03 June 2017

A summer afternoon
by the cliffs in Kilkee

Summer sunshine at Kilkee Bay this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen image)

Patrick Comerford

This is a bank holiday weekend in the Republic of Ireland. Many years ago, the first Monday of June replaced ‘Whit Monday’ as a public holiday, but this year it also coincides with the Whit weekend at Pentecost.

This afternoon [3 June 2017], four of us drove from Askeaton to Tarbert, caught the ferry across the Shannon estuary to Kilimer, and then drove through Kilrush along the Wild Atlantic Way as far as Kilkee, with its horseshoe bay, long sandy beach and cliff walks along the Atlantic coast.

Kilkee was just a small fishing village until the 1820s, when a paddle steamer service from Limerick to Kilrush was launched, and Kilkee began to attract visitors. It soon became a resort was featured on the front page of the Illustrated London News as the premier bathing spot on these islands.

Later, it became a popular holiday destination for people from Limerick, with steamboats travelling daily up and down the River Shannon. The fashion for wealthy Limerick merchants to find holiday homes by the sea brought a building boom in the 1830s, several hotels opened, and these, and three churches were built: a Roman Catholic (1831), a Church of Ireland church (1843) and a Methodist church (1900).

The cliffs and the Atlantic Ocean at Kilkee this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

In 1836, the Intrinsic, a ship from Liverpool bound for New Orleans, was blown into a bay near Bishop’s Island in Kilkee. The ship was dashed against the cliffs repeatedly and sank along with a crew of 14, none of whom survived.

The Edmond, a passenger vessel sailing from Limerick to New York City, was driven by a storm into Kilkee Bay in 1850, split in two and sank at Edmond Point. Of the 216 people on board, 98 were drowned. Then, 50 later, in 1886, the Fulmar, a cargo vessel sailing from Troon in Scotland to Limerick, sank in Farrihy Bay, with the loss of 17 lives. In 1894, the Inishtrahull went missing near Kilkee coast.

Despite these disasters, Kilkee went through another boom in the 1890s, when the West Clare Railway improved commercial life in the area. Many prominent people who came to visit Kilkee included the poet Sir Aubrey de Vere of Curraghchase near Askeaton, Charlotte Brontë, who spent her honeymoon here, Sir Henry Rider Haggard, Alfred Lord Tennyson and the Crown Princess Elisabeth (‘Sisi’) of Austria.

The poet and songwriter Percy French was a regular performer in Kilkee and an incident on the West Clare Railway here prompted him to write his song Are Ye Right There Michael.

During the ‘Celtic Tiger,’ the population of Kilkee could reach 25,000 in the summer months, although this has fallen significantly in the years since. An annual competition is the Bay Swim, a mile-long race from the east end of the town to the west across the bay.

The Limerick-born actor, singer and songwriter Richard Harris was a regular visitor to Kilkee, and he won the Tivoli Cup in the Kilkee racquetball contest for four consecutive years, from 1948 to 1951. His statue by the cliffs was unveiled by actor Russell Crowe in 2006.

Beside the statue, the Diamonds Rock Café at the West End of Kilkee looks out across Kilkee bay and the cliffs surrounding the Atlantic Ocean. We had lunch there before returning to Kilrush, where we stropped at the Vandeleur Walled Gardens, before catching the ferry from Kilimer back to Tarbert.

The Richard Harris statue in the grounds of the Diamonds Rock Café (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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