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.
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).
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.
Around 15km southwest of Limerick on the N21 towards Kerry, ADARE draws in coach parties from far afield, with a reputation for prettiness that’s perhaps a little overblown – it is quaint, but marred by its position on a major national road. As the Heritage Centre reveals, it was made picturesque by design: the earls of Dunraven, landlords of Adare Manor, beautified their estate village with ornamental thatched cottages in the early nineteenth century, according to the current fashion for pastoral romanticism, and with Arts and Crafts–style houses in the early twentieth century. Set beside a broad main street and a prim town park on the south bank of the River Maigue, Adare’s attraction is enhanced by some impressive remnants, mostly ecclesiastical, of its medieval heyday.
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.
The Burren’s name derives from the Irish word boireann, meaning “stony place” – an apt description for this massive, desolate plateau that occupies most of the county’s northwest. Its northern and western reaches almost clutch the sea while, to the south and east, the rocks gently slope towards lush green fields. Formed mainly of fissured limestone pavement, pitted by occasional valleys hidden beneath ominous-looking cliffs, The Burren is a thoroughly unworldly place with barely a sign of life. The starkness of the landscape, crisp white in sunlight, deep grey-brown in rainfall, has a primeval allure and remains utterly fascinating. Few now live within its bounds, but many endured this harsh environment in the distant past, leaving relics of their inhabitation. Ancient burial practices are reflected in the abundance of Stone Age monuments, while later residents built ring forts, circular stone dwellings, during the Iron Age, many of which remain in a fine state of preservation. Most of the subsequent medieval Christian remains are scattered around the area’s more fertile fringes.
The area’s coastal outskirts include attractive resorts such as lively Ballyvaughan and tiny Fanore, while inland are the spa town of Lisdoonvarna, famous for its matchmaking festival, and the renowned traditional music village Kilfenora; all make fine bases for investigating The Burren.
The coast road north of Ballynalackan is dramatic but desolate, sometimes 345 shrouded in the mornings by the haze of a sea-fret. The only sizeable place on the way to Ballyvaughan is the straggling street-village of FANORE which has asweeping Blue Flag beach. The Burren Riding Centre offers horseriding, including trails along the “green roads”, trekking in The Burren and beach hacks. If you fancy learning to surf, then the Aloha Surf School (www.surfschool .tv) provides all necessary equipment.
Five kilometres further on, the road rounds Black Head where you can climb up to Caheerdooneerish ring fort and gaze across Galway Bay before heading onwards to Ballyvaughan.
Roads south from Ballyvaughan lead to a wealth of ancient and some medieval sites. A kilometre or so down the R480 and off to the west is Newtown Castle, a restored sixteenth-century tower house with walls almost four metres thick, murder holes and gun loops, now part of the grounds of the Burren College of Art. Back on the R480 and a little further south, Aillwee Cave is reckoned to be two million years old. Guided tours visit caverns and bridged chasms, allowing you to marvel at weird rock formations, numerous stalag- mites and stalactites, and the hibernation chambers of a long-extinct species of brown bear.
About 3km south of the cave, and just off the eastern side of the R480, is the Gleninsheen Wedge Tomb, the best preserved of its kind in the area. Just a kilometre south from here is the Poulnabrone dolmen, the best known of The Burren’s seventy or so megalithic tombs. When excavated in 1986 the remains of some thirty people were uncovered along with several tools, utensils and items of jewellery, providing evidence that the tomb dated from around 2500 BC.
A kilometre further south is Caherconnell Stone Fort, the most substantial of The Burren’s many ancient remains. Such circular homesteads, with their dry-stone walling, were built from around the fifth century onwards; this one is some 40m in diameter with nearly four-metre-thick walls.
Continuing onwards, by the junction with the R476 is another O’Brien fortress, Leamaneh Castle, which, though long abandoned, is still in reason- able shape. Its tower dates from around 1480 and the adjoining four-storey house with its segmented windows was added in 1640 by Conor O’Brien.
From here it’s worth backtracking past Caherconnell and taking a detour along the first road east to CARRON, where Michael Cusack, a co-founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association, was born and is commemorated by a monument next to the old school and by a visitor centre.
