County Clare (Contae an Chláir) is in the Shannon Region of Ireland. The eastern part is farmland, dotted with ruined abbeys and small market towns; the west and north are bare limestone ridges and cliffs facing the Atlantic weather. It's very touristy: Shannon airport, medieval banquets at Bunratty, Cliffs of Moher, trad Irish music in the villages, looking up ancestors in Corofin: the package itinerary writes itself. But this means visitor amenities are well-developed, and you only have to turn up any quiet lane to escape the circus and have the place to yourself.
Towns and villages
- 1 Ennis is the county town. There's a ruined abbey in town and several more nearby.
- 2 Bunratty has a well-preserved castle and outdoor museum, hosting "medieval banquets" and very touristy.
- Shannon town was built in the 1960s to serve the airport. It's drab and industrial but has accommodation.
- 3 Kilkee is the way to reach Loop Head - just as scenic as Cliffs of Moher yet bypassed by the tourist circuit.
- 4 Kilrush has a walled garden. Boat trips sail to Scattery Island.
- 5 Milltown Malbay on the coast has a summer school of Irish traditional music.
- 6 Lahinch is a seaside resort with good surf, and nearby Ennistymon is an attractive small village.
- 7 Doolin is a small village, famous for its Irish music tradition and the atmosphere in its pubs. Boat trips sail to the Aran Islands from here.
- 8 Kilfenora is a village on the south edge of The Burren.
- 9 Ballyvaughan, looking onto Galway Bay, is at the north edge of The Burren, with caves and prehistoric tombs and settlements.
- 10 Killaloe is a picturesque village on the Shannon with a fine medieval cathedral.
- 1 The Burren is a remarkable landscape of bare limestone pavement, with caves, prehistoric structures and unusual plant life.
- 2 The Aran Islands are part of County Galway but are easily reached by boat from Doolin.
- 3 Inis Cealtra or Holy Island in Loch Derg has a collection of early Christian sites. It's reached by boat from Mountshannon or from Killaloe.
It was a kneecap that astounded the scientists in 2017, and a bear's kneecap at that. Dated to 10,500 BC, it had clearly been hunted by humans (the whole bear not just the kneecap, d'you understand), pushing back the era of known human habitation by 2500 years. Clare's fertile lowlands were what attracted settlement, but it's the bare limestone uplands of The Burren where the early dwellings and graves are best preserved.
The Vikings sailed up the Shannon to rule this area from the 9th century, being ejected in the 11th C by the Irish under Brian Boru. A separate Kingdom of Thomond evolved but it came under the thumb of the Anglo-Normans, and the county name is probably from Thomas de Clare, a 13th C noble. There were no big pitched battles here but the castles were disputed, and Cromwell faced guerrilla resistance from the "Tories" - outlaws allied to the Royalists, who gave their name to a political faction. Clare remained agricultural and in the 19th century suffered mass emigration. Many Americans can trace their roots here (eg the boxer Muhammad Ali), aided by the good county records. Until 1956 Clare was part of the Gaeltacht, but Irish Gaelic became supplanted by English which is nowadays everyone's first language, though the government continues to encourage Gaelic in schools and other culture. The big change to Clare's fortunes came with transatlantic commercial flights, with Shannon Airport as the springboard.
Get in by boat?
In May 1588 Phillip II of Spain sought to invade England and overthrow the Protestant Queen Elizabeth. He dispatched 130 ships in a "Great and Most Fortunate Navy," Grande y Felicísima Armada. But it was harried by English warships in the Channel, scattered by fireships at Calais, further attacked at Gravelines, and fled north under strong winds. Crucially, it was unable to pick up the Duke of Parma's invasion army from Dunkirk. The broken Spanish Armada could not fight its way home through the Channel so the remaining ships tried to round Scotland and the Atlantic coast of Ireland, with bad navigation and no knowledge of those areas. There were many shipwrecks, with two in County Clare: the San Esteban at Doonbeg, and probably the San Marcos at Quilty. All survivors were put to death by the sheriff of Clare, who had strict orders from a rattled government. Seven ships anchored in the Shannon near Kilrush: the Anunciada was set ablaze and scuttled, and the crew transferred to Barco de Danzig, which made it back to Spain.
1 Shannon Airport (SNN IATA) is a major portal of entry into Ireland. It has many flights from Europe, UK and the United States, with US border pre-clearance, and in summer from Toronto. The largest operators are Ryanair and Aer Lingus. There are several car rental agencies here (you're likely to need a car to get around the county), and an hourly bus connects Limerick, the airport, Ennis and Galway.
Dublin Coach 300 (M7) runs hourly from Dublin Burgh Quay via Kildare, Limerick and Bunratty to Ennis, taking 3 hr 30 min. There's also a direct bus from Dublin Airport to Limerick.
