Kilfenora (Co. Clare / West)
Kilfenora (pop. 170), a village and district at the southern tip of the Burren, looks like a small remote settlement, but is in fact a place of considerable historic significance.
Downtown Kilfenora (Photo by e m m a)
The village’s official Irish language name is Cill Fhionnurach – “church of Saint Fionnuir”, but no such person has ever been associated with the location. Kilfenora probably derives from Cill Fhionnúrach – “church of the fertile hillside”. An alternative version is Cill Fionn abhrach – “church of the white brow / meadow”. Over the centuries the place has also been referred to as Kilfenoragh, Finneborensis, Fenebore, Collumabrach and “the City of the Crosses”.
This was for thousands of years a meeting place for the scattered local community. It is believed that the ancient Celtic population of the area was relatively large, and even though the Great Famine and its sequelae devestated the region, there were 558 people living in the village as recently as 1937. For many centuries before the mid-C20th introduction of marts, farmers converged here from far and wide to sell their livestock and crops and enjoy the social contact of a trip to market, and fairs days were commonplace in Kilfenora up to the 1960s.
Saint Fachtna came here in the C6th to found a monastery, which grew into an abbey of some importance. As often happened in Gaelic Ireland, the Abbot came to be regarded as a bishop.
The abbey church was burned by Murrough O’Brien in 1055 with considerable loss of life, plundered in 1079, accidentally destroyed by fire in 1100 and replaced by a small Cathedral c.1190.
The 1111 Synod of Rathbreasail’s rejection of Kilfenora’s claim to separate episcopal jurisdiction briefly united the O’Connor and O’Loghlen clans, who preferred to maintain their own “independent” diocese rather than submit to the O’Brien dominated bishopric of Killaloe.
Although the 1152 Synod of Kells under Cardinal Paparo did belatedly recognise Kilfenora as the smallest see in Ireland, the once important diocese gradually fell on hard times to become the most impoverished in the country, described by Lord Stafford in 1638 as “being not worth above four score pounds to the last man.”
Kilfenora was no longer able to maintain its autonomy within the Church of Ireland, being joined in turn to various neighbouring Anglican bishoprics and gradually demoted.
The last Roman Catholic Bishop of Kilfenora was James Augustine O’Daly, who died in France in 1749. The titular diocesan head has since then been the Pope; the Bishop of Galway and Kilmacduagh is officially the Apostolic Administrator of Kilfenora.
Kilfenora was long famous for its seven High Crosses, which may all have been carved at about the same time as the Cathedral was being built to mark the diocese’s independence. In 1821 Dr Mant took the Kilfenora High Cross, then considered the finest of all, to put on display in St Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe.
Kilfenora Cathedral, a grandly named but otherwise modest edifice dedicated to St Fachtna, is now partly in ruins, long used as a graveyard; a glass roof erected over the transept in 2005 shelters the conserved remains of three High Crosses, notably the reconstructed Doorty Cross. (Photo – www.docbrown.info)
The C12th building was renovated in 1837, separating the original chancel from the former nave to turn the latter into a new Anglican parish church.
The church of St Fachan (CoI), still used occasionally for divine worship, nowadays belongs to the parish of Drumcliffe (Ennis) in the diocese of Limerick, Killaloe & Ardfert.
There is a splendid mitred head over the pointed entrance, and the large square stone baptismal font beyond the second doorway may date from around 1200, as its decoration matches that on the chancel’s east window. The bishop’s throne was donated in 1981.
The 1685 tomb of Donaldus MacDonogh and his wife, Maria O’Connor, is elaborately decorated with sculpted family arms and a Latin text. Below this is an inscription in English from 1752: “Here lie the remains of Dr. Patrick MacDonogh son of the above Donaldus and grandson of the Craven – He was dignitary of the Church of France and of Romish Ireland – He was intimately acquainted with men of the first rank.”
The “massive square tower” admired by Samuel Lewis (1837), has been described by another commentator as “a pile of emigrants’ luggage, with a rabbit hutch or birdcage overhead,” which “defies every order of architecture.”
The chancel, according to tradition, had an oak ceiling painted blue with gold stars until the end of the C18th. Now roofless, it is still dominated by an impressive three-light east window with triangular pillars topped by carved capitals. Carved effigies on either side represent a bishop with his right hand raised in blessing, and a tonsured cleric holding a book.
Although the oldest decipherable tomb inscription here appears to date from 1638, this place was used since the foundation of the church as the last resting place of monks, abbots, bishops, chieftains and the last King of Thomond.
Another High Cross stands in a field to the west of the lane beside the cathedral.
St Fachna’s church (RC), a simple T-plan edifice with round-headed door, rose window and bellcote, was built in 1917 to replace an earlier chapel erected in 1840.
The Burren Display Centre, the oldest interpretative centre in Ireland, housed in the former National School, has displays illustrating the geology, botany, wildlife, archaeology, history and culture of the region.
Ballykinvarga Ring Fort, just northeast of the village, takes its name from Cathair Bhaile Cinn Mhargaidh (“the market settlement”) as Kilfenora was known in ancient times. With its double ring walls, encircled by a fine chevaux de frise, this stone fort must have been a formidable stronghold when it was built sometime after 500 AD. The interior contains the remains of later huts. (Photo – www.megalithic.co.uk)
The Kilfenora Ceili Band, formed in 1907, has long been one of Ireland’s most famous dance bands, regularly drawing huge crowds in Ireland and England in the 1950s and 1960s and still playing he US festival circuit. The great tradition of musical groups in the parish stretches back to the 1800s with fife and drum, brass and reed and ceili bands all having their glory years.