The Cliffs of Moher stretch downwards to the Atlantic for almost 200m. The cliffs take their name from an old promontory fort, Mothar, and extend some 8km from Hag’s Head, west of Liscannor, to a little beyond O’Brien’s Tower, which was constructed by a local altruist in 1835 at their highest point. Access to the cliffs remains unrestricted, but, if you’re travelling by car you’ll be compelled to pay Clare County Council’s extortionate parking charge of €8 for the privilege. Said sum “entitles” visitors (though exactly the same facilities are available if you arrive on bike or foot) to free entry to the controversial €31.5million visitor centre and to the infrequent “cliff edge” guided tours – enquire at the main desk for details.
Tucked away within the hillside, there’s no doubting that the centre is an impressive architectural feat – and its first-floor restaurant does offer panoramic seascapes and a reasonable choice of meals – but to reach it you’ll pass a somewhat tacky range of souvenir shops and find more of the same kind of “Oirish” gifts on sale within. The centre also houses the Atlantic Edge exhibition whose interactive touch-screens, computer games and 3-D film (all to the accompaniment of ethereal “Celtic hush”-style music), do in part provide lucid explanations of the cliffs’ evolution and wildlife, but overall form a ludicrous electronic counterpoint to the actual glories outside.
All told, the best bet is to head straight past the centre and to the steps which curve upwards towards the cliff-top. Then you can opt for turning south towards Hag’s Head or in the opposite direction to O’Brien’s Tower where the latter’s viewing platform offers the best sight of the wave-battered cliffs below, enhanced by the resonant roar of the Atlantic waves pummelling the rocks at shore level. The optimum time to visit is around sunset when the heights and sea are spot-lit by the rays of the evening sun. Alternatively, you can gain a different perspective of their prodigious stature from one of the regular boat-trips run from the pier at Doolin by the companies operating ferries to the Aran Islands.
In the 1960s the then tiny village of DOOLIN, 7km north of the Cliffs of Moher, developed a reputation for its traditional music, largely thanks to the reputation of a bachelor farmer Micho Russell, a singer, flute and whistle player. Appreciation for his very natural and rhythmic playing resulted in TV and radio appearances and an international touring career. Attracted by his music, a trickle of enthusiasts began to visit Doolin’s pubs to hear the playing of Micho and his two brothers Packie and Gussie, all sadly departed. Today, Doolin is awash with tourists virtually throughout the year, cramming into its pubs (O’Connor’s in Fisher Street on the way to the harbour, Fitzpatrick’s Bar in the Hotel Doolin – and McGann’s and McDermott’s at the northern end) enticed by the village’s renown. Unfortunately, most of the music churned out nightly is not the “pure drop”, but either neatly adjusted to suit popular tastes or simply amplified garbage, and in truth there are many other and better places to hear Clare’s often fabulous traditional music.
The village itself is not especially attractive either, sprawling across mainly flat land towards the sea and cluttered by an incoherently planned jumble of modern houses. Yet, for all its faults, you will occasionally strike lucky with a session and there’s no doubting that the place does possess a certain charm.
All manner of routes – by road, rail and even air, to nearby Shannon Airport – lead to Limerick, the Republic’s third city, which is gradually overcoming its reputation as both a dour industrial centre and a focus for internecine gangland feuds, and has far more going for it than such images might suggest. Indeed, over the last five years, the city has been rejuvenated, thanks to some sensitive and imaginative development projects, especially alongside the river. You could easily spend half a day poking around the beautiful Hunt Museum, a rich and diverse collection of art and antiquities in the Georgian Custom House. The Anglo-Norman castle and cathedral are also both impressive, and it’s well worth checking out the year-round roster of vibrant festivals. As well as substantial renovation of the Shannon quays, regeneration efforts have included the extensive campus at Plassey, 3km southeast, which is also the site of the National Technological Park – the three colleges here, the university, Institute of Technology and College of Education, certainly help to enliven the city’s cultural life and nightlife.
The Vikings sailed up the Shannon in about 922 and established a settlement here on a river island, formed by a narrow branch off the main flow that is today called the Abbey River. This port at the lowest fording point of the river was coveted by the Anglo-Normans, who in 1197, decisively seized, and set about fortifying, the town. This involved building high city walls around what became Englishtown, to keep out the local Irish, who retreated to a ghetto to the southeast across the Abbey River – Irishtown.
