Dreaming of a nice libation while enjoying island life? No, I’m not talking Margaritaville. How about … Ireland? It’s an island, they have great libations and one of the best places to enjoy that while listening to some awesome live music, is Ennis! And like Margaritaville, it’s easy-going, although you can leave the saltshaker and flip-flops at home…
Ennis started in the 1100s – on a small island in the River Fergus. And speaking of islands, the name Ennis actually comes from the Irish word “inis”, which means “island”. Today, Ennis is the pubs & music capital of County Clare in Ireland’s West. What could be more Irish than enjoying a nice local pint or whiskey while listening to live “trad” (traditional) music? Fun as that is, do expand your scope, as there’s much to see and do in a mere hour’s radius!
A town like Ennis
This header is an obvious wordplay on that oh so enjoyable book “A Town Like Alice” by Nevil Shute about small town life in Australia’s Outback. Not my wordplay though: it was the title of a 2008 article in the Irish Times about Ennis, and it’s worth a read.
After a hiatus of way too many years, I recently renewed my acquaintance with Ennis. The perfect base for a myriad attractions around County Clare, Ennis is home to about 25,000 people. Small enough to be walkable, yet large enough to offer services and good lodging options in and around the centre.
If pubs are important to you, it’s best to lodge in walking distance from that centre. Ireland is very serious about drink driving these days. Don’t risk it, for your own sake and especially for others!
Clare grounds for enjoyment
We picked the Old Ground hotel for our multi-night stay. Some of you may know this lovely hotel, as our company uses it a lot. The Old Ground, part of the Flynn Group, is a solid quality 4 star property. It sits on the corner of O’Connell Street and Station Road, right across from the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul.
We had a rental car and the hotel has a convenient, safe and free parking lot right behind it. Pubs, the Friary, the Clare Museum, they’re all within a short stroll.
Why that curious name, “Old Ground”? According to records, Barry Upton and John Dwyer built a large dwelling here in the early 1700s. They leased it out for “three lives” to a Charles Mahon, and after he passed away, it went to his nephew John Mahon.
John resided in London at the time – we’re in the late 1800s at this point – and he traveled to Ireland to have a look at his new Ennis residence. Upon arrival, an old retainer greeted him with the words “You are welcome to the old ground!” The name stuck. The hotel’s full history is quite interesting and written up nicely in a four page PDF.
What’s cooking at Town Hall
We had booked a mini-package with a 3-course dinner on our first night. Making our way to the hotel’s Brendan O’Regan restaurant, the receptionist warned us that a large tour group was about to dine there. She suggested we avoid those crowds and try their other option next door: the Town Hall Bistro. Excellent idea! It was a lovely spot, with art on the walls, full of charm and quality. Have a look at their description on the Visit Clare website.
The dinners were awesome but, alas, my travel notes are gone and I can’t remember exactly what we had! The joy of aging… I do have a picture and the food looks delicious. Check out the menu; the Town Hall offers many mouth-watering choices.
Have you herd?
Thirsty for news about those local brews? I asked a publican and he mentioned the Western Herd Brewery. Located in nearby Kilmaley about 7 miles west of Ennis, it’s a small family operation, founded by brother and sister Michael and Maeve Eustace. They converted their greatx5-grandfather’s farm into a brewery, where together with Master Brewer Adam Orrick they produce several excellent craft beers.
Name that beer
Western Herd honors their Irish heritage in the names of their beers. I tried three – did I mention the wisdom of booking a hotel in walking distance?
The Fox Catcher is a pleasant and well-balanced Irish Red, at a modest 5.2% ABV. Blue Jumper, their classic IPA is named after a scene between Father Dougal and Sister Assumpta in a 1995 episode of “Father Ted”, for the fans. It’s quite citrusy and at 6.2% ABV not heavy for an IPA. My favorite was their amber-colored 5.1% Pale Ale called Siege.
Fun fact: “Siege” does not refer to some ancient battle for Ennis, but rather, to a dance! It’s a Ceili known as the “Siege of Ennis”. The Claddagh School of Irish Dance shows the instructions and YouTube’s CeiliAndCraig posted a video of the dance being performed.
