Living on the edge: The coast of County Clare

Explore the coast of County Clare in Ireland's Mid-West, with its cliff-top walks, island-hopping, traditional pubs and breathtaking views

by Edel Cassidy
Words Edel Cassidy

There’s no better way to satisfy your sense of adventure than by packing up the car and heading off on a good old-fashioned road trip. One of the best things about Ireland is that you don’t need to travel far to find spectacular views and new experiences. If you’re looking for the ultimate road-trip itinerary, look no further than the 230-kilometre County Clare stage of the Wild Atlantic Way. From cliff-top views, great hikes, spectacular golf courses and picture-perfect coastal towns to some of the best surfing in the world, there is something here for everyone.

A good starting point is the heritage town of Kilrush, which overlooks the Shannon Estuary and the hills of Kerry to the south. During the summer months you can catch a ferry from Kilrush Creek Marina to Scattery Island to see its ruins and lighthouse.

Follow the famous Loop Head route from Kilrush to the village of Carrigaholt, here Dolphinwatch, one of the most exciting wildlife attractions on the Wild Atlantic Way, is based. Take a guided boat trip out to the mouth of the Shannon, where Europe’s largest group of bottlenose dolphins are to be found and where the dolphin encounter rate is one of the best in the world. The Shannon is also a vibrant habitat for a vast range of flora and fauna. Your skipper will share his extensive knowledge of the geology, cliffs, caves, pelagic birds, seals and wild goats that you encounter on the trip.

Kilbaha, the last village on the Loop Head peninsula, is home to the Church of the Little Ark, a wooden hut on wheels containing an altar. It was built by local priest Fr Meehan in 1852, a time when the celebration of mass was forbidden by the local landlords. To get round the ban, Fr Meehan came up with the idea of rolling the Little Ark onto the foreshore between high and low tides, legally considered ‘no man’s land’. For five years mass was celebrated at low tide, and couples were married and children baptised there by the sea. The Little Ark is now housed in the Star of the Sea Church in the village.

Kilbaha Gallery and Café is the perfect stop for a freshly brewed coffee, some local baking and a browse around this gorgeous family-run gallery that showcases local artists. Visit the small but very lovely Henry Blake exhibition upstairs and gain some insight into the life of Kilbaha’s most famous son.

Loop Head Lighthouse is perched right at the end of the Loop Head Peninsula. Visitors can uncover its fascinating history with interactive exhibits in the Lightkeeper’s Cottage or take a guided tour up the lighthouse tower onto the balcony. Weather permitting, you’ll enjoy fantastic views south as far as the Blasket Islands and north to the Twelve Pins in Connemara. If you fancy an overnight stay, one of the lightkeeper’s cottages has been restored and offers self-catering accommodation, imbued with all the character of its maritime past.

Drive along the spectacular rugged coastline to Kilkee, Loop Head’s main town, which is built around a horseshoe bay with a kilometre-long golden Blue Flag beach. A favourite bathing spot for the Victorian aristocracy, its popularity was enhanced by the opening of the West Clare Railway in the late 1800s. Charlotte Brontë, Tennyson and Thackeray were among the illustrious visitors to Kilkee in the nineteenth century, while entertainers such as Percy French regularly packed its concert halls. In more recent times, visitors have included Che Guevara, Richard Harris and Russell Crowe.

Continue northwards to Lahinch through Doonbeg, Quilty and Spanish Point, all popular seaside villages offering a variety of outdoor activities such as surfing, fishing, walking and swimming. Lahinch is a lively, welcoming holiday resort where a golden beach provides safe bathing and magnificent surf. Nestling in the shelter of towering sand dunes is Lahinch Golf Club, one of the finest links golf courses in Ireland and was host to the Dubai Irish Open in 2019.

Heading towards the Cliffs of Moher you’ll pass through the village of Liscannor, renowned for its distinctive flagstone. Approximately two kilometres outside the village is the Holy Well of Saint Brigid, regarded as a place of healing. The spring is located in an open stone grotto which is filled with photos, statues, rosaries and medals that have been left over the years by pilgrims.

The Cliffs of Moher, the next stop on the route, provide some of the finest scenery on earth. From the main viewing area you can see the south cliffs and the mighty Hag’s Head, the most southerly point of the cliffs, where an unusual rock formation resembles a woman’s head looking out to sea. Visitors can walk right out to the highest point, 214 metres above the sea, from where, on a clear day, you can see across to the Aran Islands. O’Brien’s Tower, near the highest point, serves as an excellent viewing platform.

The next village is fabled Doolin, one of the best places in Ireland to catch some traditional music. Sail to the Aran Islands from Doolin pier or enjoy a Cliffs of Moher cruise, a stunning hour-long journey along six kilometres of coastline. Equally spectacular when viewed from the sea, the cliff s play host to thousands of rare seabirds nesting on its steep ledges. A little to the north of Doolin village is the mysterious Doolin Cave where the largest stalactite in the northernhemisphere can be seen.

Beyond Doolin, you arrive at the Burren. Its landscape of karstic limestone pavement, replete with fossils, appears harsh and barren, but a rich variety of flora – grasses and wild flowers – flourish there. A remarkable group of Mediterranean and Arctic-Alpine plants grow side by side in this exceptional botanical environment.

As you drive through this wonderful wilderness, a little lighthouse appears, marking Black Head, the point where Galway Bay begins. Turning towards the east you’ll come to the seaside village of Ballyvaughan. Though small, it has a bit of everything – pubs, hotels, restaurants, coffee shops and even an international college of art.

From here you have the option of turning south for Ennis, the capital of County Clare, taking in Aillwee Cave. This is a cave system in the limestone-terraced mountainside in which you can seek out fossils, explore beautiful caverns and wander through the chasms and bridges carved into the limestone over millions of years. You’ll also have the opportunity to see the magnificent Poulnabrone Dolmen, one of the most famous megalithic monuments in Ireland and easily viewed from the road.

This itinerary can be completed in two days, but if you have longer, why not linger to soak up the welcoming atmosphere, the stunning scenery and the vast range of attractions and activities unique to County Clare and its coast.

Driving through The Burren
  • ‘Living on the edge: The coast of County Clare’ is published in Anthology Volume 11. Read more features from this volume or buy it now.
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