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Ennistymon Castle and House and The Falls Hotel

Nestled in it’s wooded vale beside the tumbling waters of the River Inagh, the distinctive building known today as the Falls Hotel conceals within it’s walls an eighteenth century mansion, a late medieval castle, and a formidable history of four and a half centuries embracing clans and warfare, landlords and tenants, poets, dreamers and entrepreneurs. The following is a summary of that history, amalgamated from various sources.

The founding of the original Ennistymon Castle is somewhat unclear. One source suggests it may have been built c.1560 by Domhnall (Donald) O’Brien. However, there is evidence to suggest that he may have superseded Donough MacDonall O’Conor of Corcomroe who also built nearby Dough Castle in Lahinch. Much of the surrounding area had long been in the possession of the O’Connors. For example, in 1574 the castle of Inysdyman was described as being held by an O’Connor under "Sir Domhnall O’Brien, Knight". In 1582, according to one source, all O’Connor properties in the area were officially transferred to Turlough O’Brien, with the possible exception of Ennistymon which may have remained - nominally at least - an O’Connor castle for some time after that. Domhnall is, however, credited with founding a branch of the O’Brien family at Ennistymon Castle.

One interpretation of the name Ennistymon is "island of the middle house", suggesting that the castle was the middle of three O’Connor/O’Brien castles in the area; i.e. Lahinch, Glan and Ennistymon. One source claims that the castle may at one time have had a moat, but there is no evidence to confirm this.

Sir Domhnall was made Governor of Clare in 1576, and died in 1579. His son, Sir Turlough O’Brien, became High Sheriff of Clare while another son, also Domhnall, was later Protestant Bishop elect of Killaloe. At one point, Sir Turlough owned over 2,000 acres in the area, including the castle at Ennistymon.  And in 1588, at the height of the Spanish Armada, he was given permission to arrest and torture any Spaniards found in the country. Conversely, Sir Turlough’s son Tadhg joined the rebel forces of Red Hugh O’Donnell, and was mortally wounded after a large-scale skirmish into the area which included one foray that brought them "to the gate of Inis-Dimain".

By 1619, the Earl of Thomond was recorded as holding "the castle, town and three quarters (c. 360 acres) called Innisdyman".

During the Confederate War, in 1645, Sir Daniel O’Brien of Ennistymon Castle was appointed to organise an exchange of prisoners with the commanders of English troops in Connacht. After that war, the Earl of Thomond decided to let most of the castles in the region to English Protestants, and so Neptune Blood became the leaseholder of Ennistymon Castle in 1656. Three years later it was let to an Edward Fitzgerald.

In 1699 it was reported that Captains Purdon and Stamer arrived with a warrant to search Ennistymon Castle, but found nothing "save a fowling piece and a brass blunderbuss".

Thomas Moland’s survey in 1703 describes Inishtimond as having a manor with a good castle and a two-storey house joined to it, all in good repair. Attached to the house were a "…stable and other convenient outhouses with a small garden, a corn mill worth 5 per annum and 7 or 8 cabins".

In 1712 the farm of "Inishtymond" was granted to a John O’Brien of Dublin, who was probably acting on behalf of his relative Christopher O’Brien. According to the lease, the tenant was required "… for the preservation of the public peace and Protestant interest… to find, set out, and maintain a man of the Protestant religion, sufficiently fitted and furnished with a horse, sword and case of pistols…".

Christopher O’Brien died in 1743 and was succeeded by his eldest surviving son, Edward.  Interestingly, Edward O’Brien was the first of his family to convert to the Church of Ireland, having done so in 1755.  Then, in 1764, Edward (a descendant of the original Domhnall O’Brien) demolished much of the old castle building.   Over one hundred and fifty years later, Westropp noted the few traces that could still be seen: " Of the castle, part remains, forming the northern end of the frontage and displaying late windows with oblong lights and angular hood mouldings, probably dating from the reign of James 1".

