STANDING on top of the ramparts on King John’s Castle were a group of American tourists. All the way from Tennessee they had come, their visit to the Norman stronghold coinciding with the Riverfest launch this week.
As the Limerick Marine Search and Rescue helped to unfurl a Riverfest flag on the river down below, the family smiled at the action from far above on a beautiful April day. The family explained - to this reporter’s visible surprise - that their surname was in fact Limerick. They had come in pilgrimage to the place that bears their name.
As one, parents Mark and Suzanne and son Mark proclaimed Limerick as a “beautiful place”. As a piece of incidental symmetry for the Riverfest organisers, it was also a beautiful one.
The key emphasis in Riverfest – returning for an 11th successive year this May Bank Holiday weekend – is that it has long offered an alternative for people who would normally head to the coast or elsewhere, bringing thousands of people into the city for a full weekend.
It has also offered a reason for people to come to Limerick, becoming over the past decade –and also with the key addition of the Barrington’s Hospital Great Limerick Run – the biggest festival in Ireland on the key bank holiday weekend of the summer.
Last year Riverfest became a monster, bringing 80,000 people into Limerick and generating an income way beyond the €5.5m anticipated. Eoghan Prendergast of Limerick Marketing Company, out and about during the Coors Light BBQ event last year, told this newspaper that Riverfest was “now most definitely on the map as a major festival for the nation, the first one of the summer season, and not just one for Limerick people”.
“A huge amount of work has gone into building up Riverfest over the past 10 years and this weekend it crystalized into probably the busiest weekend ever for the city,” he added.
Some 55 teams had lined out for the BBQ event on the Saturday, making it Ireland’s largest such competition, and one of the biggest in Europe.
This year, Riverfest is being run this year by Galway events company Grooveyard, who won the tender from the council for an initial one year period to run festivals in the city, with an option to extend for two additional one year periods.
The challenge for the company is to maintain a successful event, while helping it to grow, where possible. Notable this year is the addition of a new Busking competition and the Maldron Hotel Riverfest on the Shannon - a series of water-based activities and events - while the massively popular Coors Light BBQ competition is again returning to the Robert Street/Denmark Street area of the city.
The fireworks display has been moved to Sunday night, while the popular Fashion Friday, Continental Market and the Soapbox Derby all again return over the four days of the festival.
Grooveyard’s James Gavin said all the right things at the launch this week, offering respect for an event that has become “vital” to Limerick, in the words of Damien Brady, the council’s coordinator for Riverfest.
“It is a hugely successful event, and there are other cities looking at it, saying how can we emulate this, how can we do something like this,” said James.”
“I know there are other cities looking at it, saying ‘we want this’. There is huge attractiveness to Limerick, it is a beautiful city, and from our point of view we are really happy to be involved.”
Mayor of Limerick City and County Cllr Kevin Sheahan said at the launch that Riverfest has “developed into a major festival that has a growing reputation at a national level and repeat visitors come back to stay and enjoy themselves in Limerick year after year which is testament to the success of the event”.
This fact was confirmed by Maldron Hotel general manager Pat Reddan, a sponsor of Riverfest, who said the hotel was already fully booked and had welcomed back the same groups from Dublin and Galway year on year.
“From our point of view - historically, if you go back to the 80s/90s, it would have been a very, very quiet weekend in Limerick the May Bank Holiday,” he said.
“Now we have got something in the city that is keeping people here. It has just gone from strength to strength - last year it had in excess of 70,000 people - for the city itself it is just absolutely brilliant.
“It draws people into the city as well as keeping Limerick people here - and Limerick people are great to support things when it comes down to it, City of Culture proved that, we get behind things and we support them.”