Clare Local Studies Project
A Handbook to Lisdoonvarna and its Vicinity: Introduction
The beneficial effects of the mineral waters near Lisdoonvarna, County Clare, were first noted at some time before the middle of the eighteenth century. (I say ‘near Lisdoonvarna’ advisedly as the nearest known well in those days, the Rathbawn Spring, is a good Irish mile and a half from the Lisdoonvarna castle site after which the later spa complex was to be named.) The first recorded analysis of the water was made as early as 1751. A half century later, Hely Dutton in his Statistical Survey of Clare wrote that the Spa had been long celebrated, adding caustically that visitors, who could not avail of the several landlords’ ‘big houses’ in the area, had to do with ‘damp, dirty lodgings in cabins’, most likely in the small baile at Rooska to the west of Rathbawn House. In 1803, the traveller, Woods, recorded that the spa was ‘much frequented’. Yet, despite the fact that by 1837 a few cottages had been built expressly for visitors (Pierce Creagh, the landlord on whose property at Rathbawn the then principal well was, being interested in the potential of the resource), the Ordnance Survey map of 1840 shows only three houses in the area which was to contain the main part of Lisdoonvarna Spa Town. Incidentally, the well at Gowlaun, now known far and wide as the Sulphur Well and the main attraction for a hundred and thirty years, is marked but there is no indication at all of its being a spa.
In the intervening century and a half, Lisdoonvarna has become one of the more famous (perhaps even the most remarkable) of resorts in Ireland, a phenomenon celebrated in song (one reached the top of the charts), in story, in international magazines and in TV programmes. Its mushroom growth and subsequent development in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the first decades of this one may well seem surprising in the light of the general historical context of the period. A hotel of sorts had indeed been built before the Great Famine. (Enlarged later and known since as the Royal Spa, it is happily still in operation.) A sub-post office and, surprisingly, another ‘hotel’ had been built during that famine, but Griffith’s Valuations some handful of years later shows only sixteen houses in that area which was to become Lisdoonvarna. The resort found its feet quite rapidly after the devastation. In 1852, the Gowlaun or Sulphur Spring having being recently discovered, some locals began work on the surrounding area, aided by a grant received through the good offices of their landlord, Capt. William Stacpoole. By 1859, there were some sixty houses and, the spa’s reputation having ‘increased as a most desirable resort for the Invalid and Tourist’, the first church was built: a Church of Ireland Chapel of Ease ‘adequate to the numbers (of visitors)’. Up to this, the bulk of ‘Invalids and Tourists’ had been drawn from the Protestant gentry, professionals and ‘strong farmers, but the new, rising class of Roman Catholic big farmers was also following the fashion of ‘taking the waters’ and in ever-increasing numbers. (An old resident of ‘The Spa’, whose grandfather had been evicted at this time, once remarked to me sourly that they all badly needed the cleansing effects of the sulphur after ‘long winters spent eating too much salt beef and drinking too much bad whiskey’.) The improved status of many Roman Catholics in this period is evidenced by the fact that a Catholic Chapel of Ease was built ten years later (the parish church remaining for many more years at Toomaghera, two and a half miles distant). The present-day Roadside Tavern is recorded in this era, but not as a tavern; ideally situated opposite the Rathbawn Spring, it was most likely a lodging house or shop. It is hard to credit but up to this time turf was still being cut in what was to become The Square and focal point of the town. Nevertheless, it could be said that at least Lisdoonvarna was now on the map.
It was certainly in the news. Captain
Stacpoole, landlord of the Gowlaun area, had attempted to take over the
sulphur spring for his own commercial benefit, ignoring the fact that
a public right of way existed, probably from the time a water-mill had
been in operation on the site. Stacpoole built two small houses, installed
a pump and blocked the right of way with walls and gates. (It is not unlikely
that he was abetted in the enterprise by his kinsman, Dr. Westropp, who
was to be one of the co-authors of this Handbook to Lisdoonvarna). These
were Fenian times and the right of public access was asserted by dynamite.
A later course case upheld this right.
