Clonlara is situated on the west bank of the River Shannon between Killaloe and Limerick and close to the Slieve Bernagh Mountains. It is surrounded by a huge variety of historical sites. These include early medieval forts and later tower houses. Three churches from different centuries – a 15th century parish church, an 18th Century Church of Ireland and an 19th century Roman Catholic Church. Traces of seventeen large estates and houses dating to the 18th century.
Clonlara underwent big landscape changes between the late 18th and early 20th century as the Limerick and Shannon Navigation systems were developed and the Errina Canal and the Shannon Hydro Electric Scheme Canal (Head Race) were built. These works resulted in the division of some townlands, the diversion of two rivers and the construction of new roads and bridges.
The following Heritage Trail highlights thirteen historical sites along a circular loop (walking, driving, cycling). The trailhead is in the village of Clonlara and parking is available at the Community Centre.
(All photos by Peggy Ryan, except where otherwise stated.)
Stop 1: St Senan’s RC Church
Built of limestone in the early English style in 1870, St Senan’s RC Church was designed by William.E. Corbett, Limerick. Above the large, deep, recessed, molded, cut stone main entrance door case is a cut stone, three light window. The sacristy to the rear is an elaborate structure with cut stone dressings to the windows.
The nave of the Church is 84 feet long, 35 feet wide and is 50 feet in height from the floor to the ridge of the roof. It is divided from the chancel (24 by 20 foot) by a cut stone arch. The roof of the nave is of open construction, supported by neatly designed, stained and polished, pine principals and rafters. The nave is lit from the sides by eight lancet windows of plain quarry glass set in a diamond pattern with a red glass border.
Ref: Church of St Senan Clonlara, Fr Michael Lane, Shravokee, Clonlara, Co
Stop 2: Kiltenanlea Parish Church of Ireland
This church was built in 1782 on an elevated site near Clonlara village with a burial ground attached. At one stage it was surrounded by lime trees. The church is 46 feet 6 inches long and 23 feet and 6 inches wide. A variety of stained- glass windows light up the interior.The first Rector was Rev Charles Massey and the curate was Richard Welsh.
The tower, designed by James Pain, was added in 1830. It was built from local quarried limestone at a cost of £ 300. The chancel and two small transepts, which were a gift from Lady Massey, were erected in 1891. The architect was William E. Corbett C.E. who also designed St Senan’s Catholic Church Clonlara and the Catholic Church in Castleconnell.
Ref: Kiltenanlea Parish Church and its community 1782-1992 Freddie Bourke
Stop 3: The Shannon Scheme
On 13th August 1925, the construction of the Shannon Hydro-Electric Scheme commenced. The scheme lead to the establishment of the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) on 11th August 1927. The project cost IR£5.2 million, about 20% of the Government’s revenue budget in 1925.
A German firm, Siemens, undertook this huge project, employing over 5,000 people at its peak. A dam, power station and turbine hall were built at Ardnacrusha. A two-kilometre tail-race canal was blasted through the rock to take the outflow back to the River Shannon. Two rivers were diverted, two navigation locks were built and four new bridges were constructed where the intake canal cut across roads.
Water was diverted from the Shannon, via a dam and intake weir at O’Brien’s Bridge, and channelled to the power station down a new 13-kilometre head-race canal that was dug out by bucket excavators.
The logistics were fascinating. A temporary power station was needed to power the various workshops and an electric crane. 100 kilometres of narrow- gauge railway was installed to navigate around the Scheme, with some 100 locomotives and 3,000 wagons to move the massive amounts of clay and rock which were excavated. Three large rock crushing plants were used to excavate the rock so it could be re-used as hard-core.
The Scheme was officially opened by President William T. Cosgrave on 22nd July 1929.
Ref: ESB archives online 19/01/2020
Stop 4: Sheela-na-gig
A Sheela-na-gig is a medieval stone figure of a naked woman displaying her exaggerated genitals. They are always single figures and can be found bizarrely over doorways in churches and monastic sites but can also be found on Castles, holy wells and bridges.
The Sheela-na-gig which is inserted on the canal bridge at Clonlara has been damaged below the waist. The legs and genitals are only barely traceable. This figure is said to have come from Newtown Castle. The date, 1769, was added to the stone and is related to the construction of the bridge as part of the Limerick Navigation scheme.
There is a lot of mystery surrounding Sheela-na-gigs. While they appear erotic in nature they may have been pagan symbols of fertility or warnings against lust. They might also have been used as a protection against evil, a reason why they were placed over doorways.
