Clifden (Co. Galway / West)
Clifden (An Clochán – “bee-hive cell”) (pop. 3000), often referred to as “the Capital of Connemara”, is the largest town in the region, and one of the youngest in Ireland. Located near the mouth of the Owenglen River on Clifden Bay, it is a popular tourist destination, with a wide range of accommodation options, pubs (including live music venues), eateries (from fine seafood restaurants and bistos to cafés and chippers), while the best shops sell sensible goods aimed at local consumers.
A “planned” town, Clifden has a classic C19th layout, with a Market Square and three principal streets – Market Street, Main Street and Bridge Street – forming a rough triangle, bisected by a delightful “secret” residential street. The town retains almost all of its original streetscapes and fabrics, including a number of buildings and features worth visiting. The Beach Road is a particularly pleasant place to stroll.
John D’Arcy (1785–1839), who lived in Clifden Castle, described Connemara at the start of the C19th as “inhabited by a rare breed of people, wild like the mountains, whose principal occupation was smuggling: about this time I undertook the difficult task of improving the land and civilising the people, for which purpose I commenced building the town of Clifden“. His vision was to create a thriving commercial centre in a poverty stricken area by exploiting the rich fishing, wool and marble resources in the locality.
The first house was built in 1809, and by the 1820s the town was growing rapidly. Clifden quickly superseded the older villages of Ballinaboy and Streamstown in importance.
Clifden quay, designed by the famous Scottish civil engineer Alexander Nimmo, was constructed with a government grant for relief work following the famine of 1822, and was completed in 1831.
Daniel O’Connell held one of his famous monster meetings on the hillside south of the town in 1843 as part of his campaign to repeal the Act of Union.
The Great Famine devastated the Clifden area, with thousands dying needlessly due to government inaction. The Clifden Workhouse and Fever Hospital, although much feared, were overwhelmed by the sheer number of poor and sick applicants.
In 1854 the notoriously anti-Catholic Rev. Alexander Dallas opened an orphanage in Glenowen House to train girls for domestic service.
The Mercy Nuns opened a convent in 1858, and over the years ran an industrial school, an orphanage and an old folks home.
The Galway – Clifden railway line, also built as relief work, was opened by the Midland Great Western Railway Co. in 1895. Although it opened up Connemara to the outside world and gave Clifden an economic lift as the sea fisheries developed, it was never profitable, and closed after 40 years.
Clifden gained prominence in the early C20th with Marconi‘s transatlantic wireless telegraphy station at Derrygimla bog, four miles south of the town, and on 15 June 1919 was again in the international limelight with the crash-landing of Alcock and Brown‘s first transatlantic flight close to Marconi’s station.
The War of Independence saw two RIC constables shot in Clifden by the local IRA on 15th March 1921. The Black & Tans retaliated on St Patrick’s Day by torching 14 suspected Republican houses, killing one civilian and wounding another; “the burning of Clifden” devastated the town and is lamented to this day.
Ardbear Bridge, a handsome three-eye causeway at the entrance of the tidal Ardbear salt lake, was built by Alexander Nimmo in 1819, and featured in John Ford’s classic film The Quiet Man. Nearby is a magnificent waterfall and narrow gorge running to the sea. A second bridge is flanked by a ruined hydroelectric station, which provided Clifden with electricity in the 1930s and 1940s, years before other towns.
The Quay House on Ardbear Bay is Clifden’s oldest surviving residential edifice, ; built for the Harbour Master c. 1820, and later used as a Franciscan monastery, a convent and a hotel, it is now run as an award-winning Guesthouse by Paddy and Julia Foyle, who have furnished the interior with beautiful antiques and serve wonderful breakfasts in the adjoining conservatory.
Clifden`s first school, built in 1824 and closed in 1956, is now a private residence on Church Hill.
Clifden Gaol, opened in 1830 and closed in 1922, stands in ruins at the southern end of the town.
Christchurch (CoI) was built in 1853 to replace an earlier edifice erected in 1812 (the first minister was John D’Arcy‘s son Hyacinth). It stands on a small drumlin and commands a wonderful view of the town. A memorial to the controversial Rev. Alexander Dallas is inscribed “laboured prayerfully for the salvation of the perishing Roman Catholics of Ireland“. A silver replica of the Cross of Cong commemorates Sir William Lindsay Murphy, governor of the British Bahamas 1945 – 1950. An early C19th cross-inscribed slab just opposite the entrance probably relates to the earlier church.
St Joseph’s church (RC), built in 1879 with money donated by emigrants who had fled the Great Famine and its aftermath, is the largest church in Connemara, with fine details including stained glass windows by Clarke Studios in Dublin. The woodland opposite hides the original church, built in 1824, and a disused graveyard.
