The best way to get to know a city is by walking around it.
But to really get under its skin, to find out more about the history that shaped the streets you are walking on today, it’s worth calling on the services of a guide. Limerick tour guide Declan Hassett explains why walking tours are not just for tourists…
How long have you been doing walking tours for?
I started the tours three years ago. Naturally, like any new business, things were slow in the beginning. I nearly gave up. I was at a tourist conference organised by Shannon Development and the guest speaker was Mary Fitzgerald from the Woodlands Hotel near Adare. I remember she said that if you’re in the tourist industry you should be proud of your business and boast about it – great advice and I’ve been doing that ever since.
What are your favourite Limerick landmarks?
It’s easy to be a tour guide in Limerick when you have the city as a backdrop. Besides the usual suspects, King John’s Castle, Saint Mary’s Cathedral and The Hunt Museum, the city has so much more to offer.
The People’s Park is a gem. Lush greens, mature native trees, imposing monuments, sprinkled with the colours of roses. In fairness to the City Council, they keep the park immaculate, and they plant for the season. So when I bring tourists there in the winter time, the trees may be bare but there is always some colour throughout the park.
Many visitors to the city and county come here to trace the Irish ancestry and The Broken Heart Memorial on Lower Mallow Street gives me the opportunity to tell the story of Limerick’s connection to An Gorta Mor 1845-1850.
Where the City Centre Hotel now stands, once stood a vast warehouse. It housed refugees, desperate to board coffin ships and exile themselves to the New World. I tell the story of the Willis family from Co. Limerick. Abandoning their farmstead they arrived into the city a family of six but by the time they get to salvation in Toronto only the mother was still alive.
Is it just tourists who go on the tours?
I would say visitors from North America make up 70% of my clients followed by the U.K and Australia. This summer my clientele has been very varied. I’ve met tourists from about 30 different countries. Iceland, Sweden, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Russia and Israel, just to name a few. They all have one thing in common, they all love the city. However this year I noticed a large rise in the number of domestic visitors to the city. I guess ‘staycations’ are getting popular.
Locals come on the walks too, though. Usually if they have visiting relatives or friends they’ll book them on a tour and tag along. I’ve had locals buy vouchers of walks to give as birthday and Christmas presents. I have often done walking tours for charity and then it’s usually the locals who come.
Which stop on the tour do tourists find the most fascinating?
They are most fascinated by St Mary’s Cathedral. I walk them around the grounds and up to the West doorway, the oldest part of the cathedral. I tell them it was founded in 1168 AD as a cathedral but was the parish church in 1111 AD and the Vikings built their settlement near the cathedral in 922 AD. I smile to myself because I can see visitors trying to process those dates in their heads. ‘Is it really that old?’ they ask. Standing there looking majestic, ancient and imposing, however it’s the interior that is truly breathtaking. I tell tourists that a visit inside is a must and instantly they’ll step back 850 years in history.
Do you ever discover something new about the history of Limerick?
Not a week goes by without learning something new about the city and its chequered history. The history of Limerick is the history of Ireland. I’ll never stop discovering new things about the city and it’s people.
But I’ve only learned some of the city’s history from books. The best stories are the ones I’ve picked up from locals. Limerick people are natural storytellers and I’ve been very lucky to hear fascinating stories about Limerick and her characters of locals.
Which historical site in Limerick is your favourite and why?
It might not look historical but the Hunt Museum is an important historical building. Originally designed as Limerick’s Custom House, an Italian architect named Davis Ducart designed this elegant Palladian-style Georgian building in 1765.
Today the building houses the private collection of John and Gertrude Hunt. 2,000 priceless works of art and artifices. It’s the second largest collection of European antiquity in Ireland. I think we’re so lucky to have a museum of international standards in our city.
What is something interesting about the history of Limerick that people living here may not know?
A European Prince is buried here in Limerick. Prince Milo Petrovic-Njegos of Montenegro 1889-1978. We’ve all heard of Rags to Riches stories but Prince Milo’s story is one of Riches to Rags. Well almost.
As a young man he lived a pampered life, surrounded by wealth, privilege and opulence. His every need catered to by the palace staff. In the end he had nothing, not even a burial plot. When he died the communist regime behind the Iron Curtain in Montenegro wanted nothing to do with him. However his final resting place in Limerick has the best view. But to find out where His Royal Highness is buried you’ll have to come on a walk with me!
Article by: Sarah Talty
Read more from The Limerick Magazine here.