Discovering Clare from historic Old Ground

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From hunting down Craggy Island parochial house on a secluded back road, to standing on the Atlantic brink at the Cliffs of Moher and sampling a taste of medeival history at the Bunratty Castle, Ian Cullen found that Ennis’s Old Ground Hotel was the perfect base from which to discover some of the many attractions County Clare has to offer.

From hunting down Father Ted to taking in the magnificence of some of Europe’s highest Cliffs, the history-steeped Old Ground Hotel in Ennis proved the perfect base to discover Co Clare.

Blending the warmth of a country home with the contemporary comforts and luxuries of a modern Irish hotel, the Old Ground is a stylish and atmospheric four star hotel which boasts a rich history and even an eerie painting with a ghostly figure.

The Old Ground has the added advantage of being located in one of Ireland’s key tourism hubs - a region where tourism infrastructure has been carefully constructed over a period of many decades. One thing that strikes the visitor to Co Clare is that the locals seem to have a better grasp than most in Ireland on how the hospitality industry should work - we got a real sense that people were genuinely glad to see us, something that was evident from the very first moment we arrived at the Old Ground.

After checking into one of the four star hotel’s luxury king rooms, it wasn’t difficult to comprehend why the Old Ground is a regular entry in the Bridgestone Guide of the 100 Best Places to stay in Ireland.

Visitors will be at once struck by the fusion of the contemporary and the modern at hotel which has a long standing reputation. The Old Ground has grown from the original private home to incorporate the former town hall and jail, and includes a host of period features and antiques such as the Lemenagh fireplace - dating from the 16th century - from the Great Hall of Lemenagh Castle. The building is adorned with paintings and other artworks - some old portraits of successive members of the famous O’Brien clan as well as many sophisticated and elegant contemporary pieces.

Complete with a four post kingsize bed and 50 inch tv, our room was indeed fit for a king - although there was so much to explore in the surrounding area there was little time to waste indoors.

First on the itinerary was a trip to the coast to take in the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher - which as the some of the highest cliffs in Europe are among the country’s most popular tourist attractions. Just past the popular coastal town of Lahinch on the rugged Atlantic seaboard, the cliffs should not be missed on a visit to the region - advice that wasn’t lost on the thousands of people who decided to take in the scene on the same day we did. Hoards of visitors including bus-loads of Americans, Canadians, Japanese, English and European tourists flooded through the impressive visitor centre - which is tastefully built into a mountainside - and made their way to O’Briens’ Tower to see for themselves what all the fuss was about. The natural beauty was much like Sliabh League in Donegal but with a fully developed tourism infrastructure which was well packaged and self sustaining through a 6 euro charge per adult vehicle passenger.

Back in Ennis - a stronghold of traditional Irish music - there always a tune to be enjoyed in one of the local bars. The friendly hotel staff were quick to point out that visitors to the medieval town are never far from the craic agus ceol of an evening session.

The traditional Poet’s Corner pub, which is part of the Old Ground is renowned as a location for some fine traditional music on many nights of the week. It is adorned with many old and original portraits which give the place a real air of history.

Following a quick pint of stout, we made for the The Town Hall Bistro - a relaxed and informal contemporary bistro which we were happy to discover serves up full plates of very fine food, including naughty but devine dauphinoise potatoes.

Breakfast in the hotel’s bistro was equally tasty with a fine selection of everything from health conscious smoothies and scrambled eggs with smoked salmon to the more decadent freshly cooked pancakes and the obligatory ‘full Irish’ offering.

Following breakfast, I was delighted to catch a glimpse of an eerie painting which continues to puzzle hotel staff. The old painting of a young girl appears to have the faint image of a woman screaming in its bottom right hand corner - an image which a member of staff assured me had gradually appeared over several years.

He said: “I know people who have worked here for 45 years and they don’t remember the face being there - so who knows what it is, it probably a painting underneath which was painted over and has reappeared again but it’s still a great talking point.”

The intriguing painting formerly hung in the hotel but is now in storage, perhaps in an effort not to scare the more superstitious guests.

Slightly unnerved at the eerie sight, it seemed like the perfect time for a bit of light hearted exploration on the edge of the Burren National Park.

We weren’t going in search of the world famous Ailwee Caves like thousands of others - like proper sitcom anoraks we were on a quest to find the legendary Father Ted’s house. Having discovered purely by chance that the famous abode, which is a private residence, was not in fact on the island of Inisheer but nestled in a secluded area on the edge of the Burren, we made our way from Ennis armed with plenty of determination as well as both an old school map and a sat nav.

After about an hour of searching and making enquiries with a few friendly locals - who seemed to be well accustomed to directing people to “Craggy Island parochial house” - we finally arrived at the front gate of the familiar residence.

Delighted to find it as it will always be fondly remembered, we were chuffed to get a few photos before going on our merry way despite not being offered a cup of tea by the ever-insistent Mrs Doyle or thrown a bewildered glance by the hapless Fr Dougal.

We weren’t the only fans to turn up on Ted’s doorstep - during our ten minute pit-stop at the gate several cars pulled up for a quick snap of the famous house and a little taste of comedy nostalgia.

From here out it was all good for me, buoyed by the fact that I’d paid a visit to a truly historic site, well at least in my opinion. So having experienced a piece of TV history, it seemed like time for the real thing with a trip to Bunratty Castle - the origins of which date from the 10th century.

The powerful MacNamara family built the present structure around 1425 but by 1475 it had became the stronghold of the O’Briens, the largest clan in North Munster.

They ruled the territory of North Munster and lived in great splendour but no doubt they far from the elegance afforded by the Old Ground Hotel, which is itself steeped in history.

The original part of the Old Ground was built in the early eighteenth century. Next door was the Town Hall, which incorporated a jail which was used as a depot for prisoners awaiting deportation to Australia and Tasmania.

It is not known exactly when the Jail ceased being used for that purpose but it was later acquired by the Grand Jury was used as a court house.

It later became a library. Some years ago there were excavations carried out and dungeons were discovered under the building, with chains attached to the walls.

Thankfully the chains are now in the Ennis museum and all that remains of the jail are interesting stories. Nonetheless the rich history of the place gives it a great ambience which certainly the adds to the experience of staying in the Old Ground Hotel as a base to discover Co Clare.