It was during this booming period, in 1876, that this book, A Handbook to Lisdoonvarna and its Vicinity, appeared. It has long been held that its main author, who identified himself only as ‘P. D.’, was the Rev. Canon Philip Dwyer, Church of Ireland vicar cum rector of the important parish of Drumcliffe, Ennis, from 1864 to 1883. (Incidentally, when a long-time resident of Lisdoonvarna loaned me her copy of the Handbook quite a few years ago, she whispered conspiratorially, as if the secret contained some strange significance, that the author was indeed Canon Dwyer.) However reluctant ‘P. D.’ was to give his full name, he frankly acknowledged that the ‘very important chapter’ on the Spas of Lisdoonvarna, which gave a thorough analysis of the three major wells of the time, was based on extracts from a report made by a Mr. Plunkett of the Royal College of Science and by a Mr. Launcelot Studdert, LL. D., who prepared and supplemented it for the Handbook. ‘P. D.’ was also eager to acknowledge that the chapter on the Medicinal Properties and Effects of the Spas of Lisdoonvarna was the work of Dr. Westrop (sic) of Lisdoonvarna. This Dr. William Henry Stacpoole Westropp was closely related to the great antiquarian T. J. Westropp and also, most importantly, to the Captain Stacpoole on whose property was the Gowlaun Spring. Dr. Westropp supervised the building of the first bathhouse here, at the ‘Sulphur Wells’, and, in the year before the Handbook was published, had built the beautiful gothic-style Maiville House directly overlooking the Wells. Not unnaturally, he and Captain Stacpoole were intent on exploiting the commercial potential of their spa - an ambition not necessarily incompatible with ‘P.D.’s earnest assertion in the Handbook that the writers were publishing it from a duty ‘to alleviate human suffering and to promote innocent recreation.’ If the main author was indeed Canon Dwyer, it is not unlikely that he was coy about giving his full title as it might be thought inappropriate that a clergyman of his status would be so closely associated with commerce.
There has been some recent speculation that Dwyer was not ‘P. D.’ at all, the name of Pender Downes, a notable journalist with the Clare Journal at the time, being suggested instead. However, internal evidence might be judged to support the claim of the earlier tradition. The Handbook, for instance, contains a full-page advertisement appealing to ‘the Christian liberality of the members of the Church of Ireland, of her friends, and of the sojourners of Lisdoonvarna’ for contributions towards the building of a new church, the old one being too small to contain the recent increase in holiday-makers; Canon Dwyer is listed as a member of the church building committee, as also are Captain Stacpoole and two members of the Studdert family. The Handbook also contains asides more fitting, perhaps, to a clergyman than to a journalist (though it has to be admitted that Victorian journalists could be as sanctimonious as any of the former). More significant are ‘P.D.’s enthusiastic and knowledgeable references to early Christian sites which are entirely compatible with the material and sentiments contained in a major historical work published three years later, The Diocese of Killaloe from the Reformation to the close of the Eighteenth Century, and written by the Revd. Canon Philip Dwyer in question.
The reason behind my Lisdoonvarna informant’s air of secrecy may well have arisen from one of Dwyer’s aims as a historian, that of pressing the claims of the Church of Ireland to be the religion proper to the Irish people, who, in his opinion, had abandoned the religion of the Early Christian period for Roman Catholicism after the Norman invasions. His Diocese of Killaloe offended Catholics for, as one reviewer diplomatically put it, he had ‘gone somewhat out of his way in our humble judgement to spoil his work with the impress of occasional sectarianism.’ The Handbook, obviously aimed at the wealthy Protestant classes (though it contains no anti-Catholic sentiments) probably was looked upon with suspicion by Roman Catholics after the hullabaloo over his later book had arisen. In 1883, Canon Dwyer unexpectedly surrendered his incumbency and went as a missionary to British Columbia. He returned to die in Somerset, England. Born at Uskane, County Tipperary, Canon Dwyer was a scion of the once-powerful Gaelic and Roman Catholic family, the Uí Dhuíbhir, whose principal seat was at Kilmanagh, County Tipperary.
Of one thing there is no doubt: the Handbook is not only a highly informative but an enjoyable and sometimes charming book, with nuggets of pure gold for the social historian and ordinary reader alike. Unquestionably, the author knew the area and its people from Liscannor to Oughtmama and Blackhead to Killinaboy. He was also well-acquainted with - and not at all ashamed of - the history of Gaelic Ireland and the Early Christian Church here.
