The town of Ennis in County Clare is sure to spark your imagination if you’re into history.
Strewn across the landscape are the decaying ruins of Medieval abbeys, friaries and castles accessible to the public and ready to be investigated.
Most of these have been disintegrating slowly since the 16th century, but Ennis Friary in the town has been restored and has a riveting exhibition of 15th-century religious sculpture.
The Clare Museum is also in a former convent, and documents 6,000 years of history in County Clare.
North of Ennis is the Burren, an otherworldly karst landscape laid with swathes of limestone pavement and a habitat for seven tenths of all plant species growing in Ireland.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Ennis:
1. Clare Museum
In the atmospheric confines of the former Sisters of Mercy Convent is a museum documenting six millennia of history in County Clare.
This free museum opened its doors in 2000 and has many artefacts on loan from the National Museum of Ireland.
The main exhibition is the Riches of Clare, which is divided into the themes, Earth, Power, Faith, Water and Energy.
There are pieces recovered from Clare’s many castles and monastic sites, memorabilia for the former president Éamon de Valera who represented the Clare constituency, historical details about navigation on the Shannon Estuary, recollections of the old West Clare Railway and artefacts from the Spanish Armada.
One of the most interesting exhibits is a primary source from the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, in the form of the journal of Irish Republican Leader Patrick Brennan who was interned in 1916.
2. The Burren
Head north of Ennis and in 15 minutes you’ll enter one of the most spectacular glaciated karts landscapes on the planet.
The image that most people associate with the Burren is the huge spread of limestone pavement, which has an almost alien quality and is creased with “grikes” or fissures.
The landscape is also famed for its amazing botanical diversity.
More than 70% of all plant species found in Ireland grow on the grasslands and in those grikes, along with Arctic and Alpine plants that flourish in the places where the limestone pavement has been shattered into gravel.
The Burren National Park has five waymarked trails beckoning you across the limestone pavement, the florid limestone grassland and into hazel and ash forest.
3. Ennis Friary
Moments on foot from the Clare Museum stands the ruined Ennis Friary.
Founded by the O’Brien clan in the mid-13th century, Ennis Friary is unusual in that it continued to function after Henry VIII suppressed the monasteries in the 16th century.
It became a Church of Ireland temple in the 1600s, and only started to decay when it was abandoned at the end of the 1800s.
Now Ennis Friary is back in the hands of the Franciscan order, and is open to the public.
Because it was maintained for so long after its dissolution, a lot of Medieval fittings remain, which you can see inside the re-roofed nave.
There’s a marvellous cycle of 15th-century carvings showing the Passion and Resurrection, a damaged but beautiful pietà (Mary cradling the body of Christ), and the MacMahon-Creagh tomb from 1470, depicting Passion scenes.
4. Dysert O’Dea Castle
Once the base of the O’Dea clan, O’Dea Castle is a fortified tower house that went up at the end of the 15th century.
The tower is 15 metres high and surveys the countryside from its limestone crag.
You can go up to the roof to preside over the terrain from the battlements, while the ten rooms below are a museum with local artefacts dating between 1000 BC and 1700 AD. The castle also has an audiovisual presentation and outside you can set off along the Dysert O’Dea Archaeology Trail, which will take you to the 12th-century Dysert O’Dea Monastery.
There you’ll encounter the ruins of a round tower and the enigmatic St Tola’s Cross.
The most valuable vestige here is the Romanesque portal to St Tola’s Church, with solemn carvings of human and animal faces in its upper archivolt.
5. Clare Abbey
On a perch by the west bank of the River Fergus, Clare Abbey was an influential Augustinian Abbey established in 1189. It was dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, and almost five centuries after it was suppressed in 1543 there’s a surprising amount of architecture remaining.
The tower and the basic shell of the church are still here, and in the chancel there’s an intact window opening with tracery that was installed in the 15th century.
Several of the domestic buildings can be identified, and on the southeast corner of this complex is a remarkable floral window, a rare find at a 500-year-old ruin.
In 1278 this place was the scene of a massacre following a skirmish between two factions of the O’Brien clan.
6. Ennis Cathedral
The story of this Gothic Revival monument is intertwined with two of the darker periods of Irish history.
Ennis Cathedral was founded as a parish church in 1828 after the Penal Laws, enacted at the end of the 17th century, had prohibited Catholics from building places of worship in Irish cities.
Construction was also delayed in the middle of the century because of the Great Famine.
The tower and spire were topped off in 1874, while the main portal was completed in 1894. In 1890 the seat of the Killaloe Diocese was moved to Ennis, and the church was finally upgraded to full cathedral status in 1990. In terms of design, the cathedral’s most beautiful feature is a set of fluted timber columns, which have delightful tracery in the arch spandrels above.
7. Quin Abbey
The pick of the many monastic sites sprinkled around the Clare countryside near Ennis, Quin Abbey as it appears today is from the beginning of the 15th century.
The monastery was established by the MacNamaras, and they managed to regain control a few decades after the abbey was dissolved during the Reformation.
That put Quin Abbey in the sights of Oliver Cromwell, and in 1650 it was sacked and its friars were murdered.
The abbey was restored not long after and despite being shut down under the Penal Laws, its last friar lived here until 1820.The ruins can be visited any day of the week except Monday and it’s a testament to their state of preservation that you can climb the tower 200 years after the last friar passed away.
Most enchanting of all are the cloisters and their dark walkways, all in excellent condition.
8. Glór Theatre
Ennis has County Clare’s top cultural destination in a modern building that opened in 2001. The Glór Theatre books theatre performances, comedy and live music, and also organises exhibitions by leading Irish visual artists.
For a snapshot of what’s on offer, in spring 2018 there was an exhibition by the celebrated printmaker Gráinne Cuffe, a night of traditional Irish music by Shaskeen and the Wingers, a yarn-spinning workshop, a lecture about the German-Danish artist Emil Nolde and a screening of the British black comedy the Party (2017). This is just a taster, but shows how there’s something to suit most ages and tastes at Glór.
9. Killone Abbey
Ennis is a joy if you love hunting down abandoned monuments, and you can pore over the remnants another abbey in a bucolic valley just south of the town.
Killone Abbey was an Augustinian nunnery of Canonesses Regular, set up in 1190 at the same time as Clare Abbey.
It was dissolved in 1584 and was already decaying by the 1610s.
But 400 years later there’s loads for amateur archaeologists to sink their teeth into: First off, Killone Abbey is one of only three cloistered nunneries left in Ireland.
On the church wall there’s a stunning late-Romanesque window, while on the southeastern corner is an ornate quoin carved in the shape of a woman’s head.
To the northeast of the abbey is St John’s Well, bearing an inscription that tells you it was last repaired in 1731 by Anthony Roche, a merchant from Ennis.
10. Dromore Woodland Reserve
At the southeast limit of the Burren, the Dromore Woodland Reserve is 400 hectares of forest, grassland, rivers and lakes that was purchased by the Irish state in the 1940s.
Dromore is a habitat for eight of the nine Irish bat species, as well as the endangered pine marten and the red squirrel, now rarely found in other parts of the country.
There’s also a lot of archaeological interest: On your walk you’ll see the ruins of the O’Brien Castle on the lakeshore, as well as a crumbling limekiln, the earthworks of two ringforts and the tower of Cahermacrea Castle.
11. Bunratty Castle
An obligatory day out, this 15th-century tower house is on the N18 on the road down to Limerick.
Bunratty Castle is a National Monument of Ireland, standing just where the Ratty River joins the Shannon Estuary.
The castle is the fourth on site and was begun in 1425 by the chieftain Maccon Sioda MacNamara.
By the end of the 19th century the building had become derelict until it was bought and restored in 1956 by the 7th Viscount Gort.
To recapture the spirit of its heyday, the interior has been furnished with paintings, tapestries and furniture from the 1500s and 1600s.
Out in the 10-hectare grounds is a folk park, with 30 historic buildings that have been relocated here to give a sense of 19th-century Irish village life.
There’s a school, post office, grocery, printworks, hardware shop, drapery shop, pub, and even the old Ardcroney Church, which was moved here in 1998.
12. Presidential Car
In a room next to Ennis’ public library is a slice of Irish 20th-century history.
This vehicle is the presidential limousine of Éamon de Valera, who was head of the Irish government for three separate spells in the mid-20th century and later took on the ceremonial role of President of Ireland.
The car, a 1947 Dodge Plymouth, was restored by the mechanic and Clare County Councillor P. J. Ryan, who sourced parts like the battery and tyres from across the Atlantic.
The car can seat eight people and on its bonnet are the Irish tricolour and the presidential flag.
A leisurely way to break out into the undulating countryside around Ennis is on one of the two manicured parkland courses in the outskirts.
These are Ennis Golf Club, founded in 1907, and Woodstock Golf & Country Club, both of which cater to visitors.
These two courses blend with the natural contours, landforms and vegetation of the Clare landscape: Woodstock is on the banks of the Inch River, and the tricky 7th and 8th holes have a natural lake as a water hazard.
At Ennis Golf Club the even fairways will forgive players who haven’t swung an iron for a while, provided you can avoid the deep foliage in the rough.
14. Horse Riding
If you’re holidaying in Ennis with kids you could make a young dream come true at one of the equestrian centres just out in the countryside.
At Ballyhannon House, Drumcliffe Equestrian and Castlefergus Equestrian you can book beginner lessons or treks on Irish-bred horses and ponies.
All three are open to complete novices and anyone up to advanced riders.
Castlefergus for instance had 40 hectares of land on the River Rine, where you can ride in rolling meadows and farmland, along an ancient forest trail, all in the company of experienced riders.
15. Wild Atlantic Way
Out to the west you can get onto a tourist trail that twists along the entire west coast of Ireland for 2,500 kilometres.
Naturally you don’t have to go that far, because some special places lie within an hour’s drive.
First there’s the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher, zigzagging northwest for 14 kilometres and rising to 214 metres.
From their highest point you can see over the Aran Islands in Galway Bay, and as far as the Twelve Bens Mountain Range to the north.
Further down in Kilkee there are yet more dark sandstone bluffs and an adorable sandy bay.
Loop Head is a dramatic promontory capped with a lighthouse at the north lip of the Shannon Estuary.
And then a few kilometres along the estuary at Carrigaholt you can board a boat to look for one of Europe’s largest pods of bottlenose dolphins.