When the editor of the Limerick Leader asked me to sketch out 10 Things I Love about Limerick, I scratched my head but then recalled a radio interview I did 20 years ago to promote my Just Another Town album, in which Pat Kenny looked askance when I informed him that the 17 songs that made up the collection were about growing up in Limerick.
If I could write that number of songs about my hometown, surely I could describe 10 things I love about the city without the parameter of melodic form to guide me.
Despite the fact that I left Limerick with Granny’s Intentions when I was 16, most of the best songs I’ve written over my lifetime come from the neighbourhood I grew up in off O’Connell Avenue.
Even in my new album, Creation, a pivotal song - In Me - deals with a mysterious experience I had as a boy in the bedroom I shared with three brothers in our small terraced house across from Barrack Hill.
So the hub of my top ten must centre on Wolfe Tone Street and work its way out from there to other soft spots I have for the city.
No. 10: The People’s Park was a favourite haunt when I was growing up. An abiding memory is of quenching a rasping thirst on a hot summer day using the chained iron cup at the ornate drinking fountain under the cupola. The metal cup is gone but the drinking fountain is still there.
The Bandstand has also survived, though rarely used now for band performances.
When I was a kid, the Boherbuoy Brass & Reed Band used to give regularly recitals there on sunny Sundays, drawing huge crowds from the surrounding neighbour-hoods, while Ignatius Rice looked down from his lofty pillar on the scallywags like myself, who were lucky enough to be receiving a free education due to his benevolence.
No. 9: Corbally Baths looms in the memory like an oasis - another paradisiacal spot where my friends and I mooned away hot summer afternoons, jumping in and out of the river.
No 8: The Belltable Arts Centre didn’t appear on my radar until I attended Sean O’Casey’s play Shadow of a Gunman in my early teens. Though far from cultured, I was captivated by the human drama, and the memory never left me.
I’ll be back there to play a concert myself in April 2016.
No 7: The Annual Carnival set up its amusements on an allotment in O’Connell Avenue across from Welsh’s Tobacco & Sweet Shop, whose front window displayed a mechanized statuette sailor who fed toffee to a frilly dressed lady who held out her tongue for his titbits.
One year, the Carnival featured a daredevil who leaped from a towering height into a tank of enflamed water, and survived the feat. Years later, the memory inspired my song Daredevil.
No 6: The Hunt Museum wasn’t around while I was growing up but I performed there during the Franz S Haselbeck’s photographic exhibition last year, which gave me the opportunity to view the great trove of art works and historical memorabilia that the place has on free display.
No 5: The War Memorial. To honour the memory of my grandfather who had been a sergeant major in the Royal Munster Fusiliers, and to commemorate the First and Second World War dead, my father stuck a poppy in his lapel each Remembrance Sunday while I was growing up and brought me along on marches to the cenotaph in Pery Square to lay laurel wreaths.
One Sunday in 1957 (I was just seven at the time), while we were starting out on the procession, the IRA blew up the monument, causing extensive damage in the locality. I still remember the anxiety in my mother’s eyes when we returned home with the news that we were lucky to be alive.
No 4: The Dockers Monument. As my brother Michael sculpted this work, and as I performed at its unveiling, I wrote these lines about the piece: As the bent labourers hauling their heavy beam were being unveiled on Bishop’s Quay, I glanced beyond the gowned dignitaries seated in front of me towards the standing crowd who had come to honour the stevedores that the monument represents, one of whom, standing beside me, praised the bronze statues with more eloquence than the Mayor’s speech: “He captured us well; it was back-breaking work from sun-up till sun-down in all kinds of weather, but it was our life. Six months after they laid us off all the older men were dead. This monument will keep their memory alive.”
No 3: King John’s Castle and The Treaty Stone I include not because of their historic significance (which everybody knows), but because they mark the location of a more romantic nature for me. After a ceilí in the Jesuit Hall on O’Connell Avenue when I was 15, I walked a girl home, not knowing that she lived in the Island Field, miles away from where I lived.
When we reached the Treaty Stone beyond the castle, she suggested that she would walk the rest of the way alone. Though I was nervous about heading into a locality I wasn’t familiar with in the dark of night, I walked on with her regardless and was rewarded with an elevating experience that years later provided me with the inspiration for my first love song, Margaret.
No 2: Limerick Docks have held my heart in a tight grip since my mother took me there as a boy to witness the docking of a freighter on which my father was a merchant sailor.
Had I not fallen in love with the place at such a tender age I may never have written some of my most popular songs, including The Voyage.
No 1: Church and Community. Again, from an early age, I accompanied my mother to many of the chapels in our locality, not just for mass but for the service of Benediction also, which I loved because the choirs that accompanied the exotic service introduced me to music and poetry, the blood of my life. I also loved the central message I heard in church – love God and love your neighbour.
And I still adhere to it, despite the nettles and thistles and other noxious weeds that overran the church’s garden in our time. Without the church and the family and the community I grew up among, I would never have gained the courage to go out into the world, and sing.
- For details on Johnny’s new album Creation, above, and tour dates, see JohnnyDuhan.com.