Clare County Library
Clare Places: Towns & Villages
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Historical Background

 Clarecastle Village Journal of Thomas Dineley, 1681
St. Mary’s Church of Ireland, Clare Castle – a short history
County Clare A History and Topography 1837 by Samuel Lewis
Parliamentary Gazeteer of Ireland 1845
Guy's Directory 1893
Slater's Directory 1870
Slater's Directory 1881
Clare Castle from 'Castles and Fortifications in Ireland 1485-1945' by Paul M. Kerrigan
Lloyds Tour of Clare 1780
ITA Survey 1942/3

Clarecastle takes its name from CLĮR ADAR DA CHORADH or CLĮR-ATHA-DA-CHORADH, meaning the bridge between two weirs, which almost describes the castle's function, situated as it is on an island of the Fergus River at its narrowest navigable point.

The word CLĮR, meaning board, is generally used to signify a wooden bridge and the earliest settlement here may simply have been referred to, in Irish, as "the wooden bridges". A second explanation of the name stems from the de Clare family having been given land in Kilkenny and Thomond, including Bunratty and Clarecastle.

The town of CLARE, so called after the castle, was of such importance that it gave its name to the county in 1579. Until recent times it was simply known as Clare or Clare Castle.

THE CASTLE OF CLARE was a typical Norman castle with a strong stone tower. Robert de Muscegros built it in 1250 to protect the Limerick, Bunratty, Clonroad areas, the navigable parts of the Fergus, and the Norman-English settlers. It was also an excellent spot from which to monitor the movements of the King of Thomond in his nearby castle of Clonroad. In 1276 de Muscegros was recalled to England and the castle was given to Thomas de Clare but fell into the hands of the King of Thomond after the battle of Dysert O'Dea. It remained Thomond property. The Earl of Sussex captured it from another branch of the O'Briens when they rebelled against the Earl of Thomond in 1558. O'Donnell attacked Clare Castle in 1600. During the Confederate Wars Captain Hugh Norton lost the castle to the Confederate forces but they surrendered it to the Cromwellians in 1651. Clare Castle proved to be an unhealthy spot for Cromwell's men. General Ludlow contracted a heavy cold and fever which he apparently passed on to his commander, Ireton, Oliver Cromwell's son-in-law. Ireton succumbed to the fever and died in Limerick a few days later. Before James II was defeated, Clare Castle was taken over by Teigue MacNamara of Ayle who garrisoned it at his own expense. He was attacked by the Williamites and surrendered the castle. Thomas Moland left the following description of Clarecastle in 1703.

"Clare was formerly ye county town, now very poor and little, consists of one old stone house, out of repair, a stone walled thatched house, where in Mr. Stammers now lives, an Ale House or Inn, and about 17 other small tenements and gardens worth about 30 shillings a piece, one with another per annum and 2 fairs are held here yearly, the best in ye county in peaceable times, worth £10 or £12 each fair per annum".

In 1712 the Earl of Thomond sold Robert Hickman the lease of Clare Castle, the town of Clare, Lissane and Barntick at an annual rent of eight pounds. He also got the tolls from fairs, markets and the use of the Clare commons. The Government paid him ground rent for the use of the castle as a barracks. By 1837 there were three cavalry barracks on the site, affording accommodation for 17 officers and 234 men. This was then the main barracks for the county. At the height of the Terry Alt activities of 1831 there were 317 men and 137 women and children stationed here. The castle continued in use as a barracks until 1921.

Clarecastle Bridge

CLARECASTLE was developed by Sir Lucius O'Brien after the last Earl of Thomond died in 1738. In 1760 he leased "all that piece of ground near the Town of Clare whereon a barrack and barrack yard hath lately been rebuilt and enclosed by a wall, with all buildings within, to the Hon. Henry Loftus, Commissioner and Overseer of Barracks in the Kingdom of Ireland on behalf of his Majesty George III."

