Kilrush is situated along the Shannon and on the Wild Atlantic Way. The town is one of 15 designated Heritage towns in Ireland. The town is focused around a market square at the centre, all routes radiate from this point. Part of the town centre was designed by John Ormsby Vandeleur; whose family owned the large estate at the edge of the town.
The Killimer-Tarbert Car ferry is located less than 10 minutes drive from the town. This provides a great link to Kerry, Limerick and on to Cork.
The town of Kilrush, or Cill Rois (meaning the church of the woods), grew up around the pre-Reformation church from which it takes its name. The partial ruins of this medieval church still stand in Kilrush Churchyard. In 1813, the churchyard was extended northwards and construction commenced on a replacement building, now used as the Teach Ceoil. In 1873, part of the original mediaeval building was demolished to make way for the Vandeleur Mausoleum (recently restored by Kilrush and District Historical Society with funding from the Dept. of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Structures at Risk Fund. )
Rev. John Vandeleur (c1661-c1727) was appointed to the prebend of Inis-Catherie and Union of Kilrush in 1688 and he and his descendants soon became the most extensive landlords in the area. By the mid 19th century the Vandeleur estate amounted to almost 20,000 acres in County Clare. This estate encompassed a significant proportion of the Loop Head Peninsula, bounded on the north by the Atlantic Ocean and on the south by the Shannon Estuary, on which Kilrush is situated.
Kilrush Demesne was laid out and planted in 1712 for Rev. Vandeleur. It comprises the entire townland of Feagarroge (299 acres), along with parts of the adjoining townlands of Kilrush (88 acres), Kilcarroll (20 acres) and Parknamoney (10 acres). Feagarroge townland lies across from the Churchyard on the south bank of the Kilrush River, while the commercial centre of the town developed on the north bank of the river in Kilrush townland, expanding in a westward direction towards the port at Kilrush Creek. Kilrush had been a small fishing village with a good harbour, a church and a dozen houses when visited by Thomas Moland in 1703, but grew rapidly under the patronage of the Vandeleurs. The Creek provided access to the Shannon Estuary, eventually giving Kilrush a reputation as the “portico to the highways of the Western World” (Belfast Telegraph, 29 Oct. 1851). In essence, the estuary was the motorway of that era, and today it remains Ireland’s premier deepwater port.
The Terret Lodge is a notable landmark on the south bank of the river at the rear of the Churchyard, controlling access between the town and the Vandeleur demesne. Terret Lane today is a pedestrian route from the town to the Vandeleur Walled Garden, and to the walking routes recently developed within the demesne. Kilrush House, the home of the Vandeleur family, burned in 1897 and the ruin was finally demolished in 1973, so that the surviving lodges, walled garden and stable block have taken on added significance as links to the town’s past heritage. Given the original Vandeleur’s position in the Church of Ireland, Terret Lane was most likely originally the principal entrance route to his demesne, later supplemented by additional entrances and gate lodges on the roads from Kilrush to Killimer and to Killadysert.
The original John Vandeleur’s great grandson John Ormsby Vandeleur (c1765-1828) was one of the catalysts for the development of Kilrush as a significant port and market town in the nineteenth century, working along with the entrepreneurial Scots businessman James Paterson (1766-1846), who has been described as “the driving force behind the emergence of modern Kilrush” (McGuane, Kilrush from Olden Times, pp. 13-16). Together, they developed the fine Georgian boulevard known as Frances Street, which is one of Ireland’s widest streets. It was named in honour of Vandeleur’s wife, the former Lady Frances Moore (c1776-1833) and construction appears to have commenced shortly after their marriage in 1800, so one might surmise that it was a rather grand wedding present from husband to wife. The original main street, connecting the churchyard to Frances Street, was renamed Moore Street around the same time. Kilrush essentially developed into a planned estate town during this period.