After 1876, Lisdoonvarna developed even more rapidly and, with the coming of the West Clare Railway to Ennistymon in 1887, probably outstripped the most sanguine expectations of ‘P.D.’, Westropp and Stacpoole. There was to be one major difference, however: by 1895, when twenty thousand visitors came to ‘The Spa’, the Stacpoole property was in chancery and a Local Improvements Committee (in practice a form of co-operative) had a seven-year lease on the Sulphur Wells and Grounds. They built a pump house and new baths and successfully resisted - in court and by public protest and forcible action - a sustained attempt by the Church of Ireland Representative Body, in whom the Stacpoole property was vested, and two local businessmen to take the Wells from the ‘people of Lisdoonvarna’. In 1906, the Eagle Hotel was re-opened as the Thomond and no less a personage than Lord Aberdeen, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, did the honours; this was probably the greatest night in the history of the Spa and gave the resort a further enormous boost. By this time, of course, there were more hotels to bear witness to the general prosperity: The Glenbourne, Keanes, Garrahies, Lynchs, the Ravine and the Inisfail, and several fine lodging houses such as Sheedy’s Spa View House and Kerin’s Atlantic View House whose owners felt not the least bit uncomfortable when their ‘visitors’ referred to them as ‘hotels’.
In 1915, the long-standing legal problems being finally resolved, the Improvements Association was incorporated under the Scheme for the Regulation and Management of the Lisdoonvarna and Rooska Spa Wells Trust. The halcyon days continued, despite the World War, the War of Independence and the Civil War. Not so, however, during the Economic War, when farmers and farming industries suffered most. Then the Second World War put a brake on recovery. In 1943, a new company, the Lisdoonvarna Improvements Association, was established ‘to undertake without remuneration’ the management of the property of the Spa Wells Trust. Many residents of the town will still recall the general excitement and optimism at the war’s end as they prepared to bring back ‘the old days’. It was not to be: the general depression and emigration continued for more than a decade and, with the rising of the economic tide of the sixties, modern transport and new fashions were already making the traditional holiday a thing of the past. The visitor industry in Lisdoonvarna, now carried only by its own momentum, continued to wind down and the Wells lumbered on, but from crisis to crisis.
In 1976, the High Court accepted a new scheme for the regulation and management of the Spa Wells Trust and a new company (limited by guarantee), Lisdoonvarna Fáilte, was formed. By this time, the wells were of far less importance as a visitor attraction than the image summed up in the slogan ‘Lisdoonvarna for the Crack!’ or the promotion of events such as Rock concerts, the much longer-lived Matchmaking Festivals and the World Barbecue Championships. Tied up by legalities, financial constraints and lack of investment among other things, Lisdoonvarna Fáilte, who at least kept the Wells open and its head (barely) above water for more than two decades, attempted unsuccessfully to turn the complex over to an outside interest, but after five years of negotiations the potential investment fell through. The most recent board of directors find themselves with an unenviable dilemma: lobby for tax designation status for Lisdoonvarna and put faith in private investment, a course with obvious dangers as well as immediate benefits for both the Wells and the town; or the seek both adequate financial backing and a suitable managerial entity or lessee, a policy which, however desirable, seems to have little chance of success. In either case, somehow the spas have to be kept open.
The Wells, through the Trust, belongs to the ‘people of Lisdoonvarna’ - whatever interpretation a High Court might put on that appellation today. For over a century and a half, the ‘people of Lisdoonvarna’, through a mixture of co-operation, hard work, enterprise, independence and sometimes sheer doggedness, have developed and kept their spas open, even when under threat from landlords, speculators and depressions; it is to be hoped that the present generation will not let them go by default.
In writing this introduction, I am indebted to the generous (and cheerful) assistance of Maureen Comber, Local Studies Librarian, and of Anthony Edwards, Executive Librarian, both of Clare County Library. For information on Canon Dwyer, I have gratefully drawn on the researches of Ignatius Murphy in his Diocese of Killaloe 1850 - 1904 (Four Courts Press, 1995) and of Tim Kelly in his Ennis in the Nineteenth Century (M.A. Thesis, 1971). I would also like to pay tribute to Sr. de Lourdes Fahy’s ground breaking lecture "Origin and Growth of Lisdoonvarna 1750 - 1900" (Scoil Merriman, 1986).
Cyril Ó Céirín