TOURISM chiefs in the Limerick area have done a great job this year with The Gathering and the new King John’s Castle experience, and other such attractions in the city and surroundings. Visitors, by all accounts, have been flocking in from all over the globe all summer, and before we know it we’ll be building a raft of new hotels in Limerick again.
But we can’t have a Gathering every year or we’ll be broke from entertaining and standing endless rounds of drink, so maybe we should start thinking outside the box. I have a tourism initiative in mind myself, which I hope won’t upstage Fáilte Ireland, but which I think would boost the economy enormously if we could control our greed.
I’m calling for the restoration of our long forgotten health tourism attraction – the spa industry - and I can’t think of a better place to start than in Castleconnell, which once had one of the most famous chalybeate spas in the British Isles. We’re living in an age of global hypochondria now and we’re growing ever more suspicious of multinational pharmaceutical remedies. Lucky for us, the whole world is in need of a pick-me-up, and here we have the answer right on our doorstep. We should make the best of whatever assets we may have.
The waters at Castleconnell were reputed to have been a cure for despondency, as well as for numerous physical ailments. One wag declared that the spa waters “made the fat lean and the lean fat”, a claim that should greatly appeal to the weight watching industry. Another claim was that the water “loosened the clammy humours of the body and dried the moist brain”. We could all do with some of that kind of treatment.
I have no idea what happened to the chalybeate spa by the Shannon. I can’t even find anyone who will tell me where exactly the spring was located. Maybe it went underground in a panic when the Shannon was harnessed for electricity. Maybe it was polluted by industry and modern farming. Maybe it’s still there, gurgling away happily in some forgotten glade. In any case, it’s time to revive it and bring the throngs of health seekers back to scenic Castleconnell. If nothing else it should help free up a few hospital beds.
Local historian, the late Kevin Hannan, in an article in the Old Limerick Journal, described the crowds that once converged on the village to take the waters. I always thought myself that they came to fish. Not so, said Kevin. “They were mainly attracted by the mysterious health giving spring.”
They came by every form of transport, some by train from Limerick and others on foot from far flung parts of the region. “Common carts, traps, side cars, back to backs and even donkey carts could be seen on every road leading to the village.” The heyday of the spa lasted for more than two centuries, and it held the respect of all classes, including the medical profession.
Mary John Knox, in her delightful travel diary, ‘Two Months at Kilkee’, published in 1836, and reprinted some 16 years ago by the Clasp Press in Ennis, makes reference to the famous chalybeate spa in Castleconnell.
She travelled to Kilkee by an iron steam ship ‘The Garryowen’ from Limerick city to Kilrush – maybe we should revive that as well - and waxed almost as lyrical about Limerick as she did about Kilkee and the dramatic coast of Clare. One of her big regrets was that she hadn’t time to partake of the waters at Castleconnell. But she gave it a good recommendation, nonetheless. Quoting an eminent medical opinion of the time, she wrote: “The water is found to contain a considerable mixture of marine salt and absorbent earth, and has been proved very efficacious in scorbutic and bilious complaints, affections of the liver, jaundice, loss of appetite, worms, etc”.
Now, I’m not for a minute suggesting that if we could find the well and restore the spa, that we should charge for the water and add VAT to the bill to help clear the deficit. That would leave a nasty taste in the mouth and maybe counteract whatever efficacious properties may still exist. The people who came to Castleconnell for over two centuries to drink the water, were not charged for the pleasure, but happily for local proprietors, they usually topped up the medicine in local hostelries before returning home.
We shouldn’t, even for an instant, be tempted to follow the example of, say, the Cliffs of Moher, where I was absolutely fleeced during the summer after driving into the car park with a car full of friends, all of whom flatly refused to lie down on the floor and cover themselves with the rug when we realised that there was a head count in the offing. Had I known that we were about to be ambushed, I’d have dropped them all off on the roadside and let them climb in over the fence and take their chances with the gamekeeper.
I’m sure there are more subtle ways of exploiting nature’s bounties. So let’s test the waters then. But first, we’ll have to find the darned spring.