Kilfenora was the location for much of the filming of the television sitcom Father Ted.
Kilfenora is close to Noughaval in the Burren and within easy reachof Ennistymon on ByRoute 1.
Smithstown Castle, aka Ballynagowan Castle, an early C16th O’Brien Tower House, was first mentioned in a list of strongholds bequeathed by the 1st Earl of Thomond to his son Teige in 1551. Red Hugh O’Donnell rested here during his 1590 attack on the North Clare nobility in revenge for their alliance with the English, and it was a childhood home of Maire Ruadh, whose second husband Col. Conor O’Brien inherited Ballygowan shortly before he was fatally wounded iat the 1651 Siege of Inchicronan Castle. The Cromwellian commander General Ludlow also bombarded Ballynagowan and installed a garrison. The castle was later occupied by a series of army generals, the High Sheriff of County Clare and Viscount Powerscourt, and was not abandoned until the mid-C19th. Recently restored, it is now available for self-catering holiday accommodation and for events such as weddings etc.
Lisdoonvarna (Co. Clare / West)
Lisdoonvarna (Lios Dúin Bhearna -“Enclosure at the fort by the gap”) (pop. 900) is a pretty Victorian spa resort, famous both for its curative waters and its many festivals. Situated on the western edge of the Burren region, the town has a long tradition of catering for visitors, offering a wide range of pubs, eateries and accommodation options.
Lisdoonvarna’s main street. (Photo – www.tripadvisor.com)
Lisdoonvarna began to attract visitors shortly after a top Limerick surgeon, Dr Sylvester O’Halloran, discovered the beneficial effects of its chalybeate springs in the mid-C18th. People travelled from near and far to drink and / or bathe in the mineral waters, said to provide relief for certain diseases such as rheumatism due to their iron, sulphur, magnesium and calcium content.
During the C19th, many of the visitors were members of the clergy. A famous saying from the era described the town as a place “where parish priests pretend to be sober and bank clerks pretend to be drunk“.
Corpus Christi church (RC) was built in 1868 with no less than seven marble altars to facilitate visiting priests.
The Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival, one of the largest singles’ events in Europe, began due to the large numbers of visitors to the popular mineral springs. The month-long event is still held every September, the harvest safely in, attracting hundreds of bachelor farmers and other romantic hopefuls with their accompanying revellers, often numbering upwards of 40,000. The serious negotiations are conducted behind closed doors by fourth-generation matchmakers James White and Willie Daly, while the town’s pubs are given over to traditional music and dance into the early hours. Events include set-dances, speed dating sessions and competitions for titles such as Queen of the Burren and Mr Lisdoonvarna.
The Lisdoonvarna Horse Racing Festival is a three-day “flapping” (amateur) meeting with six races each day for horses, ponies and sulkies; recently, International Harness racing has also become part of the programme.
The Marching Bands Festival Weekend is another three-day event in Lisdoonvarna. All bands are welcome to participate and can play for 30 minutes each day.
The annual Irish Barbecue Championships take place in Lisdoonvarna in early September.
The Lisdoonvarna Festival was a three-day Woodstock-style summer gathering of rock music lovers from all over Ireland, held annually from 1978 to 1983. It took place on a rather inadequate green field site near the town, and featured artists such as Rory Gallagher, Jackson Browne and Country Joe McDonald & the Fish. Immortalised in a by Christy Moore‘s song Lisdoonvarna, the festival is fondly remembered by all who participated.
The Royal Spa Hotel, the Imperial Hotel and the Hydro Hotel are representative of Lisdoonvarna’s tradition of genteel old-fashioned hospitality.
Sheedys Country House Hotel occupies the oldest dwelling in Lisdoonvarna village, dating in part from the C17th. John and Martina Sheedy have inherited the family’s 300 year tradition of making guests welcome, and are happy to share their extensive local knowledge.
The Spa Wells
The Spa Wells Health Centre, set in beautiful woodland surroundings by the Aille River, has an iron / magnesia spring and an illuminated sulphur well rich in iodine.
Although the hydrogen sulphate gas gives off an unpleasant odour reminiscent of rotten eggs or stink bombs, the water itself tastes innocuous, and may be consumed either hot or cold.
The C19th bath house has mineral baths, a sauna, a solarium, a massage room and therapy suites specialising in wax treatments etc.
The Victorian pump house now houses a modern public library, while part of the spa grounds has been converted into a public park.
The Burren Smokehouse produces very fine oak smoked and barbecued Atlantic salmon. Visitors can learn about the ancient tradition of cold smoking and the folklore of salmon.
The Spectacle Bridge, a short distance west of the town, gets its name due to its double lower arch, so built in 1875 to support the road at a point 25m above the Aille River as it flows through a deep gorge.
There are several interesting archaeological sites nearby, including Ringforts dating back to the Iron Age and early Christian era.
Kilmoon church is a strange square ruin set in an atmospheric graveyard.
Lisdoonvarna’s Irish name is believed to refer to the green earthen fort of Lissateeaun (fort of the fairy hill), 3 km northeast of the town, near the ruins of a Norman-era castle.
Lisdoonvarna, the western terminus of ByRoute 12, is near Doolin and the Cliffs of Moher on ByRoute 1 and linked by a scenic stretches of the N87 to Ennistymon and Ballyvaughan, both also on ByRoute 1.