation.

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 England; but all felt that a great principle was at stake. Clare will never descend, her people say, to merely sectional strife.

This proud independence of Clare is due to geographical conditions. The county is almost completely segregated from the rest of Ireland by natural boundaries of military importance, the sea, the Shannon, and several ranges of mountains. Only about Gort is there easy access to Clare. Malicious persons have said that when the Northern marauders descended on the rich Southern plans the Dalcassians descended on them as they came back laden with booty, and seized the spoil. Not long ago there was controversy about a gold collar or gorget found in Clare, some asserting that the discovery was evidence of the former presence of gold in the county, others reviving the ancient calumny.

There is an even more curious legend, namely that the aboriginal inhabitants of Ireland, driven by some Milesian Oliver Cromwell, took refuge in a mysterious fastness in Clare, from which they emerged only now and then on a foray. The way into this strange retiring-place was known to the King only, and his successor. The brood mares of the King’s stud lay without the boundary all day, and when a stranger was to be admitted on an embassy he was blindfolded and placed on one of these mares, which instinctively followed the secret path. The legend is a widespread one, and its linking with Clare most probably an exaggeration of the withdrawn situation of the Claremen, and their seldom but effective interference in national affairs. Not unlikely the existence of the Burren district of Clare has also contributed.

The Burren district is one of the most extraordinary natural phenomena in Ireland. It lies in the North-Western district of Clare and covers many square miles, a vast outcrop of limestone and rock only partially covered with earth, and in hilly portions completely denuded of it. As far as the eye can see there stretches a stony wilderness partially covered with scrub bushes of blackthorn and hazel, and patches of grass; but entirely treeless. The ground is boldly undulating, but at a distance seems to have a uniform flat surface. In reality it is largely encumbered with loose stones and small boulders. Occasionally you will come on a huge terraced amphitheatre of stone; then a hill will rise before you, pure bare stone. There is little or no water in the district. The rainfall sinks into subterranean streams. The Burren is at its best in Spring when the blackthorn is out; but at any time of year it is strangely wonderful and impressive. Boundaries are marked by loose stone walls, only one stone thick, another marvel of the district. They are built with extraordinary skill, the corrugations of the limestone being so cunningly fitted into one another that these walls will last for generations; yet, seen against the sky, they look like a fantastically patterned network.

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 of the Midlands.

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 Belfast, also to keep order; with a result on order that might have been, and probably was foreseen. A journalist friend of mine came on the field of one of the battles a little too late. He found a Belfast mill-worker of strong political feelings engaged in nailing a donkey’s shoe to the business end of a captured camán.

“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. Ludlow records that his men killed Conor O’Brien, commander in Clare against the Cromwellians. O’Brien was a man of standing, but his memory is completely eclipsed by the legendary fame of his wife Maire Ruadh, or Red-headed Mary. Beyond the colour of her hair, there is no record of the appearance of this strong-minded lady; but she must have been handsome or she would never been allowed to show herself so strong-minded. After her husband’s death she counselled her sons not to oppose the Parliamentary forces, and dressing in a splendid costume of silk and silver lace, which you may be sure was the most becoming one she possessed, she ordered her carriage and betook herself to Ireton’s headquarters in Limerick. An elaborate entertainment was going on; and the sentry would not allow Maire Ruadh to enter. If he had known anything about red hair he would probably have shown more sense. However, he was speedily enlightened, for Maire raised such a rumpus that Ireton ordered her to be let in, and asked who she was.

“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, Lemeneagh Castle, which was held by the Parliamentary forces till the Restoration. But Maire Ruadh was a person not likely to be kept out of anything she desired; and in the end she and her husband obtained possession of Lemeneagh. They may have lived happily there together; but the Colonel must have walked among red-hot – I had almost said red-haired- ploughshares. A document issued from Hampton Court Palace in 1662 says: “We refer to you the petition of Mary Cooper, widow of Conor O’Brien of Lemeneagh, Co. Clare, and now wife of John Cooper. She is likely to be charged with the murder of one Thomas Baker, of which she says she is innocent, but cannot clear herself. If you find the facts as stated, you shall issue our pardon to her.”

Maire Ruadh and her two daughters, “Mary and Slaney Brien,” are buried in the church of Cood near Lemeneagh. If Colonel John Cooper died first, one Parliamentary soldier is extremely unlikely ever to have oppressed the Irish race, at least after he was married.

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