The new structure, Ennistymon House, was a Georgian-style building with large sash windows, fine panelling and rococo decoration inside.  It is described in Weir’s Houses of Clare as follows: "A gable-ended, eighteenth century, two-storey, seven bay house over a basement, on a mound facing east towards the Ennistymon falls, with a central one-bay pedimented breakfront, containing a side and fan-lit front door, and a lunette above the second storey window… A yard and stabling stood some distance to the north-west. "

An old huntsman of Edward O’Brien, one Michael Daly, is recorded as recalling that in his youth much of the area around Ennistymon was heavily wooded, particularly with mature oak and ash, and that he had often shot wild pheasants there.

In 1792 the house passed to Ann O’Brien and her husband Matthias Finucane. A year later, Ann was divorced by her husband by a special Act of Parliament; but since she was held to be the guilty party Ennistymon House remained in the Finucane family.

When Joseph Woods travelled through Clare in 1809, he wrote of Ennistymon House: "The house is admirably placed but as usual very ugly".

The Finucanes resided here in the early 1800’s.  On the death, without lawful heirs, of Andrew Finucane in 1843, the house passed to his brother-in-law William Nugent Macnamara of Doolin, who had in 1798 married Susannah Finucane, who was in turn a grand-daughter of Edward O’Brien, formerly of the same house.  Susannah died aged just thirty-nine years after bearing six children. Perhaps unusually for the time, William Nugent never re-married, and he died in 1856 at the age of eighty-one.

William Nugent had had a distinguished career.  He held the rank of major in the Clare Militia, was a Justice of the Peace, and was also High Sheriff of County Clare.   He was also a noted marksman and duellist, and acted as second to Daniel O’Connell in his famous duel with d’Esterre in 1816.

Interestingly, the Catholic Association had originally selected Major Macnamara as their candidate for the historic Clare election of 1828.  However he declined because of family obligations, and it was only then that Daniel O’Connell was chosen, and he in turn went on for a famous victory.

The Major was, however, elected to the House of Commons as a Liberal M.P. in 1830 and served with distinction there for seventeen years.  He was described by a contemporary as: "…a Protestant in religion, a Catholic in politics, and a Milesian in descent".  His obituary described him as "the poor man’s magistrate"; and his funeral to the family vault in Doolin was one of the largest ever seen in the county.

Francis ("The Colonel") Macnamara, only son and heir of William Nugent, was born in 1802.  He was a captain in the 8th regiment of the Hussars and a lieutenant-colonel in the Clare Militia. He served as M.P. for Ennis, and like his father was appointed High Sheriff of Clare.  In 1860 he married Helen McDermott of Dublin and they lived variously between London and Ennis until July 1863 when they made Ennistymon House their permanent home.  There was great rejoicing in the town when they arrived, and a large banner emblazoned ‘WELCOME TO ENNISTYMON’ was erected near the avenue leading to Ennistymon House.  In the same year they added a west wing to the house to accommodate guests who came to enjoy - among other things - good shooting and fishing.

A traveller to the area in 1859, one Thomas Lacy, stated: "Ennistymon House, a fine square building, is situated on a handsome elevation which overlooks the river, at a short distance from the church. This enviable mansion, the residence of Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Macnamara, is surrounded by a richly wooded demesne, which is margined on the west by the gently flowing river, and in the north by a romantic glen…" And a newspaper correspondent of the time (1863) wrote: "I had the honour of a brief visit to Ennistymon House, the residence of Colonel MacNamara, who is highly esteemed and respected. The house is very finely furnished, with a large number of portraits, including a well-known portrait of the famous Moira Rua…"

Not only did Francis carry out renovations to Ennistymon House, he also developed parts of the town of Ennistymon and was responsible in many ways for giving the town its current distinctive appearance.  In 1858 it was reported that 32 new cottages were being erected in New Street, while Francis also decreed that a number of three-storey houses were to be built on Main Street.  In 1876 the Macnamara estate comprised upwards of 15,000 statute acres, covering not just Ennistymon and it’s environs, but also much of Liscannor, Doolin, Fanore, Ballyvaughan and Carron. There were approximately 700 tenants paying a yearly rent of almost 10,000, and the greatest proportion of this came in from rural areas. For the most part rents were paid on time, though there were some instances of non-payment due to poverty, and many tenants did leave the estate. In a few cases, Colonel Macnamara paid 5 passage for tenants to emigrate to America or Australia.