Back at the Old Ground that first night, we hung out in the Poets Corner. This pub is part of the hotel but has a separate street entrance too. With that, it feels like a true local pub, not a just-passing-through hotel bar at all.
And the name? Ireland, as often mentioned, is the only country in the world with 4 Nobel Laureates for Literature (Beckett, Heaney, Shaw and Yeats, if you like your lists alphabetical) and they’re justly proud of that.
Pubs provided much inspiration; must be something in the Irish water… And if consumption is a measure, there’s gotta be another Nobel coming to the Emerald Isle soon!
No actual poets in any corners here tonight that we noticed. Instead, a cool local trad band was playing it up, while the guests enjoyed conversation and drinks, not necessarily in that order. Live trad music is usually Thursday through Sunday, so try to time your visit! Having done justice to all this Irish culture, we retired and enjoyed a great night sleep in a quiet room near the back.
It’s all Clare to me now, honey!
We woke up late-ish, refreshed and ready for a Full Irish breakfast in the O’Regan. That large tour group had just finished up – those buses start early – and staff was quickly and efficiently resetting the room for those enjoying a more leisurely morning.
The breakfast options were plentiful and wonderful. Not super hungry after a big dinner out? Try their Kilbeggan Organic Porridge served with Crème Fraiche and Clare Honey, a delight! Hmm, I wonder whether that crème was produced by cows in a western herd nearby…
From Cliffs to Doolin banjos
One thing that’s on almost everyone’s “must-see” lists in Co. Clare are the Cliffs of Moher. Just south of the small and fun village of Doolin, they’re a mere 40-minute drive from Ennis. The Cliffs are famous and there’s tons written about them, so I’ll just add a few notes on the experience here.
The walks along the top of the Cliffs south, or O’Brien’s Tower (highest point of the Cliffs) north from the entrance are awesome, and will show you the famous views. There’s also a neat interpretive Exhibitions Centre, especially good if it rains. I hear it does that on occasion in Ireland…
Walk this way, talk this way
If it does rain, how about waiting it out with a stop in Doolin for more trad music over a pub lunch or dinner? Doolin also offers an excellent guided morning walk along the Cliffs, at 10am. Hosted by a longtime local Farm B&B operator, it takes several hours, so plan enough time.
Last but not least: consider an hour-long Cliffs cruise from Doolin, for a very different perspective!
Anybody want a peanut?
Fun fact: the Cliffs were featured in the “Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince” movie. And years before that, they were the “Cliffs of Insanity” in that inimitable movie “The Princess Bride”. I could write more about that but, I will stop it, I mean it…
A spot of spelunking
Just 5 minutes northeast of Doolin is Doolin Cave. We had pre-purchased tickets to make sure we could get in on our schedule: no matter how long a vacation, it’s always too short! We arrived on time and waited for the tour in the small but pleasant gift shop-cum-café. The guide then gathered our small group of less than 10 people, and down we went.
Doolin Cave is private and quite large. A couple of spelunkers from the “Craven Pothole Club”, a group of English cavers based in Yorkshire, discovered it in 1952. They found the access by accident and getting inside remained very challenging for years. Quite fortunate really, as that prevented damage by souvenir hunters.
Hanging around in a cave
In the 90s, private investors purchased the land and wanted to develop the site into a show cave. Much controversy followed about if and how to develop the site responsibly. In recent years, Doolin Cave has earned several eco-tourism awards, so they must be doing something right!
The Cave’s main feature is the “Great Stalactite” one of the world’s largest free-hanging stalactites, at some 24 feet long.
Rock solid attraction
Half an hour north of Ennis, you’ll find another famous site: Poulnabrone Dolmen. This ancient structure sits in the famous Burren area, near Ballyvaughan. The Burren’s otherworldly “glaciated karst” surface of limestone and dissolved rock was created surprisingly recently, as geology goes: a mere 10,000 years ago.
