ByRoute 9.2 Co. Tipperary (N) // Co. Clare

Newmarket on Fergus (Co. Clare / South)

Newmarket-on-Fergus, (pop. 1,600), historically known as Corracatlin (Cora Chaitlín – “the weir of Cathleen”, a local holy woman), is a small town bypassed by the main M18 linking Limerick City and Ennis, beside land reclaimed from the estuary of the River Fergus.

One of the earliest known references to the place was in James Frost’s 1636 Book of Survey and Distribution listing the main landowners of the area, notably the Earl of Thomond. Pre-Christian skeletal remains were found nearby in 2007.

The name Newmarket has two possible explanations. One is that the original settlement was a trading post, taking business from the older established commercial hubs in the area, and hence became known as “the new market”. However, the most widely accepted story is that Sir Edward O’Brien, who was interested in horse racing, had ideas of creating a centre to rival Newmarket in England; it was he who built the belvedere on Dromoland Hill, from which to observe the racing in comfort.

The church of the Blessed Virgin of the Most Holy Rosary (RC) was inaugurated in 1971 to replace a previous edifice erected in 1802. The modern parish of Newmarket on Fergus is a union of seven ancient parishes; all the area’s Roman Catholic churches were closed during the Penal Law period. In 1744 the High Sheriff for Clare, John Westropp, wrote to the authorities in Dublin Castle as follows “I have according to your instructions made strict search in Ennis and in several other places where we had the least suspicion of priests and had the army from Clarecastle to assist me – but could find none. We have locked and nailed up all the Mass houses.”

Kilnasoolagh Park centres on Lough Gash, one of a several turloughs in the district and one of the largest in County Clare.

Kilnasoolagh church (CoI), designed by James Pain in 1815, replaced a previous church built in 1686; the entrance gate arch may be the remnant of another building erected in 1256. It contains many family memorials, notably a fine 1717 baroque  monument to Sir Donat O’ Brien by William Kendall.

Ralahine castle was a C16th MacNamara stronghold, and is now a National Monument.

Ralahine Co-Op 1830 – 1833


 

Ralahine Agricultural and Manufacturing Co-operative Association was a a pioneering utopian socialist rural Commune set up by landlord Crofton Moore Vandeleur after his steward was killed in agrarian unrest.

 

The labourers did not get much better wages than those on other estates, but did get free schooling for their children, stone built houses and some say in the running of the estate.

 

Vandeleur also did very well out of the scheme, but the experiment ended after three years in 1833 when he lost money due to gambling debts.

Fenloe (Tuaimfinlough – “tomb / tumulus of the fair lake”) is the oldest recorded settlement in the area.

Fenloe church


 

Fenloe church, overlooking Fenloe Lake, dates from the C10th or C11th with considerable later alterations, and is now a scenic ruin. Derelict since 1744, it was badly damaged by storms and high winds in 2007.

 

The church may have been constructed as part of a monastery and school founded c.540 AD by Saint Luchtigern. The annals tell us that Scanlan, abbot of Tuamfinlough, was killed during a Norse raid in in 944 AD and that Tuathal O’Muirgheasa, lecturer, died in 1049. Five years later the monastery was plundered by Turlough O’Brien.

 

According to legend the abbot of Fenloe cured the first local person to contract a mysterious plague that was ravaging the country, and banished the disease into a rock still known as the plague stone. The story goes that one of three onlookers at the incident was very sceptical. The abbot had three heads carved and mounted over the church door. He placed the head representing the unbeliever in the middle, saying it would gradually yield to the elements while the other two heads would forever remain unaffected by weather or time.

 

St Luchtigern’s Well is kept in excellent condition.

Both Fenloe Lake / Fin Lough and its neighbour Rosroe Lake are fringed with Scots pine, willows, ash and alder trees growing from a rich peaty fen. This is a good area for birdwatching. Sedge Warblers ringed here have been controlled in Senegal, West Africa.

