Ennistymon (Co. Clare / West)
Ennistimon (official spelling) / Ennistymon (popular spelling) / Inishdymon (historical spelling) (pop. 1000) is a small town on the River Cullenagh, a branch of the Inagh River, two miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. The rural surroundings are well served by Ennistymon’s schools, services and retail outlets, and there are also several good eateries and accommodation options.
The main street is part of the busy N85 linking Ennis to the western seaboard. (Photo – www.tripadvisor.ie)
Ennistymon is famous for its carved shopfronts, said to “provide a rare panorama of contrasting colours and a lively rhythm of shapes and planes of truly human scale“.
Rnnistymon is also renowned as a centre of excellence for traditional music, with regular live sessions in many of the town’s old-style pubs (once said to number 50, and still reputedly the highest bar to population ratio in the world); the best-known venues are probably The Archway, Colley’s, Murtagh’s and the bar owned by the locally famous third-generation matchmaker Willy Daly.
The original Gaelic version of Ennistymon’s name is disputed. Although the official Inis Diomán is usually translated as “Dioman’s island”, some say it really means “secret / hidden island”, while others maintain that the correct if more prosaic rendering should be Dia-Mhaoin, in reference to a measurement of ecclesiastical property, pointing out that Saint Luchtighern is reputed to have founded an abbey here in the early C6th. Others argue for variants of Inis Ti Méan – “island / river meadow of the middle house”.
The location may once have been an island, either literally or in the sense of fertile ground surrounded by bogland.
In 1564 the O’Briens of Thomond built a Tower House on the slope of a hill, part of which is said to be artificial and may have been erected as a Norman-style motte. Located roughly half way between the O’Brien strongholds at Dough and Glann, this castle / fortified dwelling was known as “the middle house”. The site was later occupied by Ennistymon House, now The Falls Hotel.
The Cascades / Falls, a series of small rapids below the town’s stone bridge. Despite its dirty appearance, the peat-tinged water is actually exceptionally pure. The riverside walk is delightful on sunny days, but can be very wet when a breeze is blowing!
The Moland Survey of 1703 reported “The Farm of Inishtimond is …….. a manor and has on it a good castle and a house joyning to it 2 storeys high and in good repair, a stable and other convenient outhouses, with a small garden, a corn mill worth about 5 per annum and 7 or 8 cabins“.
The narrow street near the bridge is the oldest part of modern Ennistymon. The town developed around this point on the river, the lowest crossing point above the sea, spanned by some form of bridge since time immemorial. The present seven-arch structure (originally a toll bridge) was built c.1770 by the O’Briens of Thomond.
By 1800 Ennistymon had a Bridewell and Session House (later aka the Courthouse and Constitutional Hall). By 1824 the population was 1,500, with street names such as New Town Street and Market Place reflecting the towns expansion. Samuel Lewis (1837) described Ennistymon as a market and post town, “irregularly built but of picturesque appearance“.
Although the town prospered, the area was poor. Workhouses built in 1841 to accommodate 870 paupers proved insuficient when the Great Famine devastated the region. By 1847 the average number of destitute inmates per month was 600 and the number of deaths 961. Between 1847 and 1851 almost 5,000 people died, many of cholera.
Griffiths Valuation of 1855 shows that an emerging middle class of shop-keepers and business people had shifted the centre of social activity away from the older areas of Churchill and Bogberry. By the 1880s the town was positively prosperous, withits own woollen mills for the manufacture of tweeds and flannels and a Butter Market supposedly second in importance only to that of Cork.
Ennistymon railway station opened in 1887 with the arrival of the West Clare Railway line connecting it to Ennis and other towns and villages in West Clare, allowing for the regular supply of goods to local shops and rapid transportation of butter and cattle from the local markets and fairs.
The War of Independence
On 23rd September 1920 an IRA ambush at Rineen Bridge killed a British soldier and four policemen. The reprisals started immediately with the shooting of two locals, but it was that night the Black & Tans really satisfied their hunger for revenge by setting fire to entire communities at Miltown Malbay Lahinch, Ennistymon and Liscannor.
