It is easy to become nostalgic about one’s youth. Many of my idyllic childhood holidays (weren’t our summers longer and sunnier?) were spent on day trips crossing two counties to reach the nearest stretch of beach in Lahinch. Seventy five miles away our Simca trundled through wind battered County Clare landscapes beloved of the Father Ted TV series. In fact the actual Craggy Island parochial house is located at Glenquin County Clare. On the way home my mother bought fresh lobsters “cheap as chips” from fishermen who had not yet discovered the fish markets of Dublin and Paris.
We sometimes detoured to the county’s capital the market town of Ennis for tea and scones or maybe ‘ 99s’ – mouth-wateringly soft and sweet ice cream cones stabbed with a crumbly Cadbury’s flake. Special occasions like birthdays merited Sunday lunch at the Dowager Duchess of hotels in the region The Old Ground Hotel in Ennis.
Now here I am 40 plus years later going back to County Clare on a return journey re-exploring those childhood landmarks. Some of them, notably the world famous Burren where Alpine and Mediterranean flowers grow side by side among the weirdly eroded rock fissues in a landscape scattered with ancient dolmens thankfully could not be altered. Others like the Cliffs of Moher rising 650 feet above the sea now have a magnificent visitor centre in which to shelter from the Atlantic gales that pound the coastline. I was long grown up by the time the interesting Ailwee Caves where Ireland’s last bears lived became a visitor attraction.
On those balmy day trips to the seaside we drove past Bunratty Castle, Ireland’s best example of a intact Norman fortification. One of the first visitor attractions anywhere to develop the concept of medieval banquets Bunratty continues to enthral visitors with its costumed entertainers and cheesy take on life and times in old Ireland. One of the first sights to greet transatlantic tourists arriving from Shannon Airport an American visitor famously enquired “what a pretty castle but how come they built it that close to the highway”.
We arrive in Ennis as the sun is setting behind its old world narrow winding streets and brightly coloured shop fronts. I spy some very enticing boutiques and craft shops while he eyes up a cosy pub displaying a Guinness sign. But instead we opt for a quick tour of the remnants of medieval Ennis including the 14th century cloister in between rain showers. Ennis is Ireland’s unofficial capitol of Irish traditional music and the towns of nearby Miltown Malbay and Doolin also attract hordes of Irish musicians from across the world for informal and organized sessions throughout the year.
Lonely Planet has described the Old Ground Hotel as “a seasoned charming and congenial space of polished floorboards, cornice work, antiques and open fire whose lobby is always full of old friends sinking into sofas and ladies from the neighbouring church’s altar society exchanging gossip over tea”.
This family owned hotel in the centre of town that opened its doors back in 1895 is indeed a genuine landmark, a place where births, marriages and deaths are celebrated or marked with sadness and the coming together of tribes of families and neighbours. It seems to have remained unchanged with the years, exuding the warmth of a elegant country home through the scent of burning wood from the open fires and relaxed nooks and crannies combined with all the creature comforts and style of a contemporary 4 star property. A former manor house dating back to the 18th century next door was the town hall which incorporated a jail in olden times where prisoners were kept while awaiting deportation to Australia and Tasmania. Most of the Old Ground’s 105 bedrooms vary in size and decor but all are refreshingly authentic, true to the 18th century architecture and sense of history here. The Old Ground Hotel regularly features in guides of the best places to stay in Ireland.
Apart from being a comfortable and well located spot (there is adequate private parking at the side and rear) just minutes from the main shopping streets here is the perfect gateway to the spectacular scenery of the west of Ireland and the new driving route the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ as well as the attractions already mentioned and dolphin and whale watching, surfing, golf at Doonbeg and Lahinch links golf courses.
Ireland is well and truly out of recession and the packed Town Hall restaurant (the Bistro wing of the Old Ground) was humming with business. The Town Hall premiered new style cuisine in Ennis years ago and is still at the cutting edge of the local good food scene. We had the set three course dinner (£28,50) featuring tasty local crab tasting plate of crab cake, crab meat pate and grilled claws with lime and dill mayonnaise. Main courses included braised shank of Irish lamb with spiced vegetable Ratatouille and grilled fillet of Halibut on a smoked salmon caper and herb cake with a beurre blanc sauce. I opted for succulent rolled free range turkey breast with herb and fig stuffing and calvados jus. Bailey’s and Toblerone cheesecake, chocolate truffle cake and winter berry crème brulee were just some of the tempting puddings on offer.
Without getting your feet wet you move from hotel to the Town Hall via The Poets Bar where lively traditional music sessions are held regularly.
Don’t miss a visit to the Clare Museum telling the story of the town and county with dramatic images and audio visual experience at Arthur’s Row Ennis. The sight of a 7 foot high tall monument of former World Champion boxer (Cassius Clay) Muhammad Ali during my stroll around town came as a surprise. We learnt that his mother Odessa Clay was the grand daughter of Abraham O’Grady from the Turnpike Ennis who emigrated to the US during the civil war and married a free coloured woman.
Tell me more about Going Back to County Clare
Ryan Air flies daily between London Gatwick and London Standsted and Shannon Airport 20 minutes drive from Ennis Co Clare. One way fares starting at £15. Aer Lingus operates three flights daily between London Heathrow and Shannon. Fares one way from LHR £72,99 £27,35 ex Shannon. Taxis from Shannon to Ennis approx €30. Buses every 30 minutes , fares around €9,50