“In a world without consequences,” my mother’s friend Marian had said over their weekly coffee in the Shopping Centre, “wouldn’t it be great to go to bed with Bill Clinton?” When she reported this, she added, with a 15-year-old’s giggle, “And do you know, I have to say, _I agreed with her.”_
Dad said, “Well, I don’t know what to make of that at all.”
“We were all swooning to hear him in person. And he knew all about Limerick. He mentioned Dell, and the new concert hall out at the university. He even knew about the rugby!”
Ten days before, I’d got an email request from a friend. “Give me a few facts about Limerick,” she wrote. I told her about the pogrom of 1904; Richard Harris; the spit-flecked Redemptorist Fathers; and the arrival of Latvian, Chinese, and Polish immigrants, who brought durian crisps and rye bread, and queued up for internet access in the public library. I mentioned how unfair the Stab City nickname seemed to the citizens, and the resentment at poor-mouthing Frank McCourt. _Sure, the McCourts were starving because the father was a roaring alcoholic–and that was hardly Limerick’s fault._
These ramblings weren’t what she’d had in mind. She was pals with President Clinton’s head foreign-policy speechwriter, and he needed notes for his boss’s trip to Ireland. In those slinking days after the Starr Report, Clinton could still count on a Kennedy welcome in Ireland, which had never fallen out of love with him (and misses him still). He was a great man on the North, it was felt. Irish people took pride in believing, unlike the English with their scourging tabloids, that a politician’s sex life was none of the electorate’s business. They wouldn’t hear a word said against him.
I supplied replacement facts: new bridges, new industries, a new stop on the national arts’ circuit, and an abiding love of rugby that crossed class. These were better suited to help a president reflect a city’s growing sense of itself, and no one does that better than misty Bill. Limerick was impressed at his grasp of town life.
“Ah, Bill’s just my puppet,” I told my mum.
I thought of Clinton’s visit after yesterday’s Munster victory.
_”Local update: Munster beat Biarritz 20-17 in the Heineken Cup in Cardiff today. 15,000 people watched on an outdoor screen in O’Connell St in Limerick. 70,000 people at the stadium in Cardiff. Stringer got man of the match. George Hook was unbearable on the telly there. Of course, they beat Leinster in the semi’s so my celebrations are somewhat more temperate.”_
That came in a Saturday letter from an old college friend, a Leinster Dub transplanted to Cork. On first reading I thought he was poking fun–as If I’d be interested in rugby, unless I was trying to sweet-talk some fella. Dad regularly reports the match results to my sisters and me, the jokey lament of a man in a family of women indifferent to blood-rising county rivalries. But this week, it was Mum who delivered an excited match report on Sunday night. I hadn’t realized it was a European Final, and a triumph for my home town.
Munster is the bottom-left of Ireland’s four provinces, and it covers Cork, Limerick, Tipperary, Kerry, and Clare. Maybe Waterford too; my geography was always poor. It has a lasting rugby rivalry with Leinster, where the Dubs are. I don’t hear of the other provinces getting in on it, but perhaps that’s because rugby is such a city game.
In most of Ireland it’s a posh sport that grows from the private schools. The kids in _The Commitments_ would have played soccer. In Dublin, rugby is for South County Dublin boys whose strong necks are bred to support barristers’ horsehair wigs as well as scrums. Long before the rest of the country could afford to fake Viking genes, their girls were swinging sheets of blonde hair over pints of Heineken.
In Limerick, tough, scrappy Limerick, the whole city is mad for the game. On the field, solicitors tackle janitors and bouncers take down mortgage brokers (or they used to, before the game went professional). In the concrete stands of Thomond Park, the doctors from St. Camillus’ freeze their backsides off next to cabbage growers. We don’t have people from all walks of life in Limerick–there are no rag-pickers, no Google billionaires, no pet psychics–but if we did, they’d probably follow rugby. On Saturday nights, girls dress up for the Sin Bin, a club owned by a former Munster star and named for the place to which he was regularly sent off.
Mum reports that Cork is jealous, because everyone is saying that they’ve never seen anything like the way the Limerick fans came out for the team. At her school, the kids all wore Munster red on Friday, except for a couple of the little Pakistani kids–which is a pity, she says, because red is lovely with their dark hair. All the teachers wore red head to toe. Dad bought a Munster jersey; Uncle Tommy and Derek went over to Cardiff to see the match, and the fans there, oh, the whole stadium was pure red.
I can hear the shine in her eyes when she talks about O’Connell Street, where the whole town gathered to watch the match on screens strung above the traffic lights. When the homecoming bus drove into Limerick in the rain, it was magic. “You turn on the news and it’s all Munster, Munster, Munster, and they’re talking about the Limerick fans and how committed they were. And the team says that’s why they won, they couldn’t let the people down.” (The Limerick people, she insists.)
“Claire couldn’t believe I was watching the semi-finals, and I told her, if you had blood running in your veins, how could you not be interested when they might win for the first time in 120 years? So then she watched the finals and got all into it. Caroline went out for the celebrations and she ended up walking home. I hope she wasn’t wearing stilettos…”
She spills the jokes that are going around, how the Leinster fans were too busy shopping in Brown Thomas to show up for the match, and the Leinster team were afraid to spoil their manicures.
I remember this, or something like it, when Ireland got to the quarter-finals of the Football World Cup in 1990. Something changed. Until then we had flown high only solo, and mostly far from home. Here was an Irish team (cobbled from the stocky British offspring of Irish grandparents and coached by a Yorkshireman) holding England to a victory draw, and gallantly saving penalty shots from Romanian strikers. The country rose up in a great yawp of triumph, and urged the players beyond their modest abilities.
And we watched ourselves as fans, and liked what we saw: thronging Palermo, respectful, high-spirited, cuddly, and cheerfully sozzled. The worse the English fans behaved, the more lovable the Irish fans were careful to become, on their first grand tour. They waved scarves at the cameras and told of bank loans borrowed over the phone so they to stay on and follow the team on through–nobody had booked past the first round. At home the factories closed and we filled the bars–with their brand-new, big-screen TVs bought for Italia ’90– and wept with joy to see ourselves weep with collective joy in front of the world. Ireland was still close to bottom of the EU heap then, but the shine of the World Cup showed a new reflection. Everybody thought we were great, we repeated. It felt good.
For my home town, Shtab City, known for hoodies and piebalds and wormy Stanley Knife scars, this Munster win, a mucky oval ball delivered over a white line, might signal the same shift in confidence. Fifteen years from now we might look back and see just how ready Limerick was to stand proud and passionate, after decades of being done down. “It’s great,” says my mother, firmly, “to see positive images of Limerick in the media for once, when they’re never nice about us.”
Do you know, it is.