Limerick’s countryside pales in comparison to its neighbours Kerry and Clare, consisting of ribbon industrial development alongside the Shannon and a rich but bland agricultural hinterland: consequently, it is often passed through rapidly by tourists. Limerick city, however, does have its lures, notably a vibrant cultural life and the superb Hunt Museum, housing the Republic’s richest art and antiquities collection outside Dublin. Away from here, the beautiful Neolithic sites of Lough Gur and the quaint, historic village of Adare are the main reason to get out into the county.
Continue reading to find out more about...
In utter contrast, the neighbouring county of Clare, across the broad River Shannon, has a wealth of scenic attractions and is renowned worldwide for its vibrant musical traditions. Its coastline all the way from Kilkee to Fanore is dotted with golden beaches, sometimes of breathtaking quality. Near the village of Doolin, famed for its year-long, tourist-driven diet of traditional music, stand the awesome Cliffs of Moher, while the county’s northern interior is characterized by the craggy, barren landscape of The Burren, home to numerous prehistoric sites. Its county town, Ennis, is an animated place with many excellent music pubs and some atmospheric religious remains, further examples of which are dotted around the countryside, such as at Quin Abbey, Dysert O’Dea and the settlement on Scattery Island. The castles and tower houses of Clare’s erstwhile dynasties, the O’Briens and MacNamaras, inform the landscape too, notably at Bunratty and Leamaneh. At Clare’s eastern extremity lies the expansive Lough Derg, whose waters are best explored by renting your own boat or taking a cruise.
Twenty kilometres south of Limerick city on the R512 towards Kilmallock, a cluster of grassy limestone hills spring unexpectedly from the plain, sheltering in their midst Lough Gur, the site of dozens of largely prehistoric monuments. Their importance lies in the fact that many of them are not ceremonial sites but stone dwelling places, dating from around 3000 BC onwards, which have furnished archeologists with most of their knowledge of the way of life in Neolithic Ireland. That’s not to say that this curious landscape did not have a ritual aspect, as it was also revered as the territory of the sun goddess, Áine, and accrued a powerful mythical reputation, for example as the location of some of Fionn Mac Cumhaill’s adventures in the Ulster Cycle.
Before it was partly drained in the nineteenth century, the lake (now C-shaped) formed an approximate square, with a nine-kilometre shoreline around a large triangular island, Knockadoon. The drainage, which left a marsh on the eastern side of the island and lowered the lake’s level by 3m, revealed hoards of prehistoric items. These included myriad bones of ritually slaughtered oxen, gold and bronze spearheads, a bronze shield, swords and dozens of stone and bronze axes, all of which appear to have been thrown in as offerings to the gods of the lake but which are now scattered around the museums of the world. The tranquillity of the lake, broken only by the sounds of geese and a wealth of other birdlife, allows you easily to set your imagination to work on how life would have been here five thousand years ago.
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.
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.
With a population of around twenty-five thousand, ENNIS is by far and away Clare’s largest town. It began its life in the thirteenth century as a small settlement grouped around a long-disappeared O’Brien castle. Nowadays, it’s a buzzing town, set on both sides of the River Fergus, and still largely based around its medieval street pattern and the central, often traffic-clogged artery, O’Connell Street. Though there’s little to see here apart from the ruins of a medieval friary, to the north of O’Connell Street, the town is thoroughly enjoyable in its own right, with plenty of decent restaurants and, above all, a thriving traditional music session scene.
Less visited than other parts of the county, East Clare still has plenty of attractions, most focused upon small towns and villages, such as Killaloe, sitting by the edge of Lough Derg. Offering numerous angling opportunities, the lake itself constitutes the county’s eastern boundary and is very popular with the more upmarket set, with its picturesque villages reminiscent of the English Cotswolds. Away from the Lough the countryside has a vastly different character from the remainder of Clare – it’s a mass of hills and a warren of tiny lanes, with interest focused upon two of the county’s greatest traditional-music centres, Tulla and Feakle.
