Limerick by Grace Greenwood


We travelled from Killarney to Tarbert, on the Shannon, by the stage-coach, passing through several old, but uninteresting towns, and seeing a great deal of barrenness and wretchedness on our way. At Tarbert, we took a steamer, to ascend the river to Limerick, and as the weather that afternoon was clear and bright, we had one of the most delightful trips you can imagine.

The Shannon is a very noble river—in some places widening out like a sea, and all the way running between beautiful green shores. There is a place in the river, near the mouth, which has somewhat the appearance of rapids, when the tide is coming in. This, the people say, is the site of a sunken city, whose towers and turrets make the roughness of the water. The whole city can be seen every seven years, but, as the sight is said to be unlucky, every body avoids it. The whole story is about as probable as the one I have told you of the damp and dubious palace of the O'Donoghue.

Limerick is a pleasant and prosperous city, and has a very honorable name in Irish history. The most interesting object that it contains is the Castle, which was built by King John, and has stood for more than six hundred years. In 1651, Limerick sustained a terrible siege, by the Parliamentary forces, under General Ireton, the son-in-law of Cromwell. It held out for six months, and would not have surrendered then, though the inhabitants were dying of starvation and plague, had it not been for the treachery of an officer of the garrison—one Colonel Fennel. Among the most faithful and heroic of the city's defenders, was a priest—Terence Albert O'Brien, Bishop of Emly. He was so active and influential that Ireton made him an offer of forty thousand pounds, (two hundred thousand dollars,) and a free pass to the Continent, if he would cease his exhortations, and advise immediate surrender. He scorned the offer, and so when the city at last fell into the hands of the English, he was tried and condemned to death. He was calm and heroic to the last; but before he was beheaded, he addressed a few solemn, warning words to Ireton, which made the stern soldier's blood curdle. He accused him of cruel injustice, and summoned him to appear before the tribunal of God within a few days. It is a singular fact that in a little more than a week from that time, Ireton died of the plague.

Limerick was again besieged in 1690, by William III. It was defended by the Irish Catholic adherents of James II. and their French allies, and so well defended, that the King and his army beat a retreat in less than a month. However, they made another trial the next year and with a little better success, for after a six months' siege, the garrison capitulated. A treaty was signed between the two armies, in which it was stipulated that Limerick and the other Irish fortresses should surrender to the new King—that the garrisons should be allowed to march out with all the honors of war, and that they should be provided with shipping to carry them to any country they should please to go to. Then there were several other articles very favorable to the rights and liberties of the Roman Catholics. To the shame of the English government of that day, it must be said that this compact was most dishonorably broken, and through that reign and many succeeding, the Irish Catholics were greatly wronged and meanly persecuted. From this circumstance, Limerick has always been called "The City of the Violated Treaty"—at least, until the year 1847, when, one evening, a famous tea-party given to the rebel leader, Smith O'Brien, was broken up by a mob—on which occasion, Mr. Punch made a little change in the old title, and called it "The City of the Violated Tea-tray."

The Cathedral of St. Mary's is a large, gloomy-looking building, with a very high tower, from which one can get a magnificent view of the surrounding country. In this tower is a very melodious chime of bells, about which there is told a pretty and touching story, which I do not doubt is true.

Once there lived in Italy a skilful young artisan, who was celebrated for founding bells. No founder in all Europe could equal him—no chimes in all the world were so grand and sweet-sounding as his. At last, he made a chime for a convent, which proved to be finer than any he had cast before. He had spent years upon them; they were his great work; he was very proud of them; he even seemed to have fallen in love with them, for he could not live out of the sound of their melodious ringing. So he purchased a little villa, in a lovely seaside nook, beneath the lofty cliff on which the convent stood, and every night and morning he had the happiness of hearing the solemn silver chiming of his own dear bells, which, when sounding at that height, it almost seemed to him God had taken and hung in the clouds, to call him and his children to prayer and to heaven.

