Ennis (Inis – “island”) (pop. 25,000), the administrative capital of County Clare, and until recently one of Ireland’s fastest growing provincial towns, has a strong community identity, right down to a peculiar sense of humour all its own.
Ennis is attractively situated on the River Fergus, an amenity which floods periodically, most recently in November 2009. The Riverwalk Sculpure Trail provides a pleasant opportunity to observe both works of art and waterfowl, including breeding swans.
As Ireland’s traditional music capital and a major tourist centre, Ennis enjoys a wide choice of shops (including 24/7 supermarkets, fashion boutiques, art / craft galleries and at least one very good bookshop), bars, cafés, restaurants and accommodation options, making it a good base for visiting the many other attractions nearby.
Inis Laoi (“Calf Island”), aka Cluain Ramh Fhada (“Long Rowing Meadow”), lay in the River Fergus opposite Clonroad Fort, erected in 1210 by the O’Brien kings of Thomond.
Land on the island was donated in 1242 by Donnchadh O’Brien to the Franciscan Order, who constructed a splendid Friary. This developed over the next four centuries into a major religious centre and theological college, surrounded by cloisters, dormitories, workshops, a huge kitchen and a refectory, housing up to 300 friars and 600 seminarians a year. Although officially closed by King Henry VIII’s 1540 Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Friary continued to operate in a much reduced form until c.1690.
Clare became a county in 1586, under Queen Elizabeth I, and Ennis was chosen as its administrative capital because of its central location and the influence of the O’Brien Earls of Thomond. A grant from King James I to hold fairs and markets in 1610 was followed in 1613 by the first of two Charters for a Corporation with a Provost, Free Burgesses, Commonalty and a Town Clerk. Assizes were held regularly, necessitating the construction of a large County Gaol where many were hanged.
The lack of defensive walls may have attracted Roman Catholic merchants, forbidden by the Penal Laws to reside in walled towns such as Limerick City.
Ennis continued to expand in a slow but steady fashion, mainly as a market town and later as a milling, and manufacturing centre, with textile factories, a brewery and a distillery. Many commodities were shipped downriver to Clarecastle for shipment abroad.
Daniel O’Connell was returned to parliament in the famous Clare Elections of 1828, an historic event which led to the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829. Jail St was later renamed O’Connell St in his honour.
Although the 1832 cholera epidemic seriously affected Ennis, it was the Great Famine of 1845-49 and its aftermath that reduced the population most considerably. The principal local (absentee) landlord, Col. George Wyndham (later Baron Leconfield) sponsored emigration to Upper Canada.
Charles Stewart Parnell propounded the policy of boycott in September 1880 in a speech delivered in Ennis, the scene of major Land League demonstrations and nationalist. Mill St was later renamed Parnell St in his honour.
More than one military barracks was constructed locally over the years. Many Ennis men fought with the British and French armies during WWI; some are buried at the Somme, Ypres and other fields of carnage.
Éamon de Valera was selected by Sinn Féin to contest the East Clare by-election in 1917, thus beginning his long association with the town and county. He went on to instigate and lose the Civil War, found the Fianna Fail party, serve thrice as Taoiseach and finally become President of Ireland in his dotage.
Ennis was a hotbed of Republican activity during the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War; notable participants included members of the Barrett and Brennan families.
After a long period of relative stagnation, Ennis grew considerably in the second half of the C20th, with new industries and housing estates (often with Irish Gaelic names) springing up in all directions around the old town to form extensive suburbs. This process was accelerated and augmented by immigration during the Celtic Tiger years, the sudden end of which left numerous half-built ghost estates in the area.
Rather surprisingly, many current residents of Ennis regard the town as somewhat unsafe at night, and prefer to socialise in Limerick City, which despite its ferocious reputation has more clearly demarcated “no-go areas”.
Ennis Friary, used for Anglican worship from the C17th to the C19th, is nowadays a well preserved set of ruins consisting of a nave, chancel, belfry and an arcaded cloister. The complex has recently undergone partial restoration and re-roofing. Highlights include a statue of Saint Francis displaying his stigmata, the magnificent 1470 MacMahon tomb with elaborately carved scenes from the passion of Christ, numerous C15th and C16th sculptures made from the local hard limestone, and some fine medieval windows. Guided Tours are well worth taking.
The Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul (RC) was originally intended as the parish church of Ennis. The site was donated in 1828 by Francis Gore, a Protestant landowner. Construction, initially overseen by J.J McCarthy, was interrupted several times, most importantly by the Great Famine, and the tower and spire were not completed until 1874. The church became a pro-Cathedral as the seat of the Bishop of Killaloe in 1890, and was named a full cathedral in 1990. The splendid organ, installed in 1930, gained renown under Belgian choirmaster Ernest de Regge.
The De Valera Public Library & Gallery, run by the excellent Clare County Library service, incorporates the old Presbyterian church (1856), now used as a lecture and display centre. A 1947 Dodge once owned by Éamon de Valera is on display in the grounds. The Local Studies Centre is a well-stocked reference library, archive and research centre dealing with the history and topography of County Clare.
The former Sisters of Mercy Convent
The Sisters of Mercy Convent, founded in 1861, grew to include two schools, an orphanage and several small industries. The main building was demolished in 1995, while the surviving parts of the complex were restored and put to new uses, including a wing which now houses the Clare Tourism Centre.
The Clare Museum houses a permanent exhibition, The Riches of Clare, blending traditional display methods with modern multi-media interpretative tools.
The Temple Gate Hotel***, set around a cobblestoned courtyard, has won several awards for its excellent service. (Photo – www.tripadvisor.com) The splendid convent chapel has been converted into an attractive function room.