The main port eventually moved the short distance eastwards from Kilrush Creek to Cappagh, where a two-hundred foot pier was built by the Commissioners of Customs in 1764 and extended by 186 feet in 1829 and again by eighty-five feet between 1835 and 1839. There was much local traffic back and forth from Cappagh and Kilrush Creek to the offshore Scattery Island. Now uninhabited, Scattery Island’s 1400 years of built heritage includes the ruins of seven mediaeval churches. If it were on the mainland, this monastic site would probably be as well-known as Glendalough or Clonmacnoise.
During the 19th century, Kilrush became a transport terminus, first for steamer routes on the Shannon Estuary and later for the West Clare Railway. Paterson started the first regular boat service between Kilrush and Limerick in 1812 and by June 1817 his Lady of the Shannon steamboat had arrived in the lower Shannon. By 1814, Paterson had established a tourism business at Cappagh, which he advertised as the Kilrush Hotel & Tepid Baths, also known as the Kilrush Bathing Hotel. In the decades that followed, Kilrush declined as a tourist attraction and was relegated to a mere gateway to the region’s main seaside tourist destination, Kilkee, eight miles away, which became known as the Brighton of the West. Today, both towns are on the very successful Wild Atlantic Way driving route. While Kilrush now has a diverse tourism product to offer to the visitor, more is needed to encourage the passing traffic to stop and stay.
The date of 1845 recorded on the keystone of the Terret Lodge represents a pivotal year in the town’s history, a year of almost biblical transition from seven years of plenty to seven years of want. The period since 1838 had seen a building boom of Celtic Tiger proportions, with the completion of the magnificent new St. Senan’s Catholic Church, the Kilrush Union Workhouse, the Fever Hospital, three large corn stores at the Merchant’s Quay end of Frances Street (Behan’s, Foley’s and Kelly’s) and two of the three hotels on Frances Street which took the place of Paterson’s original Cappagh establishment (Behan’s, Williams’s and the older Vandeleur Arms). The following seven years saw the Kilrush Poor Law Union, administered from the town, become one of the areas worst hit by death and destruction during the Great Famine. The new workhouse was soon filled beyond capacity by the starving and evicted homeless who arrived in town from all parts of the Poor Law Union. Almost every large building in the town was pressed into service as an auxiliary workhouse. Although only the boundary walls of the main workhouse site remain today, many of these auxiliary workhouses are
still in use for other functions today, ranging from Kilrush Community Hospital to the Quay Mills to private residences.
1845 was also a watershed year for the reputation of the Vandeleur family. The benevolent developer John Ormsby Vandeleur had been succeeded by his son, Crofton Moore Vandeleur (1808-1881). The younger Vandeleur chaired the Kilrush Board of Guardians until their position became untenable and they were replaced by the Poor Law Inspector, Captain Arthur Kennedy (1810-1883), who quickly developed a reputation as the friend of the poor. Paterson’s original hotel had become a private house (Cappagh House) and became Kennedy’s home during his time in Kilrush. Vandeleur soon became notorious as one of the most prolific evictors of the period. The horrendous situation in Kilrush was depicted in a series of articles in the Illustrated London News in late 1849 and early 1850, and there is hardly a book on the history of the Famine, or on Irish history in general, which is not illustrated by the sketches of Kilrush Poor Law Union from those articles. The eyes of the world were again on Kilrush in 1888 as Crofton Moore Vandeleur’s son Hector Stewart Vandeleur (1836-1909) took a firm stand against his tenants during the Land War and followed his father’s example as a
regular evictor. The Vandeleur Evictions were photographed by Robert French on behalf of William Lawrence and by others and are remembered in two exhibitions in Kilrush today. Some of those early photographs form the centrepiece of the permanent exhibition on “Kilrush in Landlord Times” at the Vandeleur Walled Garden, while a replica of the battering ram which they depict stands outside the Museum of Irish Rural Life on the Cooraclare Road. Hence, the Vandeleur name remains inextricably linked with the history of eviction and is still remembered with very mixed feelings in Kilrush.
