This walking tour of approximately 4.5km is the best way for you to start getting to know the town of Clifden; it will lead you all around it, talking you through the many architectural and historical aspects of its interesting heritage. This tour is easily achievable by people of all fitness levels; just follow the directions given and it will be completed in about 90 minutes (or a little longer if you choose to climb Monument Hill). This walking tour is also an ideal opportunity to take your own photographs of the area’s fine views, with the twin spires and mountains framing your perfect shot.
Clifden (An Clochán in Irish, meaning ‘beehive cell’), the recognised capital of Connemara, was founded in 1812 by local landlord John D’Arcy and built on his private estate. Nestled between the rugged peaks of the Twelve Bens mountain range and the rolling waves of the Atlantic Ocean, the town is renowned for its hospitality and dramatic scenery with plenty of walking, cycling and sailing nearby. The town plan, oval in shape, allowed for two wide streets leading to Market Square and connected by a narrower street. The development of the town was greatly aided by the construction of access roads and a pier in the 1820s, improving communications and bringing large-scale employment to the region.
By 1826, Clifden had 100 houses, mostly of two storeys, along with 30 shops, a brewery, a distillery and a mill. The area suffered greatly during the Great Famine, but Clifden recovered somewhat with the arrival of the railway in 1895. Fourteen houses were burned down by the Black and Tans (17 March 1921) during the War of Independence and the destruction of more houses during the Civil War (1922–23) necessitated a good deal of rebuilding in the mid 1920s. What we see today dates mainly from the late 19th and early 20th century. Start your tour near the Millennium Monument (2000) in Market Square.
Estimated length of tour: 1.5hr / 4.5km
1. Start on Market Square, where you can examine some of Clifden’s 19th century Town Houses. Note the distinctive castellated gable of E.J.King’s Bar and Restaurant, which appeared in the earliest sketches of the town (1840s); the metal and glass canopy above the entrance to Foyle’s Hotel; the moulded work on the first floor of Millars and rich stucco facade on The Central (Main Street) – all date from the early 20th century. Continue along Market Street, passing the Whistlestop store. Note the individual cornices to its first floor windows (1920s) and the engaged columns with console capitals on the ground floor of Lowry’s Sweater and Gift Shop from the late 19th century. Pass Clifden Library, turning right onto Bridge Street.
2. Two stone bridges, Ardbear Old Bridge and Ardbear New Bridge, span the Owenglen River where it forms a waterfall. Facing east, view the ‘three-eyed’ Old Bridge erected by John D’Arcy (c. 1819) and a film location for scenes in ‘The Quiet Man’. The rising ground on the right was the site for one of Daniel O’Connell’s Monster Meetings, held in 1843 in demand for the repeal of the Act of Union. Further along, Ardbear New Bridge (c. 1824) spans a deep ravine. The ruins seen from the pedestrian bridge housed a mill in the 19th century. A small hydroelectric station was opened there in 1925 which provided lighting to Clifden until the 1950s. Nearby, a small path leads up to the old Bridewell (gaol), built in its present form in the 1820s. Return along Bridge Street, taking a right into Hulk Street.
3. Continue 20 metre to the Connemara Pony Breeders Society and Showgrounds. The CPBS was established in 1923 for the purpose of taking steps that would lead to the preservation and improvement of the Connemara Pony breed. The building houses a small museum exhibiting material relating to the Connemara Pony and the history of the society. The Showgrounds are the venue for the world-famous Connemara Pony Show, held every year on the third Thursday in August. Continue to the end of the street and cross over to the Station House Courtyard.
4. The Station House Bar with its distinctive red roof tiles is the site of the former Clifden Railway Station. The Galway to Clifden Railway ran over 48 miles, had 7 stations and was in operation for 40 years (1895–1935). Although of great importance to the development of the town, it was never profitable and closed on 27 April 1935. Today, there is interest in opening sections of the line as a walking trail. Here you can visit the Station House Museum (1998) in the former locomotive shed beside the Bar; it houses interesting artefacts relating to the Connemara Pony and the town’s early history. Then, continue to the Galway Road, stopping outside the Tourist Office.
5. Look upwards, across the road, to the former Convent of Mercy (1855–2001). From here the Sisters of Mercy ran a primary and secondary school for girls, an orphanage and an industrial school. The Convent has ornate window surrounds and a cut stone arch and fanlight over its two-leafed door. Cross over and continue to the Courthouse (c. 1840). This classic building with carved limestone and wonderful sash windows is the oldest functioning building in Clifden Town. Restored in 2005, it is one of few in the country that has retained its Victorian interior. Continue right to St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church (1879).
6. Mass was first celebrated here on 20 July 1879. The spire was erected in 1898, the clock and bell installed in 1899 and the organ was added in 1900. If you want, you can choose to enter and admire the magnificent stained glass windows purchased from the Joshua Clark Studios, Dublin (later the Harry Clark Studios) in 1907 for a little over £450. Then, cross at the pedestrian lights and to the right. Take the next left alongside the old Roman Catholic churchyard (1820–1879). Continue past Church Hill to the Church of Ireland, Christ Church, on your left.
7. Erected in 1853 in the neo-Gothic style, Christ Church replaced an earlier church (c. 1820). Damage sustained during a storm in 1961 required the demolition and redesign of the west end. The church hosts many recitals year round, especially during Clifden Arts Festival every September. Take time to view the clear tracery windows and relatively unaltered interior. In the graveyard you will find the tomb of the town’s founder, John D’Arcy (1785–1839) and the grave of his son, Rev. Hyacinth D’Arcy (1806–1874), first minister of Christ Church. A little east of the church entrance also lies the grave of Seán Lester (1888–1959), who was an important Irish diplomat and last Secretary General of the League of Nations.
8. Continue westwards, to the junction with the Sky Road. Take a left to the next stop or continue 500 metre ahead (10 minutes by foot) to the John D’Arcy Monument situated at the summit of Monument Hill, which is a steep but short ascent. From there you can afford an excellent panoramic view. In the distance to your right is the site of the Marconi Station (1907–1923) and the landing site of the first successful transatlantic flight (Alcock and Brown, 15 June 1919). John D’Arcy was born in County Galway and was the proprietor of over 20,000 acres of west Connemara. His residence, Clifden Castle, can be viewed from the Lower Sky Road (1500 metre) further west. The base of the monument was erected soon after his death, but it was not fully completed until 1992.
9. Clifden Town Hall (1908) was built with the financial assistance of emigrants living in America. This is a protected structure and is currently under renovation. It hosts traditional Irish nights during the summer months. Opposite are panoramic views of Clifden Harbour and to the west is the Town Quay, designed by Scottish engineer Alexander Nimmo (1783–1832). The stone warehouse alongside was used as a government food depot during the Great Famine (1845–1852). Continue to our final stop, the Thomas Whelan monument, 15 metre on your right.
10. Thomas Whelan, a native of Clifden and member of the Dublin Volunteers, was executed in Mountjoy Jail on 14 March 1921 (War of Independence) for the murder of a British Officer in Dublin, despite pleading innocent. In retaliation two days later, the IRA shot dead two policemen on patrol in Clifden. Later that night, a section of the British Army known as the ‘Black and Tans’ arrived by train, burned 14 houses, killed an innocent civilian and seriously wounded another. Many of Thomas Whelan’s letters, writings and personal effects are on display in Kilmainham Gaol Museum in Dublin. Continue back to Market Square. In your view to the right is the Methodist Chapel (1854–1908) while to your left, carriage arches are visible at Sea Mist House and the Bank of Ireland.