The Inchiquin Manuscripts mention that Sir Lucius O'Brien began construction work with 154 men and 24 horses. Wine imported at the quay of Clare could be bought, "cash down," by gentry willing to take 30 hogsheads at 18 pounds per hogshead. For this period there are details of a spinning factory in the town, a proposed butter market, and a Mrs. Gregg who spun silk. In 1813 a Protestant church was built for the mainly English inhabitants of Clarecastle. Names such as Simple, Bleach and Pinion appear on a 1779 list of tenants. By 1770 Sir Lucius had added six two-storied slated houses, six one- storied thatched houses for weavers, a large malt-house and kiln, a linen factory, a market house, a lime kiln and salt works, an extensive quay and a large deal yard adjoining. In 1815 an eighty-foot-long quay was erected. Clarecastle became the port for Ennis and by 1837 was used for the export of grain and the importation of coal. It then had a thatched chapel for Catholics, and two hedge schools. However Lewis's report of 1837 also tells us that the 1021 inhabitants were living in sublime poverty. Another account of 1830 described Clarecastle as "luxuriant in dung and pigs." Agrarian outrages, committed by the Terry Alts, kept the entire area in a state of unrest for most of 1830 and 1831. The cholera epidemic of 1832 affected both town and garrison and in its aftermath destroyed the landless labourers from whom the Terry Alts drew the most support.

THE GREAT HUNGER took its toll of the starving population, but not without some resistance. On Saturday, December 5th, 1846, the principal overseer on the relief works at Clare Abbey, a man called Hennessy, was shot by an unknown assailant. He survived this blunderbuss attack because he was wearing a heavy coat at the time and a clerk who was accompanying him, McMahon, declared that Hennessy was dead. The attacker simply walked away. The area paid heavily for this "outrage." Over 900 persons were "turned adrift" on Monday, December 7th, as the authorities closed down the works in an effort to force the people to divulge the identity of Hennessy's assailant. Captain Wynne reopened the works on December 28th because he was "unmanned by the intensity and extent of the suffering." No one identified the gunman and no arrest appears to have been recorded.

LAND RECLAMATION OF THE FERGUS In 1843 The O'Gorman Mahon made a reference to "the grand lands" that could be reclaimed from the river. In 1860 the River Fergus Navigation and Embankment Act was passed to improve navigation and reclaim land, particularly from the estuary. However, little was done until 1879.

ISLANDAVANNA is today an integral part of the mainland. It was not always so. A Manchester man, Drinkwater, was the principal character behind land reclamation on the Fergus. Under his direction Islandavanna became a peninsula connected to the mainland by a massive stone causeway. This was traversed every half-hour by a locomotive, hauling a train of trucks laden with stone, which, passing over the end of the island, ran out into the water to the "tip end" as it was called. Every day hundreds of tons of stone were carried along the causeway; while scores of raft loads of stone were flung into the water on lines staked and flagged out by government officials. Islandavanna was one of three such stations and during the winter of 1880-1881 was occupied by a third of the four hundred and fifty men then at work. In the Summer seven hundred were employed on the scheme.

Drinkwater had established his own settlement at the works for he believed it better to "pay a man liberal wages, than have him walk several miles to work and home again, and be allowed to live on a scant supply of potatoes and bread, washed down with too much of the whiskey..." He preferred to pay high wages, on the condition that a certain proportion should be spent on food and lodging, "in a range of labourer houses admirably built of iron, lined with wood, perfectly warmed and lighted, and kept wonderfully clean. There was a store-house and refectory, a cooking department and dormitories, perfectly ventilated and swept and garnished every day." Tea, beer and other beverages, except whiskey, could be obtained, and there was an abundant supply of books and newspapers. Mr. H.C. Drinkwater also insisted that every man should have his half-pound of meat, either beef, mutton, or bacon, every day but Friday. He fed and lodged his workmen, established a club for them, gave them a reading-room and got them porter at wholesale prices - in short, he afforded them every inducement to prefer his new settlement to "the wretched huts and groggeries of Clare Castle." The colony on the Fergus reclamation works was one of the most extraordinary sights in the west of Ireland.