Friday, 25 May 2012
I simply don’t know where to start this blog. Except to say that today was the best day I have ever spent in Limerick, bar none. You see today I met some new people. Ordinary people. They may not have known it at the time but on some levels I believe they have profoundly changed my view of how our city can work. The things I learned today came as second nature to those who took time to teach me. What I was taught was not economics, finance or politics. What I was taught was a lesson in citizenship. I returned home deeply moved.
My only explanation for my feelings was the energy that exuded from those that took time to inspire a group of us today. On the most magnificent day we have seen this year we were given the opportunity to take a boat trip on the Shannon. From Arthur’s Quay Park to Ardnacrusha Power Station and back we were treated to a view of Limerick that is shamefully ignored by the majority. Led by a team from St Mary's Maritime Project we were given a lesson in history, society, culture, sport, poverty and wealth on a river which sucks you in and demands to be acknowledged. In my reasonably short life I have worked at sea yet never been on our river. Nor had any of the others who accompanied me on this voyage of civic discovery.
Many things struck me on our journey this evening. The first was how stunning our castle looks from below shore level. The sense of our city belonging to the Shannon was immediately apparent. The closeness of the Curraghgower Falls. The hidden historic arches, the sense that the river is the pulse of our city. The feeling that, before we even set off on our voyage, this river was what we are about.
These are the people who have stories to tell and their stories will delight any tourist who visits our city. These are the young people who fall into the category of that fascinating term – regeneration. It is our river that needs regeneration.
As we reached the Ardnacrusha Power Station you could feel the power in the distance. You could sense the achievement in the creation of such a wonder of engineering. The power plant itself had a story to tell. As we gazed at the wonder of this creation a salmon leapt what must have been two feet in the air as if to remind us of the life that exists underneath the waterline. Every inch of our journey had something to tell us.
We returned to the city centre slowly and gracefully. Under the setting sun I spoke with Dan Hegarty, the man who had invited us to experience the Shannon. He grew up and worked in Limerick, spent time away but always knew he would return, in his own words, ‘to end his days here’. I could understand why.
We were once again cheered on by those at the Locke bar and waved at by couples walking the riverfront. We were all smiling. Our city seemed to smile back.
Why was I moved? Because this was the first time in 34 years that I had experienced Limerick like this. Because so many others do it every day and are screaming for the chance to turn it into a feasible opportunity to attract tourism, business and employment to the city. All they ask for is support, guidance and goodwill from those in Limerick who can make it happen. They don’t want to be millionairres. They just want to show Limerick off to the best of it’s ability. These are proud Limerickmen. They love our river.
I will finish with something that was said on the river today. “There is no northside, there is no southside. The river brings them together”.
Thursday, 5 January 2012
MacSweeney notes that Limerick is in a prime position to be designated Irish capital of arts, sports and culture. He mentions the School of Art and Design, the World Academy of Music and Dance, our Georgian Heritage and our success in Sport as key selling points to obtain such status. What he does not mention is that our city has failed to deliver a dedicated, focussed and thriving artistic scene and the failure lies in the fact that there has been no joined-up thinking when it comes to the arts.
Where was the furore from City Hall, the Chamber and Shannon Development when Limerick’s oldest and internationally renowned arts festival EVA lost it’s funding? Where was the heated debate when Dagdha Dance Company quietly went bust leaving a wonderful venue lieing dead and empty on John’s Square? Where was the lobbying for the locating of the the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance in the city centre? Where is the compulsory purchase orders on the beautiful Georgian buildings scattered around the city that have been allowed go to rack and ruin?
It is very easy to put out sweeping statements about the future of the city centre. In relation to the arts the simple fact is this. Limerick is a disjointed and on many level uninterested city when it comes to supporting home grown culture. It is widely recognised that the Cranberries were not embraced by the city until they finally achieved a international success. It is true that the Rubberbandits have been on the go for many years only to be adopted by Limerick upon reaching the pinnacle of their success. In order to continue to produce such nationally and internationally renowed acts there must be support from the outset.
There has been recent discussion surrounding the potential redevelopment of the Theatre Royal site with the location of a digital media academy and digital arthouse cinema being the likely occupants should development take place. Very welcome one might say. However what is never mentioned in media reports is that, as part of its new scheduling and thanks to Arts Council funding, the Belltable Arts Centre has invested in a state of the art digital cinema system and is already regularly screen arthouse and mainstream foreign cinema in the 220 seat venue. Why would a city the size of Limerick need two arthouse cinemas around the corner from one another when the existing one struggles to get bums on seats in the first place? Once again, when it comes to the arts, the key stakeholders are not being consulted.
It has often been said that Limerick is a working class city. It does not have a cultural theatre going tradition. Well if I was to base my opinion on the numbers of parents sending children to performing arts schools, dance classes and music lessons in the city I would be certain that there is a definite recognition of the importance of the arts. What is missing is a central, well-designed arts centre in the centre of the city, a space where people can congregate, view art, attend theatre, visit museums, have lunch and take in the magnificent River Shannon as they do so.