Poulnabrone Dolmen (and “Poul” is pronounced as rhyming with “Fowl”) is an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 years old. Thought to be a ceremonial burial or portal site, it was constructed by ancient Neolithic tribes, among Ireland’s earliest farming communities. Today, it’s part of The Burren and Cliffs of Moher GeoPark.
Digging the Dolmen
In the mid 1980s, a crack in a rock caused a collapse. The crack was going to be repaired with great care, and archaeologists cleverly used that time for some excavations. They found bones of over 30 people, brought here some time after being buried elsewhere, providing new theories about the Dolmen’s origins and usage.
Amazingly, access is free. Parking used to be along the road, but visitation was getting out of hand. Growing numbers of tour buses and cars parking in the berm made for a rather dangerous situation. About 10 years ago, a decent size parking lot was created. During our early October visit, the lot only had 2 other cars.
Move ‘em on, head ‘em up, rope ‘em off
Surprisingly, the ancient treasure is only “protected” by a rope around it. Visitors are expected to honor that simple and unsupervised barrier – all 200,000 per year of them…
We were lucky with pretty skies, some clouds and sunshine, but had to walk carefully. The karst terrain is rocky and uneven, and fierce winds tried to blow us all over the place!
We had good jackets though, and hats, scarves and even gloves helped in staying warm.
Dog and stony show
Just a mile and a half from Poulnabrone is the often-overlooked Caherconnell Stone Fort. Don’t miss that, for several reasons, none the least of which is their excellent Mountain Haven Café. It’s open from March trough November for tasty lunches and offers delectable pastries and a great cuppa tea, coffee or hot cocoa as well. Our first stop after those fierce winds at Poulnabrone!
Caherconnell’s ancient stone structures are interesting in themselves but there’s a hidden treat available here. Posted at the Registry desk you’ll see a small sign indicating times for Sheepdog Demonstrations!
You get the best view by booking a spot for the timed performances but you can also just walk around the regular structures path as we did and catch them on the side.
There’s something about walking around a town in the dark, so back in Ennis that evening, I did a late walkabout. The O’Connell statue, Clare Museum plaza and the Church of the Immaculate Conception are all nicely lit up at night.
There’s a famous Celtic Knot sculpture at the Museum Square too. By the way, if you enjoy sculptures, Ennis has an actual Sculpture Trail along quite a few. Takes about an hour to walk it, and the Old Ground has a solid Sculpture Trail description on its website.
Abbeys, Friaries and Churches
Strolling along Friars Walk, I circled the Poor Clares Monastery complex to the aforementioned Church of the Immaculate Conception. This Church is the current Franciscan Order’s gathering place, on – what else – Francis Street. And right across from the Church – what else! – a pub.
Turning right on Abbey Street, it’s a short walk to the actual old Franciscan Friary, also known as Ennis Abbey. The well-maintained ruins (if there’s such a thing) are still standing and open to the public – but not at night. The Friary is managed by Heritage Ireland: click here for visiting hours, fee and other information.
Doubling back on Abbey Street, I then turned onto Bank Place to cross the River Fergus, known for trout and salmon fishing. Next stop: Saint Columba’s Church, also nicely lit up at night.
Where there’s smoke, there’s … beer
I walked back via High Street and Merchant’s Square to Lower Market Street. Tempting music poured from just about every pub. The Wild Atlantic Wool & Gifts shop was closed. A nippy October night but still, as usual, people were standing outside, pint in hand, and – not my thing for sure – smoking away.
Fun fact: Irish pubs were legally required to be smoke-free in 2004, March 29ththat year in fact. It’s a date still lamented by many. But they’re lamenting in better health!
Upon my return to the Old Ground, the Poets Corner beckoned once again but, it was late and the band was packing up. I decided to be responsible and go pack up as well. Tomorrow’s departure was going to be timely, with more escapades coming up, but elsewhere: time to clear out of County Clare and exit excellent Ennis!
My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. Note that the company does not necessarily share my opinions and views. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine (except where credited as noted), as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.
(R) Photography by Robin Gabbert
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