The O’Connell Monument, a prominent landmark, comprises a statue of “the Liberator” Daniel O’Connell standing atop an elegant Doric column in O’Connell Square, the site of the old courthouse where the statesman’s historic 1828 election victory was officially pronounced. Executed by James Cahill of Dublin, it was erected by public subscription in 1867.
Ennis Green & Courthouse
The Town Park is the former Fair Green, comprising nine verdant Irish acres walled in c.1868 on the instructions of Lord Leconfield‘s agent, Wainwright Crowe, and used for fairs from 1873 onwards. In 1985 it was officially renamed Tim Smythe Park in honour of a great Clare athlete.
Ennis Courthouse and Town Park Grotto.
Ennis Courthouse, designed by Henry Whitestone. was built in 1850. Its Ionic portico is flanked by a large Russian cannon, a trophy of the Crimean War.
The De Valera Memorial, a larger-than-life bronze statue of Éamon de Valera by Jim Connolly, stands mounted on a limestone pedestal in the park.
St Columba’s church (CoI) on Bindon St was designed by Francis Bindon in the “Decorated Victorian” style, and built complete with Celtic Cross and miniature Round Tower chimney in 1871 for Drumcliffe parish, which nowadays takes in Ennis and most of the north of County Clare. It contains a number of memorials dedicated to locally renowned families, notably that of General Sir Bindon Blood, whose pyramidal mausoleum dominates the churchyard. Locally-born artist Catherine Amelia O’Brien made the remarkable O’Brien Window and two smaller stained glass windows in commemoration of her family, and also contributed 24 ceramic and mosaic figures of saints.
The Maid of Erin, a life-size statue personifying Ireland, stands on a 23ft column in the middle of a roundabout beside the River Fergus. Designed by PJ O’Neill, it was erected in 1881 to commemorate the Manchester Martyrs, three Fenians controversially hanged in England in 1867.
Steele’s Rock, close to the embankment of the River Fergus, consists of three irregular blocks of limestone, one carved with a shield bearing a lion passant picked out in colour. The story goes that the young Tom Steele (1788 – 1848), the eccentric Protestant landlord of Cullane, used to sit here hoping to get a glimpse of the object of his unrequited love, Matilda Crowe, who lived in Abbeyfield House across the river. He fought in Spain for the Patriot Army against the despotic King Fernando VII, and later became a political aide and close friend of Daniel O’Connell, attending rallies all over the country driving a hearse with a coffin bearing the word “Repeal”. Indifferent to wealth and ultimately penniless, “Honest Tom Steele” threw himself off London’s Waterloo Bridge into the River Thames, where he was rescued, but died a few days later, and was buried next to the Liberator’s grave in Glasnevin Cemetery.
John Behan’s sculpture representing Daedalus, the Greek mythological creator of the Minoan Labyrinth, carpentry tools and wax wings (whereby his son Icarus came to grief in an oft-cited example of hubris), was presented to the people of Ennis by Guinness Peat Aviation in 1990 to mark the town’s 750th anniversary; placed in the centre of the Market Square; “temporarily” removed in 2007, it is still sorely missed.
Ennis’s narrow streets and lanes, following the medieval town layout, bustle with life, gossip and music. (Photo – www.genslin.us)
The Market Square is used for a Friday farm produce market and is still filled with stalls every Saturday, selling textiles, domestic hardware and traditional agricultural produce, plus added organic farming and exotic elements in recent years.
Custy’s Traditional Music Shop has earned a worldwide reputation for traditional Irish musical instruments such as bodhróns, whistles, flutes, fiddles, banjos and concertinas.
Glór is Ennis’ main entertainment and arts venue, with regular concerts, shows, dance events, exhibitions, films, courses and workshops.
Ennis has a great selection of pubs, many hosting musical events of every sort, from professional gigs to jam sessions, ranging eclectically from traditional to jazz, pop and heavy metal. Most also serve food, ranging from old-fashioned Carvery lunches to pizza etc.
The Queens Hotel*** & Nightclub, long established and centrally located, includes the highly recommended Cruises Bar.
Ciaran’s Bar is probably the best known venue for traditional music sessions in Ennis.
James O’Keeffe’s, another regular traditional music venue, and the adjoining Tommy Steele’s serve the best pints of Guinness in town.
The Old Ground Hotel****, long the poshest place to stay in Ennis, is a historically converted C18th townhouse with friendly staff and elegant bar, dining and accommodation facilities, very conveniently situated.
Other schools include Gaelscoil Mhichíl Cíosóg and the multi-denominational Ennis Educate Together National School (since 1998) at primary level, and at secondary level, Colaiste Mhuire (Sisters of Mercy) and Gaelcholaiste an Chláir in the grounds of Ennis Community College (which itself runs regular, special and adult evening courses). The only higher education facility is Ennis Business College.
Ennis Railway Station, built c.1860, was the terminus of the celebrated West Clare Railway (1887 – 1952). Many of the old railway bridges, piers, banks and other such works are still standing. The station is now on the partially revived Western Corridor linking Galway City and Limerick City via Athenry, with a commuter train service running to / from Limerick Junction, and its car park also functions as a regional bus depot.
Our Lady’s Mental Hospital, one of the largest public buildings in County Clare, operated from 1868 to 2002. A former charge nurse described his first impression of the day room as being “like stepping into the jaws of Hell“.
An Fleadh Nua, the second largest traditional music festival in Ireland, is held in Ennis in late May each year.
The County Show, a major agricultural, equestrian and social event for the whole of County Clare for over 100 years, takes place at the Ennis Show Grounds in early July.
The Ennis Trad Festival is held every November.
Ennis, at the western end of ByRoute 10, is north of Clarecastle on ByRoute 9 and west of Spancel Hill on ByRoute 11.