Ed Leahy visits Ennis, Co. Clare's capital, and finds a gateway to Ireland's history and the county's cultural attractions.
O’Connell Street in Dublin is considered to be one of the widest main avenues in Europe. The Ennis equivalent, however, may be the narrowest stretch of road bearing the Great Emancipator’s name.
The Clare capital’s main street might, however, boast a more impressive statue of the great Irishman, standing proud atop a, dare I say it, Nelson’s Column, type pillar, keeping watch over the town below.
The statue was unveiled back in 1865, almost 40 years after The Liberator was elected Member of Parliament for Clare in 1828, which led to Catholic Emancipation.
No doubt, the unveiling of the statue and the election victory of 1828 led to great celebrations in the town centre and most likely in the manor house that now houses one of the county’s best four-star hotels, The Old Ground.
The manor house dates back to the 18th century, before being turned into a hotel in 1895, and still retains many features of the by-gone age, complemented by the contemporary conveniences of a modern hotel.
A very warm welcome awaits and remains with you throughout your stay at the hotel with a very relaxing lounge area throughout the lobby, stylish and comfortable bedrooms and the hotel’s own private contemporary art collection about The Old Ground’s historic walls.
While staying at the hotel, make sure to take in a walking tour of Ennis town centre. The hotel can organise the Journey Through Time walking tour, which leads you around the atmospheric streets of the town, while revealing the intriguing characters and stories that shaped its history.
The guide tells tales of famine and poverty, murders and hanging, and explains how some of Ireland’s most powerful historical figures including O’Connell, Eamon de Valera and Charles Stewart Parnell were linked to the town.
And after an afternoon pounding the narrow streets of the town, you will return to a different dwelling as the Old Ground comes alive at night, where you can sample the renowned culinary offerings of the hotel’s restaurant, which has been included in the Bridgestone Guide for Ireland. The menu uses seasonal and locally produced ingredients, including St Tola’s Organic Goat Cheese from Inagh, Miltown Shellfish and Burren Lamb.
The restaurant’s excellent menu includes the signature dishes of pan-seared scallops with cauliflower and bay leaf sauce, herb crusted loin of Clare lamb with char-grilled cutlet and port juniper berry and redcurrant jus and strawberry and thyme mousse.
After dining, a few pints of porter should be enjoyed in the lively Poet’s Corner bar, where you will sample some genuine Clare hospitality and a great atmosphere to the soundtrack of a traditional music session.
Ennis is the gateway to Clare’s spectacular tourist attractions and the Old Ground proves the ideal place to base yourself if you want to explore the coast or the nearby Burren.
The hotel actually organises 'Heart of Burren' guided walks from the Burren Centre in Kilfenora and will provide a packed lunch for the excursion.
The walk takes you into the Burren National Park, along the famous Burren Way, passing between the two great limestone hills of Gleninagh and Cappanawalla and the Black Head Green Road overlooking Galway Bay. Other highlights include the region’s renowned Arctic, Alpine and Mediterranean flora, limestone pavements and turloughs.
Elsewhere in Clare, located close to the Burren National Park, you can pay a visit to Father Ted's house for a cup of tea and some homemade scones. The 'Craggy Island' Parochial House is located half-way from Corrofin to Kilfenora, just out the road from Kilnaboy, the location for the legendary Channel 4 comedy series Father Ted.
Further north towards Ballyvaughan, you can visit the Aillwee Caves, the oldest in Ireland, where a 30-minute guided tour of the fascinating caverns can be enjoyed. Or travel to the coastal town of Doolin to visit the Giant Stalactite at Doolin Cave, where you will come face to face with the northern hemisphere's longest free-hanging stalactite 70 metres below ground.
A coastal drive will take you past some of the most spectacular scenery in Ireland and to the country’s top tourist attraction, the Cliffs of Moher, which always impress as you look out from the summit, 700 feet above the ferocious Atlantic's edge.
Golfers are also spoilt for choice in Clare with two of Ireland’s best links courses located along the coast at Lahinch and Doonbeg. Travel further south to explore the dramatic Loop Head peninsula or take in a dolphin-watching excursion at Carrigaholt.
For the brave, or the foolish (depending on the weather), a surf lesson will certainly provide a memorable adventure of your Clare visit.
And while the Atlantic waters are likely to be close to freezing, there’s no doubt that the open turf fire back at the Old Ground will welcome you home.
For more information about The Old Ground Hotel, visit www.flynnhotels.com.