Let’s set off on a journey through the Shannon region, a joyrney that will expose us to different eras of Irish history and different aspects of modern-day Irish culture in an area that encompasses counties Clare, Limerick, North Tipperary, South Offaly and North Kerry.
In this feature we will explore the delights of County Clare. Don’t worry about the jet lag. Your sense of time is about to be scrambled as it is!
“It’s a long, long way from Clare to here.” So go the words ofthe popular song. But is it really true? What with ShannonAirport’s ever-increasing network of connections with U.S.cities, it may not take you as long as you think to arrive in CountyClare – one of Ireland’s most culturally and geographicallydiverse counties.
You’ll find that it’s certainly worth the journey. This is a county whose history stretches back millennia and its rich archaeologyis testament to this. Dotted across the landscape are Stone Ageburial sites built by Clare’s earliest inhabitants; Celtic high crosseserected by early Christians; round towers used by monks asprotection against marauding Vikings; and ruined medievalmonasteries and castles.
These historical sites are set in stunning scenery. Clare’s naturalbeauty includes soaring sea cliffs, playful dolphins and theotherworldly limestone landscape of the Burren with its multitudeof rare flora and fauna.
Clare’s people are interesting too. This county has producedsome of Ireland’s best traditional musicians –accordionist Sharon Shannon and fiddler Martin Hayesare two of the most famous. Its people also have a passionfor hurling, the sport mythologized by Cúchulainn, a heroof Old Ireland.
Our first stop after Shannon Airport is Bunratty Castle.Built in 1425 and restored in 1954, it’s Ireland’s most completeand authentic medieval fortress. As you cross over thedrawbridge, you’ll feel as though you’ve traveled hundredsof years back in time.
You’ll learn all about the hierarchy of life in the castleas you wander from room to room. The marble floor, oakceiling, richly-colored tapestries and hunting horns ofthe Great Hall testify to the leisured life of the gentry,while the rough wooden boards and straw matting thatservants slept on convey just how impoverished theirlives must have been.
There’s a folk park in the grounds of the castle whereyou can learn how the ordinary people of Ireland lived inbygone times. Marvel as daily life is recreated in ruralfarmhouses and village shops. Watch as women cooksoda bread on open fires and churn butter before yourvery eyes. They may even give you a slice of warm breadslathered with freshly-made butter when it’s ready.
You can keep up the pretense of time-traveling all daylong if you like. Banquets are held in the castle mostevenings. At these events, you’ll be entertained by musicianssinging medieval madrigals and kilted pipers playingtraditional tunes while you sit at a candlelit long oaktable eating dishes from the medieval era washed downwith mead, the honeyed drink of the gods.
Once you’ve tired of medieval life in Bunratty, you canexplore river life in Killaloe. Sitting on the banks of LoughDerg, Ireland’s pleasure lake, this is a town of charmingnarrow streets that wind up a steep hillside and overlook a13th-century cathedral. It is also the hometown of perhapsthe best known of Ireland’s high kings, Brian Ború.
This 11th-century king must have navigated the waters ofthe Shannon in his time and you can follow in his footsteps(or should that be slipstream?) by chartering your owncruiser. A few days of slow-paced riverboat life, watchingthe countryside glide by, should leave you feeling utterlyrelaxed.
And ready for more exploration? Having regained yourland legs, head for the village of Tulla. A fishing centerbased around three lakes, Tulla boasts a medieval parishchurch and seven megalithic tombs. It also has a strongmusical heritage. The Tulla Céilí Band is known for itsrousing renditions of traditional music. Fishing, uncoveringthe secrets of the past and Irish dancing – you can do it allin Tulla.
By this stage, you may be missing the bustle of the bigtown. Fortunately, Ennis is only a few miles away. One ofIreland’s most picturesque towns, you’ll find plenty toamuse you here.
The old town is divided by the River Fergus, whichmeans there are lots of riverside walks through the town. You can explore the 13th-century friary, wander throughthe winding streets and browse in its old shops while gabblinggeese and dabbling ducks play alongside.
Ennis is also known for contemporary culture. Its art galleriesshowcase the works of modern-day Irish artists. And Glór, its state-of-the-art performance center, attracts the bestnational and international acts.
Having had your fill of Irish culture – Clare style – it’stime to explore Clare’s most unique landscape, the Burren.Leave Ennis behind and head north.