Re: Re: well what about the developments popping up in the shannonside ?

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An isle of plenty (of blarney, that is)
By Claire Wrathall
Published: February 18 2006 02:00 | Last updated: February 18 2006 02:00

You look a learned person but I hope I shall teach you something,” said Mr Limerick. “May I call you Claire?”

I had thought to hire a car to explore Antigua but, given the state of this small island’s roads, where driving on the left is a notional concept and most vehicles opt for whichever side is unpotholed or not swarming with livestock, I decided to take a taxi.

Mr Limerick, the hotel told me, was an “expert” as well as a driver. “Let’s start with the questions you’ll probably forget to ask me,” he began as a barrage of facts issued from him. How to tell Antiguan sheep from goats? Look at their tails (those of the sheep hang down). What are those birds? They’re egrets. And there’s a mongoose, introduced to eradicate the rats but they did for the snakes instead. Women outnumber men by three to one on the island; 69 per cent of the 68,000-odd population are under 30; there are 27 Christian denominations; and, like Barbados, Antigua is divided into six parishes, each named after a saint. “It’s a very religious place,” he said. “Standing-room only in the churches on a Sunday.”

Like all tourists, at least those who can rouse themselves from the 365 beaches that trim Antigua’s ragged coastline of coves, inlets, isthmuses and great curved bays, I wanted to see English Harbour and Nelson’s Dockyard, a settlement of exquisite Georgian brick and stone buildings constructed by the British navy in the late 18th century. Then there was the island capital, St John’s; the preserved plantation houses; the rainforest; the pineÂÂ*apple fields; the bird-reserve islets.

For a place marketed as a fly-and-flop destination, Antigua has abundant sights. And I was only there for a weekend. You can leave London on Friday morning, arrive at your hotel in time for a late-afternoon swim, spend three full days on the island and be back at your desk soon after 10am on Tuesday, having returned on the 21.20 flight. (Obviously it’s more practical still from east-coast US airports.)

We headed first for Shirley Heights, a naval barracks on a bluff 150m above sea level, from which there are views as far as Montserrat, Guadeloupe and Nevis, and down on to English and Falmouth harbours, two outstandingly beautiful inlets.

The Georgian stone buildings up here are very fine, with their articulated pyramid-shaped roofs, sash windows and dove-grey shutters. As are those at Nelson’s Dockyard, where there is a cluster of officers’ quarters – the Admiral’s and Master Shipwright’s houses – stores and workshops, built from brick and stone brought from England as ballast. Even the Sick House has a certain grandeur, probably not appreciated by the slaves who built it or the 60,000 who died here from dysentery, yellow fever and malaria. “English Harbour, I hate the sight of it,” Nelson wrote during his unhappy three-year tour here as a 26-year-old captain.

Set high on a hillside, and visible through the masts of the yachts moored in the harbour, stands another handsome mansion, Clarence House, built in 1787 for the future king, William IV, then another young naval officer serving in the Leeward Islands.

It was closed for renovation (in any case it’s the governor-general’s official country residence) but Mr Limerick was unfazed by the signs forbidding entry. “If somebody challenges us, we will have to rely on my charm,” he said. But no one did, and I was glad to have seen it.

Next morning I met Mr Limerick again and we drove into St John’s. He shopped in the market for eddoes, sour-sop and purple and white striped aubergines, while I asked questions. (“Ask me more,” he’d say if there were ever a pause in the conversation.) Why were there no mushrooms? I said. I’d seen “Antiguan fungi with pepperpot” on a menu. He laughed. “Antiguans don’t eat them,” he said. “Fungi is our national staple, a kind of cornmeal porridge. And pepperpot, you know what that is: a stew of aubergine, spinach, pumpkin, pawpaw, pork, lamb and beef. A good kidney cleanser – and not hot at all.”

I looked in on the imposing neoclassical white stone cathedral, whose warm pitch-pine interior resembles the upturned hull of a ship; admired the colourful clapboard houses with their cantilevered upper storeys; and spent a diverting half-hour in the museum, which is housed in the Old Court House.

“Did you see the cricket bat?” he asked, as I came out. The display is intriguingly eclectic: vitrines of stones, minerals and Arawak tools; a papier-mâché humpback whale; uniforms; and a moving account of the voyage of the Sally, a slave ship owned by the family after whom Brown University, one of the Ivy League, is named, part of a vivid and shocking history of slavery on the island. But the last exhibit is the bat Vivian Richards used to break the record for the fastest century ever made in a Test match in 1986 (just 56 balls). Cricket is the national obsession.

The traffic meant it was impractical to make a detour to Viv Richards Street (formerly Drake Street and the site of his birth), which runs parallel to Andy Roberts Street, on the southern edge ofthis small city. But we did head out of town via the Recreation Ground, so that I could admirethe crease on which the recordhad been broken.

“It’ll be something to tell your dad,” said Mr Limerick. The 15,000-capacity Rec is soon to be supplanted, however, by the new Sir Vivian Richards Cricket Stadium at North Sound, being built (and funded) by the Chinese government (yes, really) to host next year’s Cricket World Cup. As something of an anglophile – he spent 30 years in the UK but has been back in Antigua for the past 18 – Mr Limerick fancies England to win.

We chatted on about football (the Parish League final had just taken place and I’d seen the winning team queue up for their commemorative “teacups” on the local news), politics and place names, when suddenly he said: “You’re probably wondering about my name.” A question I hadn’t thought to ask, though we’d talked about Ireland among other unexpected things (such as whether Bach or Mozart was the greater composer. “I’ve been the lead singer in a soul band, I’ve liked Tamla Motown, country, calypso, reggae, but now I listen only to the classics,” he said. He was playing a Tchaikovsky cassette at the time.)

I’d told him that Limerick was known as Stab City. “I’d heard that,” he said. “We have very little crime here. There’s still death by hanging and I think you’ll find it’s a good deterrent: only six women in prison and 148 men. The figures were on the radio this week.”

But your name, I prompted. “I am the great great grandson of slaves,” he replied soberly. “Their owners were Irish and when they were freed they were given the name of the place their masters came from. We kept it because we always hoped the luck of the Irish might rub off on us.” He paused. “And you know I think maybe it has. Here I am, content, in this lovely place.”

For Antigua is a lovely place. Its people make it so. Mr Limerick: it was a pleasure and privilege to meet you. And I learnt a lot.


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