Urlanmore and Urlanbeg Castles are ruined medieval Tower Houses; the former contains outline drawings of animals on the wall of an upper room.

Kilmaleery possibly took its name from a local chieftain. A Holy Well, Tobar Maloighre, is situated beside the road.

Clenagh / Claonadh Castle is a large C16th MacMahon Tower House with a crude Sheela-na-gig. This was the last Irish home of Col. Donough MacMahon of the Austrian army, who broke the stairs on his forced departure in 1753.

Mooghaun (Moghane) is the location of a remarkable  hillfort, thought to be the largest in Ireland. Built around 1260-930 BC, it is a trivallate fort, meaning it has three concentric ramparts, and encloses 12 ha / 27.18 acres “on a low hillock in a fairly gently undulating landscape of good agricultural land dotted with many small lakes“, with great views of the River Shannon estuary. The limestone ramparts are as much as 12m wide in some places and over 2m in height; they appear to have been constructed so as to take advantage of the natural contours of the landscape. One of Europe’s biggest finds of gold Bronze Age objects was allegedly unearthed here in 1854, only to be dispersed, melted down and lost to science. Although Mooghaun is located within the extensive grounds of Dromoland Castle, access is easiest on foot via a forestry car park between Newmarket-on-Fergus and Dromoland.

Dromoland Castle


Dromoland Castle is nowadays a luxury 5–star Resort Hotel. The present complex was completed in 1835. (Photo by Egan Liscannor)

 

According to the historian James Frost, Dromoland translates as “the Hill of Litigation.” It is believed that Donough O’Brien, a son of Brian Boru, had some kind of defensive stronghold erected here during his father’s reign as Ard Rí / High King of Ireland and self-styled Emperor of the Irish (1002-1014). For the next 950 years Dromoland was controlled by one branch or another of the O’Briens. However, the first stone building here seems to have been a  Tower House  constructed in  the late C15th or early C16thby an O’Brien tenant, Thomas Mac Anerheny.

 

In 1543 the first Tanist (righful heir) to the kingship of Thomond, Murrough O’Brien, submitted to King Henry VIII’s  “Surrender and Regrant” scheme and was made 1st Baron of Inchiquin and Earl of Thomond. In 1551 he bequeathed Dromoland and Leamaneh Castles to his third son Donough MacMurrough O’Brien, who was hanged in Limerick in 1582 for his participation in the Desmond Rebellion. The sheriff, Sir George Cusack, took possession of Dromoland. Some years later, Turlough O’Brien killed Cusack and various branches of the O’Brien clan attempted to repossess the property. A legal war ensued; a 1613 arbitration settlement failed, and the dispute continued through the Court of Wards and Liveries in Dublin.

 

The original Tower House seems to have been enlarged during the leasehold tenancy of William Starkey and his son Robert Starkey. In 1642 their guards were overcome by an insider and the castle seized by Maire Rua ’s second husband Col. Conor O’Brien of Leamaneh, killed in battle in 1651. Their eldest son, Sir Donough / Donat O’Brien, heir to large landholdings and reputedly the richest man in Ireland, was finally assigned the Dromoland freehold in 1684. He astutely avoided declaring for either King James II or King William.

 

His nephew, Sir Edward O’Brien, 2nd Bart, adorned the castle with many valuable pictures and carvings. He also had architect John Aheron design a new ten-bay, two-and-a-half storey house with a charming two-story quadrangle now known as the Queen Anne Court, completed in 1736. Sir Edward, who owned several famous racehorses, also built the gazebo on Turret Hill opposite the entrance to Dromoland Estate, from where he could observe his invesments. He once gambled the entire estate on a horse called Sean Buis, which fortunately for him won its race and is buried under the Temple, 100 yards from the old entrance to the castle.

