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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
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From Here to Clare

wicklow valley

The Burren - photo courtesy Will Cooper

by Suzanne Barrett

Clare has never achieved quite the popularity of its more famous neighbors Kerry and Galway. A shame really, because Clare possesses some of the most spectacular scenery a visitor could wish for. Her less trafficked sights are a traveler's dream, the many fine antiquities, the towering Cliffs of Moher, the grey limestone karst and sparse vegetation of the Burren. Join me on part one of a virtual journey of discovery through that portion of Ireland's west known as Clare--the Banner County.

The Mouth of the Shannon divides Clare from Kerry, which contributes to its remoteness. Twenty or so years ago, a car ferry linked Tarbert to Killimer, but before that the nearest bridge was at Limerick. Upstream other bridges played a part in Clare history: O Brien's Bridge, where Cromwell and Ireton forced a crossing in 1653; and at Killaloe, headquarters of the Dalcassian kings of Munster, who with Brian Boru, became high kings of Ireland. The Delcassians were the O Briens, a power in the land of Clare (anciently known as the kingdom of Thomond), and whose name is frequently encountered in the county.

Shannon International Airport, once a mandatory stop when traveling to Ireland, is located in the southeastern corner at Rineanna, a spit of land set between the River Shannon and the River Fergus Estuary. Adjacent the airport lies the Shannon Industrial Estate, a large-scale business park.

Perhaps the first sights travelers will see are Bunratty Castle and next to it, Durty Nelly's, a ramshackly seventeenth-century pub. The latter is a large, five-story square fortress with projecting turrets at the corners linked by arches near the roof and boldly battlemented parapets. There is a basement below, a banquet hall and great hall above, from which opens a small chapel. In the banqueting hall guests are treated to a medieval feast with appropriate music and entertainment of the period. The Bunratty medieval banquet is the original, but others may be found in castles elsewhere. The popular banquet draws many repeat visitors.

The present castle is actually the fourth to occupy this site, the first having been built by a Norman knight called Robert de Muscegrow. It was probably of timber, and likely from the nearby woods at Cratloe. In 1227, Thomas deClare built a stone castle. Though deClare employed English colonists to protect it, they could not stop it from being destroyed twice by native Irish who regarded it as a threat. Shortly afterward, the land came into the hands of Sir Thomas Rokeby, the king's justicar, who lost it to the warring Irish in 1353. The present castle was built about 1450 by Maccon Mac Sioda Mac Conmara and completed by his son Seán Finn in 1467. By 1500 the castle was once again in the hands of the O Briens who occupied it until the English Civil War, when it then was occupied by Admiral Penn, the father of William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania. After a period of various owners, Lord Gort bought the castle in 1954, and in conjunction with the office of Public Works and Bord Fáilte, restored it and opened it up to the public. Its fine rooms are furnished with a collection of antiques from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

In 1959, expansion of the airport necessitated the removal of an old Mac Namara farmhouse, which was preserved and relocated in close proximity to the castle. Following that were a number of other cottages and farmhouses and suitable industries such as a forge, to create a folk park. The buildings are grouped in the shadow of the great tower to suggest the type of community that might have existed in the time of the deClares.

North of Shannon lies Newmarket on Fergus, which takes its name from a nineteenth century O Brien--Lord Inchiquin--with a love of horses and horseracing and who meant to have a place on his estate with the same name as the racing center in England.

Inchiquin's castle, Dromoland, stands in a lovely demesne off the Ennis road to the north. Originally, a tower house stood there, but in 1830 Lord Inchiquin commissioned architects to build him a new neo-gothic mansion. Today that romantic and handsome building is a luxury hotel.

Facing the entrance to the grounds is a classical gazebo, or belvedere, build by Lord Inchiquin as a viewing spot for the horse races. Also in the grounds is an ornamental gateway to what was once the former O Brien castle of Seaman. Another site to behold, also in the grounds, is Mooghaun, the largest stone ring-fort in Ireland with three concentric banks and ditches encircling the top of a hill. It is probably a bit more than two thousand years old.

Perhaps the people from this fort were the ones to have buried a huge collection of gold ornaments and vessels east of Dromoland. It became known as the Great Clare Gold Find, unearthed in 1854 when digging the railway line the Ennis. Unfortunately for historians and the country, workmen gathered up the hoard and dispersed most of it among themselves. Today only a few pieces have found their way to the National Museum in Dublin.

