A giant step into history

Michael Finlan takes a look at the story of Ennis down the centuries as the town prepares to embark on a major landmark in its modern history

THE original name for Ennis was Inis Cluain Ramh Fhada, meaning the island of the meadow of the long rowing, apparently a reference to a long stretch of grassland along the banks of the Fergus and the boats that were rowed up the river by friendly or hostile visitors.

Ennis had its beginnings in turbulent, often bloodthirsty times that saw some savage internecine strife among the dominant clan of the area, the O’Briens. This powerful family, who included the great Brian Boru, vanquisher of the Norsemen, warred among themselves over the kingdom of Thomond, a vast swathe of Munster which they ruled. The savagery of the family conflict saw brother blinding, maiming and killing brother: one of the O’Briens was torn apart by horses at Bunratty.

The fledgling town of Ennis grew up around Clonroad where the O’Briens established their principal stronghold and it rapidly began to expand after the arrival of the Franciscans around 1240 at the invitation of Donnchadh Cairbreach O’Brien. The abbey, whose splendid ruins still stand, became a noted centre of learning and attracted scholars from afar.

After the Reformation, the Ennis Friary was suppressed and put to many other uses in succeeding years. Early in the 17th century, it was given over to the Church of Ireland for services and was not restored to the Franciscans until 1969. On two occasions in the 14th and 15th century, Ennis was burned down as part of the ongoing wars among the O’Briens, with Norman forces joining one faction of the family in 1306.

The town became the capital of Clare in 1584 and it was made a borough in 1612. After that it developed and prospered rapidly and many English settlers came to live there, encouraged by the wealthy Earl of Thomond. Many of the Protestant settlers were driven out during the 1641 rebellion and did not come back even in Cromwellian times when the Franciscans were subjected to intense persecution.

The 18th century was a relatively peaceful time in Ennis whether that had anything to do with the stern laws enforced in the town. People could be banished from its precincts as being personae non grata which happened to a number of women who were deemed to be lewd and loose. The male macho customs of the time also provided for a ducking stool for the public dousing of common scolds and nagging females.

When John Wesley, the Methodist preacher, visited the town, ho opined that "the God of this world wholly prevailed" there. The towering monument commemorating Daniel O’Connell that dominates Ennis was built in 1867 in O’Connell Square which down the years has become a rallying point for mass political rallies. It was at the foot of the monument that Parnell delivered a famous speech advocating the boycotting of errant landlords and de Valera, when he was on the run, played cat-and-mouse with the authorities by popping up at meetings there.

Parnell was a frequent visitor to the town and it’s believed that it was there that he first met the husband of his future paramour, Kitty O’Shea. The coming of the railway to Ennis in 1859 provided a powerful impetus to its development and brought fame of another kind.

Percy French immortalised the celebrated West Clare Railway with the song the begins: "Are ya right there, Michael, are ya right? Do ya think that we’ll be home before the night?" Parnell turned the sod when the West Clare Railway, running from Ennis to Ennistymon, was initiated in 1885 and the silver spade used in the ceremony can be seen in the Ennis Museum. Eventually, the line was extended to Kilrush and Kilkee, and the trains ran along the tracks until 1961.

THE name of de Valera is also inextricably linked with Ennis and Clare. During the troubles, Eamon de Valera was elected as representative for Clare in a breakthrough development in 1917 and later represented the constituency in Dail Éireann, much of the time as Taoiseach, until he retired to become President in 1959.

Today, his grand-daughter, Sile de Valera, is a Fianna Fail TD for Clare and a Minister of State. Nowadays, Ennis exudes prosperity and confidence, and is one of the most attractive towns in Ireland. Many of its monuments and buildings that were central to its past history still exist, whole or partially, providing resonant links with its origins.

Aviation has played a significant part in its growth, first with the seaplanes coming in at Foynes and then the development of the State’s major airway link to the outside world, Shannon Airport at Rineanna. The airport has generated industrial and tourism growth, and has pointed the way to the future.

Now in its new role as the State’s information age town, Ennis is about to take a giant step into the exciting, limitless and barely known world of the world wide web, crisscrossed by a multitude of cybernetic superhighways that, in some strange way, are expected to make our global village an even more accessible and understandable hamlet.