The Methodist Chapel, Schoolroom and Minister’s residence occupied one of the few Georgian style buildings in the town, built in the 1850s at the beginning of the Beach Road. The Methodist community had virtually disappeared by the 1920s and this building is now run as a B&B.
The Clifden railway station complex, long in ruins, has been converted into the modern Station House Hotel ***, with shops and flats around the courtyard, while the old engine house is now the Clifden Station House Museum, featuring exhibits on local history, the story of the Connemara Pony and Irish horses and dogs in general.
A memorial at the Beach Road junction honours local man Thomas Whelan (b. 1898) a member of the Dublin Volunteers who was charged with the shooting of Captain Baggally, a member of the Cairo Gang on Bloody Sunday (1920). Despite an alibi witness he was found guilty of murder and hanged at 6am in Mountjoy Prison on 14 March 1921, the first of six IRA men to be executed that day. A crowd estimated at 40,000 gathered outside the prison to pray as the executions took place. He was one of a group commonly referred to as The Forgotten Ten, men hanged in 1920-1921 who were exhumed from their prison graves in 2001 and given a full State Funeral. He is now buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.
Jon Riley, born locally, was the commander of the Saint Patricio battalion of Irish, British and German troops which fought for Mexico in the C19th Mexican-American War of 1846-8.
Cailleach na Luibhe, a powerful and feared woman who had the power of the curse and the cure, was a rare survivor of earlier Celtic traditions, and people flocked to her from all over the west.
Michael Mac Suibhne, Tom Lyden and Mary O’Malley are local poets who have achieved national prominence.
Mannion’s Pub, a highly regarded traditional music venue, is one of many premises proudly bearing what appears to be by far the most common surname locally (reminiscent of the old story about the Cold War era Soviet agent cryptically addressing successive neighbours in a Welsh village until one volunteers the address of “Evans the spy“).
Clifden Community Arts Week in late September offers poetry reading, lectures, recitals and traditional music. The festival was first started by teachers in Clifden Community School in 1979 to bring creative arts into the classroom.
The Connemara Pony Show, an international event organized by the Connemara Pony Breeders Society, has been held on the third Thursday in August since 1924.
The Clifden Boat Club organises an annual Regatta and a number of other sailing, powerboat and raft events.
The Sky Road
The Ballymaconry Peninsula between Clifden Bay and Streamstown Bay is explored by the Sky Road, an 11 km / 7 mi looped route rising west of Clifden to more than 150m / 500ft above sea level, with spectacular views of the town, coastline, offshore islands and Atlantic ocean.
Clifden Castle, built around 1810 by Clifden’s founder John D’Arcy, was sold in 1850 to the Eyre family, who occupied it sporadically until the early C20th. Now a romantic ruin, it is approached through a beautiful entrance arch and gothic walls along a winding avenue edged with a series of 5 standing stones (only one is original). (Photo – www.coolyarforums.com)
Monument Hill is crowned by a memorial to John D’Arcy, long unfinished until completed by the local Historical Society.
The old Coastguard Station, commanding breathtaking panoramas, has been partly renovated as apartments, currently mostly vacant.
Streamstown Bay, a long narrow fjord-like inlet, is the location of a Connemara Marble quarry.
Doon Castle, a former O’Flaherty Tower House where shipwrecked survivors from the 1588 Spanish Armada were held before being marched to Galway City for execution, has long stood in ruins. According to legend it was once the home of a tyrant called O’Halloran, who used to condemn prisoners to be thrown into the sea from a neighbouring precipice.
Foyle’s Hotel ***, an attractive edifice on Clifden’s Main St, has been run under a variety of names by the Foyle family for almost a century.
The Abbeyglen Castle Hotel ****, formerly Glenowen House, built by John D’Arcy on the Sky Road in 1832 and long occupied by successive orphanages, is a luxurious but relaxed establishment with a top class restaurant, set in beautiful grounds with great views of the sea and the Twelve Bens.
The Rock Glen Country House Hotel ****, originally a hunting lodge built in 1815, has an excellent restaurant and gardens commanding terrific vistas over Ardbear Bay south of Clifden town.
The Dolphin Beach House, located just off the Sky Road, is a beautifully modernised C19th country house run as an exceptionally tranquil Guesthouse set in a garden right beside the sea, with wonderful views and superb food.
The Connemara Walking Centre on Market Street is run by local archaeologist Michael Gibbons, who provides heaps of useful maps, guides etc. and also organises walks ranging from excursions to safaris.
Clifden is linked by the N59 with Recess / Sraith Salach and nearby Ballynahinch in the interior of Connemara.