The worldwide diaspora descended from those buried in Kilrush Churchyard and from those prompted to emigrate from Kilrush by famine and other causes is estimated to run to 100,000 or more. There is no destination in the town to which the diaspora (or locals) can be invited to learn in detail about their ancestors and about the history of the area in which they lived. The Terret Lodge is ideally positioned to serve this proposed function, for which there is a growing need.
In recent years, the significance of Kilrush and its heritage has been marked by a number of awards:
8. Kilrush had much success in the inaugural Clare Community Awards in March this 2019. Kilrush and District Historical Society were shortlisted for the Community Enhancement Award , while Kilrush Tidy Towns won the Community Environmental Award for the ‘River of Life’ project on the river that runs through the woods past the Terret Lodge.
Today, the Vandeleur Demesne is mostly under the control of Coillte, with the Vandeleur Walled Garden (www.vandeleurwalledgarden.ie) operated by Kilrush Amenity Trust. The 1813 St. Senan’s Church is now the Teach Ceoil, operated by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, and used by a wide range of community groups. The restoration, preservation and maintenance of Kilrush Churchyard is coordinated by a group of volunteers who originally came together for this purpose in 2011 and in 2012 went on to formally establish the Kilrush and District Historical Society. Work in the churchyard has been funded by the former Kilrush Town Council, Clare County Council and other bodies. Lying between the churchyard and the demesne, the Terret Lodge, now in the ownership of Clare County Council, lies derelict, forlorn and vacant, and begs to be conserved and brought back into use.
Kilrush itself remains an attractive and prosperous traditional maritime market town catering for a large agricultural hinterland in the West Clare Municipal District. The streets and squares are well laid out and most of its built fabric consists of two and three storey houses and shops over 150 years old. Many old shopfronts remain and are of a high standard in design and materials. The town has a strong urban core containing a concentration of shops, pubs, restaurants and visitor accommodation, including several tourism-related retail outlets. There are two primary schools, one secondary school, two banks, four nursing homes and a community sports centre within the town. Modern developments, such as the Quay Mills, have been appropriate and have allowed the town to retain its special character. The Creek has been turned into a vibrant boatyard and marina for fishing and leisure craft. The water level is controlled by lock gates, making it an ideal harbour for craft avoiding Atlantic storms. The marina also serves as the ferry port for Scattery Island, and the Shannon Foynes Port Company Pilot Boat and RNLI lifeboat are stationed at Cappagh. A new addition to the town is the West Coast Aqua Park which opens in May 2019 on the Marina.
The West Clare Railway, the shortcomings of which were immortalised in the words of the Percy French song “Are ye right there, Michael”, eventually closed in 1961. However, nearby Moyasta Junction is now home to the West Clare Railway Museum, which runs the original steam locomotive “Slieve Callan”, during the summer season, for steam enthusiasts to enjoy.
The Terret Lodge, once restored, will again provide the main pedestrian gateway to the Vandeleur Walled Garden, which is already one of Kilrush’s main attractions. Its strengths include the built environment, the beauty of the setting, the recreation and amenity resource, the history and heritage of the Vandeleur demesne, the seasonal variety of the gardens and the unique atmosphere and setting. The Kilrush Amenity Trust was a recent recipient of a grant of 1.72 million euro to develop the stables at the Vandeleur Walled Garden. Given the seasonal aspects of the gardens in relation to tourism and recreation, restoration of the Terret Lodge would promote all year round use.
The Shannon Estuary region has recently been identified as a multifunctional zone for the development of shipping/port functions, marine related industry, fishing/aquaculture, marine tourism, leisure and recreation. (Source: Strategic Integrated Framework Plan (SIFP), 2017, http://www.shannonestuarysifp.ie.
The estuary waters and adjoining lands support a range of functions, uses and activities, including energy generation (mainly at Moneypoint), fuel storage, aviation, heritage, landscape, valuable habitats and species. The SIFP will “facilitate the diversification of the economy, through the promotion of commercial/industrial employment, environmentally friendly aquaculture, maritime, energy, transport, recreation and tourism industries in a sustainable manner”.
Acknowledgement: The photos on this page have kindly been supplied by Kilrush & District Historical Society and Chris McKiernan.