Locals on Limerick: ‘We’re very hard on ourselves here’
Limerick residents discuss the future of their city ahead of a mayoral plebiscite
Niamh Brown and Mary Conlon (and Nelly) at Ormston House cultural centre. Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22
On May 24th, alongside the local and European elections and a referendum changing the divorce law, the people of Limerick, Waterford and Cork will be asked if they want to have directly elected mayors.
Currently mayors are elected annually by councillors and serve as chairpeople for the council. The new mayors, if adopted, will take over many of the decision-making powers currently held by the unelected local authority chief executives, though the full extent of this is still unclear.
These mayors would set policy for their local authorities, but the power to enforce planning decisions, allocate social housing and grant licences and permits would remain with the chief executives. They would receive a salary of €129,854, and there would be a recall and impeachment procedure to deal with mayoral misconduct.
John Moran believes Limerick could become this country’s second city. When he looks into the future, he sees a city with a population of 300,000 people, up from the 100,000 who live there at the moment.
Moran is a former secretary-general of the Department of Finance and the chairman of Liveable Limerick. This came together as a relatively grass-roots project to consult on the development of O’Connell Street in the city but its remit has expanded somewhat since.
Moran has come to the conclusion that there’s an “ambition deficit” when it comes to city planning in Ireland. The Georgians had that ambition, he says. They planned for the growing populations they wanted to see in the future, he says, but Irish planners subsequently lost that confidence.
“[Limerick is] probably the city best situated at the moment to be rebuilt to 21st-century standards,” he says. “If you rebuild some of the deprived areas and poor social housing in Limerick and build the brown-field areas that are downtown in the city centre at the density of a city like Copenhagen you can actually have up to 300,000 people working and living and shopping and playing within a 15-minute cycle of the main train station.”
He asks me to imagine the city’s slightly down-at-heel Georgian centre refurbished and filled with people. He goes further to describe a Bay Area-style strip of cities from Galway to Cork, providing a much needed counterbalance to Dublin. He even imagines a second national children’s hospital being placed in Limerick, when the need arises again, as it will.
And this could all be assisted greatly by directly elected mayors if, he stresses, they get real powers over transport, health and security and there are quality candidates. Would he run? He says there are a lot of good people out there. “I wouldn’t be able to comment on something like that.”
Limerick, depending on the outcome of a plebiscite held on May 24th, may eventually have a directly elected mayor with real executive power. In the run-up to this vote, I talk to people who live and work in the city about its future.
People variously allude to the dark days of gang murders and the big employers, such as Atari and Dell, that came and went. But they also talk about an explosion of art and culture in the city, activities on the river front, the council’s Limerick 2030 development vehicle, the University of Limerick’s soon-to-be-developed new city centre campus and employers such as Uber, Johnson & Johnson and Northern Trust.
It turns out that many Limerick people feel tentatively, almost embarrassedly, positive about the city’s future.
Finn, writer of Bread not Profits, a play about the “Limerick soviet” of 1919, doesn’t think Limerick people are accustomed to feeling optimistic about the city.
“I often wonder if there’s a kind of a siege mentality here which goes way back to the actual sieges,” he says when we meet in the Belltable Arts Centre. “Then there’s the famous broken treaty.”
He thinks maybe a sense of being let down has seeped “into the psyche” of the Limerick people. He tells me about the curse of St Munchin, Limerick’s patron saint, who, unlike most patron saints, put a curse on his own people.
“He was attempting to build his first church here and asked local people to help him, and some nice people from Clare were coming across the bridge and they helped. So Munchin apparently said that Limerick is a place where the foreigner will prosper and the local will fail. When something doesn’t go well we say, ‘Ah, there’s the curse of St Munchin again’.”
He loves that the city has improved both economically and physically, but he thinks certain things shouldn’t be glossed over in an attempt to “rebrand” the city. He references the unemployment (Limerick still has eight of the country’s 10 worst unemployment black spots) and the derelict buildings that still exist here.