The origin of the name Sheela-na-gig is also unknown. It could have come from the phrase “Sighle na gCíoch” meaning “the old hag of the breasts”. Another suggestion is that it comes from an old English slang word “gig” meaning women’s genitalia”
Ref: The witch on the wall by Jorgen Anderson 1977
Etienne Rynne Thomond Archaeology Society 1967
Sheela-Na-Gig: The Mysterious Medieval Carvings of Women Exhibitionists by Kaushik Patowary
Stop 5: Coolisteige Tower House
Coolisteige Tower House was built by Donough, son of Teige MacNamara between 1450 and 1470. It appears to have been built in two parts with some tie-stones holding the sections together.
In 1944 RW Twiggs described it as follows:
“It stands on a low but steep limestone rock…. the tower about 50 feet high, measures 31 feet by 24 feet and is built of good rubble masonry with well-cut coigns and narrow slit windows”
The tower consists of four storeys. The main entrance is on the east side and the original relieving arch is still visible. An unusual feature is the narrow slot window above the doorway. Internally, above the entrance lobby is a murder hole, for drooping missiles on unsuspecting attackers. A spiral-stairs to the upper floors is on the left and a porter’s lodge to the right.
The upper floors were living quarters, featuring larger windows than the lower floors. In a toilet on the third floor is a secret chamber that may have been used to hide children in the event of an attack.
In 2006 some conservation work was carried out including repairs to the base corners and wall breaches.
Ref: Ristéard Ua Cróinín and Martin Breen ‘Castles and Tower Houses of Co Clare’
Stop 6: Double Lime Kiln
Limestone was heated in lime kilns to a very high temperature to produce quicklime (powdered lime). The stone was quarried locally and broken into uniform pieces the size of a man’s fist. These pieces were then transported to the lime kiln.
An iron grille was placed over the eye of the egg-shaped interior chamber of the lime kiln, then alternative layers of fuel (turf and wood) and the pieces of limestone were stacked on top of the grille. When loading was complete, the fire was lit at the bottom and the fire gradually spread upwards, burning fuel and limestone. When burnt through, the resulting quicklime was cooled and raked out through the base.
Lime was used mainly to improve the quality of agricultural land and a single lime kiln was the usual type in use. This double lime kiln in Coolisteige townland was most likely a commercial kiln and may have supplied quicklime as mortar for buildings in the general area. Lime from this kiln was supposedly used in building Ranks Flour Mill in Limerick.
Ref: The Schools’ collection, Volume 0185, page 0019. National Folklore Collection, UCD
Stop 7: The Limerick Navigation Scheme
Between 1827 and 1848, before the railway reached Limerick, various canals and the River Shannon offered an alternative form of transport from Dublin to Limerick. A mixture of horse drawn barges and steamers carried goods and passengers between the two cities. Even after the advent of the railway, barges continued carrying cargo until the ESB Shannon Scheme in 1927.
The Limerick Navigation linked Limerick to Lough Derg and comprised five sections. Starting from the upstream end, they were:
a canal bypassing rapids at Killaloe and some distance downstream. This canal had three locks
- a river navigation section, on the Shannon itself, from the lowest lock on the Killaloe canal through O’Briensbridge to Errina
- a second canal from Errina to Plassey, with six locks
- a river navigation section from Plassey
- a third canal leading to the canal harbour in Limerick. This canal had one lock about half way along. A second lock allowed boats out of the harbour on to the Abbey River and thus provided access to Limerick Dock and the Shannon Estuary. This canal bypassed rapids at Corbally.
Ref: Irish Waterways History (25/01/2020)
Stop 8: Entrance to Waterpark House
Waterpark House was one of seventeen large houses and estates in the Clonlara area in the 18th and 19th Century. Ten of these mansions overlooked the Shannon and the other seven were dispersed across the district.
Waterpark House was initially owned by the Bindon family and later the Phelps family, who added a large extension. The Phelps were extremely wealthy and made their money from designing and manufacturing torpedoes.
The house was demolished in 1939, but the ruins of a one-storey, three bay gate lodge with a central fan light door still survive at the entrance to the long sweeping drive to the house site. The large cast iron gate and the beautifully decorated stone cut pillars that form the entrance are well maintained. The design of the pillar caps matches the design of the chimney caps of the gate lodge. A very ornate cast iron railing topped with fleur-de-lys sits on a low stone cut wall to each side of the gate.
Ref: Houses of Clare by Hugh W.L. Weir
Stop 9: The Footbridge between Doonass and Castleconnell
This wooden and concrete bridge was constructed over the River Shannon in 1942 by the Seventh Engineering Field Coy. It was built to facilitate the movement of soldiers between Castleconnell and Doonass.
During the 2nd World War, in order to protect Ardnacrusha Power station and Parteen Weir at O’Briensbridge, the 12th Desmond Infantry Battalion was stationed in Castleconnell and the Clare 26th battalion Engineering company was stationed in Doonass House, Clonlara.
Before this footbridge was erected, a passenger ferry operated further up the river from the early 18th Century. The Postal authorities also operated its own boat and the local postman made the crossing every day from Castleconnell post office to deliver post to the Clonlara district.
