Rugby Fans Threaten Limerick's Status as E.U. 'City'

Alex Chadwick speaks with Diarmuid Scully, mayor of the town of Limerick in western Ireland, who worries that as many as 20,000 rugby fans could follow Limerick's regional team to Dublin this Sunday for the Heineken Cup semi-finals. If they don't come back in time for a population census being conducted that same day, Limerick's population of 54,000 may go below 50,000 — meaning it could lose its status as a "city," and the European funding that goes with it.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY.

The town of Limerick on Sunday conducts a census for one day. But there's a rugby match, too? Well, if it were up to you, would you go for the count, or a fun day? Mr. Mayor, how's that?

Mayor DIARMUID SCULLY (Mayor, Limerick, Ireland): That's very accurate information, very poetical summation of what's going on in the form of a limerick, as well.

CHADWICK: We're joined by Diarmuid Scully, he's mayor of Limerick, Ireland. There is a census count scheduled there for Sunday. The Mayor and others do worry not enough people will be at home to get counted, because they're going to a rugby match instead. Mayor Scully, what would that mean?

Mayor SCULLY: Well, essentially, all government funding in Ireland is determined on the basis of population. So, people are being asked to register on Sunday, the 23rd of April, wherever they are resident that night, so wherever they're staying that night is registered as their place of residence.

The problem for us is that approximately a quarter of the city's population is actually going to be gone to Dublin to attend the semifinal of the European Rugby Cup between Munster, our local rugby team, and Leinster. So, we could be losing a quarter of our population there for about a quarter of our government funding.

There's an additional problem that, in European terms, for federal funding, European funding, if your population falls below 50,000, you're no longer considered a city, and there are various forms of European funding we'd no longer be able to apply for.

Our population at the moment is 54,000. So, we're sailing a little bit close to the wind there. Now, if we were to drop by 4,000, we'd actually no longer be considered a city.

CHADWICK: That's close.

Mayor SCULLY: So, yes, a little bit close to the wind. Now, I think we're going to get around it, with all the publicity and coverage that it's got, people realize the importance of it, and I'm urging people to come home on the Sunday night after the match and register here.

Or, alternatively, there is a get-out clause: if they fail to register anywhere, so it's the key point, if they don't register in Dublin, either, they can still register on the Monday morning.

I've been asking the census enumerators here to take a very flexible interpretation of the word morning, and to allow people as much leeway as they need.

CHADWICK: Yeah.

Mayor SCULLY: And I think they're going to do that. They're going to give us a little bit of extra time that we require.

CHADWICK: Mr. Mayor, as someone who wins elections, you must realize the dilemma for fans here.

Mayor SCULLY: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I'm going to be going to the match myself, so I…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mayor SCULLY: … I fully appreciate what's going on. The date of the 23rd of April was selected because it was believed to be a quiet date. It's the Sunday after Easter, so it's not Easter Sunday; there's no bank holiday on the Monday.

The following weekend, the May weekend, there is a bank holiday and a lot of people would head away. So, it was picked to be a quiet date when there wasn't going to be any major sporting event, and then quite unexpectedly, two Irish teams get through to the semifinal of the European Cup, and wind up playing one another in what's the biggest Irish rugby match in about a century.

So, the rugby fever has absolutely swept the city, and an awful lot of people are traveling away. But hopefully, we can get some of them back and then we can get enough registered.

CHADWICK: Wouldn't this be a problem for a lot of other towns, as well?

Mayor SCULLY: It would. It's not proportionately as bad. Rugby is very, very passionate in Limerick. We'd be the best-supported rugby club actually in Europe, with our local club of Munster. So, it's particularly bad here. The other club that's being affected, Leinster, is Dublin-based, so their people are going to be in Dublin anyway; it's a home game for them, so they're not going to be affected by it.

So, really, we're the only ones caught with this particular problem.

CHADWICK: And you're going to go to Dublin and still get home on Sunday night?

Mayor SCULLY: I'm going to go to Dublin and I'm going to make it home on Sunday. So I want to set the example for everybody else that we can do that. The thing is to leave immediately after the match and come straight back and, hopefully, we'll be celebrating and we can do the celebrating here.

CHADWICK: Diarmuid Scully, Mayor of Limerick, Ireland.

Good luck on Sunday, Mr. Mayor.

Mayor SCULLY: Thank you very much, indeed.

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