19 February 2019

What would Phineas Finn find
if he returned to Killaloe today?

Killaloe, Co Clare, took its shape as a Georgian and Victorian town in the late 18th and early 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Part of the pleasure of walking through the streets of Killaloe, Co Clare, on Sunday afternoon came in admiring the elegant, brightly-coloured buildings in the narrow streets of a town that is obviously conscious of having been an important centre in political and social life in Munster for centuries.

Although the O’Briens of Thomond moved their main political centre from Killaloe to Limerick, Killaloe retained its importance for many centuries.

Queen Elizabeth directed Sir Nicholas Malby (1530-1584), Lord President of Connaught, to make a choice in 1579 between Killaloe, Quin and Ennis and to designate one of them as the capital town of Co Clare. Malby chose Ennis.

But Killaloe continued to have strategic importance. Cromwell’s army was encamped for ten days at Ballina in 1650, exploring a passage across the river to Killaloe. Forty years later, the Jacobite army of King James II marched through Killaloe on its way to defend Athlone.

Patrick Sarsfield maintained a strong garrison to defend the river crossing. In August 1690, he crossed the Shannon with a select body of cavalry to destroy an ammunition train on its way to William III’s army at the siege of Limerick City.

Following the Treaty of Limerick in 1691, Killaloe began to take on its present shape and appearance. Many of the houses on Main Street and at the lower end of the town were built in the 18th century, and a distillery was built at John’s Street.

The flourishing woollen and cloth industry employed over 150 people at five shillings a week, there were two weekly markets, and the first Post Office opened in Killaloe in 1793.

By 1837, Killaloe included Saint Flannan’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, one square, a principal street, several smaller streets, about 300 houses, with the Church of Ireland bishop’s palace at Clarisford House. At this time, Saint Flannan’s Roman Catholic Church was being built on the Green.

The Shannon Steam Navigation Company had its headquarters here and had ran regular steam packets up the Shannon, through Lough Derg to Portumna, Athlone and Banagher, and from Banagher by canal boats to Dublin.

However, during the famine years the town of Killaloe lost 191 people, and between 1841 and 1851, the number of inhabited houses in the parish dropped from 1,253 to 920. By 1861 the parish had lost a total of 441 families.

Bridge Street, Killaloe, on Sunday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

In Victorian literature, Killaloe is the home town of Phineas Finn, the fictional hero of two of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, Phineas Finn (1869) and Phineas Redux (1874).

In Phineas Finn, Trollope presents Killaloe as a lively, provincial, town. Phineas Finn’s father, Dr Malachai Finn, is well-known and respected ‘in counties Clare, Limerick, Tipperary, and Galway.’ Dr Finn is a friend of the Roman Catholic Bishop, another prominent Killaloe resident, and personal physician to the Earl of Tulla, who lives on his estate ‘not more than ten miles from Killaloe.’

Phineas Finn returns to Killaloe for extended periods to spend time with his parents and with his five sisters and their friend, Miss Mary Flood Jones, who later becomes his first wife.

In the 19th century, Killaloe was described as being pleasantly situated on rising ground on the western bank of the Shannon, near the falls of Killaloe and connected with Co Tipperary by a bridge of 13 arches. The falls have since disappeared beneath the high waters needed for the Shannon Hydroelectric Scheme.

Today Killaloe is the southern limit of the recommended navigable part of the River Shannon by small craft. Today, Killaloe is the most important boating and fishing centre within the three counties of Clare, Limerick and Tipperary.

One of the surviving buildings that make a statement about the 19th century importance of Killaloe is Killaloe Courthouse, a detached, five-bay two-storey courthouse built in 1838-1840 for the Clare Grand Jury for £1,000. It has a three-bay, double-height, central block, flanked by breakfront entrance end bays.

The old courthouse in Killaloe closed in 1994. Since then, Killaloe District Court has sat at the Lakeside Hotel in Ballina on the opposite bank of the river, and in the Kincora Hall Hotel, Killaloe, and there was speculation in recent years that the Courts Service was considering moving the court to Ennis.

The Courts Service is reported to be planning to hand over the old courthouse and Clare County Council has expressed an interest in acquiring the building for community use.

Killaloe Courthouse was built for the Clare Grand Jury in 1838-1840 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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