International Rugby Experience, a world-class interactive cathedral to rugby, opens today in Limerick

It’s difficult not to be impressed on a visit to this not-for-profit cultural institution that is hoped to bring a major boost in tourism revenue to Limerick and the midwest

Limerick’s newest, arguably most technically ambitious, tourist attraction is housed in a striking, purpose built red-bricked building on O’Connell Street, at the edge of the city’s Georgian quarter. The seven-storey building, with a two-storey portico at the front, is designed by London-based architect and Dubliner Niall McLaughlin. It makes an elegant statement on the street, and from the exterior you’d never guess at the nature of the stories being told inside. The building could be a library. A town hall. It might be a museum. With high vaulted ceilings and airy spaces, the building also has a cathedral-like feel. Indeed, for some, the current focus of the building could be said to be almost spiritual: rugby.

Inside the soon-to-be-opened International Rugby Experience (IRE), you swipe your ticket at a sort of turnstile. Then comes the distinctive roar of a match-day crowd punctuated by the shrill notes of a referee’s whistle, the atmospheric soundscape for your first steps into the experience. You’re standing in a small “dressing room” space. There are lockers and benches either side as you wait for the countdown to kick off. A door opens at one end of the room and you leave the dressing room embarking on a journey, like a keyed-up player heading for the pitch.

The voice of local rugby legend Paul O’Connell booms through the sound system. There are giant projections on every wall, featuring men and women and children on the rugby field. It’s intense. For some it will be emotional. The former Ireland, Munster and Lions captain is talking through the five “world values” of rugby – Passion. Discipline. Solidarity. Integrity. Respect. The experience is themed around these values, and they inform each of the six zones visitors will pass through.

“It’s a world-class tourist attraction for Limerick, right in the home of Munster rugby, telling the story of a game that has been a force for good all over the world,” O’Connell later explains, his voice slightly less boomy in real life. “The building is a gift to the city, it stands out and makes you take notice; it’s just a gorgeous piece of architecture.”


As chairperson of the experience, which opens this week – “a mile and a half as the crow flies” from Munster rugby’s base in Thomond Park – you’d expect him to gush. But even if the sport of rugby doesn’t get your blood pumping, it’s difficult not to be impressed on a visit to the not-for-profit cultural institution, which was the idea of local businessman and racehorse owner JP McManus. The €30 million initiative is funded by his charitable foundation, the JP McManus Benevolent Fund. It’s not just about rugby. As O’Connell, fresh from organising the annual Team Limerick Clean-Up in the city (also with his friend McManus) says, “It’s about the regeneration of the city.”

O’Connell and his fellow IRE board member, former Ireland and Munster captain Keith Wood, were crucial in persuading hundreds of players, both international and local, to lend their voices, faces and expertise to the audiovisual experience. “Every player we’ve asked to be involved has agreed. So we have Jonny Wilkinson, probably the most famous player in the world, doing a little kicking demonstration, and Faf de Klerke from South Africa, showing people how to pass the ball. The players have been so eager to be involved.”

Designed by Event, the organisation behind well-known visitor attractions such as the Titanic Exhibition in Belfast and the Epic Irish emigration museum in Dublin, about 100,000 people are expected through the doors in the first year. An economic impact study has estimated that within five years it will bring €50 million in tourism revenue to Limerick and the midwest region.

On this rainy Limerick morning, I’ve brought my teenage daughters along for a preview tour. One of them has a small bit of experience playing schools rugby, the other is like her mother, pretty clueless when it comes to the sport. If we can find this experience engrossing and entertaining – spoiler alert, we did – the average rugby fan is going to be thrilled by the place. Meanwhile, rugby anoraks who like to deep dive into statistics won’t want to leave.

In 200 years this will still be a civic building, whether it’s a rugby experience or not

—  Barry Hannon, chief executive

First conceived by McManus and his team in 2016, and delayed by the pandemic, it’s being overseen by chief executive Barry Hannon, who, like O’Connell, hopes that “for the price of a cinema ticket” the experience will give locals and tourists a reason to visit Limerick and bring new life to the city. He is our tour guide today, pointing out how the arches of brickwork above us simulates a scrum, “that idea that the players are stronger together”.

As we move on from the tunnel, we climb the first of several sets of stairs – there is lift access too for those who need it – admiring the red brick that continues inside the building, the bright red stairs and the rawness of the pink poured concrete walls. Hannon explains the particular design of the building means it can’t be easily turned into a hotel or a block of apartments. “In 200 years this will still be a civic building, whether it’s a rugby experience or not,” he says.

But for now, it’s all about rugby. On the first floor, the exhibits illustrate the grassroots nature of the game. “We wanted to surprise people and avoid cliches.” So, for example, an intriguing pile of coal in one glass case tells the story of Ray Prosser from Pontypool, a mining town in South Wales that had slumped into depression. Taking the role of coach of his hometown club, Prossner transformed it into one of the strongest sides in the world, bringing the town together, offering hope. There’s the story of how the kicking tee was invented – hat tip to New Zealander George Simpkin – and a display of jerseys worn by remarkable father and son rugby players, Ireland manager Andy Farrell and his son Owen.

