A Day Along the Shannon Estuary
A journey to Ireland’s “prettiest village” leads to gardens, ruins, the discovery of Irish coffee, dolphin watching, and Europe’s first international airport.
Mummy, look,” announced the little girl stretching her hand across the railing next to me. I followed her finger to the splashing water about a quarter mile away. From the upper deck of the car ferry, I could see dolphins skimming the surface of the Shannon Estuary.
As the girl’s mother snapped photos, her father held binoculars in front of his daughter’s face. She quickly tilted her head in favor of unassisted viewing. “They’re lovely,” she giggled after one of the dolphins leapt clear out of the water, then disappeared into an oncoming wave.
Her father offered me his binoculars. Grateful, I accepted and pointed my eyes toward the whitecaps marking the dolphins’ location. Every few seconds a dorsal fin would spring above the water. Then, in a strange choreography, two or three dolphins would leap out of the water one after the other. Breathtaking.
It was only an hour since breakfast, and the enchantment of my day had already begun.
The scenic waterway
The ferry coursed around the lighthouse in Tarbert, County Kerry, to the dock. I looked back across the Shannon, and noticed how gentle County Clare’s shoreline appeared from this vantage… quite different from the dramatic, craggy coast I had toured a day earlier.
One-by-one each vehicle, be it car, truck, bus, or bicycle, deboarded the ferry to travel onwards to points in Kerry and Limerick. I followed the cars bound for Limerick and crossed the county line about a minute later.
The N69 road took me inland along the estuary. Approaching the village of Glin, all that separated me from the water was a short, stone wall on my left. Meanwhile, the taller walls of Glin Castle lined my right side. My eyes darted between water, the road, and the castle wall; to my delight, there was one brief moment when the castle came into view before being hidden behind the wall again.
The flying boats of the Shannon
Heading east, the road rose, and I pulled off twice to look down at the mighty waterway. The estuary was quite calm there, and I realized why it became the preferred runway for the Europe’s first regular transatlantic flights.
Those early planes landed on the water and ferried to terminal in Foynes. I stopped at the original terminal which has been transformed into the Foynes Flying Boat Museum. The wonderfully nostalgic exhibits honored the birth of international air travel. The woman at the counter told me Maureen O’Hara had just been there a week earlier — O’Hara’s husband Charles F. Blair, Jr had piloted some of the B314s, also known as flying boats, that landed at Foynes, and O’Hara adored the museum.
Outside the building, I wandered up a set of stairs leading to the full-scale replica of a B314. Clearly passengers in the early 1940s had no worries about legroom and crammed luggage in overhead bins. The cavernous cabin left me in awe not only of man’s ability to take flight, but also of our capacity for making it luxurious.
The terminal’s other claim to fame… it was the birthplace of Irish coffee. Chef Joe Sheridan soothed a group of weary passengers by spiking their coffee with Irish whiskey. He later took his recipe to San Francisco’s Beuna Vista Café where it became the restaurant’s signature drink.
The secret garden at Knockpatrick
On the road out of town, a small roadside sign pointed to Knockpatrick Gardens. A few twists in the road led to a small “open” sign next to drive crowned by an enormous branch dripping in lemondrop-like blossoms. I parked near the house and knocked at the door.
Helen O’Brien greeted me and insisted I sit down for tea. Her husband Tim appeared from the other room and inquired where I was from. They had a daughter in America and were thrilled to chat about their family and their garden. Helen presented me with a fresh scone and told me that if I had arrived an hour earlier it would still be warm.
Tim’s father started the garden, but as he took me through maze of plants and flowers, it was clear he and Helen made massive additions. Before I left, Tim presented a bag of freshly dug corcosmia bulbs, “These should fair well in mountains up your way,” he said. Earlier I told him about the challenges of finding plants that did well in the wind and higher elevations in Tipperary. The bright red blossoms of Tim’s corcosmia have been returning every summer since.
The unruly history of Askeaton
Just down the road, I stopped in Askeaton and admired the castle. The voice of Anthony Sheehy, a retired butcher, rolled toward me from the bridge in the center of town. He began telling me about the site and revealed that he had the key to the gates and offered one of his “free tours.” How could I resist?
I followed him into the ruined castle where he gave abundant specifics of the architecture and life there. I had visited enough Irish castles to know the basics, but Anthony’s tour shifted gears when he talked about the Hellfire Club that was built on the site in the 1700s. I’m not sure if Anthony was disgusted or fascinated with the tales of debauchery the Hellfire Club brought to Askeaton. Regardless, the details held my attention.
At the end of the tour, Anthony brought out several photos of the castle. His arrangement with the Office of Public Works, the folks who gave him the keys, didn’t allow him to charge for tours, so he sold photos instead.
After saying goodbye to Anthony, I wandered down the river to the friary. It was there that after failing to take Askeaton Castle in 1579, Sir Nicholas Malby, led a massacre at the friary. Although in ruins, the structure was fairly intact and worth exploring, and the colonnades and arches of the cloister were nearly in perfect condition.
The prettiest village in Ireland
I must admit, I was one of those tourists who gasped with excitement when I first caught sight of Adare. The row of thatched cottages now filled with shops, the expansive park, and the ruined abbeys nearby all combined to create a charming place to stop.
My early evening arrival meant that the tour buses were gone for the day, and I was able to wander up and down the street enjoying the village with only the locals and a few guests staying on the grounds of Adare Manor. With most of the shops closed, I was able to forget I was in a tourist haven and simply enjoy what some called “Ireland’s prettiest village.”