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Clare Places: Towns & Villages
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County Clare: A History and
Topography 1837 by Samuel Lewis
Kilkee takes its name from CILL CAOIDHE, Caoidhe's Church, from the site of a little burial ground. St. Caoidhe himself is commemorated in a well opposite Bishop's Island. Kilkee is rich in natural amenities such as its horseshoe-shaped bay, Moore Bay, its cliff walks and splendid scenery and the West Clare hinterland steeped in lore and history. The town grew rapidly around the semi-circular beach in the indented West Coast bay. The safety of the beach is assured by the protection of the Duggerna Reef, which is a natural wonder with three large rock pools and a multitude of smaller ones teeming with marine life. It has long been one of County Clare's main holiday resorts.
By the end of the 18th century sea-bathing was becoming a popular pastime and before long the beautiful bay at Kilkee began to attract visitors. Access was difficult in those days but the Shannon estuary provided a more direct artery to South West Clare. In the early 19th century steam vessels operated regularly between Limerick and Kilrush. During the Kilkee bathing season they operated on a daily basis and so the "Kilkee Season" became an established Limerick rather than Clare custom.
Gradually the town grew as locals moved in to provide services for the wealthy newcomers. In the decade before the famine a "building boom" was reported and the town took on the outline of its present day layout. Its Victorian Past is reflected in many of the buildings erected mainly by Limerick people who wanted villas and lodges by the sea. Demand for hotel accommodation was not great, yet in 1820 Catty Fitzgerald opened the first hotel here, in a low thatched house, and operated it for forty years until her retirement. In the 1830's three hotels operated in the town. In 1831 a Catholic Church was opened (replaced by the present building in 1963), followed by the Protestant Church in 1843. A Methodist Church was built in 1900.
The sea wall and embankment around the bay was begun on the west side as part of famine relief work in 1846 and completed in the 1860's. The wall was badly damaged in 1886 and again in 1951.
In the 1850's the Marquis of Conyngham, the local absentee landlord for the eastern part of the town, (the MacDonnells were landlords of the western half) planned a complete new layout of the town. To this end he levelled a whole area of "hovels" in the centre of the oldest part of town. In their place he constructed the Market Square and many fine new streets. A feature of the architecture of the new buildings was the bay windows, some of which still exist.
During the last part of the 19th century and up to the start of the Great War Kilkee enjoyed an unprecedented boom. An extension to the West Clare Railway was opened to goods traffic in 1892. It was called the South Clare Railway and ran from Miltown to Kilrush and Kilkee. This played an important part in the commercial life of the area and provided a comparatively fast and direct means of travel. In one day alone it was reported that 400 people arrived in Kilkee by train. Many prominent people of the day visited Kilkee - Ryder Haggard (author of King Solomons Mines), Charlotte Bronte, the poet Lord Alfred Tennyson and his friend Sir Aubrey de Vere, the Crown Princess of Austria. Percy French regularly performed during the Summer months and it was an incident on the West Clare Railway which led him to write "Are you right there Michael?" The song became one of the most popular numbers in his repertoire.
Kilkee was regarded as the safest and most popular bathing place on the West coast. The beach was divided in three parts, the middle part for men and the two outer ones for women. This arose when local magistrates received complaints that men were bathing naked. Women were more modest, they entered the water by means of bathing boxes which were towed out into the sea so that a lady could "dip" in the sea away from prying eyes. These bathing boxes were used for changing up to the 1950's.
The Cliff scenery is one of Kilkee's greatest natural attractions - from the Pollock Holes to the amphitheatre, with its tier upon tier of seat-like rocks; the Pink Caves; the nearby Diamond Rocks; Intrinsic Bay; Look Out Hill with its spectacular views; and back into the town by Fooagh Chalybeate spa.
Intrinsic Bay is called after the "Intrinsic" ship from Liverpool, which was wrecked under the high cliffs with the loss of fourteen lives in January, 1836. In November, 1850 the emigrant ship "Edmond", bound from Limerick to Quebec, was blown into Kilkee Bay and broke in two on the rocks at the place now called Edmond Point. Nearly one hundred people were drowned on that terrible night.
The Railway closed in 1961. The coming of the motor-car changed the pattern of the holiday season as day trips became popular. Trends towards owning a holiday home for weekend use or a caravan began to replace the traditional letting of houses.
The pilgrimages continue as successive generations of people flock here. The attractions are still the same: good scenery, safe swimming, ocean breezes, dancing, social activities and walking. Today, one can add tennis, squash, golf, pitch and putt, children's amusements, Kilkee Waterworld, skin-diving and surfing to the list.