Records of rents and expenses for the estate in 1863 make for interesting reading:

-The housekeeper at Ennistymon House received wages of 7. 10s. per quarter.
-The coachman was paid 1 per month.
-A laundry maid and a servant received 4 each for six months work.
-A carpenter received 3. 8s. 6d. for repair work to the houses at Doolin and Ennistymon .
-A blacksmith received 1. 2s. for shoeing horses at Ennistymon House.
-One local butcher received 13. 19s. 7d. for beef given to poor people at Christmas.
-6 shillings were paid to a man for graves for dogs at Doolin.
-5 shillings were paid for tuition at Ennistymon House.
-12 shillings were paid for sweeping chimneys.
-3 shillings were paid for "summons for boys caught hunting rabbits in the demesne".
-The Colonel sold a bullock and a heifer for 24, and gave the buyer a ‘luck penny’ of 2 shillings.
-Various sums were also paid out for tenants to buy seeds for sowing, and in some cases for funeral expenses.

A curious story surrounds the death of The Colonel’s uncle, Sir Burton Macnamara. Westropp’s Folklore Survey of Co. Clare contains the following:

"On the night of December 11th, 1876, a servant of the Macnamaras was going the rounds in the demesne of Ennistymon House … In the dark he heard the rumbling wheels on the back avenue, and knowing from the hour and the place that no ‘earthly vehicle’ could be coming, concluded that it was the ‘death coach’ and ran, opening the gates before it. He had just time to open the third gate and throw himself on his face beside it on the bank before he heard a coach go thundering past. It did not stop at the house but passed on and disappeared. Admiral Burton Macnamara died on the following day".

Colonel Francis’ eldest son, Henry Valentine Macnamara, was born in 1864 two years before his parents moved into Ennistymon House.  He was educated at Harrow and Cambridge, where he took his B.A. in 1882.  He held the rank of captain in the Royal Carmarthen Artillery Militia and subsequently that of lieutenant in the Clare Militia.   In the family tradition, he also became a justice of the peace, and High-Sheriff of Clare in 1885.

In 1883 Henry Vee (as he was commonly known) married Edith Elizabeth Cooper, an Englishwoman of Australian descent, who was described by her granddaughter as "a formidable and capable woman who knew her rights and exercised them".

Henry Vee’s residency at Ennistymon House coincided with a period of great political and agrarian unrest in the country.  By the end of the nineteenth century, the United Irish League was forcing the campaign for tenant’s rights. However, relations between landlord and tenant were not always amicable.  When a Land League official was arrested in north Clare, a massive cattle drive was organised from Henry Vee’s estate in Doolin. Arrests and street riots followed.  Henry Vee, however, was determined not to be coerced stating: "I shall not let one acre of these lands except to whom I wish, and on my own conditions".
The Cattle Drive of Doolin (song)

Later, during the War of Independence in 1919, Henry Vee and others were ambushed near Leamaneh Castle, and Henry Vee suffered gunshot wounds to his face and arms. As a result, he carried a permanent twitch of the head for the rest of his life.

Three years later, in 1922, matters came to a head when Oglaigh na hEireann (the I.R.A) notified Henry Vee that they were confiscating Ennistymon House.  Also, the family home in Doolin had been burned to the ground.  Under such duress, Henry Vee reluctantly left Ennistymon and never returned.  He died in London in 1925 at the age of sixty-four.

Ironically, a short while after Henry Vee Macnamara’s ignoble departure, Ennistymon House became a temporary barracks for the new Free State police force, An Garda Siochana.

Francis Macnamara, eldest son and heir of Henry Vee, could justifiably be considered the most colourful of his clan (his daughter Nicolette Devas wrote of him in her autobiography Two Flamboyant Fathers). And it was he who was responsible for turning Ennistymon House into a commercial property for the first time.