Expressway Bus 51 runs hourly from Cork via Mallow, Limerick, Bunratty and Shannon Airport to Ennis, continuing to Galway. Don't take X51, which is nonstop between Limerick and Galway.
Bus 343 meanders hourly from Limerick via Cratloe, Bunratty, Sixmilebridge, Shannon town and airport, Newmarket-on-Fergus and Clarecastle to Ennis.
Bus 350 winds along the coast from Galway six times every day, taking 3 hours via Kinvara, Ballyvaughan, Fanore, Lisdoonvarna, Doolin, Cliffs of Moher, Liscannor, Lahinch, Ennistymon, Corofin and Inagh to Ennis.
From Dublin, first take the hourly train from Heuston station to Limerick Colbert. From there, trains run to Ennis every couple of hours, and four or five of them continue to Galway.
The Shannon Ferry plies between 2 Killimer in County Clare and Tarbert in County Kerry on the south bank, both on Highway N67. It sails hourly Sept-May and every 30 mins June-Aug. Fare is €20 for a standard car with all passengers, €5 for a foot-passenger, cyclist or motorbike. If you're touring the Atlantic coast, this saves a lengthy detour inland through Limerick. Watch for dolphins on the 20 min crossing.
An hourly bus plies between Limerick, Bunratty, Shannon town and airport, Ennis and Galway. Anywhere not on that corridor has a very sparse service, but see the coast route 350 above.
Sights and amenities are well-scattered across the county so you need a car: the best place to hire one is Shannon Airport, where all the major companies have desks.
- River Shannon, Ireland's longest river, forms the south and east boundary of County Clare. Heading upriver:
- - Scattery Island in the Atlantic Shannon has a lighthouse, tower and ruined monastery. Boat trips sail from Kilrush.
- - Bottlenose dolphins: there's a resident pod of some two dozen in the estuary off Kilrush.
- - Killaloe has a medieval cathedral and church.
- - Further upstream, Lough Derg separates County Clare and County Tipperary.
- Loop Head is the windy peninsula north of the meeting of Shannon and Atlantic, with storm-bashed cliffs and puffins. Reach it via Kilkee.
- Cliffs of Moher and Doolin village on the wild Atlantic coast.
- Craggaunowen is the recreation of a Bronze Age village, while Ennis is ringed by ruined abbeys.
- Caves: there are show caves at Doolin and at Ailwee south of Ballyvaughan. There are many more for properly trained and equipped cavers to explore.
- The Burren is a limestone upland region with many prehistoric sites, such as Caherconnell Stone Fort.
- Bunratty Castle hosts medieval banquets nightly.
- Surfing: Spanish Point near Milltown Malbay is one good spot.
- Irish music: many pubs have trad live music, and serious musicians can improve at the Milltown Malbay summer school.
- Boat trips sail to Cliffs of Moher and Aran Islands, and round the Shannon estuary.
- Mid Clare Way is a long distance walking route circling Ennis. It is 139 km in total but broken up into manageable segments.
- Look up your Irish ancestors. From 1864 all births, marriages and deaths in Ireland (and Protestant marriages from 1845) were recorded by the General Register Office in Dublin, which you can search online free. Before then, such events were recorded only in parish church registers, of variable completeness, and many have been lost; however others have been digitised. One good set of records is for County Clare, available via the Heritage & Genealogy Centre in Corofin. Their pre-1864 sources include births and marriages from the county's RC parish churches from the 17th C, property records from 1825, newspaper "hatches matches & dispatches" columns from 1799, Wills, trial verdicts, workhouse denizens and tombstone epitaphs. Visit in person or commission research from them.
- Good fresh produce (especially seafood) everywhere; Ballyvaughan has a weekly Farmer's Market.
- Bunratty is not just about the "medieval banquets", there is excellent dining in town.
- In Kilkee, O'Curry St is named for a notable Irish scholar not for its cuisine, but yes there is an Indian restaurant, a rarity in this county.
- Lots of pubs with trad music, especially in touristy spots like Milltown Malbay, Doolin, and Ennistymon near Lahinch, where Dylan Thomas set to once he'd drunk Wales and England dry.
- Poitín (like gin but more hugger-mugger and cuss-words) is distilled at Bunratty.
- Malt whiskey: there are still very few single malts produced in Ireland, but "Knappogue Castle" is one - named for the place near Ennis, though they're coy about where it's made.
- Ballyvaughan has a knowledgeable whiskey bar. Do Greenland or Fiji produce whiskey yet? Whenever they start, it's likely to be available here.
- Limerick city is a miniature Dublin with many attractions.
- Rural County Limerick can be reached by the Shannon Ferry, bypassing the city. Sights within a short drive are Foynes Flying Boat Museum, Adare and Lough Gur.
- The Aran Islands are often seen on a day-trip but deserve a longer stay.
- Galway is a fascinating city, and a base for exploring scenic Connemara.