It has taken the likes of Mick Dolan to take the risk and produce and promote big acts at the Milk Market’s Big Top. This is civic leadership. It has taken the management of the likes of Bourkes Pub to provide a new platform for up and coming musicians and bands. Limerick is a cultural hive of activity. What is needed is a strategy, a planned view to the future lead by those on the ground, in the know and actively involved. There is no point in appointing decision makers from Shannon Development, City Hall, Failte Ireland and so on if there is no understanding on how the city works from a cultural and artistic point of view. The track record to date is poor so maybe there needs to be a consensus that a new way consulting is approached going forward.
Culture is only one of the many good points made today by Kieran MacSweeney but it is a crucial aspect of Limerick’s future. The people must play a huge role in any consultation going forward.
Wednesday, 4 January 2012
Yet another article appeared in yesterday’s Limerick Chronicle in relation to the ongoing saga of our Opera Centre. Now that the council have purchased the site they are engaging in heating exchanges with the owner of the Parkway Valley site. Tied into this is the debate surrounding whether or not Marks and Spencer would be the appropriate anchor tenant for the Opera Centre if, as expected, planned developments of the site as a large retail development goes ahead.
I recently downloaded Mary Portas’ review of the state of retail in the UK. Before I write any more I would suggest that every developer, retailer, planner, councillor, decision maker, Tom, Dick or Harry has a bound copy of the 55 document on their person at all times. She makes sense does Mary.
One of the questions we must ask ourselves is why are the majority of those with an interest in the site so gung ho on Marks and Spencer being the salvation of Limerick City Centre’s woes. The answer lies in the concept of convenience. Shopping as we know it has changed radically over the past 30 years. Why has the Crescent Shopping Centre seen such success? Why is Dundrum still considered to be a Mecca for shoppers? Why does yet another out of town development by the Parkway make sense to a developer even in today’s climate? Why is Limerick City dying a death? The answer is convenience. We as shoppers have become accustomed to the notion of everything we need being under one roof.
Marks and Spencer for some reason is seen as the missing link in Limerick. Most of the other major brands have set up camp in the Crescent. Marks and Spencer won’t be locating in the Crescent due to site restrictions so it is well known that they are actively pursuing a location in the city centre or potentially the Parkway Valley.
During my time in Dublin and London I would have used Marks and Spencer occasionally and mostly for its food offer which is excellent. However what must be recognised is that food in M&S is not cheap. People are cash strapped at the moment and my uneducated guess is that, if they were to establish themselves in the city centre, there would be an initial rush down the aisles followed by a slow and steady downfall in footfall. I also believe that if city council bases the design of the site around the presence of a major retailer then it will have missed a fabulous opportunity. This is where Mary Portas comes in.
• Town centre vacancy rates have doubled over the last two years and total consumer spend away from our high streets is now over 50%
• In 2015 we’ll be spending more than £40 billion a year over the internet and through mobile devices
• Out-of-town developments have enjoyed positive growth rates since 2001 while town centre growth has been largely negative
• Since 2001, the number of superstores in the UK has grown by 35%, whilst all other forms of grocery outlet have declined
Fundementally what Portas points out is that how we operate as consumers has changed. We crave immediacy. We crave convenience. But strangely we also crave a sense of community. By investing in the likes of Marks and Spencer, Tesco, Lidl, Aldi and so on the money we spend does not get recycled in the local economy. Local high street businesses close resulting in less footfall on the onset of a vicious circle. We are in an age of consumerism and the recent crying out for a Marks and Spencer presence in the city is a perfect example of that. It is only a small percentage who see that the answer to Limerick’s problems does not lie in a new retail presence.
The recent success of the Milk Market is the great success story to emerge from Limerick in recent years. The reasoning for this lies in that sense of community. Local people saying hello as they nibble a freshly made sandwich or sip coffee and browse under the grand white canope and listen to locals playing live music. The atmospheric sense of community that exists on a morning or afternoon in that place is irreplacble. It certainly does not replicate in the Crescent.
Mary Portas quotes from Jane Jacobs 1961 book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’
“The trust of a city street is formed over time from
many, many little public sidewalk contacts. It grows
out of people stopping by at the bar for a beer, getting
advice from the grocer and giving advice to the
newsstand man, comparing opinions with other
customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two
boys drinking pop on the stoop, hearing about a job
from the hardware man and borrowing a dollar from
Most of it is ostensibly utterly trivial, but the sum
is not trivial at all. The sum of such casual, public
contact at the local level – most of it fortuitous, most
of it associated with errands – is a feeling for the
public identity of people, a web of public respect
and trust, and a resource in time of personal or
I sometimes get off the bus outside Dan Lawless’ florist. If he is in there is always a wave, occassionally a chat but without doubt a smile. I sometimes eat brunch in the Wild Onion. There is always a welcome (occasionally gruff), a hello and a sense of hospitality. I sometimes browse through the many delights in Country Choice and I get an immediate welcome smile. Advice on what is good is always on hand. This is what community is about and this is what a high street and town centre should be about. The major chainstores remove the individuality away from the neighbourhood.
