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Limerick: the not-so-gritty city is one of Ireland’s overlooked gems

<span>Photograph: Mikroman6/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mikroman6/Getty Images

A fresh Atlantic breeze blows up the estuary and rustles through a thicket of young lime trees by the Treaty Stone, the rock that witnessed the end of the Williamite war in the autumn of 1691. Just ahead, a seven-arch limestone bridge spans the Shannon River as far as the thick barrel towers of King John’s Castle. To the right, Limerick City’s quays and avenues bustle with new bars, hotels and restaurants. It’s a scene that contrasts starkly with the damp, smoky cityscape depicted in Frank McCourt’s book Angela’s Ashes.

Yet McCourt’s 1996 Pulitzer prize-winning memoir is not the only printed word out of touch with the 21st-century Treaty City. In 2021, the business magazine Forbes retracted an article that failed to meet its own editorial standards when it published a profile piece about John and Patrick Collison, founders of financial software company Stripe, who grew up near the city. The article described Limerick as some sort of gritty, gun-slinging frontier town. To some extent, this was understandable: the city is often treated as a whipping boy for urban felonies in Irish media, decades after a criminal family feud had ended.

The truth is that for a long time, Limerick has quietly enjoyed the same low crime rates as cities such as Cork and Galway. But, aesthetically, Limerick is captivating. An architectural map of Irish history unfolds along what has to be the most handsome riverfront in the country. The medieval quarter in the north of the city flows on to gleaming glass buildings and rows of Georgian redbrick townhouses. Cafes have colonised the waterways that snake in all directions, while the main streets and quays make it easy to navigate on foot or by bike.

The past sits comfortably here, despite the fact the city appears to be in a constant state of rejuvenation. Every Sunday, for centuries, Limerick has woken to the chiming of the bells of St Mary’s Cathedral. Down a labyrinth of narrow lanes under a giant canopy is the Milk Market, where the city has always congregated on Saturday morning to browse the stalls of artisan food producers. By midday the scent of coffee is in the air, and a queue has formed at David Jackson’s Flying Cheese Brigade stall, which sells locally sourced organic brands, such as aromatic, tangy St Tola cheese, as well as innovative international varieties.

It’s sport – any sport – that really gets under the skin of this city

Facing the market is Nancy Blake’s pub, where the owner, Donal Mulcahy, has curated the same dusky nostalgic vibe the place had when it was run by his mother, Nancy. It’s like walking into a 19th-century lantern-lit parlour, with a warm glow from the cast-iron fireplace. To the rear is a brick and lean-to beer garden, known by most as the Outback, where a night often ends to the sound of a saxophone and a tot of tequila. A 15-minute walk away is Dolan’s, another late-night venue offering traditional Irish music, rock and standup comedy.

This is a city that nurtures the performing arts, having given the world the Cranberries, Terry Wogan, and actors Ruth Negga and Richard Harris. Venues such as the intimate Belltable theatre on O’Connell Street or the Lime Tree theatre showcase offbeat productions, while University Concert Hall has the big-name entertainment.

But it’s sport – any sport – that really gets under the skin of this city. Limerick GAA have dominated the national sport of hurling, and are all-Ireland champions. Thomond Park Stadium – home of Munster Rugby, Shannon RFC and UL Bohemians RFC – and the new International Rugby Experience in the city centre rise like colossi over the surrounding architecture.

At night, the choice of pubs can often depend on team affiliation – Shannon RFC supporters gather at the city’s premier sports and whiskey establishment, Jerry Flannery’s Bar, which is owned by the former Irish international rugby player. On a busy sidestreet a few blocks away another bastion of rugby, Myles Breen’s Bar, has served ale from its mahogany counter for more than two centuries. Next door, the old Stella Bingo hall is where, according to a green plaque on its facade, Ireland’s biggest rock export first played as a four-piece band under the name U2.

To get a flavour of the region’s cuisine, Derek Fitzpatrick’s East Room, in a white Palladian mansion next to the university, offers a tasting menu with vegetables and herbs foraged locally and wild game or halibut, scallops and crab.

Yet Limerick at its dining best is more casual, unhurried, sustainable. Siblings Hazel and Joe Murphy operate The Buttery on Bedford Row, which is a comfort food stop with a catchy all-day brunch menu. It’s a stone’s throw from the department store Brown Thomas and the country’s largest independent book store, O’Mahony’s, which has been owned by the same family since 1902. Canteen on Catherine Street also serves daytime food. Chef-owner Paul Williams offers simple organic fare with traceable local ingredients, such as fish tacos or duck and sweet onion on flatbread.

George’s Quay, a lamp-lit laneway overlooking a canal by the Hunt Museum and Treaty City Brewery, is home to the Locke bar, one of Limerick’s finest gastropubs, with tables on a tree-lined cobbled pathway by the water. The atmospheric setting is rivalled only by the Curragower bar and restaurant, which catches the full glow of King John’s Castle reflected on the Shannon. It’s on Clancy Strand, near the Treaty Stone, and is as good a place as any to spend an evening with a pint of pale ale, a seafood pie and the best view in town.

Where to stay The city centre Strand Hotel has doubles from €124 room-only, and the Savoy Hotel has doubles from €190 room-only