Thursday 26 February 2015

Public and Private Realms: Kate O'Brien's Reflections on Limerick City

"I have been asked to write a few words about Limerick as I remember it. But I don’t remember Limerick. I see it. I am still alive, and Limerick grows and lives before my eyes. And I have been lucky in being able to return to this dear place. Limerick, again and again, over the years. From where I stand now in life, far on- I look around, and I think it is perhaps regrettable that one was not lucky enough to stay in Limerick to live here always"[1]

Last weekend saw the Limerick Literary festival in honour of one of her most famous and talented writers Kate O’Brien I attended the ‘French convent’ that Kate was educated in making her name familiar to me for a long time. As a teenager she gained considerable credibility with me for having two of her novels banned in Ireland ‘Mary Lavelle’ (1936) and ‘The Land of Spices’ (1941).  A pioneer she spoke out against the old repressions of  the New State under the strict moral guidance of the Catholic Church. Her heroines were the commentator of the middle class world O'Brien herself grew up in.

Kathleen Louie Mary O’Brien was born on 3rd December 1897 at an address at Ború House Mulgrave Street (NIAH record here). She became Laurel Hill Convent School’s youngest boarder at just 5 years of age after the death of her mother. After her second level education O'Brien received a county council scholarship to read French and English in UCD. Upon graduating in 1919 she moved to England where she worked as a free-lance journalist for publications such as The Sphere. This journal which ran until 1964 targeted British citizens living in the colonies. In 1922 she traveled to the US with her sister Nance and her brother-in-law Stephen O’Mara as his assistant on a fundraising campaign for the new Irish State. The writer then moved to Spain later that year to work as a governess in Bilbao for ten months.  Her time in Spain resulted in her 1937 book ‘Farewell Spain’ which was banned in Franco’s Spain and the author was forbidden access to the country until 1957 with the intervention of the Irish Ambassador to Spain[2]. O'Brien then moved to London continuing as a freelance writer returning to Ireland to holiday with her family in places such as Kilkee, Glin and Foynes. Kate returned to live in Ireland in 1950 buying the property ‘The Fort’ in the harbour village of Roundstone, Co. Galway. It was in this area that Marconi successfully sent the first trans-Atlantic wireless message in 1907. In 1965 O'Brien once more settled in England where she died on 13th August 1974.

Photo credit Mark Humphrys web
Fiercely proud of the city of her birth O'Brien dedicated her Irish travel book ‘My Ireland’ to ‘Limerick, my dear native place.’ O'Brien did not shy away from politics and even applied this viewpoint to the architecture of her home town. She did not care for a narrowly nationalist outlook or tolerate the physical evidence of a militaristic, defensive attitude, hating the remains of the Norman keeps, of city walls and castles and her dislike even extended to the Treaty Stone. Politics entered her family life with her brother-in-law Stephen O’Mara becoming Mayor of Limerick after the murders of Michael O’Callaghan (1920) and George Clancy (1921). O'Mara inherited the family home Strand House in 1909 which stood in the grounds on O’Callaghan Strand at the end of Sarsfield Bridge. His father Stephen O’Mara Snr was the Director of O’Mara’s Ltd Bacon Curers and the Claremorris and Donegal Bacon Companies. 
Photo Credit: Declan Hassett Limerickwalkingtours
Strand House would witness one of the most enigmatic scenes in the story of the modern Irish State. On 5th of December 1921 Eamon de Valera, Dick Mulcahy and Cathal Brugha were down in Limerick reviewing troops of Volunteers while Treaty negotiations reached a climax in London. They were guests at Strand House the morning when the “future of Ireland had just been decided, he (de Valera) would not come to the telephone when invited to do so.[3]’Stephen O’Mara Junior moved out of Strand House in the 1940s donating the site to the Limerick Corporation provided it was used to build a new town hall. Stephen O’Mara moved to nearby New Strand Hall, Ennis Road where he died in 1959. Limerick Corporation did not use the Strand House site for a new town hall. Instead they sold the site to Jurys Hotel in the early 1960s and gave the money to the O’Mara family. Jurys Hotel remained there until the 1990s when it was demolished and redeveloped as the ‘The Strand’ Limerick (apartments) and the Strand Hotel. No trace of Strand House remains.In 1957 O'Brien was asked to write a reflection on her home town which gave her an opportunity to cogitate on the physical characteristics of the city;

"...I think that ours is a very beautiful city. Actually, I’ll chance my arm and say that I think that, purely on urban and architectural merits, it is the most beautiful city in Ireland, and I only wish that we could have more protected our beautiful O’Connell Street. But façades hardly matter. What really matters is the line of the conceived street. And in Limerick we have superb 18th century lines still."
I think if Kate was in Limerick today she would approve of the Public Realm Enhancement Scheme of recent years with John’s Square, William Street, Bedford Row and Thomas Street. Although there has been considerable recent investment there is still more work to be carried out to create a coherent public realm framework. The city centre should be enhanced for the benefit of the pedestrian over the car driver creating public spaces to linger in rather than as thoroughfares.
"What I would like to praise in our present Limerick is the lovely, flowering park- I only wish we could carry its idea down to the waterside, and make our great river front a place of peace and pleasure. There should be benches, and flowering trees along the Shannon Banks. If I were rich, if I was ever a real best seller, I’d like to make the embankments of our river a source of rest and pleasure to Limerick.Above all things I praise the beauty of Limerick. Our city is not only a beautiful piece of 18th century town planning, but it is also now clean and orderly and without under offence to the past it has managed to play fair with the exactions of the 20th century. I never come towards it, by train or car, without delight. St John’s great spire rises up, most exquisitely. And I am reminded that I was baptised under its shadow. St Mary’s Norman tower argues, but friendly, with our Puginesque triumph. But Limerick spread out as we move in. And it is a dear and beautiful city. I am always happy when I’m there, and I am very proud to be able to say that I am from Limerick."
Strand Hotel Complex. Photo credit: Neil Warner
Warner Corporate Photography web

[1] Kate O’Brien ‘Limerick as I remember it’ (March 1957) Féile Pádraig Official Programme.
[2] Pamela Cahill “Farewell Spain’ by Limerick writer Kate O’Brien” in ‘From the Shannon to the Ebro: the Limerick men who went to fight Franco,’ (Limerick, 2014), pp.93-97.
[3] Dev, the phone call and the Treaty, Etienne Rynne, Limerick Leader, 15 Dec 2001. 

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