EXPLORING CO. CLARE: ENNIS & BUNRATTY CASTLE
Having properly settled into my new home, I am venturing out of Limerick to explore the neighbouring county of Clare. This region in the mid-west of Ireland has quite a lot to offer: a spectacular rugged coastline, medieval abbeys and castles, lush landscapes, traditional Irish music and culture. That is, everything visitors come to Ireland for. You would need a good few days to do it all! But if you can only travel one day (or weekend) at a time, the colourful town of Ennis and the 15th century Bunratty Castle are nice places to start with.
The capital of County Clare, Ennis (Irish: Inis, short for Inis Cluain Ramh Fhada meaning 'island of the long rowing meadow') is a small town on the banks of the River Fergus. It is renowned for its colourful winding streets that burst with pubs playing live Irish music and plentiful shops. The medieval origin of the town paired with many modern influences gives Ennis a distinctive, characterful atmosphere (click pictures to enlarge).
I arrived here on a Sunday morning, when even the town centre was still asleep, which made these pretty facades and quaint alleys all the more charming. And - not a big surprise - it was pouring rain.
> FULL IRISH BREAKFAST
It did not look like the rain was letting up any time soon, so I decided to treat myself to a full Irish breakfast, or Ulster Fry, as it is known in Northern Ireland. Admittedly, it had been a busy weekend and the full Irish did not even sound like a heart attack waiting to happen (quite the opposite, in fact). What does the full Irish come with, you might ask? In its most complete form, it must consist of:
> Two sausages, two rashers (fried bacon), one black pudding (a type of sausage made up of pork meat, rusk, and spices plus pork blood), one white pudding (same sausage minus the blood), one fried egg, one fried tomato, fried mushrooms, one potato cake, toast and/or Irish soda bread. Beans are optional. Tea is mandatory.
Traditionally, this meal was concocted to prepare you for a busy day out on the farm. These days, the traditional full Irish is a staple treat to savour on a lazy Sunday morning/afternoon/evening - that depends on when you wake up.
In Ennis, Cairde is a great place to indulge yourself in this local delicacy (€8.50 for the full Irish(. The cafe celebrates breakfast and lunch foods in all shapes and forms, so your options are wide and varied. Located on Barrack St. between the cathedral and the market, it is popular among locals - you might want to arrive early.
* If you are Irish, I apologise for the fact that the beans are touching the eggs. They probably got in contact as I was moving the plate to take this picture. I hear it's blasphemous. It won't happen again, pinky promise.
Luckily, the rain had stopped by the time I stepped outside. Taking a stroll through the streets along with the courthouse and cathedral was fun a tad bit creepy; the streets were completely empty! With shop fronts closed and only the odd car passing by, it really felt like a ghost town. Especially so since Ennis is known for the lively music scene. Many a great pub here feature traditional Irish sessions. I did not get to visit them on this trip as it was a tad bit too early for pub crawling, but I might pay a visit over the next couple of months. Traditional music enthusiasts come here in late May to visit the lively festival Fleadh Nua.
> WHAT'S WITH THE DOORS?
If you have been to Dublin and liked its bright doors, I've got good news - this is not limited to the capital city. Funny how it is even a thing, but Ireland has some of the prettiest doors I've come across during my travels. While there are many colourful tales about why they began to be painted a galore of vibrant hues, here are the most popular two. Remember though, the Irish do not let facts get in the way of a good story.
According to legend, writers Oliver St John Gogarty and George Moore lived next to each other in Ely Place, where all the Georgian doorways back then, in the 18th century, looked the same - they were black. Gogarty, no stranger to having a drink or ten, routinely knocked on Moore’s door late at night thinking it was his house. Moore had had enough of it and painted his door a bright shade of red. Gogarty painted his green. Then their neighbours and, eventually, Dublin followed suit.
Another story refers to the early 1700s, when Dublin rose to become one of the most prominent and prosperous cities in the British Empire. As it grew beyond the medieval town's walls, locals began to build new homes, one of the first developments being Merrion Square. At the time, all townhouses in the area had to adhere to very specific architectural guidelines so residents took it to their exterior doors to set themselves apart.
