Dig deeper and you’ll find leading light of Mid-West

BACK in the late 1990s Nick Cave took to the stage of Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre.

Dig deeper and you’ll find leading light of Mid-West

It was a strange gig. Cave wasn’t strictly singing, or performing. He was delivering a lecture on love songs, on the craft and sadness that goes into a good one, drawing from his own dark work.

“They sit grimly on their own and do not play with the other songs,” he said.

That line has stayed with me, coming to mind whenever I encounter a person, an idea, or a place that stands apart in this way. Limerick is such a place.

It is not like other cities. It doesn’t greet visitors like a slobbering puppy dog, leading them merrily through bustling streets and cafes. It’s a city you have to go looking for. And once you get past the negative press, the rundown Georgian buildings, things start to get interesting.

You dig a little deeper. You find the foodie crossroads that is the Milk Market, the newly refurbished castle and gallery, or culinary dynamos like The French Table and La Cucina. You find labours of love like One Pery Square and local heroes like the Munster Rugby Museum. All of a sudden it’s Sunday afternoon. You’re sitting there wondering where the hell the weekend went, and you have just enough material for a little love song.

King of the castles

King John’s Castle (shannonheritage.com) has been a local landmark since 1210, and it re-opened this June following a substantial refurbishment. Like many, I wondered how on earth €5.7 million was required to do so, but the result brings it right up to best international standards.

Think of Waterford’s Museum of Treasures, or Mayo’s National Museum of Country Life — with the added benefit of a medieval castle. Walking through the new interactive exhibition area, we not only learn about the castle’s life and times, but get to try on costumes, shoot squash balls from mini-canons, and venture through an atmospheric undercroft into the castle courtyard.

Here, costumed actors enlighten us as to the craft of the blacksmith. We get to hold Norman swords, to ask noblewomen about their costumes, before climbing the tower for a view stretching to that other Limerick fortress: Thomond Park.

This is a brilliant reboot of a tiring old heritage treasure, with a bright and sparky new cafe, and it’s definitely worth a revisit — a family ticket is available at €20.60.

Culture Vultures

Think of art in Limerick, and the Hunt Museum comes to mind. We’re also sure to visit the newly refurbished Limerick City Gallery (gallery.limerick.ie; free), where the kids are intrigued not only by the exhibitions, but the tiny bronze figures crawling all over the facade.

Not all art is in galleries, however. Across from King John’s Castle, check out the bearded man gleaming out from a gable end with a Hello Kitty tattoo on his neck. It was painted by Australian artist, Smug. At the corner of Thomas and Anne Streets, we’re stopped in our tracks by the haunting face of a spectral child. It’s the work of Dermot McConaghy (DMC).

Several of the pieces were commissioned as part of this summer’s Make a Move festival of hip-hop and urban culture (makeamove.ie), it turns out. And despite some local criticism, I think they’re a brilliant addition, brightening up vacant lots and derelict sites, adding thought-provoking layers to spaces that otherwise suck the life out of the inner-city. Street art is a smart fit.

Come fly with me

Think planes fly themselves? Think again. A few minutes behind the controls of a Boeing 737 simulator at Atlantic AirVenture (atlanticairventure.com) turns me into a nervous wreck. This is no computer game. The authenticity of the cockpit, the heaviness of the controls and the realistic landscape pitching outside the windows makes it feel like lives are at stake.

Ennis, the Cliffs of Moher and Loop Head all float by as Jane McGill talks me through a simulated take-off and landing from Shannon Airport. The cockpit section feels real because it is real, clocking up over 74,000 flight hours with Canadian Airlines.

You don’t have to spend big on the 737 (€220 for 90 minutes, including briefings). You can also join flying lessons giving the basics of thrust, lift and drag before hitting smaller simulators to experience the disconcertingly sensitive controls yourself (€35 for two). There’s a small aviation museum on site too, featuring several classic planes just a 20-minute drive from Limerick.

Where to eat

Mid-range dining can be hit and miss in Limerick, but there’s an encouraging boom underway at the casual end. La Cucina, Sage Cafe, and pubs like Bobby Byrne’s and the Curraghgower are just a few options that won’t break the frolicking foodie’s bank... or heart.

Canteen (facebook.com/canteenlimerick) is another — a lo-fi lunch stop stashed away amidst the crumbling Georgian buildings of Mallow Street. The day’s menu — ranges from pulled pork wraps to mini-salads and super-fresh apple and rhubarb juice.

Don’t be fooled by the simplicity, mind. Paul Williams worked for two years at the Fat Duck. We devoured the lamb meatballs topped with yoghurt sauce (€9).

Where to stay

One Pery Square (oneperysquare.com) is one for the Little Black Book.

It’s a beautifully pitched property fronting onto the People’s Park, and a seductive advertisement for what Limerick’s Georgian Quarter could be, were the same imagination and resources invested elsewhere.

The 20-bedroom hotel marries a Georgian townhouse with a modern extension and restaurant (Brasserie One), together with a basement spa and cosy-yet-classy bar.

Staff work suavely in olive-green aprons, the decor is elegant, the breakfast dotted with fresh OJ, fruit salads and a-la-carte options like a wicked eggs Benedict. It’s an authentic boutique hotel.

As a family, we crowded into the Townhouse Suite on the top floor, adding two camp beds in the living area.

Jars of jellybeans sat on the counter top, but I imagine there’s just as much attention showered on groups of friends or girlfriends sharing the same space.

One Pery Square has a special offer bundling B&B, a glass of bubbles, a-la-carte dinner and access to the thermal suite from €239 for two.

It also does a Tea & Thermal combo twinning afternoon tea with two hours in the thermal suite for €49pp.

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