County Clare

The undulating Cliffs of Moher, the weird limestone landscape of the Burren, and the musical pubs of Ennis and Doolin

County Clare is known for the dramatically undulating Cliffs of Moher rising 650 feet above the sea, and for the Burren, where Alpine and Mediterranean flowers grow side by side the odd microclimates of rock fissures, and the weirdly eroded limestone landscape is scattered with ancient dolmens, overgrown churchyards, crumbling ring forts, and passage tombs.

Bunratty Castle

Past Limerick—Ireland’s third largest and the delightfully skippable city—OK, so the drums of King John’s Castle from 1200 are pretty cool to see—and continuing along the coast, we enter Co. Clare—O’Brien country—and arrive at Bunratty Castle, Western Ireland’s No. 1 sight—not that it is the best, but that it is literally the first thing most visitors stop and see because it’s really, really close to Shannon airport.

But seriously, it is an excellent castle—all nice and craggy and medieval-like. Built in 1425 and seat for the Earls of Thurmond from 1500 to the 1640s, it was inhabited all the way to the 19th century and was restored to its medieval state in the 1950s, including the large Guard , soldiers’ barracks, where they now throw popular medieval feasts.

There is also a “Folk Park” here that is really just a slightly more authentic-looking (but in fact, not) version of a rural Irish village of some vague yesteryear—and there are tons of the real thing pretty much everywhere in Ireland, just without the employees wandering around in period costume churning butter and whatnot.


That is a popular thing around here: The recreated folk park—some more successful and informative than others.

Craggaunowen, a 16th century castle that was bought by archaeology John Hunt in the 1960s and turned into a combination museum of genuine artifacts and a living history exhibition.

Costumed folk act out everyday life, housework, and tradecraft from the Bronze Age and Celtic eras—spinning, grinding grain, crafting pottery and wooden bowls, and even making dinner on one of those fulacht fiadh cooking pits.

On the grounds are the remains of a togher, an Iron Age timbered roadway used to get across swampland, built in AD 185 and discovered in 1975 preserved in Corlea Bog of Co. Longford; after excavation, it was removed here for study and preservation.

Less authentic—but much cooler-looking and more intact for being modern recreations—are the reconstructions of a late Bronze Age ring fort and, most impressively, a crannóg, a kind of defensive wattle—and-daub village on a man-made island. (Aside from scattered archaeological remains, no actual crannógs survived past the 16th century, so this is your best chance to see what one looked like.)

Also here, in a greenhouse-like shed, is the leather-hulled Brendan Boat, built of period materials and with period tools in 1976 by Tim Severin and sailed across the Atlantic to give weight to the legends of St. Brendan the Navigator.


The capital of County Clare is the stony medieval town of Ennis, with a roofless Friary built between the 13th and 15th centuries, and more pubs per capita than any other town in Ireland.

I am going to repeat that, since it is a fairly significant statement. This is Ireland. They, to put it mildly, love their pubs. No matter where you go, there seems to be one on every corner. The tiniest roadside hamlet, if it has just one business, that business will be a pub.

So when I say that Ennis has more pubs per capita than any other town in Ireland, that’s, well, that‘s a ridiculous number of pubs.

It’s not that the locals are particularly big drinkers—and remember, a “public house” is more than a place to get a pint; it is the gather place for the community, a place out of the weather to be in each other’s company, share a meal, catch up on gossip, and just generally live life. Except for some bar-like spots in Dublin’s Temple Bar and near Trinity—well, near Universities in any city—most pubs are family-friendly.

No, I think the real reason Ennis has so many pubs is so there are plenty of places to listen to, or participate in, a good session.

Traitional Irish music in Ennis and the Fleadh Nua festival

Clare is the unofficial capital of traditional Irish music—there is even a “Clare Style” distinctive from the northern Donegal Style (which has less bowing on the fiddle and more staccato notes, closer to Scottish Celtic music, which only makes sense historio-geographically).

If you want a primer on Irish music, head to Custy’s, a tiny but perfect music shop (often with the sound of music lessons floating from a back room).

Even better, come here for one of the fleadhs—festivals of traditional music. The best, by far, is the Fleadh Nua, the “New Fleadh,” held in May.

Unlike most fleadhs across Ireland—largely concerts of accomplished performers staged for audience appreciation—the Fleadh Nua is participatory.

There are plenty of concerts, but also lessons in dancing the ceili or playing the bodhrán drum—and every night, after the marquee concerts, Irish musicians from across the world gather in those legion pubs of Ennis for informal sessions, jamming until the wee hours. Like good jazz.

The Burren

Now, if you know a bit of Irish when it comes to place names, you might notice that the name of this town means “island,” which is a bit weird for a place so hopelessly landlocked.

That’s because Ennis is an island, not in the ocean or a lake, but in the vast sea of limestone around it known as The Burren.

It is, at first glance, a harsh and barren land, nearly 62,000 acres of not all that much. It truly fits the 1651 description of a surveyor named Ludlow reporting back to the rapacious Oliver Cromwell in telling language: “It is a country where there is not water enough to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury them.”

But look more closely, at the cracks riddling the great flagstones of karst, and you’ll find a thousand microclimates—from Mediterranean to Alpine—safe from the scouring winds where 75% of the plantlife found in Ireland, including 23 species of orchid.

The Burren is a wonderful place to explore on horseback or on foot—the office of the Burren National Park in Corofin offers free short guided walks from April through August (you must book those ahead).

Of just go it alone. You can pick up pamphlets and excellent maps in the Burren Centre in little Kilfenora, a village of just 220 souls (though instantly familiar to anyone who watched the TV show Father Ted filmed here in the mid 1990s).

Kilfenora also has several lovely High Crosses in and around the roofless little 12th century cathedral (in 2005, several of the crosses were moved from the graveyard to the church under a new glass roof; also interesting is that, through an ecclesiastical quirk, the Pope is also the local bishop).

The maps they sell of the Burren mark every little ruined church and prehistoric site across the Burren, allowing you to go on an Indiana Jones hunt for things like dolmens—Neolithic portal tombs built like Flintstones-style house of cards and dating back 4,900 to 6,200 years—and not just the poster child tomb that all the bus tours hit, the admittedly dramatic Poulnabrone Dolmen.

Doolin & The Cliffs of Moher

Just south of Doolin—a curiously spread-out village with an outsized reputation for traditional music, and hence a bunch of pubs and B&Bs for the enjoyment thereof (and, in summer, catch ferries to the Aran Islands)—the road rises to one of the most famous sights in all of Ireland: The Cliffs of Insanity.

No, that‘s just what they called them when the used them as a shooting location for The Princess Bride.

The real name is the Cliffs of Moher, a sea precipice of sandstone layered with black shale undulating along 8km (5 miles) of coastline and dropping a sheer 203m (666 feet) into the crashing waters of the Atlantic.

There is a 19th century viewing tower and a clifftop path, but for god’s sake watch your footing, and don’t climb over any railings. The wind here can gust quite strong, and did I mention it’s 666 feet down?

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in September 2011.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.