What’s your idea of a perfect day, or a perfect weekend, in Limerick?
Depends on the weather! If it’s good, we will walk along the river bank from UL to the city and have breakfast in the Milk Market. The walk takes 90 minutes so we are starving by the time we get there! The best weekend is when the family visit; the girls love the Market and like to head off shopping or to an exhibition. The best weekends are when there’s a Munster match (of course!) but we also enjoy the campus sports events.
What’s your first Limerick memory?
My mother is from Limerick and I have vague memories of the house, distorted by time - but mostly Kilkee and swimming in ice cold (or so it seemed) water. The most indelible memory of my most recent ‘first’ visit as president is the sign on the river wall opposite the Strand that reads ‘it will rise with the moon’. The tide of course, but you have to wait a bit to understand it.
What’s your favourite part of the county and why?
I’m working on that still. I could say the UL campus as that’s where I live (on the Clare side). I could be excused for just staying there and taking its many walks and looking at the wildlife or sitting in the riverbank on hot days (ok, there are not many). I also love the city, having spent my first six months as President there, on the river that is ever changing. In the summer, it is home to swimmers, rowers, cruise boats, even sailing dinghies. In winter, it’s a raging torrent, at times bursting its banks and there’s not a sinner in sight. At night, there is an army of regular walkers who do ‘the three bridges’. As for the other parts of Limerick, work takes me to schools all over the county and it is the towns of close knit communities that I have come to enjoy most.
What about a favourite local walk or view?
The campus offers a whole range of walks, but perhaps our favourite is the Garraun Rd over to the Blackwater Bridge (the two humpbacks) and back along the Errigal Canal to the Black Bridge (it’s shameful that this is closed) and back along the Shannon onto the campus, through Drumroe and back across the river on the Living Bridge. Keep an eye out for the birdlife and for the pheasants and hares early in the morning. And stop off in the River Café and spend a little money – every penny helps UL.
What do you think gives Limerick its unique identity?
The river is fabulous and I’m glad that we found a site on it for our new city campus. Recently I took a boat up the river (courtesy of a great Limerick couple) from Limerick, along the Abbey River and up through Ardnacrusha to Killaloe (well actually Ballina). Going through the powerstation will remain with me – the sheer feat and power of engineering is a shock in the midst of the quiet countryside. I’ve learnt that two million people live along the Shannon and its tributaries and it’s a shock to realise that a large part of the Irish rainfall eventually flows through Limerick – no wonder the river is such an astonishing feature of the city.
Do you have a favourite local restaurant?
The East Room in Plassey House of course! It is where UL began, indeed it was the first lecture room. The years were tough on the House but under the exceptional guidance of Michael Foley it has been transformed into an astonishingly beautiful set of dining and reception rooms, with many of the original features restored. The art collection is also remarkable, selected by Art Curator Yvonne Davis, from the more than 2,500 pieces in the UL collection. Most importantly is the food and wine carefully selected and prepared by a talented team under the leadership of Chef/Proprietor Derek Fitzpatrick. Derek is a great chef who selects his ingredients carefully, including herbs from the UL campus. No wonder he and his team are getting such plaudits!
How would you describe the people of Limerick?
The people are fiercely proud of their city and county, of their sporting heroes, of their history and of their university. I meet Limerick people all over the country and the world and they will always pull be aside for a chat about the local news and to hear about UL. Our alumni are in top positions in industry, government, healthcare and education all over the world. They carry with them a great loyalty to the place and are great ambassadors for their city and county. I know I can rely on them even though they will be my toughest critics – only because they are so ambitious for UL and for Limerick.
How important do you think sport is to Limerick?
What a question! Sport is life, it’s the common blood that flows through everybody and every village, town, suburb and city. I was asked shortly after coming to UL who I’d support if Munster and Leinster were playing against each other (being from Dublin, it was a way of testing my loyalty). I said I’d be flexible and was told in something not far short of a bellow ‘you can’t be flexible here boyo’. So I support Munster. Where the real test comes is in GAA, because I live on the Clare side of the campus. On that question, I remain stum. But let me put in another plug for UL: The campus offers the best sporting facilities in the county and the best of all the universities in Ireland (I’d say in the world, but you might think I’m exaggerating). I’m particularly proud of the new grass and all-weather GAA pitches at Maguire’s Field (a special thanks to our students who funded a large part of the development) and as always these are open to the community.
What’s the biggest challenge facing the city/county today?
Everyone wants Limerick to succeed, to bring more industry, to grow in line with the National Development Plan and to encourage people to stay and make a life here or return from Dublin, London, New York, Shanghai, Dubai or wherever they may have emigrated to. I believe in Limerick and that’s why UL has bought a site in a landmark location in the city for its first branch campus. For me the challenge is to keep our most talented here because once they leave and go to college in Dublin or elsewhere, meet their future partners, start a family, build a business and so on, they will not come back. Limerick needs a great university if it is to stop the brain drain and if it is to attract the best and the brightest from elsewhere.
More generally, there is a need for private investment. I would like to see the city develop the social and physical infrastructure that would encourage private enterprise to invest. A major challenge is public transport - just one step in relieving congestion. It takes our students 90 minutes to get in and out of the city at peak times. So they all try to live in Castletroy. Think of how the city would look if the 25,000 third level students in Limerick lived downtown – it would transform Limerick.