Poor old Limerick. The city’s national image is now embodied by the young gurrier giving two fingers to the world outside the courtroom where his murder charges were dismissed when every single witness suffered mysterious memory loss. It was a stabbing, of course: Limerick’s unaffectionate nickname for years has been Stab City. A Stanley knife is the weapon of choice when you can’t afford guns, and it is as effective at silencing canaries as it is slicing carpets. I remember the wormy white knife scars that boys would display when I was in school: close to the stomach or the upper thigh, usually. Occasionally around the jaw. They weren’t fighters, the ones I knew, they were just set upon at pub closing time for being too big or too small, or just there. If this was Wesht Soide Shtory, then I wanted to be in America.
It’s the city of _Angela’s Ashes_. A good chunk of those millions of readers seem to have interpreted the book as a documentary on modern life in Limerick, rather as though _Gangs of New York_ were a portrait of 21st century NoLiTa. Yes, Limerick was a shithole in the thirties and forties, especially if your father was a battering drunk. And the city that obeyed when the Redemptorist Fathers called for a boycott of the tiny Jewish population almost a hundred years ago should feel shame, even if it did inspire Joyce to set his Leopold Bloom wandering Dublin on that same date in 1904.
But money and demographics have changed Limerick as much as or more than the rest of the country. Your Dell computer probably comes from here. Bríd Dukes slogged to build a good arts centre in the 1980s, and the Belltable is now a fixture on the repertory theatre and exhibition circuit. Ed Walsh, president of the University of Limerick (whose university status he fought for in the 1980s, to the patronising amusement of the old-school schools), understood American-style fundraising at a time when other Third-Level provosts just waited for the government to toss money into their floppy hats. He built a fine campus and churned out business and engineering graduates. Many stayed, including my youngest sister. My school friends have families here now, and some work in the foreign companies drawn in the 1990s by clever tax-incentives and an educated labour force. House prices, that barometer of Irish happiness, have climbed steadily. The crumbling city centre has been rebuilt and the British chainstores sniffed out full wallets and moved in. Limerick had always turned her arse to the lovely Shannon; on the docks shivering prostitutes paced in front of the abandoned flour mill. Now the sex workers have moved indoors and the docklands have been rebuilt with smart flats and upmarket bars.
I have few booster instincts myself, though I admire them in others. I never considered coming back to improve things once I left at eighteen. I married a Dubliner, for one thing, and they can’t see much here beyond knife-wielding culchies. My old flatmate reported the dismay in his Dublin civil service office at the news that the department was being tranferred to Limerick as part of a decentralisation program announced in the budget speech last week. Decentralisation makes some sense, even if in this case it’s a crooked vote-getting scheme. The island is in danger of tipping into the Irish Sea as a third of the population crams itself into Dublin. Dublin is the most expensive city in Europe–more than London, apparently–and for your money you get dirty streets, unaffordable housing, snarling traffic, and public transport not much better than LA. On a civil servant’s salary you might think people would be glad to get out, but this transfer is as popular as Cromwell’s order to go to hell or to Connaught. Seethings of mass resignations and legal action greet every mention of Limerick. I don’t think that the threat of rural Cavan or Longford would be as unwelcome: with Limerick, it’s personal.
It’s also not fair. I sympathised with Pádraig’s colleagues at the time–this home town never held my affection–but now I’m back I see that was unfair. The schools are good, the traffic is easy, and it’s mostly free of yuppies yapping about décor. You can get cheap direct flights to New York or London from Shannon airport, twenty minutes out of town. Houses are half the price for twice the room. The restaurants can’t be much worse than Dublin’s, and the city is surrounded on all sides by the most beautiful countryside in the world–Cork, Kerry, Clare, and Galway. “It’s come up a lot,” Limerick people keep telling me, and as far as I can tell, they’re right.