There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Athenry, The Burren and Ennis: Part 4 of the West of Ireland

Like Caesar’s Gaul, County Galway has three parts. To the west is Connemara, the land of mountains and bogs and, yesterday at least, semi-perpetual drizzle; in the narrow waist where the county is pinched by Loch Corrib is the City of Galway and to the east, by far the largest part, is a green plain.


Athenry is a small town/large village 20km east of Galway. I had not heard of it before Irish rugby crowds took to singing ‘The Fields of Athenry’ and if I had, I would probably have pronounced it stressing the first syllable and with a final ‘-ree’ as in ‘Henry’ instead of evenly stressed Ath-en-rye. The song, written in the 1970s by Pete St John is either a dreary ditty about the Irish Famine or one of those haunting, wistful Irish melodies that once heard cannot be forgotten – or both. Judge for yourself, Paddy Reilly and the Dubliners* sing it on YouTube here.

County Galway, Athenry, Kinvarra - a good morning out
 ‘Low lie the fields of Athenry’ the chorus goes, and indeed they do - this is flat lowland farming country, not as picturesque as Connemara, but a much easier place to make a living. And, of course, an influx of tourists makes that living even easier; the song has certainly helped, but Athenry is also a fine place for connoisseurs of old stonework.

It can be a grey dour looking place on a dour grey day…

Athernry clustered round St Mary's Church
 … but the market square, which is by no means square, has the only market cross still in situ in Ireland, though all that remains is the badly damaged 15th century stump.

The Market Cross, Market Square, Atherny
Most of the 14th century town wall still stands, as do several towers and the North Gate which is busy advertising Galway’s bid to be European City of Culture in 2020.

North Gate, Athenry
The banner is in English on the other side, that's how I know what it says
The Priory of SS Peter and Paul is of similar vintage though it is not in good condition. Having limped on after Henry VIII’s Reformation it was finally destroyed by Cromwellian forces in the 1650s.

Priory of SS Peter and Paul, Athenry
 Most impressive of all, and even older is Athenry’s castle, built by Meyler de Bermingham sometime before 1240. Part of the surrounding wall survives…

Tower and external wall, Athenry Castle
...and the forbidding, almost windowless keep is largely intact.

Keep, Athenry Castle
 There is a little decoration on the arch over the doorway, but these places were not built to be welcoming…

Decoration on the door arch, Athenry Castle
 …though almost 800 years later possessing an Irish Heritage Card will guarantee that you are greeted by a smiling face. The interior, cleaned up and restored, is much pleasanter, though it must have been cold living here.

Interior, Athenry Castle

Having zigged east to Athenry, we zagged south west along a series of minor roads to the coast at Kinvarra (sometimes Kinvara).

Approaching the village we passed Dunguaire Castle a sixteenth century tower house and a stronghold of the O’Hynes. The castle had plenty of visitors, but having just come from Athenry Castle we left it for another time.

Dunguaire Castle across the water from Kinvarra dock
 We parked by the dock in Kinvarra. It was once a thriving port exporting grain, but the famine of the 1840s all but destroyed the town and it is only in the last decades that the population has edged back above 1,000.

Kinvarra Harbour
 Kinvarra has a music festival in May and the Meeting of the Boats in August which features hooker racing. Hooker racing, despite what some readers might imagine, is a respectable pastime; Galway hookers are the traditional red sailed boats of Galway Bay and feature prominently on the county crest.

The crest of County Galway with a Galway hooker
I wondered if the Fairy Queen in my picture of Dunguaire Castle was a Galway hooker. After 20 minutes googling I learned that it was originally a Loch Fyne skiff, built 1926 in Fraserburgh, North East Scotland, and now re-rigged as a gaff cutter, making it very like a Galway hooker.

There are words in that paragraph I do not understand, but I pass it on in good faith.

Kinvarra is a pretty village and we had a stroll and a coffee before driving on into County Clare through Ballyvaughan to Newtown Castle on the edge of the limestone district known as The Burren.

South into County Clare
Newtown Castle

Newtown Castle was not easy to find. Leaving the main road we drove through parkland surrounding the Burren College of Art - visitors are welcome though it felt like trespassing.

The castle (or, more properly, tower) was built on the 16th century for the O’Brien clan. There are 3,000 tower houses in Ireland of which only 30 are round and of these only Newtown has a pyramidical base. The tower was fully equipped to defend itself with arrow slits, gun loops and a murder hole – a trap door above the main entrance through which flower petals, animal dung or boiling oil could be dropped, depending on how welcome the visitors were.

Newtown Tower, near Ballyvaughan
The tower was restored in 1993-4 for use by the newly opened Burren College of Art and sits on the edge of the small, somewhat isolated campus. We climbed to the top where a gallery below the impressive new wooden roof provides exhibition space for the students.

The roof, Newtown Tower, near Ballyvaughan
The castle passed to the O’Loghlens; in 1838 it was inhabited by Charles O’Loghlen, ‘King of the Burren’, and at the end of the century by Peter O’Loghlen who more modestly styled himself ‘Prince of the Burren.’ The surrounding 2,800ha was part of the Buckingham Estate until 1848 when it was sold after the spectacular bankruptcy of the splendidly over-named Richard Plantagenet Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville, 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos. He has featured in those blog before as the last member of the Temple family, four generations earlier the richest in England, to own Stowe House near Buckingham.

Richard Temple-......Grenvile
Portrait by Richard James Lane (filched from Wikipedia)
We returned to Ballyvaughan for lunch – a sandwich and a cup of tea – and thus fortified headed into The Burren.