The following account of events in Ennistymon is taken from The War of Independence in West Clare by Rita Marrinan, written for her B.Ed thesis at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick in 1982:
“Evidence available at present shows that the town hall was first to be burned down after which the men proceeded to the private house of Mr. Tom Connole, a thirty-one year old married man with two children. He had worked as a clerk in the Henry Street warehouse in Dublin but failing health had forced him to return to Ennistymon some months before the incident. He was secretary of the local branch of the I.T. & G.W.U., [a trade union] a Catholic and suspected of taking part in the ambush, but local people at the time claimed he had no part whatsoever in it and never played an active role in politics. Mr. Connole was taken from his house and shot while his wife and children were compelled to look on. He was then thrown into the flames of his burning house.
“Soon after this horrifying incident, Devitt’s drapery shop was set on fire but the flames soon spread to Marrinan’s next door. “On hearing a cry for water, three young men, sons of Mr. Linnane, a building contractor, and a man named Sullivan went to the rescue. One of the men Patrick, was shot dead, but the others were unable to go to his assistance because the firing continued. He was subsequently taken to Connoles stable by an ex-soldier named White and was attended to by Fr. Mullins, C.C. who arrived on time to administer the last Sacraments.
” He was twenty one years of age, unmarried and worked with his father. He, too, was innocent and never participated in politics.“On the following day, the remains of both men were taken to Ennistymon Church where they remained overnight. Solemn requiem Mass was offered next day by Rev. Fr. Nestor P.P. who made brief reference to the events of the tragic night when both men were murdered and, after asking the prayers of the congregation for the happy repose of their souls he appealed to both families to have the funerals private in order to prevent any further trouble. Both families complied with his wishes and the remains were interred at the cemetery in Churchill.
“Many other houses were completely destroyed including Whelan’s tailor shop, P. Clair’s grocery shop and Callinan’s public house, and only the four walls remained standing. …….. The house of Mr. John Hynes, draper and Mr. Joseph Conneally of Clooney, Ennistymon, were also damaged.“
By the end of the night, the men had devastated Miltown, Lahinch, Ennistymon, and Liscannor; according to the Irish Independent of September 27th, the total damage was estimated at £100,000.
These reprisals are remembered as amongst the worst actions carried out by British forces anywhere during the C20th.
The 1930’s saw the installation of an important creamery and the arrival of electricity, public lighting, running water and a new sewage system. Ennistymon continued to thrive up to the 1960s, when a decline due to the 1961 closure of the West Clare Railway and increased emigration failed to repress the local spirit. Despite welcome later investment by new technologies, the majority of town businesses are still family-owned and run.
Kilmanaheen church, founded c.580 AD by Saint Mainchin, is a barely discernible medieval ruin in an overgrown burial ground.
Glen Castle, an atmospheric ruin on a low hill west of the Ennis road, was listed as belonging to Sir Daniel O’Brien in 1580.
Church Hill is the location of a ruined Anglican church (1778) commanding spectacular views from its grassy graveyard.
Kilmanaheen Glebe is a fine old rectory on a minor road north of Ennistymon. It was built by the Rev. James Kenny, a convert from Roman Catholicism, in 1787. The nearby trout stream is still called Tattan’s River after another incumbent who succeeded Kenny.
The Courthouse (c.1790), “considered one of the best in the county“, according to Lewis (1837), was decommissioned for judicial use in 1984 due to dilapidation, but has since been rehabilitated as The Courthouse Studios & Gallery, with work and exhibition spaces for local, national, and international artists, including a sound recording studio.
Teach Ceoil, a Cultural Centre renowned for fine traditional music, occupies St Andrew’s church (1831), a handsome English Gothic style edifice long known as “the new church”, deconsecrated for Anglican worship in 1964, and given by the Church of Ireland Representative Body to the local branch of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann in 1986. Members have won many national trophies.
The poet Brian Merriman (c.1749-1805), author of Cuirt an Mhean Oiche / The Midnight Court, who was born in Ennistymon, is the subject of a limestone statue in front of Teach Cheoil, made in 2005 by Clare-born Shane Gilmore. (Photo – www.revealireland.ie)
The Market House / Butter Market, a handsome period building, used to store huge butter firkins until the local Creamery opened in 1935, has been recently renovated as a restaurant.
The Ennistymon Parish & District Community Centre (1983) stands on the site of the second Town Hall, built in 1924 with money received from the British government as compensation for the burning of the previous edifice.
The church of Our Lady and Saint Michael (RC) was built in 1954 to replace an edifice erected in 1831.
