Limerick: “Angela’s Ashes” Walking Tour and King John’s Castle

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Several years ago I read a book that touched my heart: Angela’s Ashes. It is the childhood memoir of Frank McCourt, an American-born son of two Irish imigrants who returned to Ireland with his family when he was a young boy. His story is one of extreme poverty, neglect, sickness, death, constant struggle…and hope. It’s an incredible story that is told through the innocent and witty eyes of a boy who overcame all odds (McCourt went on to be a respected teacher in New York City and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author). The story is set in Limerick, Ireland where McCourt grew up. When we moved to Ireland I kept thinking back to anecdotes and references from Angela’s Ashes and I kept thinking, “I should really read that book again while I’m living here.” So, I did (and, let me tell you, it’s just as good the second time around!). And then I couldn’t stop thinking about Limerick. I wanted to see all of the places from the book–I wanted to experience first hand the city of this story.

As I was reading the book I took notes of locations that held special importance to McCourt: where his homes were, his school, the library where he spent countless hours reading, the pub where he would frequently retrieve his drunken father. Then I entered all of my “places of interest” into Google Maps and made myself a customized Angela’s Ashes walking tour of Limerick:

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Now, there are a couple of official Angela’s Ashes tours led by different people in Limerick, but none of them were running at this time of the year (this time of the year being NOT the busy summer tourist season)–and, besides, our crew with two fussy boys under the age of four just doesn’t do well on guided tours. I did, however, find a great walking tour online that covered a few of the places I was already planning on visiting so I printed that off as well. With all of my maps and little waling guides in hand, it was time to pack up the family and drive up to Limerick.

We got to Limerick at lunch time. There was a cute Farmer’s Market set up on one of the streets downtown:

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But, being the lazy, grease-hungry Americans that we are, we opted to eat at the Burger King across the street.

After lunch we walked a few blocks away to a little park where we could see the Shannon River. It’s a huge river and at low-tide (which it was when we were there) little rapids form at the crests of the river. There was a group of kayakers paddling through the rapids having a grand time. In the distance you can see King John’s castle…more on that later. Now, moving on to the Limerick of Frank McCourt.

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Our walking tour began at the Parnell Street Railway Station. This is the railway station that the McCourt family arrived in when they first came to Limerick (OK, a little back story for those of you who haven’t read the book: Frank’s parents–Malachy and Angela–met in New York City the day that Angela immigrated from Ireland to start a “better life” for herself. Malachy had just gotten out of jail and was on the run for some anonymous crimes related to his involvement in the IRA back home in his native Northern Ireland. So, Malachy and Angela meet, they hit it off, and…9 months later Frank is born. It’s quite the scandal. Malachy and Angela quickly marry and even more quickly start making babies. Within four years they’ve had five children. They have no money, no love for each other, and very little love for their ever-growing brood of children. So much for the “better life”. They do have one saving grace: a baby girl who everyone adores. When she dies in infancy due to the horrid conditions the McCourt family is living in, it’s more than anyone can handle. They decide it’s time to leave New York and start back over in Ireland. Angela’s mom pays for the family to travel to Ireland because the McCourt family doesn’t even have enough money to buy a loaf of bread, let alone six one-way tickets to Ireland. So, they arrive in Northern Ireland where Malachy is from, they get kicked out; they go to Dublin; they get kicked out; they decide their last chance is to go to Limerick where Angela’s family is from. They ride the train all the way from Dublin down to Limerick and they arrive at…the Parnell Street train station. There. All caught up.)

The railway station is a beautiful building and I was fortunate enough to see the inside where trains have passed through for centuries (we had to run in so David could use the potty):

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After arriving at the train station, the McCourt family carried their meager belongings through town to their new home in Limerick. The first place they passed through on this walk was the Peoples’ Park. I’m not sure what little Frankie was feeling when he first saw this park, but we loved it. There was a great playground for the kids (which we enjoyed immensely, but I’m sure it was not there in the 1930’s when the McCourt family arrived) and beautiful flowers everywhere.

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At the edge of the park there is an art center that used to be a library. This is the library that Frank McCourt used to frequent as a boy so he could check out books for his mother and, if he was lucky, be allowed to sit in himself to read books about saints (guess libraries hadn’t caught on to the idea of a children’s section and weekly story times yet).