Knappogue, another castle of the Mac Namaras which is located off the Quin road, was occupied and damaged by the Parliamentarians and had a long history of occupation by owners and tenants. It was finally bought by an American and restored for banqueting and medieval entertainment. It is noted for its unusual Georgian windows.

At the next crossroads a right turn leads to Quin Abbey, founded by the Franciscans and one of the best preserved monastic ruins in Ireland. The abbey, also belonging to Síoda Mac Namara, incorporates the remains of a castle built by deClare in 1280. One can still see the remnants of the square towers in the abbey walls. The well-preserved cloisters and window tracery attest to the taste of the Franciscans who remained at Quin, through repression (1541 and 1651), until the nineteenth century. St. Finghin's church, built between 1278 and 1285, is situated beyond a nearby stream.

Ennis, Co. ClareA few miles away lies the quaint, medieval county town of Ennis, proclaimed Ireland's Information Age Town for which it received a grant of fifteen million pounds. The streets are narrow and winding, with small alleyways, and stone-walled houses. At a central junction is a monument to Daniel O Connell, MP for Clare in the Westminster Parliament, 1828-1831. A classical courthouse, a cathedral (Ennis is the Catholic See), and another abbey--Ennis Abbey, founded by Donchadh Cairbreach O Brien, King of Thomond and with notable carvings--are well worth the visit. In the early 1600s, Donough O Brien, the fourth Earl of Thomond, obtained the grant to hold a weekly market in the town. This tradition holds today. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Gore family had replaced the Earls of Thomond as the principal landlord family in Ennis. Butter and Corn markets were established in the 1850s, and in 1906, the markets and fairs were taken over by the Urban District Council

Continuing north on the N85, then veering right onto the R476, you come to a road that leads to Dysert O Déa--O Déa's hermitage. Tola, a saint of the eighth century also lived here. Much has been destroyed, but it remains a site of considerable atmosphere. The White Cross of Tola is the most complete, standing on a green rise and on a pedestal plinth and dating from the twelfth century. Below the cross is the remains of a round tower and nearby, a roofless church with a richly carved south doorway. The arch has a fascinating row of facial masks.

DysartCorofin, to the north, is situated in a lakes area noted for trout and coarse fishing. It also boasts the Clare Heritage Centre. On the north shore of Loch Inchiquin, visitors have a view of the roofless Inchiquin castle, built in 1459 for the O Briens. Continuing past Corofin, near Roughan (pronounced Ru'an) is the Tau cross of Killinaboy, which translates the 'church of Sister Baoith.' The ruin is of little interest except that it has a carving of a shiela-na-gig over the door. Shiela-na-gigs (erotic, contorted female figures) have no religious connection, but curiously, are often found on churches. The Tau cross is more a letter T with arms raised, each carved as two heads joined at the neck and looking skyward. It is unique in all of Ireland and is most likely pre-Christian.

Continuing northwest, the R476 leads to Kilfenora and is known as Sir Donat's Road. Sir Donat O Brien was the owner of Lemaneagh castle (3 miles northwest of Killinaboy) which stands slightly off the road, part mansion (a seventeenth-century addition), part grim tower house (circa 1480). Slit loops attest to its defensive position. In 1643, Conor O Brien added a four story mansion with large mullioned windows. He was killed in battle, but his wife Máire Ruadh ('Red Mary') married a Cromwellian soldier to prevent the land from being seized from her son and heir.

About halfway between Killinaboy and Kilshanny, on the R476 is the town of Kilfenora, gateway to the Burren. But before continuing on the the Burren, do pause and stay awhile. Travelers to this charming village will delight in the antiquities, a place where grey stone buildings blend with grey stony landscape. Kilfenora was the see of a bishop from the twelfth century. It is thought the office may have originated in a monastery founded by St. Fachtna. The ancient church is still called the cathedral, and the bishop today is ... the Pope. Half the building is roofed, and that half is still in use. The chancel at the eastern half is open to the sky, and the eastern window has three interesting round-headed lancets. These attest to its twelfth-century origins as does much in the village. Several high crosses may be seen here. High crosses are said to be prayers enunciated in stone. The high cross at Killaloe was once at Kilfenora. All have twelfth century origins.