But after a few bright, peaceful years, there came a dark, troubled time of war and pillage. The good Italian lost all in the terrible struggle—home, family—even his beloved bells—for the convent on the cliff was destroyed, and they were carried away to some distant land. At last, he was released from a miserable dungeon, to find himself old, infirm, poor, and alone in the wide world. Then a great longing came to him, and grew and grew at his lonely heart, to hear his bells once more before he should die. So he became a wanderer over Europe, searching for them every where. He would be told of wonderful chimes in this and that city, and go many weary leagues to hear them; but as soon as they sounded on his ear, he would sadly shake his head, his eyes would fill with tears, and he would turn to go on his way.

When, at length, he heard of the sweet bells of Limerick, he was very old and feeble, but he set out at once on what he knew must be his last pilgrimage. The vessel on which he sailed went up the Shannon, and anchored opposite the city. The old Italian took a boat to go on shore, at the close of a calm and beautiful day. He was very weak and ill, and reclined in the stern of the boat, looking longingly toward St. Mary's Cathedral. Suddenly, from the tall tower, rang softly out the vesper chime. The Italian started up joyfully at the sound. Then he crossed himself, looked upward, and murmured—"I thank thee, blessed mother of Jesus! I hear my bells at last!" Then he sank back, and closed his eyes and listened. The men rested on their oars, and all was still, except that sweet, solemn ringing. The Italian seemed to hear in his bells more than their old melody—all the music of his happy home—the deep murmur of the sea below the convent cliff—the sighing of the winds in the cypress and olive trees—and sweeter and dearer than all, the voices of his wife and children. They seemed to be softly calling his pious soul to leave the trouble and weariness of earth for the blessedness and rest of God. And his soul obeyed the call,—for, when the bells ceased their ringing, and the boatmen rowed to land, they found that the aged stranger was dead.

About six miles above Limerick are the Rapids of the Shannon, usually called the Falls of Doonas. These can be part way descended in long, narrow skiffs, constructed for the purpose, but the feat is a very hazardous one. I went down, with a friend and two brave boatmen, but though I enjoyed the adventure, I would not advise any one to follow my example.

Not far from Limerick are the ruins of Mungret Priory, said to have been founded by St. Patrick, and which once contained no less than one thousand five hundred monks.

"As wise as the women of Mungret," is a saying among the Irish, which had its rise, according to tradition, in this way:—

The monks of Cashel having heard great stories of the learning of those of Mungret, resolved to send a deputation to them, to settle the point as to which college possessed the finest scholars in the dead languages. Now the monks of Mungret enjoyed a better reputation for such learning than they deserved,—being rather more fond of good living than hard study,—so they were mortally afraid of being beaten in the contest, and losing their good name forever. But they hit upon a very ingenious plan of escape from their embarrassment. They dressed up a number of their best scholars—some as women and some as peasants—and placed them along the road by which their rivals must travel. As the deputation came on, they naturally asked the way to Mungret, and put other questions to the persons they met, and to their great astonishment, every question was answered in Greek or Latin. At last, they came to a halt, held a consultation, and prudently resolved to go back to Cashel, as they could not hope to win any honor in a controversy with a priory of monks who had so filled all the country around with learning, that even the women and workmen spoke the dead languages fluently.

We saw a great deal of poverty, squalor, and idleness, in Limerick, but also much honest industry. We visited the lace and glove manufactories, where many poor girls earn not only their own living, but often that of their families.

The peasantry in this county seemed sober and quiet people, but, as in other parts of Ireland, they are mostly ignorant and superstitious. They are workers in the bogs, or day-laborers, and all think themselves very fortunate if they can obtain employment at wages which will keep them and their children from starvation. Beggary is very common everywhere, and is not considered a disgrace, except by the better order of people.

There is in Ireland a class of small farmers, who live very respectably and comfortably, though they can never hope to get very much beforehand, as they do not own their farms, are obliged to pay many taxes, and the more valuable they make the land, by their industry, the higher is the rent.