The first the former managing director of the University Concert Hall heard about Limerick’s Opera Centre was a number of years ago when the project was in its infancy. An important looking document landed on his desk with the address saying ‘Opera Centre, Limerick’. The confusion had started. The local postal service had heard nothing of an ‘Opera Centre’ and putting two and two together had logically come to the conclusion that the document was intended for Limerick’s other ‘Opera Centre’, the University Concert Hall.
I was working with Douglas Wallace, architects for the centre, around the time the Opera Centre project was conceived. I remember being struck by the grand name being considered for the development. I had to rack my brain as to why such a title would be given to a retail project in the heart of Limerick, particularly at location where, to my knowledge, no operatic performance had ever taken place barring the odd drunken rendition of Nessun Dorma after a few too many in the Locke.
The penny finally dropped. The Opera Centre site was named after Catherine Hayes, Limerick’s most famous soprano who was born at number 4 Patrick St. I felt I owed Limerick an apology. Being a musical man I felt I should have been aware of this little gem of information. It seems I was not the only one to be slightly confused by the naming of the project.
From educated locals, to educated visitors, to overly educated taxi drivers to this day there is confusion about what the Opera Centre was, or is, all about. One particular driver in the city centre asked me: “Why are they bothering putting an opera centre down there? Sure don’t we have the Belltable?” Struck by this highly learned insight I felt it was not my place to add fuel to the fire by explaining the background of a group of retail architects in Dublin sitting around a table for hours debating the best name for the project. It was all too confusing.
Why do I mention this? People of Limerick do not need to be reminded of the current state of the opera centre. The hopes and dreams of the creation of ‘an exciting retail and lifestyle development that will become a centre piece in the rejuvenation of Limerick city centre’ are now dead. Little slivers of information are fed to us on an ongoing basis. “There is renewed interest in the site”, we are occasionally told. Then we are fed information relating to the Marks and Spencer saga, a retail chain that is seen as the way forward when it comes to the Opera Centre site. Marks is considered Limerick’s saviour, it would seem. The latest developments regarding the Parkway Valley may have finally silenced any dreams we have of a retail symphony being played on the streets of Limerick, to use an operatic term.
What has gone unmentioned in this whole development saga is the very nature of why the site was named in the first place. The powers that be in Regeneration Developments, the company behind the Opera Centre, felt that Catherine Hayes’ links to the site were important enough to merit an entire 40,000 square metre retail centre being named after her. Prior to this, the only mention of her was via a rusty green landmark plaque bolted onto number 4 Patrick St. Our city councillors and governing body certainly had not given Catherine’s birthplace any huge recognition.
In 2007 members of political parties in Avila, Spain, voted to name a street in the town after the Irish writer Kate O’Brien to mark her long association with Spain and the land of Teresa of Avila. In June 2008 our then deputy mayor, Cllr Jim Long attended a ceremony in the Avila region for the official naming of the street after Kate O’Brien. At the time, Saturday 14th June 2008 to be exact, the Limerick Leader reported that Cllr Long had put down a motion caller for the preservation of O’Brien’s birthplace on Mulgrave Street in Limerick city.
“I was over-awed by the whole ceremony. The villagers spent two weeks preparing the village, building a stage and organising entertainment. It was most impressive and they deserve huge credit for this”, Long was reported as saying at the time. Cllr Long seems to have been so impressed by the whole event that two years on, this time in the official capacity as Mayor of Limerick city, he is once again off to attend another impressive and well organised event. The Limerick Post is reporting that he is attending another ‘street naming ceremony in honour of the internationally acclaimed Limerick author’ and has been invited to the official naming by the Mayor of Avila.
I am writing this based on published information in two of our local journalistic bastions and must be forgiven if I have picked up information incorrectly. One thing is certain however. A number of years ago whilst acting as Deputy Mayor, Cllr Long felt so passionate about the whole situation that he made his way to city hall and tabled a motion. His moving and impressive experience whilst on what one might call a ‘junket’ had put a fire in his belly. He felt our city should take on and preserve the birthplace of our most renowned literary export.
Over two years down the road since his motion and the now Mayor Long is packing his bags yet again to travel to Spain and celebrate the life of Kate O’Brien. Two years down the road since his motion and the house of Kate O’Brien continues to lie in a state of dereliction on Mulgrave St. Two years down the road since his motion and passers-by can see the O’Brien name engraved on the facade of the building as weeds, moss, broken windows and misery seem to envelope our own piece of O’Brien history. Maybe the bit of sun and another ‘well organised’ event might inspire Mayor Long to table another motion. Maybe we will see another headline in the Limerick Leader in the coming weeks with Mayor Long calling for the preservation the O’Brien house.
It took developers from outside our city to see the potential of commemorating Catherine Hayes, Limerick’s finest soprano. It took the people of Avila in Spain to recognise the work of Kate O’Brien Limerick’s finest writer. Is it not time that our own local government put on a ‘well organised’ event centred around the preservation of Kate O’Briens house as a literary visitors centre of note?
Something tells me the final chapter of this saga has yet to be written.
I was sorry to see that the Kate O’Brien saga seems to have hit a sore nerve with Mayor Long. Anyone interested in the debate would be strongly advised to read the offering of another blogger on this matter. The blog entry can be found at: