Ranger Tim arrived on January 1st, a Canadian herald dragging my sister and me out of bed at six to greet the new year. He brought two backpacks, one a giant I could hardly lift, with two orange lifejackets strapped around it. It was stuffed with an inflatable double canoe. The other held a tent, stove, and sleeping bags, and my Christmas present: The Backwoods of Canada: Letters from a Frontierwoman.
“This is Ireland,” my family told him, “Not Canada. You can’t go camping in January.” Lord, don’t goad him on, I thought.
Ireland it is. Since he arrived it has stormed almost every day. Great hailstones drum on the kitchen skylights, and Dad tells us about the Ghanaian exchange students, on a school canoe trip in Co. Mayo last year, who dived like mallards when these mysterious stones were thrown at them.
But the clouds move across an Irish sky like nowhere else, and we snatch a dry afternoon here and there. We cycled out to Adare, with its thatched cottages, and on to Curraghchase park through the back roads. The Irish countryside is pocked with buttercup-yellow McMansions turning their wide arses to their elders and betters–the whitewashed cottages and stone farmhouses on the hills behind. But the fields are green and still stitched together with old stone walls, and even turreted yellow boxes cannot fully spoil them.
My parents brought us to Keeper Hill, just across the Tipperary border. I am Tim’s dialect coach: “Tip-peh-RARE-y. Not TIPP-erary.” I tried to set pronunciation rules for Irish placenames and quickly gave up. The accent is on the first syllable, except when it isn’t. We sloshed up Keeper, past the Mass Rock where priests gave secret masses when the Penal Laws forbade Catholic worship. On the way down, Dad produced miniature bottles of grappa and Kit-Kats to keep us going. I’m a good walker, but I can never keep pace with my old dears.
Tim gave me my own city. I had hardly strolled around it in fifteen years, and it is changed utterly. Limerick was lucky: in the Seventies and Eighties it didn’t have the money to knock down and “redevelop” its medieval and Georgian centres, and so they lay derelict until we were ready to appreciate our inheritance. Parts of it are truly lovely now.
At ten thirty in the morning we went for a pint in Nancy Blake’s. The fire was lit, and the front bar was full of ould fellas settling in for the day. Nancy’s is a perfect Irish pub, where hipsters drink alongside flat-capped farmers, the seats and room sizes are nicely mixed, and no theme-park guff hangs on the walls. Afterwards, at the new Asian supermarket on Mungret Street, we bought dried durian, to the shock of the Thai-Chinese owner. “You know this?” she said, holding it back. Then, pleased: “Durian is king of fruit.” We ate the smelly crisps by the Maigue river, watching it swirl into the Shannon, and planned a mythical canoe trip. Then we went to St. Mary’s Cathedral, built in Viking times, with a barrel ceiling of the same Limerick oak used in Westminster. I hadn’t been in there since a school trip I was twelve, when the stained-glass windows and the elegant Cistercian stonework held less interest than the boys a head shorter than me.
Nearby the medieval King John’s Castle curves around the river bank, slit windows eyeing the Shannon for stray arrows. Two little gougers trundled over on too-small bikes, shouting “Sorr! Sorr! Give us a tip for a photo, go on, sorr.” So Tim fixed them in light and time. We crossed the Shannon, quizzed a playboater for tidal information, strolled along Clancy Strand, and crossed back over to Arthur’s Quay. The Latvian girl in the new Russian Deli sold Tim the rye bread he loves and chatted to him about Riga.
We finished the walking tour with chip butties at the Lobster Pot, for sentimental reasons. Friar Tucks once stood there, and I spent Saturday nights outside eating curry chips and watching the fights on the steps of the Redemptorist Fathers across the road. (Ah, the Redemptorists, who drove the Jews out of Limerick a hundred years ago: may they somehow atone for their evil.)
When we got home Claire told us a story from her friend Michael, who interviews asylum seekers for the Irish Refugee Council in Dublin. A man who had been waiting for weeks came in to withdraw his application on the morning of his interview. “But why?” Michael asked. The man had been told that if his application to stay were approved, he would be transferred to accommodation in Limerick.
“I’d rather go back to Angola,” he said.
Myself, I’d pick Limerick over Dublin these days. Or Angola.