The Burren

The Burren, from the Irish Boireann meaning ‘great rock’, is a roughly defined area (250-300km²) of karst landscape in the uplands of County Clare. The 15km² Burren National Park occupies a small corner in the south east of the region.

About 60% of it is covered with limestone pavements. It is a landscape I am familiar with from the Yorkshire Dales and limestone country further west, occasional outbreaks in South Wales and from the Pelješac peninsula in Croatia, but the Burren has by far the largest limestone pavements I have ever seen.

Limestone pavements stretching away into the distance, The Burren
It is poor country for farming, but the earliest inhabitants spotted its value for monumental structures. Some 70 megalithic tombs are dotted about the Burren; we could not find the Gleninsheen Wedge Tomb, but the Poulnabrone Dolmen, 8km from Ballyvaughan is well signed, near the road and has a large car park – with 200,000 visitors annually it needs it!

Poulnabrone Dolmen, The Burren
In 1985, the disassembling of the dolmen to repair a crack in one of the portal stones provided an opportunity for excavations. The remains of 33 individuals and their personal items were discovered, carbon dating suggested they were buried between 3,800 and 3,200BC.

Poulnabrone Dolmen, The Burren
A kilometre further on is the Caherconnell Stone Fort,  one of the best preserved stone ring forts in Ireland. The drystone circle has a diameter of 43m and the walls 3m thick and 3m high, though loose stones suggest they may have been a metre higher. What surprised us was that despite there being the post holes of a Neolithic dwelling nearby, the ring fort was built in the 10th century and was occupied until the 17th. The Norman invasion never quite reached O’Loghlen country and the people continued living a medieval life into what is normally regarded as early modern times.

Inside Caherconnell Stone Fort
 The stone fort hosts archaeological summer schools and while some students were digging just outside the main circle...

Archaelogical workers, Caherconell Stone Fort, The Burren
…. others did the less glamourous sieving and spraying.

The spraying and sieving has to be done, too
Caherconell Stone Fort, The Burren

We reached Ennis in late afternoon. With just 25,000 inhabitants it is mildly surprising that Ennis is by far County Clare’s largest population centre, but I was amazed to find it is Ireland’s 11th biggest city.

We had a little difficulty finding our way into the centre which retains its medieval road plan and a little more leaving it to reach our B&B. After freshening up and armed with our friendly landlady’s recommendations for dinner we walked back into the centre. Ennis is proud of its sculpture trail and we passed a pensive soldier on the wall of the former barracks….

Soldier outside the barracks, Ennis

…hands outside the cathedral…

Hands outside the church, Ennis

…and farm workers on a roundabout.

Farm workers on a roundabout, Ennis

O’Connell Street is narrow but colourful with hanging baskets and painted façades. It terminates in a square where Daniel O’Connell has balanced on top of a Doric column since 1867. The ‘Great Liberator’ who also has a statue in Dublin in the street named after him, was a Dublin MP in the British House of Commons from 1836-41 but before that he had been MP for Clare. I took my picture facing the other way, so you will have to imagine the monument (it looks just like you think it would).

O'Connell Street, Ennis
Brogan’s was ram-packed. Unwilling to wait an hour for a table, we walked up to The Old Ground, an even bigger pub and apparently even more crowded but we were warmly greeted, asked to have a drink at the bar and told a table would be ready in ten minutes. We never believed ‘ten minutes’ but the room was being worked by an expert who knew the state of every table and remembered the faces of those waiting and the order in which they had arrived. It was an impressive performance and if it took thirty, rather than ten minutes it mattered little as we were watching hurling on the television. It is not an easy game for the uninitiated, but is full of breathlessly paced crash bang action.

Once seated, the service was efficient. My pork with black pudding, red onion gravy and spring onion mash was hearty Irish fair, and I was ready for it by then. Lynne enjoyed her quiche and chips.

 By the time we had finished, the pressure on tables had eased, a band was playing traditional music and though full of food and Guinness we felt little desire to leave. I have never been a fan of Irish whiskey, but when in Ireland…..  A glass of Jameson’s slipped down a treat – my opinion might need reassessing so more research is needed .


We remained in Ennis for the first half of the morning, strolling to the town centre and along the River Fergus until the friary opened at 10.00 – we were determined to turn a profit on our Heritage Cards.

Lynne by the River Fergus, Ennis
Ennis Franciscan Friary dates from the 1240s and, like much else locally, was founded by the O’Briens. After the suppression of the monasteries it was put to other uses and is now in part a ruin.

Ennis Friary
 The best carvings are in the restored section where the 15th century canopy tomb of the MacMahon clan…

Canopy tomb, Ennis Friary
 …and Christ’s Pity, both carved in the hard local limestone, are preserved from the elements. The Christ’s Pity or Ecce Homo shows Christ bound and surrounded by the accoutrements of crucifixion.

Ecce Homo, Ennis Friary
 And finally….

Post box, Ennis
…we have seen British-style post boxes all over the world in places where once there was British influence, but this is not ‘British-style’ this is the real thing It still bears the Royal Mail crown and the EviiR logo, dating it to the reign of Edward VII, 1901-10. The once red box has, of course, been sanitised by a coat of green paint.

*You might like to search for the version by Serbian band Orthodox Celts. It is worse than Frank Sinatra’s On the Road to Mandalay, (blog post here) that was the right singer with the wrong song, this is simply wrong.

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