Finn’s next play is set in an independent record store filled with grumpy misfits. “I’m fascinated by outsiders who give a city character … I think there’s a danger the character of a city can be swept away.”
Limerick 2030 chief executive
Limerick 2030 is a special-purpose vehicle set up by the council. It is responsible for developing several “key strategic sites” around the city.
The first, a complex of office spaces called Gardens International, is already built. A second, landmark building the Opera Centre, is to commence building soon. A third, Troy Studios film hub, was recently the home of 450 people working on Netflix’s TV show Nightflyers. A fourth site, Cleeves Riverside Campus, is a legacy of the city’s industrial past where Mike Finn’s play was recently performed.
David Conway is an affable man who talks effusively of the city’s prospects. He talks about the “doughnut” effect that has seen Limerick’s centre ignored in favour of the suburbs and about how much of Ireland’s capital has gravitated toward Dublin. That, he feels, is set to change.
“We’re now in a situation where the regions are coming into play. We’re giving a good alternative to employers.”
Are there cities internationally they use for inspiration? He mentions Manchester and Bordeaux, “another river city”. “In 2017 the first crane went into the city,” he says. “There might be 130-odd [cranes] in Dublin but there wasn’t one in the city centre here. We put one back in and it started giving confidence to the city. Now everyone looks at it and says ‘Wow’.”
Humphreys works as a social researcher and policy analyst with Limerick City and County Council. Limerick sometimes reminds her of a northern British city, she says. “It’s atypical in an Irish context because it had a strong industrial heritage with the port and the docks, and it had all these traditional factories: Mattersons, Cleeves, Ranks … Traditionally that’s where people in the working-class estates inside the city worked.”
In this post-industrial era, Humphreys estimates that about a third of the residents of the old city are disadvantaged. She accepts that some earlier regeneration efforts misguidedly sought to fix complex issues by merely replacing buildings but adds that it’s not easy to address poverty when it’s as deeply entrenched and concentrated as it is in parts of the old city.
“Limerick has a can-do attitude and people always like an underdog ... But we have to bring that section of the population along with the new elements of the city … We don’t believe the city can progress and leave that many people behind.”
Independent council candidate
In his home in Weston Gardens, Cathal McCarthy, the man behind the website Limerick Regeneration Watch, points to a number of redundant masterplans and laminated maps. In the 2000s, 1,000 houses were demolished by the now-defunct Regeneration Agency to make way for developments that, due to the recession, never happened.
He takes me for a walk around Clarina Park, which once contained 49 houses before being cleared for redevelopment between 2007 and 2012. It’s still empty and sometimes becomes “party central” at night, he says. He points to several boarded-up houses destined to be demolished to create roads into this undeveloped development. “Things get started that are never finished,” he says. “Newtown Pery [the Georgian centre of the city] … That was never fully finished. There’s a history of things not finishing here.”
Communication with residents was terrible during the first wave of regeneration, he says, and he doesn’t believe it has improved.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” he asks.
“No thanks,” I say.
“If you’d said yes, I’d give you a coffee.” That’s what consultation looks like, he says. “I consult you on what you want and then give you something completely different.”
He’d personally like to see fewer great visions (he jokes about the “monorail” episode of the Simpsons) and a lot more community participation. He thinks the visionaries are obsessed with glass and steel vistas cadged from other cities. “All that’s missing is a landing pad for the Martians.”
Head of Limerick School of Art and Design
When Mike Fitzpatrick was director of Limerick City of Culture in 2014, he recalls that the Garda set up a special email address for people who wanted to inquire about “events”. “Before that, for the guards here ‘events’ would have meant something else.” He laughs. The City of Culture, he says, “did a lot for the hearts and minds of people”.
He acknowledges the work that still needs to be done in the city but he thinks things have improved hugely from the days when Limerick was “the black sheep of the country”.
What’s changed? He says that businesspeople, artists, the universities, community leaders, and the two formerly at-odds councils (recently amalgamated) are now working together.
Fitzpatrick would like to go further and connect up Limerick, Clare and Tipperary into one big region. “Cities are almost more important than countries now … Back to the time of Leonardo, cities are the places where things happen.”
