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Idling down to Irish Time

According to a prominent wall of fame in its main terminal building, Shannon Airport has played host to an extraordinary group of international statesmen. Photographs show the warm Irish welcome that was extended to Bill Clinton, George Bush Senior and Pope John Paul as they touched down in this isolated corner of County Clare at various points over the past fifteen years. These prominent visitors are all smiling, but I don’t think their good humour can simply be put down to their anticipation of a pint of Guinness and traditional craic in a village pub. No. We are looking at the smug reassurance of people who know they don’t have to rely on local public transport for their onward journey.

Shannon may have been made fit for Presidents, Pontiffs and Princes, but no one has seen fit to equip it with a train to Limerick City, a mere ten or so miles away. In fact, no one has equipped it with a train to anywhere. If Mr Clinton arrived on a Sunday and was dependent on catching a bus, he might find himself able to solve the Israel-Palestine business before the next timetabled service. I don’t think it would be advisable to conduct any serious work on the bus itself though, as you’d never know when you might be called upon to assist the driver. As we approached the centre of Limerick, we found our path blocked by traffic approaching a hurling stadium. (Hurling, for the uninitiated, is a kind of cross between hockey and football that is popular enough locally to have thousands of people sitting in open-air terraces in the pouring rain.) Our Bus Eireann chauffeur decided that a short diversion was in order and swung the coach into a maze of residential side roads. Within about a minute, we were so badly stuck that a passenger was instructed to get out of the vehicle and help with a three-point turn that was in serious danger of taking out a number of parked cars.

I soon got the impression that this kind of short-cut manoeuvre would probably be OK though under most normal circumstances in Limerick, as a quieter and more provincial backwater is difficult to imagine. For people who know Scotland, Inverness would perhaps provide a good comparison. You can conduct a basic orientation of the city within about twenty minutes and visit its main attractions within twenty-four hours. Limerick does, however, have genuine history attached to it and a lot of it is very interesting. The French and Irish fought the Dutch and the English there when the city was under siege in 1642, for example. These events are very professionally commemorated and re-enacted in a visitors’ centre attached to St John’s Castle, the main landmark of the town. The old Custom House has been turned into a museum, housing an astonishing and eclectic collection of art, artefacts and antiquities, including works by Renoir, Picasso and Leonardo da Vinci. For an art-lover, these unlikely exhibits at the Hunt Museum would alone justify a visit to the banks of the River Shannon and the so-called ‘commercial hub’ of Ireland’s Mid-West. Just as long as you don’t expect an actual commercial hub when you arrive. This is not Dublin and although you’ll be able to identify a Boots, a Mothercare, a McDonalds and an HMV, they do rather give the appearance of having arrived from another planet.

Turn out of O’Connell Street which runs through the heart of the town and you’re likely to feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. Small independent clothes shops compete with family butchers and saddle merchants for passing trade. On one street between the town centre and the railway station, there’s a ‘Dental Repair Centre’ that advertises – and I couldn’t make this up – a while-u-wait service for false teeth. If that kind of stuff weren’t weird enough, when I attempted to buy a ticket for Beautiful Mind at a dilapidated art deco cinema, I was told that the evening’s showing had been ‘cancelled’. I enquired about the likelihood of its being reinstated the following night and was treated like a village idiot. Of course it would be on.

Some tourists may feel they’ve discovered genuine olde worlde Ireland in Limerick and be absolutely delighted with the experience. Others may understandably feel more comfortable with the sophistication and economic success of Dublin’s Fair City and I suspect that a great many Irish citizens would agree with them too.

When you visit Adare, which is just twenty-five minutes away in County Limerick, you see another representation of the old-fashioned Emerald Isle. I asked the girl at the bus station whether it was worth seeing and was given the comforting reply that “tourists go there”. Yes, it was the packaged-for-Americans, John-Wayne-in-The-Quiet-Man, ‘top-of-the-morning’ kind of Ireland: a genuinely pretty place, with medieval churches and monasteries, which unfortunately seems to have been overtaken by its tourist information centre, restaurants and craft shops. Given the history, it’s a little sad that they survive on selling resin leprechauns and chocolates in the shape of shamrocks. But that’s supply and demand for you, I guess. I spent a pleasant hour reading in an attractive public garden that was Overall Winner in the 1976 National Tidy Towns Competition.

Ironically, if you really want a sense of the genuine past, you’d be better off going to Bunratty and its specially-created, 26-acre folk park. Old Irish dwellings, shops and schools have been faithfully rebuilt down to the last detail and without any hint of kitsch. Real smoke burns in real fireplaces and bone fide chickens cluck their way around straw-filled outhouses. The scale of the thing is impressive, the modern-day amenities are perfectly acceptable and you come away with a strong impression of what it must have been like to live in nineteenth century Clare with only a chamber pot and a few religious icons for company. In one of the slightly grander houses, a lady was making rhubarb pies in the kitchen. Not only was she well informed about the park’s exhibits, but she wasn’t spouting from a script or pretending to be a character in a period drama. Full marks. As an added bonus, Bunratty Castle, which now sits within the park, is the kind of place that drives American and Japanese tourists into a frenzy. It’s all stags’ heads, coats of arms and general baronial splendour of the days-of-yore variety. Once again, the guides are intelligent, friendly and well prepared.

Back in Limerick, I was caught unawares when turning down a side street near the police station. A couple of large Securicor vans had attracted an escort of about two dozen heavily armed troops, who were nonchalantly standing around on the pavement. It all seemed a little over the top for this town at the mouth of the sleepy Shannon and as I meandered through a sea of assault rifles, I wondered whether I’d perhaps misjudged the place. Any suggestion of intrigue or drama was quickly dispelled, however, by a left turn some thirty seconds later. Young mums were still pushing their infants towards dowdy department stores and girls dressed in ankle-length skirts chatted together as they waited for the bus back from their austere-looking convent schools. The soldiers were just around the corner, but a million miles away.

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