Inevitably, the more interactive spaces on the third and fourth floors, where people of all ages can test their skills, will be among the most popular areas. As O’Connell mentioned, England’s Jonny Wilkinson features here describing and demonstrating how to execute three different kicks, which visitors can try it out for themselves, kicking balls at a target. On another screen, the impressively coiffed Faf de Klerk from South Africa, in his number 9 jersey, can be seen coaching visitors on various passing techniques. There’s a facility to simulate a scrum, and in an adjacent dark room participants can dodge green lasers simulating a player’s skill in weaving around opponents on the rugby pitch. All the information about your performances in these skills tests – speed, accuracy, agility, strength – is fed through to a central database. A computer programme then helpfully works out which rugby position you might be more suited to.

On one wall, there’s a visual display which shows the sometimes surprising heights of famous rugby players – they are in some cases much smaller than I imagined. Another screen explains the laws of rugby, the basics of a game. No knowledge is assumed, which is in keeping with the inclusive and accessible feel of the place as you walk around.

On the fourth floor, visiting groups can perform various short rugby trials and learn about the importance of solidarity and teamwork. Then we move up again, rising like a lineout, into a space dedicated to more stories and statistics. There’s a stunning visual dedicated to the history of New Zealand’s haka, and voices telling stories of big rugby moments. In one section, the story is told of a celebrated game in 1973 when, at the height of the Troubles, Scotland and Wales refused to travel to Dublin to play. Ireland’s Willie John McBride personally reached out to the England team and England received a three-minute standing ovation when they came to play Ireland at Lansdowne Road. “At least we turn up,” the England captain John Pullin said on that poignant occasion when they were beaten 16-9 by Ireland. My daughters, meanwhile, were particularly interested in the audio retelling of the first Women’s World Cup in 1991.

Hannon explains that the exhibit will evolve to include more stories and elements in future years. For now, on a giant screen, you can find out about the ranking of any rugby-playing team in the world which will be updated in real time as countries win and lose. When we visited, Ireland was, of course, ranked number one. Talk about perfect timing for the opening.

A couple of days later, talking to the building’s architect on Zoom, it’s fascinating to hear how Niall McLaughlin initially approached the interview for the job. “Most good architecture is always trying to show you how it’s put together … the way the building is communicating its own structure and materials. The comparison I made at the interview was that if you look at rugby, it’s all about scrums and rooks … it’s a structural sport. People are constantly bringing themselves into these instances where suddenly they apply great force in a particular situation and there’s a very refined science to it that they’re all obsessed by. So, talking to people like Paul O’Connell and Keith Wood, who very rarely pop their head out of a scrum, they were very taken by that as a comparison.”

McLaughlin’s company is behind plenty of acclaimed buildings, many of them in Oxford and Cambridge, but his own rugby story and passion for the game gave him an edge in landing the gig. He played the game at St Michael’s College in Dublin and had to give up rugby because of concussions. “I’d two things going on back then. I wanted to be an architect, but my thumb kept going, and I had a bad concussion where I lost my memory for a few days and the guy in St Vincent’s A&E said ‘You’ve been in here a few times now, maybe it’s time you gave it a rest,’ and I stopped playing.”

I had this idea that it could be used by the public, and I also had an image in my head of rugby get-togethers. You know, a reunion of the Lions team of 1974

—  Niall McLaughlin, architect

His passion for the game never dimmed, and he recalls being at that extraordinary match in 1973 when England came to play. “I was a small boy then … I’ll never forget that standing ovation.” He talks about the values of rugby, the sense of camaraderie and community, the network of people the game connects and the game’s “old-fashioned sportsmanship which I hope is never lost ... I’m passionate about it. If you asked me what happiness was, it was being at the back of a scrum, five yards out, and getting the chance to pick up the ball and go …” he says, wistfully.

Speaking of happy places, I ask McLaughlin about the top floor of the building, which offers panoramic views of the city. It’s a stunning space with a vaulted ceiling and openings through which light is filtered from above. When we visited, this floor was filled with large, vertical screens where you learn about legends of the game and can create your own dream starting 15. These screens can be removed for public gatherings such as weddings, birthdays or memorial gatherings. The spires and steeples and rivers around Limerick looked magnificent from this elevated position even in the drizzle – the vista takes in St John’s Castle, St Mary’s Cathedral, the Shannon and a sliver of Thomond Park. It felt like a place to reflect on everything we’d explored in the exhibition and an opportunity to see Limerick, a sometimes maligned city, in a fresh light.

McLaughlin says he saw this space as a place where people could gain a new perspective of the city and interact with it in a different way. “I had this idea that it could be used by the public, and I also had an image in my head of rugby get-togethers. You know, a reunion of the Lions team of 1974 … coming together in this space, all these grizzled old warriors exchanging stories of their match against the All Blacks.”

The architect had a clear vision for the building as a public amenity, but also as a place of celebration. In a deliberate design element, there is only one outside space, a large balcony on top of the portico at the front of the building. The balcony is, McLaughlin says, designed to fit the exact number of people in a rugby squad.

“So hopefully we’ll have a balcony moment with a cup at some point,” he says. “It’s more than a decade since Munster won the European Cup and I remember back then seeing these amazing images of O’Connell Street with big screens, the whole street filled with people. So it would be lovely if at some point there was a balcony celebration with a trophy, and that sense of sharing the public life of the city – the building being very much part of it.”

The International Rugby Experience opens on May 3rd.