Mary Conlon and Niamh Brown
Ormston House cultural centre
Eight years ago some art students occupied the grand 19th-century, Nama-owned Ormston House on Patrick Street and turned it into a gallery and cultural resource space with the support of the innovative Creative Limerick scheme.
“When we moved in it was being vandalised on a weekly basis,” says Mary Conlon. “The doors were getting kicked in. [There was] a hole on the ceiling.”
Nowadays it is run by Conlon, co-director Niamh Brown and Conlon’s dog, Nellie, whose role involves barking at every dog who passes.
It was artists, Conlon says, who helped reinvigorate the city centre and give the city its pride back. “Being National City of Culture was a real game changer for everybody. There was such a renewed sense of pride and belief in the city … People were talking about what the future would look like in Limerick and what was important to them.”
Ormston House sits on the edge of one of the worst unemployment black spots in the country. Conlon and Brown believe in art for and by the people. Teenagers with no money come here on dates. Older people come and listen to records.
They are very proud of this city and optimistic for it. When they go to seminars in other countries, they realise how well-run and inclusive Limerick’s cultural and community projects are. “We’re very hard on ourselves here,” says Brown.
In 2017, despite a plan they had devised to buy the space with the help of the council, Nama sold the property to a vulture fund. At about the same time the European Investment Bank loaned Limerick 2030 €85 million to develop the nearby Opera Centre site.
Conlon and Brown were inundated with support and they are still hoping to buy this space, but it all reminded them of the tenuous status of art in a buoyant economy. “When the city was really at the low point of the depression it was artists who said ‘Let’s occupy the city’,” says Conlon. “But now that things are picking up it’s, ‘Thank for your time’ … I think Limerick 2030 is great for the city but we need the same kind of ambition and investment in community development and culture.”
DIRECTLY ELECTED MAYORS: THE WORD ON THE STREET
When it comes to the idea of a directly elected mayor almost everyone I arranged to speak to, except David Conway, who can’t comment, take roughly the same position. They like the idea of more accountable leadership in principle but worry that the role might end up toothless in practice.
Labour TD Jan O’Sullivan is very much in favour of the idea, but doesn’t think there has been enough debate about it and worries it will be voted down. “The only thing people seem to know about it is what the mayor is going to earn and the cost of the office.”
This is borne out when I go talk to people on the street. Many of the people I approach either mention the cost of the job, haven’t heard of it at all or confuse it with an existing role (“Aren’t there other things you could be writing about other than that gobshite of a mayor?”).
“I think it’s a waste of money,” says a man named Disco Dom Hannon, who is sitting outside a cafe talking to some friends about their records.
“We’ve two mayors already,” says his friend, Martin Walsh, referring to a legacy of the newly amalgamated city and county council. “One is enough. Two is a joke. Three?” He shakes his head.
A third man, who won’t give his name, tells me a story. “Daniel O’Connell was running for election and there was a man breaking stones and Daniel said ‘What about your No 1?’ and the man says, ‘It won’t make a difference tomorrow whether you’re elected or not, I’ll still be breaking stones.’”
Paul Craughan is more favourable to the idea. His family have been running the 100-year-old P O’Connells butcher shop since the 1970s, and he recalls the sound of the steam whistle from the nearby factories. For the first time in decades, he tells me, he can see life returning to the city centre and optimism in his customers.
Eighteen-year-old film and broadcasting student Cian McInerney is a bit more measured in his enthusiasm for both the city and the idea of a directly elected mayor. “The city centre has changed for the better but out where I’m living it’s gotten worse,” he says. “A lot of the housing has been demolished. The council acquires the housing and then demolishes it and then… they start building new houses but abandon them halfway through because they run out of money. We’re on a waiting list for the regeneration to come around and do renovations on our housing estate.”
What about Limerick makes him proud? “I’m proud of the people. At the end of the day the people who live here are some of the most interesting I’ve ever met and some of the kindest … I just wish the government would look after them better.”