It is not impossible to bring this sense of community back into Limerick. It is only about us reevaluating where the future of retail is going. Could it be that the future of a town like Limerick could be one which is void of any major retail presence? Could it be that a return to the old days of market trading sustaining a vibrant community is on the cards?
Last Summer, before the riots, I walked the streets of Croydon. Everywhere you look there are market stalls, independent traders, butchers and cafes. On the other side of London take a trip to Wood Green and notice the thriving local community. Wander Portobello Market on a Saturday Afternoon. Stroll through Elephant and Castle. Get immersed in the magic of Camden. It can well be argued that the successes of these markets are down to footfall and population but they are also down to the sense of community, the excitement of the atmosphere and the sense of fulfillment as you people watch over a coffee.
Before Limerick City Council makes a fundemental error using short sighted strategies to possible tobble external developers with county land they must stand back, read the likes of Mary Portas and think about what is coming down the tracks. Limerick is known for its people. The city must be given back to the people. Marks and Spencer may just have a place in the county afterall.
Tuesday, 13 September 2011
I was working with Douglas Wallace, architects for the centre, around the time the Opera Centre project was conceived. I remember being struck by the grand name being considered for the development. I had to rack my brain as to why such a title would be given to a retail project in the heart of Limerick, particularly at location where, to my knowledge, no operatic performance had ever taken place barring the odd drunken rendition of Nessun Dorma after a few too many in the Locke.
The penny finally dropped. The Opera Centre site was named after Catherine Hayes, Limerick’s most famous soprano who was born at number 4 Patrick St. I felt I owed Limerick an apology. Being a musical man I felt I should have been aware of this little gem of information. It seems I was not the only one to be slightly confused by the naming of the project.
From educated locals, to educated visitors, to overly educated taxi drivers to this day there is confusion about what the Opera Centre was, or is, all about. One particular driver in the city centre asked me: “Why are they bothering putting an opera centre down there? Sure don’t we have the Belltable?” Struck by this highly learned insight I felt it was not my place to add fuel to the fire by explaining the background of a group of retail architects in Dublin sitting around a table for hours debating the best name for the project. It was all too confusing.
Why do I mention this? People of Limerick do not need to be reminded of the current state of the opera centre. The hopes and dreams of the creation of ‘an exciting retail and lifestyle development that will become a centre piece in the rejuvenation of Limerick city centre’ are now dead. Little slivers of information are fed to us on an ongoing basis. “There is renewed interest in the site”, we are occasionally told. Then we are fed information relating to the Marks and Spencer saga, a retail chain that is seen as the way forward when it comes to the Opera Centre site. Marks is considered Limerick’s saviour, it would seem. The latest developments regarding the Parkway Valley may have finally silenced any dreams we have of a retail symphony being played on the streets of Limerick, to use an operatic term.
What has gone unmentioned in this whole development saga is the very nature of why the site was named in the first place. The powers that be in Regeneration Developments, the company behind the Opera Centre, felt that Catherine Hayes’ links to the site were important enough to merit an entire 40,000 square metre retail centre being named after her. Prior to this, the only mention of her was via a rusty green landmark plaque bolted onto number 4 Patrick St. Our city councillors and governing body certainly had not given Catherine’s birthplace any huge recognition.
I am writing this based on published information in two of our local journalistic bastions and must be forgiven if I have picked up information incorrectly. One thing is certain however. A number of years ago whilst acting as Deputy Mayor, Cllr Long felt so passionate about the whole situation that he made his way to city hall and tabled a motion. His moving and impressive experience whilst on what one might call a ‘junket’ had put a fire in his belly. He felt our city should take on and preserve the birthplace of our most renowned literary export.
Over two years down the road since his motion and the now Mayor Long is packing his bags yet again to travel to Spain and celebrate the life of Kate O’Brien. Two years down the road since his motion and the house of Kate O’Brien continues to lie in a state of dereliction on Mulgrave St. Two years down the road since his motion and passers-by can see the O’Brien name engraved on the facade of the building as weeds, moss, broken windows and misery seem to envelope our own piece of O’Brien history. Maybe the bit of sun and another ‘well organised’ event might inspire Mayor Long to table another motion. Maybe we will see another headline in the Limerick Leader in the coming weeks with Mayor Long calling for the preservation the O’Brien house.
It took developers from outside our city to see the potential of commemorating Catherine Hayes, Limerick’s finest soprano. It took the people of Avila in Spain to recognise the work of Kate O’Brien Limerick’s finest writer. Is it not time that our own local government put on a ‘well organised’ event centred around the preservation of Kate O’Briens house as a literary visitors centre of note?
Something tells me the final chapter of this saga has yet to be written.
I was sorry to see that the Kate O’Brien saga seems to have hit a sore nerve with Mayor Long. Anyone interested in the debate would be strongly advised to read the offering of another blogger on this matter. The blog entry can be found at: