American author, William Faulkner, set his characters loose on a turbulent landscape that so closely resembled the American South as he knew it, in all its complicated glory, he called it his ‘postage stamp of native soil’ and it became an endless font of creativity for him. His stream-of-consciousness style befits an initial overview of Limerick City as such a place, as a character in itself. In the first person, this ‘native soil’ becomes brutal, resplendent, demanding – a landscape with a kinetic energy that shapes and moulds its inhabitants. It is not an easy love. As Faulkner said: ‘It’s my country, my native land and I love it. You don’t love because, you love in spite of; you do not love for the virtues, but in spite of the faults.’
Words befitting Limerick City perhaps, but where exactly is this place with no discernible affiliation to the poetic style its names implies, yet whose streets are ripe with creativity and their own succinct, edgy poetry?
Limerick lies at the commissure of Ireland’s smile where the Shannon meets the sea. The timeframe inked on the skin is a 1980s childhood in a city separated on class grounds. As children, we believed ‘The Island’ a no go area and the suburbs a little disturbing so the Georgian quarter, Newtown Pery, was home and the centre of the universe.
The sense of place? A feeling of being towered over by four-storey red brick monoliths encasing dusty rooms and wilted net curtains. Georgian masses, heaving in the evening light. The play of browns and chalky reds, the dilapidation creating brick and stone jungles for children to explore. Straight lines of site, grids. A landscape of rooms beyond the dark of the hallways open to the curious and the daring. Being surrounded, hemmed in by brick. The view out all windows? Buildings with a lean strip of sky.
The sky no bigger or wider than the streets. Buildings obstructing light. Light a premium in dark rooms, cavern-like and oddly comforting. In the lanes, three foot thick walls wrapped around the occupants and a hearth. Protected feeling. At times suffocating. Watching as sunlight angled across those rooms and streets throughout the seasons. Dust dancing in the shafts, ephemeral, otherworldly. Hours moving slowly; the light adapting to the mood.
Streets of pebbled concrete, picking out and mapping the patterns and scars of periodic maintenance underfoot. A particular crack taking on its own mythology – a penalty shoot out mark, a valley for toy soldiers, a place where knees were grazed as shoes got repeatedly caught.
The soundscape of church bells in competition on a Sunday. Pounding. Cacophonous. Judgemental campanology.
Shades of red brick, cool granite and rough stone. Patterns and cracks and flaking paint. Wrought iron railings like Limerick Lace on O’Connell Avenue. Electric wires dangling, not attached firmly and always a notion of impending death by electrocution when a ball was kicked too high, though at least there were fewer cars to threaten the players to the curb.
The convents and monasteries having built high walls around their lawns meant that there was no accessible grass except in the oasis of the People’s Park. Such beautiful trees. Such rare things in the city then. No tree-lined avenues but plenty of weeds down the lanes and bows. Lilac billowing over derelict house walls and the dandelion offering its white wisps for us to blow away with a wish.
Alleyways skirting the main streets, linking or bypassing. A place to lurk or be free from traffic, an atmosphere of their own. The Muses battling for their use. Depravity or creativity, utility or contumacious undertones? Big block and small block games of ‘tig’. Crazed screeching children drunk on the power of being ‘it’. The scale of the neighbourhood knowable, relatable. Every corner stone an old friend edging you home. A strong sense of community; doors often unlocked all day.
The effect? The wonder when released into a rural setting. The vastness of the sky and the stars finally visible without light pollution. Fields rolling away for miles, hills glowering low on the horizon. All this counterpointed with the sense of security in the urban setting. The ease of access to town, to a cultural epicentre of art, poetry, theatre and restaurants by foot, by bicycle. Still retreating to darkened rooms when in need of quiet and care. From the euphoria of the ‘hail fellow, well met’ to the brutal underbelly and dangers lurking in the obscene Limerick. The waters of the Shannon, once a lifeline but now calling too many to its depths.
Limerick as some heaving mass that keeps lifting her skirts over time to step from the Island to the mainland, then across the river again to settle herself in new territories, her skirts billowing as she struggles to understand her inhabitants. The colours and hues of the materials she wears over the centuries through baffling town planning. Those inhabitants so disparate in opinion and intent that treat her as something beneath the concerns and predilections of their own lives.
‘Limerick is stronger and more beautiful than all the other cities of Ireland, well walled with stout walls of hewn marble’; these words sent to the Spanish Ambassador in 1574 referred to the walled city of Englishtown on the Island but they have eroded in time much as the walls and respect Limerick once commanded. Those within the Pale being particularly harsh and dismissive. However, this ‘postage stamp of native soil’ is resilient and even though her landscape might change, the bloodlines are still substantial along her banks. Neolithic, Celtic, Viking, Norman warrior lines. Yes, Limerick people are a proud and hardy lot. Her natives and her blow-ins, old and new, adding to the mixed story of her soil.
I bow my head before her and thank her for her succour, promising never to abandon her in my thoughts, for the sense of place she has given me is dark and rich and resplendent.