Ennnistymon House / The Falls Hotel & Spa***
Ennistymon House, constructed in 1764 by Edward O’Brien on the site of the old castle overlooking the river rapids, was inherited in 1843 by Major William Nugent MacNamara of Doolin, a Protestant Liberal MP for Ennis from 1830 to 1847. A noted marksman, he had acted as Daniel O’Connell‘s second in his famous 1816 duel with Captain d’Esterre and declined nomination in the 1828 Parliamentary Election so resoundingly won by the Liberator. His funeral was one of the largest ever seen in County Clare.
The estate passed to “The Colonel” Francis MacNamara, also MP for Ennis, whose arrival in 1863 was greeted with banners and rejoicing. He made extensive improvements to the house and as the main local landlord, with property stretching from Liscannor to Ballyvaughan, was largely responsible for the current layout of Enistymon and several other villages.
The Colonel’s son Henry Valentine “Vee” MacNamara ran into conflict with the Land League, and later with Republican militants, suffering gunshot wounds in 1919 during an IRA ambush at Leamaneh Castle, which left him with a permanent head tremor. In 1922, after the family’s house at Doolin had been torched, Vee was informed in a letter signed by Frank Barrett, this writer’s grandfather, that the IRA was confiscating Ennistymon House to accommodate refugees from Loyalist persecution in the North. Vee died in London in 1925, while the house was being used as a temporary Garda Siochana barracks.
Vee’s son Francis MacNamara, a minor poet, brought up the four children he had with his first wife Yvonne Majolier on Rousseau-esque libertarian principles in nearby Doolin House, where regular visitors included George Bernard Shaw, JM Synge, Oliver St John Gogarty and the arch-bohemian painter Augustus John, who replaced him after he abandoned his paternal duties. One daughter, Nicolette Devas (1911 -1987), described her unusual childhood in Two Flamboyant Fathers (1966), a fascinating memoir full of anecdotes about celebrated figures such as WB Yeats and TE Lawrence. Her sister, Caitlín (1913-1994), became a dancer and famously married the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), with whom she had a fiery alcohol-fuelled relationship in London, Ireland, Wales and the USA, spending her last years in Italy.
Francis married Augustus John’s sister-in-law Edie MacNeil in 1928, and then Iris O’Calllaghan-Westdropp of O’Callaghan’s Mills in 1936. The following year he opened Ennistymon House as The Falls Hotel. In 1939 he leased the management to a professional and moved into the adjacent “henrun”, aka “the chateau”. He sold the entire property in 1945, ending an unbroken 400-year family connection with the area.
The hotel has changed hands several times, improving with each new owner, and has established an excellent reputation for both accommodation facilities and fine food. However, a recent visitor found it rather bland and characterless.
Grovemount House B&B, situated on the outskirts of Ennistymon overlooking the river, is highly regarded.
John George “Kootenay” Brown (1839 – 1916), an Irish-Canadian polymath, soldier, hunter-trader and early conservation advocate, was born locally.
The Ennistymon Horse & Sheep Fair, held every year in late May, has been augmented in recent years by a Book Fair and events such as the first Irish Discworld Convention (2009) , based around the works of author Terry Pratchett, and a Dylan Thomas Festival (2012).
The Gorta Mór Memorial
The first monument in Ireland to those who suffered through the Great Hunger was dedicated on 20th August 1995, the 150th anniversary of the first of five successive annual potato crop failures that precipitated the tragedy.
The monument depicts the sad tale of a note pinned to the torn shirt of a barefoot orphan boy who was left at a workhouse door on a freezing cold morning in February 1848. (Photo by Joseph Mischyshyn)
It stands on the Lahinch Road opposite Ennistymon Hospital, a Palladian edifice built in 1841 as the main local Workhouse. There is a small stone-walled cemetery called the childrens’ graveyard and an unmarked famine burial ground adjacent to the site – a sad memorial to that grim period.
Although deeply moving, the monument is devalued by sponsorship from the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a notoriously racist and homophobic all-male organisation of American bigots that upholds an ugly version of “Irish Catholic traditions” that many citizens are embarrassed, ashamed, angry and / or disgusted to be associated with.
The North Clare Community church is a modern building on the Lahinch Road used for Christian Evangelical services.
A closing image of West Clare.
Ennistymon, the westernmost point on ByRoute 11, is within easy reach of Milltown Malbay and Lahinch on ByRoute 1.