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Just past the library is St. Michael’s Church where Frank and his friend Billy Campbell (jealously) watched the Protestants play croquet on the church lawn after service on Sunday mornings:

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About a block past the church is South’s Pub–the infamous pub where Malachy McCourt infamously drank away every penny he ever earned (meaning his own family was cold and starving). This is the same pub where Frank’s uncle bought him his first pint at the age of 16 so he could become a “real man”:

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And, to be quite honest, I don’t think I would have minded spending a bit of time inside South’s. It’s a beautiful pub, warm, welcoming–probably a lot nicer place to hang out than the overcrowded, damp, cold, nasty slums where the McCourt family lived:

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And that brings us to the overcrowded, damp, cold, nasty slums where the McCourt family lived. This is Windmill Lane, the location of the McCourt’s first house in Limerick. The tenements where the McCourt family actually lived in the ’30’s have been torn down and replaced with more stable homes. This house was so poorly-built that one of Frank’s brothers, a twin, died here of disease when he was only two years old:

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The family was distraught by little Oliver’s death. They couldn’t stay in that house on Windmill Lane a moment longer, so they moved to a house on Hartstonge Street (again, the old tenement houses have been replaced):

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Unfortunately, little Oliver’s twin, Eugene, was so heartbroken over the death of his twin that he, too perished. The family decided to move again, this time to the top of Barrack Hill on Roden Lane:

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This is where Frank lived for most of his childhood (and, once again, the original houses are long gone). The house on Roden Lane was at the end of the lane near a stable. There was one outhouse that the entire lane used–and it was right next to the McCourt’s house. The stench was unbearable in the summer. In the winter, the bottom floor of their house was constantly flooded and they were forced to move upstairs where it was dry–a place they fondly referred to as “Italy”.

After seeing all of the McCourt houses (well, the general locations, at least) we made one final stop on our Angela’s Ashes tour: Leamy’s National School. This is the school where Frank received his formal education–all six years of it.

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Today the school is home to the Frank McCourt Museum, a wonderful privately-run museum. There are only two rooms in the museum–a classroom and a room set up like the McCourts house on Roden Lane–but they managed to fit a lot of information and memorabilia into the small space. The photos in this collage are: (top left) entrance to the museum, (top right) me and David with Frankie boy, (bottom right) Frank’s classroom (with some extra-cute pupils), (bottom left) school photo with Frank McCourt (he’s sitting in the front row on the right with the dark hair):

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The museum is run by this woman (the one drawing at the easel in the photo):

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Her father-in-law bought Leamy’s school after it became derelict and turned it into a garment shop. Once he retired, the building was sitting empty and she decided to make it into a museum. She drove around the country collecting information and artifacts and set about creating this little gem of a museum. And, speaking of gems, she was a gem herself. She gave my children paly-doh and markers to play with while she showed me and Jon around the museum, then she sat the boys down to draw portraits of them (she’s an artist), then she gave them candy for being such good little museum-goers.  Seriously, one of the best museum-with-children experiences I’ve ever had! I would highly recommend that anybody who finds themselves in Limerick make a quick stop by the Frank McCourt Museum and give this woman a little hello.

 

After a full afternoon of walking around Limerick we had the option of driving home and crashing or…going to a castle! We, of course, went to the castle. Limerick is home to King John’s Castle, a fortress that was commissioned by King John (of Robin Hood lore) in the late 12th century. Last summer the castle was restored and renovated to include some incredible exhibits on the history of the castle and what life was like in Medieval times. There were lots of hands-on activities and interactive displays that kept us all entertained for hours:

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As an added bonus, we were treated to beautiful views of Limerick from the top of the castle walls:

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As we were walking back to the car at the end of the day I asked David what his favorite part of our day had been: The fun playground at the park? The lollipops at the museum? Climbing up castle walls?  Nope, none of that. Do you know what his answer was? Getting rocks stuck in his boots. Yep. There were lots of pebbles at the castle and while he was running around like a wild banshee kicking up all the gravel, some of it got stuck in his boots. It was…awesome. At least for a 3-year old.

On our way out of town we made one last quick stop. Jon’s friend from work heard that we were in Limerick for the day and there just happened to be a Munster rugby match happening RIGHT THERE in Thomond Park, and he had an extra ticket, and could Jon come? Please, please, please could Jonny come out to play? So, as we drove out of Limerick we swung by the stadium to drop Daddy off for his first Irish sporting event (and, if you know my anti-sports-watching husband, you know that this is a big deal). He had a great time, and he even bought himself a Munster rugby hat. Up, Munster!

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As I drove home alone with the boys I was treated to beautiful views of the rolling green hills in the Irish countryside. We ate granola bars and fruit snacks for dinner in our car, and it was perfect. An absolutely, perfectly Irish-y day.

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