This bridge has become an integral part of our landscape and continues the close links between the parishes of Clonlara and Castleconnell
Ref: 1&2 Castleconnell (part 2) by Kevin Hannan as per Through the Green Isle MJ Hurley FRSA 1895
Freddie Bourke local historian
Paddy Tuohy local historian Castleconnell
Stop 10: The Falls of Doonass
In 1827 the Falls of Doonass were described as follows: “The falls of Doonass and Hermitage, are some of the finest in the United Kingdom — here the whole Shannon is impelled with tremendous force and deafening noise over a succession of craggy limestone-rocks, down a descent of 55.5 feet, in about half a mile,” ( George McKern 1827)
The Leap of Doonass was where the power of the River Shannon met its narrowest point. This was a very strategic point of the River as powerful rapids meant most boats had to disembark and the crew had to either carry on by foot to another waiting boat or lift the boat out and carry it with them.
The Falls of Doonass along with Castleconnell was a famous fishing area and many renowned people fished here for salmon including Lord Randolph Churchill.
All this changed when the River Shannon was diverted in the 1920s to supply water to Ardnacrusha power station, resulting in a huge decrease in water volume down the original course of the river and the Falls of Doonass became the quiet meandering section of the river that you see today.
Ref: The History, Topography, and Antiquities, of the County and City of Limerick; with a preliminary view of the history and antiquities of Ireland(George McKern, Limerick, 1827),
Castleconnell (part2) Kevin Hannan.
Stop 11: Folly House
An 18th century folly house which was built on the Doonass Estate is known as “The Turret”. Sir H.D Massey, the owner of the estate, lived in Doonass House, a very large 18th Century, rendered, hip roofed, three bay, two storey house, with wide eaves and a wide fan lit front door set in a recessed central bay. An extensive courtyard and buildings adjoin the west and north-west of the house. The ”Turret” was constructed in front of the house on the banks of the River Shannon.
In 1797 John Harden writing in his book “Visitor’s Impressions” recalls visiting Doonass House and spending time at “the Turret.” He described it as follows:
“the turret which is an ornamental object built with brick, three stories high, the rooms lofty and of a hexagon figure. It stands out boldly in the most rapid part of the river… on a huge projecting rock commanding a delightful view”.
Another illustrious visitor to “the Turret” was the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Duke of Richmond in 1809.
Originally a tower intended for viewing the rapids at Doonass on the River Shannon, a six-sided brick building was added later. The Folly House is believed locally to have been home to a hellfire club.
The folly may have been built on the site of an ancient fort known as “The fort of the Cataract”. Doonass was a fording point of the Shannon and is noted in the Annals of the Four Masters in 1124 as “Eas-Danainne”. In the 16th century a castle was built here by the MacNamaras. Some of the medieval stonework is still visible.
Ref: Risteard Ua Croinin and Martin Breen “The Castles and Tower-houses of Co. Clare”
Visitors Impressions 1797 John Harden (Old Limerick Journal 2005) Limerick Chronicle Files 1809
Stop 12: Kiltenanlea Medieval Catholic Church and Graveyard
In the Irish language this parish is called Cill-t’Seanain Liath, that is the Church of St. Senán, the hoary. His festival is now celebrated on the 15th of August.
The parish is known today as Clonlara. Previously it was referred to as Doonass and Truagh. Before that it was called Kiltenanlea. The walls of the original Medieval Church still stand within the graveyard. Dating to the 15th century, the Church measures 59 feet by 18 feet 8 inches. The East window is a tall ogee-headed slit. The south window is of yellow gritstone, with a neat trefoil head. The south door is pointed and well moulded.
The Church is surrounded by a large graveyard where there is a rock-cut bullaun and holy hawthorn to the north. The bullaun stone may have been part of the original early medieval monastic site of St Senan.
Ref: T.J. Westropp in Proceedings of R.I.A. ‘On Churches of County Clare’: 1900 Kiltenanlea,
Stop 13: St Senan’s Holy Well
This holy well is named after Saint Senan (the hoary) the patron Saint of this district.
His feast day is celebrated on the 15th of August and the tradition was that people would “do the rounds” while walking in a circular movement around the well. The pilgrims recited five Our Fathers, five Hail Marys and five Gloria’s to gain a plenary indulgence for their departed loved ones.
In 1956 a major renovation of the well took place. A cut stone canopy, acquired from Nenagh Courthouse by Canon Hamilton, and a statue of St Senan, made from Italian marble and donated by Mrs Mary O Dwyer, were added.
The well is divided into two parts. Some of the water was used for curing all manners of diseases and the other part was used for drinking.
Ref: The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0585, Page 016, 017,018 Image and data © National Folklore Collection, UCD.
Thanks to Freddie Bourke, local historian, for information used throughout the compilation of this trail.