LATE this summer a report by Shannon Development set off alarm bells among tourism interests in the mid-west, which covers Ennis, the rest of Clare and a large region around the estuary of the State’s main river. The survey indicated a fall in the number of visitors to the region compared with last year and showed and imbalance favouring Dublin in the tourist trade.
In fact, the figures indicated that more American visitors were coming into Dublin than Shannon, long the traditional gateway for transatlantic tourists. There was s slight increase in visitors from Britain - 1 per cent - but American business was down 0.4 per cent an the number of visitors from the Continent had fallen by 13 per cent.
On top of all that, the cloud hanging over the future of Shannon’s transatlantic passenger traffic remained ominously in place as negotiations on multilateral air transportation continued between the EU and US. These are likely to lead to an open-skies policy ending the present requirement or airlines to operate one flight in and out of Shannon for every direct one allowed into Dublin.
And there’s further unhappy news in the proposal to phase out airport duty free operations by 1999, a sphere in which Shannon was the pioneer. Despite these uneasy portents, the month of September turned out to be a good one for the region. Hoteliers like John Madden, who operates the new Temple Gate hotel in the centre of Ennis, recorded a good inflow of visitors for the month and are looking to the future with confidence, despite the ever present Shannon stopover issue.
For years Ennis didn’t benefit as much as it might have from the tourists arriving at Shannon who made their way into Limerick and down to Killarney, or up to Galway and Connemara. That has changed significantly and Ennis is now becoming an increasingly desirable destination point in its own right. Not only is it an ideal base from where to make tours to places like Craggaunowen, with its ancient castle and crannog, the Burren, Cratloe, Corofin and Dysert O’Dea, but the town itself has many charms to cause visitors to linger.
"IT’S a lovely welcoming town and the local authority take pride in having it look well," says John Madden. "In recent times it has been given a total facelift. It came second in the Europe-wide contest for the best public display of flowers. For a second year it was a runner up in the large towns category of the tidy towns contest and the sculpture trail along the river has just won an award.
"The town’s finest asset, though, is its people, who are warm and friendly and have such a great capacity for enjoying themselves as anyone could see in the celebrations following Clare’s All-Ireland hurling victory in 1995 and again this year. The hurling team has done an awful lot for the town and for the whole county."
There’s no more enjoyable way to spend a day than to pick up a walking guide leaflet from the Ennis tourist Centre on the Limerick Road and take a stroll around the town. The walk will take you through the famous narrow streets where you can almost shake hands with someone on the other side, old laneways, a market place, across bridges over the Fergus and along the riverbanks.
The best place to start the tour is right in the middle of the town at Ennis’s most famous landmark, the O’Connell monument. Among the places you will see en-route is the de Valera Museum and Library on Harmony Road. This is a converted Presbyterian church built of stone which must be one of the most striking library buildings in the country.
De Valera figured prominently in Clare politics through most of his life and there’s a bronze stature if him outside the courthouse on the way to Galway, the work of Jim Connolly the sculptor who started the rural resettlement movement. The courthouse was built in 1850, designed along neo-classical lines with an ironic portico.
Ennis Abbey, where the town had its real beginnings in the 13th century when the Franciscans arrived, is close to the Fergus. In 1990, Ennis spent the whole year celebrating the 750th anniversary of the founding of the monastery which was restored by Turlough Mor O’Brien around 1300. The tomb of the McMahons within Ennis Abbey is covered with notable carvings of the passion.
John Madden believes that Ennis’s special place in the information world will greatly enhance the town’s prospects for developing its tourism business. "Yes, it’s very disappointing to learn that our visitor numbers were down earlier in the year and we must hope for an improvement in the situation," says John Madden. "For a long time Ennis was sort of lying dormant, depending on whatever came from Shannon Airport. The local authority did a great job in making it a more attractive place. The fact that Ennis has become the Information Age Town will greatly raise its profile and draw more people’s attention to it."