And all thy charms withdrawn
An Irishman’s Diary about historic Limerick
Ann Pickford and her daughter, Audrey Considine, are rescued from their flooded home on Athlunkard Street in February. Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22
While national media quite rightly focused on last winter’s flood devastation in Limerick’s St Mary’s Park district, no less damage and trauma was caused to an historic nearby area, Athlunkard Street.
In a street that is not far off its 200th anniversary, there is no folk memory of a disaster of such magnitude. The nearby Island Bank, which held back for 150 year the worst that the Abbey river’s winter floods could throw at it, eventually had to admit defeat to a tidal surge which smashed seven-foot walls bounding back gardens in its path. The Parish, or King’s Island as it is known, the scene of all the city’s great battles, was once more besieged.
The lights are gone out in most of the homes of Athlunkard Street now and some may never be lit again. Houses that once echoed to the music of Wallace and Balfe, where the anthem There is An Isle was nurtured until it became synonymous with Shannon RFC’s national triumphs, now lie devastated. Houses that nurtured some of the city’s greatest sportsmen, founders of Garryowen and Shannon, and Athlunkard’s champion oarsmen, are now deserted.
To walk through the street after the flood is an eerie and chastening experience: darkened homes, that in the days when Limerick was the centre of the pig industry, housed the canny breed of pig-buyers whose purchases supplied the world with Limerick ham.
Among them were the seven O’Connor brothers, the city’s greatest sporting family, their exploits on the rugby and athletics field the stuff of legend. They boasted 47 Munster Senior Cup medals between them and two of them, Jack and Mick, were capped for Ireland, as was another resident, Brian O’Brien, later manager of the national team. Pa Healy, another rugby international, national heavyweight boxing champion and champion oarsman, was also an Athlunkard Street man. One could go on.
The street was also noted for its extraordinary musical ethos. A house without a piano was a rarity, with arias and choruses from Gilbert and Sullivan, Balfe and Wallace, wafting from the one-storey houses that are now mostly deserted. Residents long gone say it was not unusual for residents to gather on balmy summer nights and join in the great choruses of Verdi and Faust , to the wonderment and delight of passers-by.
To say it was a close-knit community would be putting it mildly. Four closely related families, the O’Farrells, Lynchs, Griffins and Ryans, all lived in close proximity: no less than 34 first cousins residing within shouting, or more aptly, singing distance of one another.
As youngsters, this was the street when during mainly motorless second World War days, we played football on its wide expanse, and on frosty nights shouted “off the ice Maggie” as we skated down the steep O’Dwyer Bridge, named after the bishop who gave Gen Maxwell his answer when he suggested that some of the nationally minded Co Limerick priests should be disciplined. The church on the street, St Mary’s, saw floods for the first time in its 82 years of existence. It had replaced the 1749 penal chapel, the biggest in Munster at the time.
Then there were the huckster shops. In my youth, seven in all. One could be opened overnight: stock your parlour or front room with groceries, display some in the window, and you were open for business the next day. No planning permission, no VAT, no sell-by date. You could buy a single egg, a single cigarette, jug of milk, a single razor blade. Frugal profits in frugal days.
Older residents, who in younger days would have witnessed the great traditions of this wonderful street, are now scattered to relatives’ and friends’ homes, well looked after but already pining for their old homes. Some of them may never return. As John McCormack described it in The Old House : “Gone are the old folk, the house stands deserted, no light in the window, no welcome at the door.”
Who now will make those houses habitable again? When the Dodder broke its banks some years back, Bertie Ahern, rubber boots and all, stepped in and guaranteed stranded residents recompense.
Most of the houses in Athlunkard Street are now empty. But these St. Mary’s Parish people are a resilient lot,. They will rise again, even though at present, their houses are just shells. The lines from Goldsmith’s Deserted Village could well be applied:
Thy sports are fled, and all
thy charms withdrawn,
And desolation saddens all