Francis was born in 1884.  Early on he eschewed a career in law for the bohemian lifestyle of London and it’s colony of young poets and artists.  And in 1909 he published to some acclaim a book of poems called Marionettes, some of which were inspired by his home in Ennistymon.

In 1911 he secretly married one Yvonne Majolier and they lived together in London. Together they produced one son (John) and three daughters (Nicolette, Brigit and Caitlin, who married the Welsh writer Dylan Thomas).  Francis also had another daughter outside of the marriage.

The Macnamara house in Doolin was still much in use at this time.  Francis spent some of his honeymoon here, and returned many times afterwards with a varied collection of writers and artists such as Augustus John and George Bernard Shaw. He also loved sailing, and owned a Galway hooker called Mary Anne which he captained himself.

Francis’ marriage to Yvonne fell asunder and in 1928 he married again, this time to Augustus John’s sister-in-law, Edie McNeil. At this time he was dividing his time between London and Ennistymon, where he planned to turn the family home into a country hotel. After Edie died, Francis took a third wife, this time Iris O’Callaghan-Westropp of O’Callaghan’s Mills. That was 1936.  He was then fifty-two years of age, some thirty years her senior, and shortly after they both returned to Ennistymon House which they soon after opened to the public as the Falls Hotel.

Francis’ efforts at hotel management were unprofessional, and while no doubt his guests appreciated his abundant generosity, the business was always doomed to fail. And so, towards the end of the 1930’s, Francis leased the hotel for five years to Brendan O’Regan, who later pioneered catering and sales services at Shannon International Airport. O’Regan ran the hotel during the years of World War Two, and one of his innovations was to supply hot meals in hayboxes to the golfers at Lahinch!

Francis and Iris moved into a small house - known colloquially as the Henrun or the Chateau - which was situated at the rear of the hotel. They now divided their time between Ennistymon and Dublin, and as his relationship with Iris deteriorated, so did his health.

At the end of the O’Regan lease, Francis took the decision to sell the hotel, thus ending a connection which stretched back -almost unbroken- to the original O’Brien’s of Ennistymon Castle some four hundred years previous. Francis later died in 1946 at the age of sixty-two.

A Tourist Board survey around this time declared: "On the ceiling of the entrance hall there is a beautiful wrought iron design said to be 300 years old and to be the work of Dutch men". It also stated that this design had been transferred from an older building.  The survey also listed some thirty paintings hanging in the hotel, mostly portraits of various members of the O’Brien dynasty. Another feature of the hotel during this period was the provision of a waggonette drawn by two horses to take visitors to Lahinch, the Cliffs of Moher and Lisdoonvarna. And it was reported that on the front lawn stood a statue which was part of the prow of a Norwegian vessel wrecked off Galway some thirty-five years previous.

The new owner of the Falls Hotel was a retired Welshman called Gerard Henry Williams-Owen. He and his family operated during the summer months only.

In 1955 John F. Wood and his wife Bridget acquired the hotel. They added the hydro-electric plant which for many years provided power to the building, and the ‘plant’ can still be seen a short distance upstream, just below the cascades.

John F.’s son Tony and his wife Meg ran the hotel for some years.

The current owners of the Falls Hotel are Dan and Eileen McCarthy. Under their stewardship, the hotel has been greatly extended and improved, and now boasts 150 bedrooms, a restaurant and bar, and a 400 seat Conference/Banqueting Room.

"The Macnamaras of Doolin & Ennistymon" by Michael MacMahon; Dal gCais No. 11 1993, pps. 10-19.
"The Hidden Towers" by Risteard Ua Croinin and Martin Breen; The Other Clare Vol.16 1992, pps. 5-10.
"A Street in Time-Main Street, Ennistymon, Co. Clare" by Frances Madigan. Unpublished thesis.
"Houses of Clare" by Hugh W.L.Weir. Ballinakella Press, 1986.
"The Mcanamara Estate in1863" by Colm Hayes. Ennistymon Parish Magazine, 1991.



Ennistymon: Places of Interest