A new chapter for Limerick

Authors and storytellers are celebrated in the Irish city, finds Bernadette Fallon.

It wasn’t the most likely bestseller – the story of a 1930s Irish childhood in a rundown city, filled with poverty and neglect. But Angela’s Ashes is told with such warmth and humour that its author Frank McCourt became world famous when the book was published in 1996.

With its murky past of slums and gangland violence, Limerick in the southwest of Ireland isn’t the most likely bucket list destination either. But the book put it on the map and ‘literary tourists’ began to arrive in the ‘90s, keen to see where Frank went to school (the Gothic Leamy House on Hartstonge Street), had his first pint (South’s pub on Quinlan Street) and the various streets where the McCourt family eked out their miserable existence.

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Not that Limerick doesn’t have its grandeur, I realise standing in the entrance to the People’s Museum in the Georgian Quarter, one of the swish Victorian townhouses built in the 1830s on Pery Square. It overlooks the People’s Park – the first glimpse of Limerick we get in the book.

View of King John’s Castle on the banks of the Shannon in LimerickView of King John’s Castle on the banks of the Shannon in Limerick
View of King John’s Castle on the banks of the Shannon in Limerick

As well as exhibitions on the city’s past, the five-storey building now houses the Frank McCourt Museum, featuring letters, photographs and literary awards from Frank’s life, as well as his personal collection of rosary beads – 37 in total, including one given to him by Pope John Paul II – and some of his ashes (he died in 2009, at the age of 78). A coach house out the back has been revamped as a contemporary art gallery and the museum also runs lectures, workshops and walking tours of the city.

We’re staying at No 1 Pery Square around the corner, another one of those beautiful Victorian buildings, now remodelled as a boutique hotel (B&B from €225; Oneperysquare.com). The Long Hall lounge in verdant green is a stylish spot for drinks and bar food. And you won’t find anything as crass as a breakfast buffet in the elegant dining room upstairs, everything is ordered off the menu, which also lists suppliers, so I know my sausages come from O’Loughlin’s butchers and hens at Culbhac Farm laid my eggs. Orange juice is served in champagne flutes and the coffee walnut bread is so delicious that I summon the lady with the breadbasket several times.

Each of the hotel’s 21 rooms is named after an Irish writer (Seamus Heaney even stayed in the Heaney room). We’re in the Kate O’Brien suite, with its portrait of the artist who was born and raised in Limerick. She also lived in the UK and Bilbao (where a street is named in her honour) and the Limerick Literary Festival – formerly known as the Kate O’Brien Weekend – celebrates her life and work, alongside other Irish and international writers.

The festival takes place every February and I meet the organisers in the hotel’s drawing room, a passionate group of women who every year present the Kate O’Brien Award to a debut work by an Irish female author. Previously shortlisted writers include Sara Baume and Sally Rooney.

Writers also gather at the White House on O’Connell St, established in 1812 and reportedly Limerick’s oldest pub. Limerick Writers’ Centre hosts regular literary evenings here, where invited guests and open mic-ers read their work, overlooked by photos of Irish literati. The writers’ centre also runs readings and launches at the People’s Museum and to date has published over 160 books by local and national writers. You can browse local, Irish and international reads in one of Ireland’s oldest independent bookshops, O’Mahony’s on O’Connell St, which has been selling books since 1902 and holds regular literary events and launches.

In the city’s medieval quarter, the local King’s Island community hosts storytelling evenings on the second Tuesday of every month at the Treaty City Brewery, open to all. It’s a cool destination, a former warehouse turned stylish bar – you can also take a tour of the brewery.

King’s Island takes its name from the medieval King John’s Castle, built in 1200 on the banks of the Shannon, Ireland’s longest river. An on-site exhibition at the castle brings its story to life and you can catch a concert in the courtyard in summer – Paul Weller, Johnny Marr and Kraftwerk are lined up for this year. The Three Bridges walking route along the riverbank is a scenic way to view the city and takes in cultural landmarks including the Hunt Museum and Limerick Street Art Trail.

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These days, visitors to Limerick are just as likely to be talking about Limerick’s newest literary sensation as they are about McCourt or O’Brien. Blindboy Boatclub (real name David Chambers) is the new writer on the block, with three widely acclaimed books of short stories and a million listeners to his weekly podcast. He’s also a musician, comedian and satirist, a new breed of hybrid writer entertainer who is starting to attract his own following of literary tourists. Remember where you heard it first.

Fly to Shannon airport, just 16 miles from Limerick, from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen; for early or late-night flights break the journey with a stay at Park Inn by Radisson, located opposite the terminal, stylish, comfortable and super friendly staff, B&B from €139.

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