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Travel: Limerick

What does it mean to be in a city of culture?

Limerick is enjoying a revival, thanks in part to its status as city of culture Photograph: Patryk Kosmider/Shutterstock
Limerick is enjoying a revival, thanks in part to its status as city of culture Photograph: Patryk Kosmider/Shutterstock

It means dancing night after night after night in a Spiegeltent. It means sitting at two in the morning in a hotel listening to choirs from Duluth and Louth serenading everyone with their selection of Tom Petty covers. It means walking out of the hotel just around the corner to take in some stand-up comedy in the back alley behind a bar. And it means passing the statue of local hero Richard Harris - an actor who knew his way around the bars in this town - on the way.

It means all of this and more. As for what it means to be a city of culture, well, Limerick has been learning that throughout this year.

You were thinking Edinburgh? No. The Scottish capital may have had excess culture throughout August, but in 2014 it's Limerick that is having a January to December of the stuff. (Richard Harris, not the Spiegeltent, was the clue.)

If you're sketchy on your Irish geography, Limerick is down and across from Dublin, up and slightly to the left from Cork; two hours or so from both by road. It sits on the River Shannon about 60 miles from the mouth of the river. It's a place where they pronounce "tent" as "tint" and drop their Hs (yes, they do say "tirty-tree").

Over the years it's been invaded by the Romans, the Normans, Cromwell and William of Orange, and saw action during the Irish Civil War. These days it's been invaded by art. That at least has been through choice.

Limerick is Ireland's first city of culture. Inspired by Liverpool's experience as European capital of culture and Derry/Londonderry's as the first UK city of culture last year, Limerick pursued the idea of being the inaugural Irish version. And so already this year it has seen the likes of James Galway, Sadler's Wells dancers and contemporary circus company NoFitState visit the city. Riverdance, whose composer Bill Whelan was born in Limerick, started its 20th anniversary world tour here, and at the start of next month Royal De Luxe - the company who took their giant puppets to Liverpool last month, drawing an audience of one million people over three days - will come to the city. Some 200,000 people - twice the size of Limerick's population - are expected to visit the city when they do.

Limerick, of course, already had a cultural history before this year began. Riverdance aside, the city has been home to an art biennale since 1977 and, famously, it is the city of Angela's Ashes. Frank McCourt's memoir is perhaps one of the most familiar visions of a pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland and it's no surprise that the city has a Frank McCourt museum as a result. But you do get the sense that it's a little ambivalent about McCourt's historical vision of the city: drunken, violent, grimy, impoverished, rainy. On the flight over I read a piece that emphasises the fact that when the film of the book was being made they had to import rain machines because Limerick turned out not to be as wet as the book suggested.

In a way, this may all help explain the reason behind this year's festival of art. The city of culture idea, its artistic director Mike Fitzpatrick is happy to admit, is an attempt to rewrite the reputation of a city that has been seen by the rest of Ireland as down-at-heel for a couple of decades, a city that has 40 per cent of its population in social housing. "Cultural types hate calling it rebranding, but I'm very happy with rebranding," Fitzpatrick says. "We said this is a really good idea and this is a city that needs to change itself."

Fitzpatrick is a man who likes to accentuate the positive. His predecessor in the job resigned on January 2, not the best start to the year, you would think. "But it got us loads of publicity," Fitzpatrick points out as we sit in the city of culture offices in Limerick's elegant Georgian quarter. "In the last couple of months, so many people are involved in cultural activities it will change Limerick for many, many years to come. It gives a licence for people to do stuff."

What does that mean for the visitor? It means sitting in St Mary's Cathedral - Church of Ireland, if you must know - on a Saturday night listening to choirs from Ireland and America singing choral music and pop songs (the Tom Petty stuff is kept for the bar); it means eating and dancing all weekend in a Spiegeltent (you probably know what that's like already). It means visiting the Hunt Museum, where there's a Henry Moore nude - charcoal and wash on paper - that's one of the most beautiful things you may ever see. It means visiting pubs and asking if Richard Harris ever drank there (the answer is invariably yes), it means visiting castles (there's more than one in the vicinity), the 4000-year-old Grange stone circle - 113 massive stones, the largest weighing 40 tonnes - erected in the bronze age near Lough Gur by people from Spain and Italy (if you go back far enough, we are all immigrants), and it means learning that limericks don't come from Limerick but a village down the road called Croom.

But man cannot live on art alone. And on a Saturday afternoon, with the sun splitting the sky, I find myself on the banks of the Shannon, togged out in a clingy wetsuit ready to launch myself into the current in a kayak. It is only when I've paddled out into the river that I remember that Pogues tune, The Broad Majestic Shannon. Is a river that is broad and majestic and inspired Shane MacGowan to write a song about it the kind of river I should be kayaking on? I can hardly swim.

Turns out I needn't have worried. The first thing I do is run my kayak aground on rocks.

Afloat again - after some ungainly rocking of my buttock cheeks - I paddle downstream, passing horses and swans and fishermen and castles and bridges and the odd million-euro house with a dog barking at me. And, apart from the occasional rapid that seeks to pull me down screaming, it's actually rather pleasant. Then again, I bring my kayak into land. There are others last seen tumbling down rapids backwards heading out to sea (OK, tumbling down rapids and then coming ashore 10 yards beneath me).

Limerick is a small city. It doesn't take you long to get your bearings. Maybe any other year - if you weren't looking properly - you might find little to keep you there. A quick walk around and then you would head off to Dingle. But that's the great thing about art. It anchors you, enriches you and your surroundings. Art, when it's good, enlarges the mental geography of a place. Limerick has been thinking big in 2014. Big enough to grab your attention, perhaps.

TRAVEL NOTES

Getting there

Shannon Airport is the closest airport to Limerick. Aer Lingus flies from Edinburgh to Shannon from £134 return.

Where to stay

Teddy Jamieson stayed at the Savoy Hotel (www.strandhotel limerick.ie). Double rooms start from around £100 a night.

Places to see

King John's Castle , which dates from the 13th century and has a newly-opened visitor experience. Details at www.shannonheritage.com. St Mary's Cathedral is the oldest building in Limerick. The Hunt Museum (www.huntmuseum.com) is home to one of Ireland's greatest private art collections. Lough Gur Heritage Centre (www.loughgur.com) traces the area's from the Mesolitihic era to the 19th century.

Eating out

Azur Restaurant (www.azurrestaurant.ie) on George's Quay offers excellent European-style food. Out of the city is The Old Bakehouse in Bruff - Kim Kardashian and Kanye West took a picnic from the Bakehouse during their honeymoon in the area.

What to do

For information on kayaking visit www.nevsailwatersports.com.

City of culture information

Royal De Luxe bring The Giant's Journey to Limerick on September 5, 6 and 7. For more information on City of Culture activities visit www.limerickcityofculture.ie. To learn more about Ireland or plan a trip visit www.ireland.com.

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