Chamber brought to book

The past presidents of Limerick Chamber
The past presidents of Limerick Chamber

by Bernie English

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Limerick Chamber, one of the oldest and most important institutions in the city will be celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2015. As part of the celebrations, an important new book on the Chamber’s history has been commissioned and is being researched and written by two well-known professional historians, Dr Matthew Potter and Sharon Slater.

Although the Chamber’s bicentenary is dated from the granting of its charter by King George III on 2 June 1815, it had actually been in existence for eight years before that.

On 7 May 1807 a number of Limerick merchants met and resolved that “it appears to this meeting that it would be serviceable to the trade of this city to establish a Committee of Merchants or a Chamber of Commerce.’

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Thus began an institution which has made an enormous impact on Limerick over the past 200 years. Starting with 60 members in 1807, it now boasts more than 450 members drawn from every sector of the region’s business community.

The purpose of the Chamber was to promote and protect the interests of the business community of Limerick and from the beginning it set about these tasks with gusto.

In the early nineteenth century, Limerick city had a booming economy, which was reflected in the building of the magnificent Georgian quarter of Newtown Pery, but its dynamic business community was being held back by an antiquated administrative structure and the port was seriously neglected.

The Chamber took over the running of the port itself for a few years and carried out significant improvements to facilitate its use by more ships. It also regulated the highly important butter trade, improved the collection of tolls and worked hard to promote the linen industry in the city.

Later, the Chamber persuaded the British government to reduce the huge debt incurred by the Harbour Commissioners in developing the port. As a result, the Limerick Chamber became one of the busiest and most dynamic chambers in the world at the time.

Over the years, the Chamber had many dynamic presidents, whose names are a reminder of Limerick’s renowned commercial traditions: Sir James Spaight, James Bannatyne, Sir Alexander Shaw, Sir Thomas Cleeve. Some of these names are also a reminder that the Chamber was once a bastion of Unionism.

In 1885, when the nationalist-dominated Corporation refused to meet the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra)  on their visit to Limerick, the Chamber greeted them instead at a reception held in the railway station.

Between 1808 and 1824 the organisation spent considerable sums to encourage economic development in areas like agricultural improvements, protecting the Shannon salmon fishery, repairing the city market and regulating slaughterhouses.

It threw its weight behind Muintir Na Tir Community schemes such as the Penny in the Pound Scheme of 1941-45 which provided cheap and free fuel to the city’s poor. The scheme provided 1 pence of every pound earned by employers and employees to go towards free fuel for the poor. Another scheme at the time was the Potato Scheme. Of the 126 acres planted at Shanagolden and Murroe, the Chamber had secured 100 acres on behalf of its members for the growing and selling of cheap potatoes.

The present home of Limerick Chamber (96 O’Connell Street), had an interesting history and to this day retains much of its original Georgian layout and architectural detailing.  Memories from Bridie Breen, who was born in the building 93 years ago, will add colour to this chapter.

These are only a few episodes from the history of Limerick Chamber, which promises to be a comprehensive, lively and lavishly illustrated book, packed with dramatic events and interesting personalities, all set within the larger context of Limerick’s economic and social history. From a Limerick perspective, It will be one of the most interesting books to appear on the bookshelves this year.