Heading north from Limerick to Galway along the busy N18 it’s easy to miss some of the attractions of the county’s nether region. Consisting largely of flat farmland, its lanes, ideal for cycling, lead to several sites of historic interest. The most southerly is the impressive Bunratty Castle, while a short hop further north encompasses the imaginative Craggaunowen Project with its recreations of dwellings from bygone times, and the idyllically set monastic site of Quin Abbey.
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Some twelve kilometres west of Limerick, bypassed by the main N18 Ennis road, lies the village of Bunratty whose castle and folk park form one of Ireland’s most popular attractions. A castle was first built here in 1277 during the Anglo-Normans’ brief occupation of southeast Clare, though the present version dates back to the mid-fifteenth century and was constructed for the MacNamaras, a branch of the O’Brien clan. Majestically restored in the 1950s, its keep contains an impressive array of artwork and furniture, mostly dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the evenings “medieval” banquets are staged here, their entertainment consisting of a somewhat twee form of traditional dance, music and song. The expansive castle grounds host the folk park, a recreation of a nineteenth-century village, replete with post office, shops, a church and a pub, all populated by actors in contemporary dress.
Some 10km southeast of Ennis, on the R469, the ruined friary at Quin occupies a glorious pastoral setting. Unusually, the original building incorporated parts of a castle, built by Thomas de Clare in the late thirteenth century, which was subsequently attacked by the Irish, leaving it “a hideous, blackened cave” according to one contemporary observer. In the 1430s the MacNamaras brought Franciscans to Quin to found the friary and used the ruins of the old castle as a base, constructing a remarkable edifice in the process, including a striking colonnaded cloister and a tall, trim tower. The friary was dissolved in 1541, but the friars returned after the death of Elizabeth I, only to be expelled again a few years later.