In the late seventeenth century, the final bloody scenes of the War of the Kings were played out here. After their defeat at the Boyne in 1690, the Jacobite forces in Limerick castle, under the Earl of Tyrconnell and local hero Patrick Sarsfield, refused to surrender. Though beset by a vastly superior force, Sarsfield managed to raise the siege by creeping out at night with five hundred men and destroying the Williamite supply train. When William’s army came back in 1691, however, the medieval walls of the castle were unable to withstand the artillery bombardment. Tyrconnell having died of a stroke, Sarsfield surrendered on October 3, 1691, on supposedly honourable terms, according to the Treaty of Limerick. The Jacobites – some twelve thousand in all, later known as the “Wild Geese” – were permitted to go to France, in whose cause Sarsfield fought and later died. The treaty also promised Catholics the comparative religious toleration they had enjoyed under Charles II, but the English went back on the deal, and between 1692 and 1704 the Irish Parliament passed the harshly anti-Catholic penal laws.
The eighteenth century proved to be far more prosperous for Limerick, which in the 1750s received a grant of £17,000 from the Irish Parliament towards a major redevelopment. Completed in 1840 and named after the local MP, Newtown Pery comprised a grid of broad Georgian terraced streets, built well to the south of the cramped, fetid medieval city. In the early twentieth century, however, Limerick suffered greatly during the nationalist struggles, which, in 1919, gave rise to a radical movement that’s unique in Irish history. In protest against British military action during the War of Independence, the local Trades Council called a general strike and proclaimed the Limerick Soviet. With help from the IRA, they took over the city, controlling food distribution, setting up a citizens’ police force and even printing their own money. It lasted only a few weeks, however, collapsing under pressure from the Catholic bishop. In 1921, both Limerick’s mayor, George Clancy, and the former mayor, Mícheál O’Callaghan, were murdered by the Royal Irish Constabulary. One of the effects of the Troubles was that the rich were persuaded to move out of the city: many of their Georgian houses in Newtown Pery became tenements and remain dilapidated to this day, while recent investment has concentrated on developing an industrial base around the city and on renovating the quaysides.
Limericks became common in Britain in the nineteenth century, popularized by Edward Lear, but their origin is shrouded in the mists of time. One possible theory is that the form derives from the satirical rhymes of the Maigue Poets (named after the river that runs through Adare), who were translated from Irish into English in the mid-nineteenth century.
The beautiful and fascinating displays in the Hunt Museum date from the Stone Age to modern times. Over the course of the twentieth century, John and Gertrude Hunt gathered together this diverse collection of art and antiquities, especially known for its religious works, and bequeathed it to the people of Ireland. You’ll get the best idea of the spirit of the place in the Epilogue Room, which juxtaposes pieces of wildly different origins, such as an eighteenth-century Chinese porcelain cockerel and an English stone rabbit from the fifteenth century. In the 1990s, a fitting venue was found for the bequest in the old Custom House on Rutland Street, built in the 1760s in elegant Palladian style and best appreciated from the river side.
Particular pieces to look out for include the beautiful, early ninth-century Antrim Cross, one of the finest examples of early Christian metalwork from Ireland. Made of bronze decorated with enamel in geometric and animal designs, it was discovered by chance in the River Bann in the nineteenth century. Keep an eye out also for the Beverley Crozier, a piece of walrus ivory intricately carved with miracles of healing, dating from the eleventh century; a vivacious, rearing bronze horse by Leonardo da Vinci; and a ten-drachma coin, minted in Syracuse in the fourth or fifth century BC, which is reputed to be one of the thirty pieces of silver received by Judas for betraying Christ – it was highly revered from the thirteenth century on as a relic of the Crucifixion, despite its portrayal of the pagan Greek demigods, Arethusa and Nike. Other highlights include works by fine Irish artists such as William Orpen, Jack B. Yeats and Roderic O’Connor, and a whole room devoted to depictions of the Crucifixion – which the museum’s map-guide aptly misspells as “Crucifixation”.
The city lays on a compelling menu of festivals throughout the year. Undoubted highlights include EVA (Exhibition of Visual Art; www.eva.ie), Ireland’s pre-eminent annual exhibition of contemporary art, taking place during Autumn biennially.
In late May, the Limerick International Music Festival is a four-day showcase for the Irish Chamber Orchestra and prestigious guest artists (t061/202620, wwww.irishchamberorchestra.com).
In late June and early July, Blas, a highly regarded, two-week, summer school of traditional music and dance, takes place at the Irish World of Academy of Music and Dance, Limerick University (wwww.blas.ie), with plenty of associated concerts and sessions around the city. An international poetry festival, Cuisle, encompassing readings, open-mike sessions and workshops, takes place in mid-October (t061/407421, wwww.limerickcity.ie).