WHILE he may only have lived here for five years, President Michael D Higgins said it was a matter of great pride for him to accept the Freedom of Limerick.
At a ceremony at the Milk Market on Monday, President Higgins became the first recipient of the reconstituted honour.
From Isaac Butt in 1877 to Paul O’Connell in 2012, those conferred were freemen of the city, Limerick County Council having made do with civic receptions. And the new title of Freeman of Limerick reflects the new political reality of a city and county united.
President Higgins begged the indulgence of an audience of almost 1,000 in departing from his prepared remarks, explaining “this is a freedom I have been conferring on myself for some time”.
And the poet-president spoke freely for half an hour in what was largely an encomium to his native city, county and its people.
Limerick was where he had been born and – in later years at Glenstal Abbey – the place where he had come to write and reflect.
“Of course it is a very special day for me as President of Ireland and for me as a Limerick man,” he said.
When President Higgins and his brother John had moved from Limerick to their uncle and aunt’s in Newmarket-on-Fergus in 1946, their parents and sisters stayed in the city.
Fine Gael’s Cllr John Sheahan had remarked that while one could have a home in many places - and President Higgins’ was most definitely Galway - one could “only be born in one place”.
“You are quite right,” said President Higgins in response.
“There is no doubt, níl aon amhras faoi; I was born in this beautiful city, the Treaty City and, yes, I was baptised in St Munchin’s Church.”
His father John, a native of Newmarket, had apprenticed in the bar and grocery trade in Ennis, then in Brian Greene’s in Limerick and then in Charleville. A member of both the north Cork and then the east Clare brigades of the IRA, he had been interned in the Curragh for a year
“And in the 1920s indeed, as he wrote himself, there weren’t many people hiring people who had been interned,” said the President.
John Higgins ended up in Limerick back in the pub business.
“At first, he rented a premises in Little Catherine Street and later bought a pub at old number 3 Upper William Street, which I noticed as I passed it today had changed its name. It used to be The Arch and I now think it’s O’Briens.
“That pub at that time had a snug on each side of the front door, a snug on each side of the side door as you went down the lane and a snug at each side of the back down which went out on to High Street. And we lived for a while overhead.
“In the succeeding years, due to illness and the economic circumstances of the time, he, my mother and my sisters faced difficult times as he faced unemployment and my parents and my two sisters moved constantly between a number of rented flats in the city: the journey that began where we were all born in 27 Belfield Park, and went on through Upper Gerald Griffin Street, back to old No 7 Upper William Street, a retail miscalculation as people were on ration books, then on to 3 Landsdowne Gardens, otherwise known as the Burma Road, Laurel Villas, upstairs in 10 Coolraine Terrace, and finally, 24 Elm Place, Rathbane.”
While the brothers had been despatched to Clare, they would frequently visit, “including at times of great excitement such as the great fire in Todd’s (1959) which changed the city”.
“I remember the Limerick of that time where you had an enormous choice of cinemas – the elegance of the Savoy. And then, coming down William Street, there was the exotic hardware institutions like Boyds, which had its own employment policy, and on the other side of the road, the smell of the open bags of meal of Mrs Harris’ shop, who was more famous than her son Richard. And then as you made your way down towards Sarsfield Bridge, you had Spaights. There was a kind of elegance to it all and what held it all together was the smell of bacon from Shaws.”
In paying tribute to Limerick’s as “Ireland’s sporting capital” - he recalled an early trip to see Limerick in the Market’s Field.
“I went with my friend Donie McMahon, now no longer with us, on a red Honda to see my first game of soccer. It was during the era of the vigilance committee, where those in the Gaelic Athletic Association secretly interested in soccer would have themselves appointed to the vigilance committee so that they could go to the Market’s Field and indulge their deviance,” he recalled.
His family had known some hard times in Limerick as so many in the city did to this day.
But he had been greatly impressed by the “character and the solidarity and care for each other among the people of this city that is well reflected, for example, in the recent response to the flooding”.
This he had seen first-hand in visiting King’s Island and St Munchin’s community centre in the aftermath of that disaster earlier this year.
And during Limerick’s term as City of Culture - of which President Higgins is sole patron - he paid warm tribute to the city’s many writers, musicians and artists.
Sean Keating’s portrait of Noel Browne, he said, hangs in his study and he was presented with another Limerick work of art - a print by Jack Donovan - to accompany it.
“I have been impressed and delighted by the wonderful success of this year of culture, including of course the recently triumphant arrival of Royal Deluxe and their Giant Saga. As Ireland’s first national City of Culture, you have led the way and set a very high standard for other cities to follow,” said President Higgins.