Two miles northeast lies Caherballykinvarga, a much ruined round fort and hill. It is not easy to find, and you may need to inquire. Though many forts were merely enclosures for farm animals, Caherballykinvarga was a military defense fort, illustrated in it chevaux de frise, a feature of sharp stone spars set close together and upright in the ground.

Traveling south from Kilfenora takes you to the market town of Ennistymon, built in a wooded valley beside a cascade on the River Cullenagh. It's located just two and one half miles from Liscannor Bay and is convenient to many of the beauty spots of County Clare. A ruined eighteenth-century church lies in a veritable sea of tombstones. A modern church lies not far away, notable because of its artistic stations of the cross designed by Fr. Aengus Buckley.

North of the town is the spa town of Lisdoonvarna, perhaps now known less for its sulphur and chalybeate springs than its summer matchmaking festival. Five miles west lies Doolin, where the music is said to be some of the best in Ireland.

The R477 from Lisdoonvarna to Ballyvaughan is one of scenic beauty as it skirts the west coast. In the distance, across South Sound, are the Aran Islands with their Gaeltacht customs and primitive churches. They are actually located in Galway, but they are physically and geologically a part of Clare.

From Ballyvaughan southward, the road is known as the corkscrew road with its twists and turns. We will not take this road, however, but instead we'll continue to the tiny village of Bealaclugga and the side road to the Aillwee Cave and the Burren. The geography here is of limestone terraces and clints with some shale. The effect is of an other-worldly karst after a similar terrain in central Europe. Here the most remarkable flowers grow, their blooms used in the manufacture of scents at the Burren Perfumery in Carron.

O Brien's Tower, Cliffs of MoherSouth of Lisdoonvarna the R476 covers another particularly scenic coastline and brings the traveler to the Cliffs of Moher, with their 700 feet of sheer fall. A round, turret-like structure on the highest part of the cliffs was put up by Cornelius O Brien as a kind of belvedere. (West of Liscannor is Liscannor castle, a square keep that belonged to the O Briens.) The village of Liscannor is the birthplace of John P. Holland, inventor of the submarine.

Going round the cove you come to the seaside resort of Lahinch where bathing and golf are popular. The coastal scenery is attractive, and inland are some lovely glens. Continuing south on the N67 more beautiful scenery is encountered. From Lahinch to Spanish Point are several fine surfing beaches. Spanish Point is so named from the fleeing Armada galleons who landed here and were killed by the English governor of Connacht. The bodies were buried on the point where golfers play today.

Miltown Malbay and Quilty are two more seaside towns boasting holiday cottages and sights of interest. The church at Quilty bears a look. It was paid for in gratitude by a crew of Frenchmen who were rescued off the rocky coast. The church has a miniature round tower springing from the roof.

Kilkee begins the journey down the Loop Head peninsula. Several hotels and guesthouses cater for visitors,and the area walks are excellent. West of the bay are the Duggerna Rocks. In a great apron of rock below the road are natural bathing pools. There are several caves at Kilkee including a puffing hole where the sea has tunneled out a cave and burst its roof.

Loop Head is a tongue of land between the Shannon estuary and the Atlantic. Though scenic, it is very windy here. The thatch on cottages is held down by a network of cords pegged to the stone walls. The bridges of Ross are natural rock arches near the end of the peninsula, an impressive sight and well worth the walk.

Carrigaholt host a small Irish college where people come to learn the language and improve their accent. Near the sea is a late fifteenth century defensive tower house. It has a colorful history, but is not as it was originally designed. Many of the windows are sixteenth century insertions, creating a less grim appearance.

From Carrigaholt we travel to Kilrush, the second largest town in Clare. From its stone pier, one may look out to Scattery Island. Though the island is named after St. Cathaigh, it is more closely associated with St. Senan, who founded a monastery on the island in the sixth century. There remain the ruins of five churches and of a round tower--the tallest in Ireland.

From Kilrush, one may travel the estuary road back to Ennis, noting the car ferry which takes you to Tarbert and County Kerry, or take the more direct N68.

I hope this virtual journey has whetted your appetite for a Clare adventure of your own.

Until next time.

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halfway house

Halfway House - photo by author

Other photos kindly provided by Will Cooper



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