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  • Milk Bottles in Limerick
  • Patricia Byrne

Standing by the River Shannon, there’s a white glassy feel to the vista: glass of sunlit water, office windows, a high-rise hotel facade. Birds contest crusts of bread on the river slipway in clots of white movement. A gull swoops down between the curled necks of two swans, robs the food, and lunges up and away. Children shriek. A small girl in a cherry dress runs to a man, who speaks a language I don’t understand, and buries her head in his legs.

This is Limerick, my home of thirty-five years now, almost all of my adult life; Limerick, a place of continual arrivals and departures. Standing by the Shannon waters, I think of my sons long gone from their native city, their homes now in Dublin and Boston.

Behind me a distinctive Limerick landmark: the chimney of what was once Cleeve’s Factory. I’m told that the milk of ten thousand cows from Munster pastures was once processed here into condensed milk, butter, and toffee slabs; that during World War I, Cleeve milk products were distributed to all fronts where the British army was engaged. More recently, the building housed a Golden Vale milk-processing facility. But now the site lies empty, acquired by the city authorities for some yet-to-be-revealed development. Across the road from the padlocked gates, a replica of a Viking ship camouflages a bottle-bank with separate containers for brown, green, and clear glass.

My Dublin-born husband knew the dairy industry from another perspective, that of waking before dawn to climb into a van that stank of stale milk and spluttered its way around the north city streets from Gardiner Street to Clontarf on the family milk round. These were among the tales he brought when we came here as a young bright-eyed couple to make our home.

From my native County Mayo, I carried images of procession candles and blood-red Sacred Hearts from the pilgrim village of Knock close to my birth place. We were a new lucky generation, able to gain employment in Ireland, in our cases at nearby Shannon, where the brand new airport spawned a burst of industry and tourism development that drew workers in their droves from the late 1950s.

Six decades ago, Limerick had another visitor, the German writer and future [End Page 9] Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll. In the mid-1950s, he visited Ireland for the first time, traveling to Limerick via Dublin and, afterward, making Achill Island on the Atlantic coast his second home. He came when the psychological scars of war and the destruction of his home city, Cologne, were fresh and painful. He had served in the Nazi army, fought on the eastern and western fronts, was wounded, and spent time in a prisoner-of-war camp. In a decade when the Irish were emigrating in their thousands, Heinrich Böll viewed the country as a place of refuge from war horrors: “As soon as I boarded the steamer I could see, hear, and smell that I had crossed a frontier.”

He had crossed a frontier into a place where, in his imagination, the blood-drenched soil of Europe could be washed away by Irish rain and rivers and Atlantic waters. He wrote, “Sitting here by the fire, it is possible to play truant from Europe, while Moscow has lain in darkness for the past four hours, Berlin for two, even Dublin for half an hour: there is still a clear light over the sea, and the Atlantic persistently carries away piece by piece the Western bastion of Europe; rocks fall into the sea, soundlessly the bog streams carry the dark European soil out into the Atlantic; over the years, gently plashing, they smuggle whole fields out into the sea, crumb by crumb.”

Böll wrote of his Limerick experiences in “Portrait of an Irish Town.” It was one of his Irish sketches published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and broadcast on German radio during 1955, later incorporated into Irisches Tagebuch or Irish Journal, a book that signposted thousands of Germans to Ireland’s shores in the second...


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