Well signposted off the R476, the O’Dea Castle was the stronghold of the O’Dea branch of the O’Brien clan until 1691. Nowadays it houses an archeological centre and is the best starting-point for a history trail leading across fields to Dysert O’Dea. St Tola founded a monastery here in the eighth century and there are several later religious remains, including a twelfth-century Romanesque church, extensively rebuilt in the seventeenth. This features a finely carved doorway and gargoyle-like carvings of human faces and animal heads. Nearby stands a round tower, badly damaged by Cromwell’s guns, and the twelfth-century White Cross of Tola, which bears elaborate patterning and several impressive carvings, including a Crucifixion scene set above a powerful-looking bishop. Dysert O’Dea witnessed a major battle in 1318 when Sir Richard de Clare’s army was defeated by the O’Briens, quelling attempts to enforce Anglo-Norman sovereignty over Clare – it would be another two centuries before the county succumbed.
It’s a relatively long haul from Ennis to Clare’s southwest, but well worth the effort for the attractions offered by two popular holiday spots and the chance to explore the glorious scenery of the Loop Head peninsula. Of the resorts, Kilkee is the livelier, with a sweeping beach and access to Loop Head; Kilrush is more stolid, but still attractive in its own way and is a base for dolphin watching and the ferry to Scattery Island, a major monastic site.
Forty-odd kilometres from Ennis, KILRUSH is a graceful planned town whose broad main drag, Frances Street, leads down to a bustling marina where you can catch a ferry to Scattery Island. At the town’s core stands the Maid of Éireann statue, honouring the Manchester Martyrs, three Fenians who were executed in the English city in 1867 for a daring attempted rescue of some of their comrades arrested during a failed uprising.
The Shannon estuary is home to the country’s only resident group of bottle-nosed dolphins, whose calving season takes place between May and August, and so far more than a hundred individuals have been identified. To enjoy a sight of them take a two-hour trip from the marina on Merchants Quay (wwww.discoverdolphins.ie).
The West Clare Railway
A few kilometres north of Kilrush at Moyasta is the only extant section of the West Clare Railway, which opened in August 1892 and linked Ennis – via a roundabout route through Corofin – to southwest Clare until its closure in 1961. Much of the track was then sold to a Kenyan railway company, but the Moyasta station house and a two-kilometre stretch of the line have been restored and it’s possible to take an enjoyable trip back and forth (wwww.westclarerailway.ie).
The railway was immortalized by the composer and singer Percy French who in 1902, along with his troupe of music-hall entertainers, was due to play an engagement in Kilkee. Unfortunately, the train broke down in Miltown Malbay and French arrived late to discover that most of his audience had already left. He sued the railroad for damages, winning the princely sum of £10 and wrote the song Are Ye Right There Michael as an account of his experiences, the Michael in question being Michael Talty, who was the guard on the train when the incident occurred.
In high season some three or four daily ferries run from Kilrush’s marina to Scattery Island, two and a half kilometres offshore (wwww.discoverdolphins.ie). A monastery was established here by St Senan in the sixth century, and the island retained ecclesiastical importance until its exposed position attracted Viking raiders in 870, who occupied it until defeated by Brian Ború in the late tenth century. Medieval church building is evident in the form of several ruins, and there is a 35-metre-high round tower in reasonably well-preserved condition, which is most impressive when the sun seems to reflect off its yellowy, lichen-covered stone. This tower’s door is at ground level whereas most others had an entrance above head-height, accessed by a ladder which could be withdrawn for defensive purposes. Derelict since the last inhabitants left in 1978, like many an abandoned Irish island, Scattery has a timeless air. A trip to its southern point, where a lighthouse and gun battery remain from the time of the Napoleonic wars, is well worth making, to experience a sense of peaceful isolation and enjoy the spectacular views from the elevated battery. By the pier the Scattery Island Centre houses an exhibition on the island’s history.
Thirteen kilometres northwest of Kilrush, KILKEE is a jaunty holiday resort, long popular with Limerick city folk, whose main attraction is a gorgeous, sandy, crescent-shaped beach that offers breathtaking cliff-top walks at both its ends. If the sun’s obscured, there are plenty of other activities in Kilkee, including scuba diving at the Ocean Life Dive Centre at the East End Pier, and nearby Kilkee Waterworld, an indoor complex featuring an exciting sixty-metre water slide and other delights.
More than any other area of Clare, the county’s west is associated with traditional music. There’s many a vibrant session in village pubs all along the coast and the town of Miltown Malbay hosts one of Ireland’s major music festivals. There are plenty of sandy beaches too, notably at the attractive small resort of Lahinch. The famous towering Cliffs of Moher are further north, close to the traditional music magnet of seaside Doolin and, inland, the charmingly old-fashioned, small town of Ennistymon.