As I continued to walk around town, I stumbled over The Centurial Sphere, an artwork commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising (picture on the right). It is covered in "lines from poems and songs about and from different parts of Clare celebrating the county’s cultural tradition", as explains a local newspaper.
Walking along the River Fergus, you will see St. Columba's Church, an example of Victorian Gothic architecture (picture in the middle). It was constructed between 1868 and 1871, making it the last Anglican Church to be built in Ireland before the Irish Church Act 1869 disestablished it.
The town's most prominent historical site is Ennis Friary (pictured in the middle) dating back to the 13th century. It was founded by the O'Brien's, kings of Thomond, who also built a castle here. Once renowned throughout Europe as an important centre of learning, it would house over 300 Franciscan friars and 600 students at a time. The church turned it a big complex with dormitories, cloisters, workshops, a kitchen and refectory to accommodate its residents. You can visit the premises between April 6th and November 1st when the friary is open.Visitors can view various 15th- and 16th-century sculptures, the figure of St Francis displaying the stigmata, the McMahon tomb, most of them carved from local limestone, and other remains that provide an insight into it must have looked like when the Friary was at the height of its power.
> Don't miss the other sights the area has to offer: Quin Abbey, Cragganowen Iron age dwellings, and Knappogue Castle are a short (15-20 min) drive away. From Ennis, you can reach any other part of Co. Clare in under two hours.
Bunratty (Irish: Bun na Raite, which means 'End of the Raite river') is a civil parish and a small village by the same name. It features a splendid 15th-century castle surrounded by a theme park that recreates a clichéd Irish village of yore.
Next to the castle and its park, you will find some unapologetically touristy shops and cafés.
> Admission: Year Round
> Tickets: Adult €12.50, student €10.50 (a tad bit cheaper online)
> THE VILLAGE
The 26-acre Bunratty Folk park is a polished replica of an Irish rural village in the old days. Farmhouses, thatched cottages, the Ardcroney Church, a corn mill illustrate the rustic livelihoods in the 1800s according to their dwellers' social standing. Sheep, chicken, donkeys, and other domesticated animals add to the country feel. Some of the buildings were actually brought here stone by stone from elsewhere, but the majority are recreations. The foggy weather somehow made the atmosphere all the more congenial.
It is really interesting to peek into the typical dwelling of a farmer's family, then into the Bunratty House, an example of a Georgian home of the gentry (in this case, it was the Studdarts, the last family to occupy Bunratty Castle). The contrast is fascinating: a bedroom has a cradle, a crucifix, and a humble interior (you can spot a single candle) on one hand, and a piano and a table with a tea set on the other.
On the grounds of the park are also a post office, a cafe, a pub, and a souvenir shop.
> THE CASTLE
The castle is the fourth incarnation to occupy this site - prior to its construction in the early 1400s, the Vikings and Normans had built their fortified settlements here. It is the most authentic and complete medieval fortress in Ireland today. Essentially, it is a three story tower house comprised of a tall building with a square tower at each corner. Many of the rooms served bedrooms with connecting latrines.
The square-shaped castle was brought back its former splendour and fully restored in the 1950s after it had been purchased by Viscount Lord Gort. It now holds a great collection of 14th- to 17th-century furniture, paintings, antlers, and wall tapestries.
> How to get to there: from Limerick, it only takes 10 min to get to the castle by bus (€5 one-way) . Shannon is 40 min away from Limerick if you're travelling by bus (€10 return) or train (one-way ticket from €11). Your best bet is to travel by car.
Shannon Airport, the third largest airport in Ireland, is only 5 km west of Bunratty Castle. It operates routes both within Europe (primarily to the UK) and to the United States. Alternatively, you can fly into Dublin or Cork.
Have you been to Co. Clare or this part of Ireland? Share in the comments below!
Happy travels x