 

Sir Edward O’Brien, 4th Bart, had the castle remodelled and rebuilt at great expense. He was married to Charlotte Smith, whose inherited wealth was probably essential in covering construction costs of their new mansion. The present main building, with its high Gothic-styled dark blue limestone walls, was designed by the famous brothers James and George Pain, former pupils of John Nash in England. The result, described in 1855 as “one of the most beautiful and desirable residences in Ireland,” was mainly enjoyed by their eldest son Lucius, 5th Bart, who also inherited the title 13th Baron Inchiquin.

 

Their second son, William Smith O’Brien, was a Nationalist MP who fought for the rights of peasant farmers and led the Young Irelanders’ 1848 “Cabbage Patch Rebellion” against the British authorities, for which he was sentenced to death, commuted to penal exile in Tasmania. He returned to Ireland in 1856, and died in 1864; there is a statue of him in Dublin’s O’Connell Street. Dromoland Castle was also the birthplace of his first cousin George O’Brien, the Antipodean landscape painter.

 

The family’s wealth started to dwindle in the 1880s as a series of Land Acts compelled landlords to sell  tenanted farmlands, their main source of income. Fortunately, their remaining property survived the Troubles; IRA leaders in Dublin had marked the castle for destruction, but the orders were reversed at the urgent request of local Republican leaders, who argued that the family had been fair and even benevolent in dealing with their tenant farmers, and were remembered respectfully by the people of County Clare for relief work during the Great Famine of the 1840s.

 

The castle and estate became increasingly difficult for the family to maintain. After 1929 Dromoland was supported mainly by the personal wealth of the 15th Baron’s heiress widow, Lady Ethel, whose portrait hangs near the staircase in the castle’s hall. When she died her oldest son, Sir Donough O’Brien, 16th Baron of Inchiquin, and his wife, Lady Anne, daughter of Viscount Chelmsford, Viceroy of India, managed to maintain Dromoland Castle as a traditional ancestral home for more than twenty years. They tried to make the estate self-supporting as a dairy farm, but by 1948 were so financially hard pressed that they began to take in tourists as paying guests.

 

In 1962 the castle and some 330 acres of surrounding land sold to Bernard McDonough, an Irish-American industrialist, who transformed it into a luxury hotel. Lord Inchiquin built Thomond House on a hill overlooking Dromoland, where  Conor O’Brien, 18th Baron of Inchiquin, and his family now live.

 

A consortium of mainly Irish American investors purchased the castle in 1987. Under their management, the hotel enjoys a worldwide reputation for excellence and is regarded as one of the great resorts in Europe.Visitors who remember it from the days of the Inchiquins marvel at the preservation of its stately, warm and cheerful baronial country house atmosphere.

Dromoland’s large walled gardens are a delight, entered by the old C17th gateway from Leamaneh, moved here in  1902. (Photo – goldenagegardens.blogspot.com)

 

The hotel has beautifully landscaped grounds.  A long curving drive leads from the classical gatelodge, past a pretty lake in the middle of an old woods and up round a hill to the main steps of the castle, commanding spectacular views of the Shannon and Fergus estuaries. Facilities for guests include horse riding, archery, falconry, a croquet lawn and, inevitably, a golf course.

 

US President George W Bush spent a night in June 2004 at Dromoland Castle to attend an EU-USA Summit. He was guarded by approximately 7,000 police, military and private security forces during his 16-hour visit.

Cahergal House & Riding Stables is a splendidly restored  C17th farmhouse and Equestrian Centre. Owners Michael and Noreen McInerney provide both luxury B&B accommodation and self-catering facilities, with a beautiful garden and a full size hard tennis court for guests’ use. Riding excursions across the large working farm and surrounding countryside are varied and interesting. Individual or group Hunting Holiday Packages are available from November to March with the County Clare Hunt, the Galway Blazers and the Limerick Harriers.

Kells Country House B&B is a “two storey castle type building” with a substantial garden area overlooking the River Shannon estuary and surrounding countryside.

Newmarket on Fergus is